Commentary: UnidosUS Endorses Arizona Prop. 208 to Invest in Education


An English learner at Tucson Unified High School. Photo by Julienne Gage.

Author Jessica Pedroza, is a Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute Education Graduate Fellow 

Arizona’s K-12 education system is bleeding out. Since the Great Recession, Arizona has divested billions from education, never sufficiently reinvesting in schools when the state recovered. According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), the state’s spending per student is among the five lowest of all 50 states. An entire generation of K-12 learners in Arizona is impacted by inadequate resources and high teacher turnover. Districts and teachers are doing their best but are stretched thin, finding themselves working to overcome some sobering statistics. According to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics cross referenced with regional price parities, median elementary teacher pay ranks 49th and median secondary teacher pay ranks 48th in the nation. NCES data shows that the student to counselor ratio is the worst in the country—more than three times the recommended professional standard. The student to teacher ratio is 47% above the national ratio. Expect More Arizona’s Education Progress Meter meter reveals that less than half of third and eighth-grade students are proficient in English and Math. For Black, Latinx, and Native American students, as well as English learners (ELs) and students with disabilities, the challenges are even greater.  

The pandemic threatens to leave Arizona students even further behind. According to the Arizona School Personnel Administrators Association (ASPAA), the teacher recruitment and retention crisis is becoming worse, as the pandemic leads teachers to resign and retire amid a teacher shortage of six consecutive years. Arizona needs a solution now. Proposition 208, or the “Invest in Education Act” is on the ballot in Arizona on November 3 and could bring a much-needed infusion of significant funds into Arizona classrooms.   

What is Prop. 208? 

Proposition 208 is a ballot initiative that would establish a Student Support and Safety Fund (SSSF), 99% of which would go directly to schools. The money would come from an additional 3.5% tax income on the top 1% of Arizonans. 

Half of the fund would be granted to school districts, charter schools, and state schools for the deaf and blind to hire and increase salaries for teachers and “classroom support personnel.” “Classroom support personnel” include librarians, nurses, counselors, social workers, speech pathologists, behavioral coaches, and psychologists. A quarter of the fund allows schools to hire and increase salaries for student support services personnel. Twelve percent would go to the Career Training and Workforce Fund for career and technical programs for grades 9-12, college-level educational opportunities, academic acceleration programs, tutoring, mentoring, counseling, and mental health services. Ten percent would go to schools to provide regular, job-embedded mentoring and retention programming for new classroom teachers. The remaining 3% would go to the Arizona Teachers Academy Fund to provide incentives and mentoring for students to become teachers and teach within the public school system. 

How will it be funded? 

The fund would be sustained by the revenue from an extra 3.5% tax on income above $250,000 (single filing) or $500,000 (joint filing). According to the Arizona Legislature’s fiscal analysis, the tax increase would generate an estimated $827 million in annual revenue. The reality is that 99% of Arizonans will not pay a penny more in taxes and, at 4.5% they will continue to have one of the lowest state income tax rates in the country. Only the top earners will see a tax increase on their personal income above the aforementioned thresholds. To be clear, Prop. 208 would not affect anyone’s corporate income tax rate. For tax filers who earn personal income between $200,000 and $499,999, the average increase is only $120   

Good for Schools 

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Arizona ranks 49th in per pupil public elementary-secondary spending. The Center for Budget and Policy Priorities finds that between 2008 and 2018 Arizona cut per-student funding by almost 55%, far surpassing every other state’s percent changes.  

The piecemeal approach to funding that Arizona has implemented has not added a significant enough investment into schools to see meaningful results. Bipartisan groups have attempted to solve this issue more than once, but no one is willing to budge on other revenue streams like corporate tax breaks and raising property taxes. Additional regressive sales taxes will only put more undue burden on low income earners. Prop. 208 will provide a sustainable revenue stream for schools. Opponents who don’t want to tax a small portion of income earners say that since the funding stream could be volatile, districts and teachers cannot reliably count on a fixed amount every year. However, given the state of Arizona education, any additional investment in education will help    

An increase in hiring and compensation for teachers and student support staff will lead to attracting and retaining qualified personnel. Such efforts will help Arizona students thrive as it would lead to smaller class sizes and more individualized instruction. It will lead to more counseling and preparation so that Arizona students can get to and through college. Finally, it will lead to more school-based mental health providers to address the social and emotional needs of Arizona students, especially during a global pandemic. 

 Good for the Economy 

A strong education system is the foundation for a strong economy and a skilled workforce. According to an analysis by Phoenix Economics, each additional dollar increase in public-school funding could increase Arizona’s economy by a factor of between 1.5 and 3. An analysis by Jackson, Johnson, and Persico published in the Quarterly Journal of Economics found that increases in education funding lead to higher wages and a reduction in the annual incidence of adult poverty. Funding and improving K-12 education can also lead to an increase in the number of students going to and graduating from college, which would have positive effects on the Arizona economy. An Arizona State University report from the Productivity and Prosperity Project estimates that if the share of the Arizona workforce with a bachelor’s degree were 1 percentage point higher from 2009-2013, the total effect on would be $1.3 billion and over time, it would be $22.6 billion. 

Opponents warn of the effect on small businesses. However, most small business owners do not make more than $250,000 in personal income and therefore would not be affected. While opponents also say that millionaires will simply take their money and move to another state if their tax rate increases, this is a misconception. Researchers from Stanford and the U.S. Department of Treasury have found that “millionaires are not very mobile and actually have lower migration rates than the general population” and that there are “low levels of elite migration and limited responsiveness to top tax rates.” For a small increase in personal income tax liability for just the wealthiest Arizonans, the state will see long-term economic growth. 

UnidosUS endorses Prop. 208 

As the nation’s largest Latino civil rights and advocacy organization, UnidosUS promotes equal access to quality education for Latinos and ELs. 

Nearly half of all K-12 students in Arizona are Latino and they deserve to have access to an excellent education, regardless of their ZIP code. Arizona can’t just be a convenient place to do business or a great place for low property taxesit needs to be a place Latinos can thriveand that starts with access to a high-quality education,” says UnidosUS Policy Advisor Elizabeth Salazar. 

Prop. 208 can help narrow the opportunity gap for historically underserved student populations and revive Arizona’s education system. According to the Department of Education, Arizona is one of only six states in which fewer than half of all English Learners graduated from high school on time. This is unacceptable. UnidosUS is proud to join teachers, parents, the National Education Association, the Helios Education Foundation, the AZ Center for Economic Progress, the Arizona Education Association, Stand for Children Arizona, and many other organizations and elected officials in supporting the Invest in Education Act. We encourage voters to invest in Arizona’s schools and future by voting yes on Prop. 208 on November 3.