Arizona’s Public School Funding Battle

Arizona state flag
Arizona state flag

The Arizona Court of Appeals resumed legal proceedings last week in its review of a lower court’s decision in the lawsuit involving the Republican controlled Legislature and the state’s public school officials over the Legislature’s violation of the state’s constitution by ignoring Proposition 301. The  purpose of Proposition 301, which was approved by the voters in 2000, was to circumvent the Legislature’s chronic underfunding of the state’s schools by passing a 0.60% increase in the state’s sales tax rate, with the proceeds to be devoted to the state’s public school system.

Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Katherine Cooper had issued a judgment in August of 2014 requiring the Legislature to comply with Proposition 301 by increasing state funding to K-12 public schools by making an initial payment of $317 million in fiscal 2014 as part of a total of $1.6 billion in payments over five years. But the legislature appealed that ruling and the appeal had been on hold pending negotiations between the two parties. Last week’s announcement by the Court of Appeals that further negotiations between the two parties would be fruitless means the Legislature must pay the schools the millions of dollars it owes them, but the Legislature has appealed that order and asked the court to delay ordering payments until the appeal is resolved.

After the court’s announcement Arizona Senate President Andy Biggs, R-Gilbert, and House Speaker David Gowan, R-Sierra Vista, proposed an alternative school funding plan that would provide significantly less money to the state’s schools than is required under Proposition 301. Their proposal included Republican Governor Doug Ducey’s recent controversial proposal to increase school funding.

Republican Complaints About School Administrative Costs Are a Red Herring Argument

red herringIt’s clear from the Republican legislative leaders’ reaction to the court’s decision that increasing school funding isn’t one of their priorities.  In fact, many Arizona Republicans are still trying to divert attention from the school funding issue by claiming that the state’s public schools could spend more money in their classrooms if they’d cut administrative expenses. But the Arizona Department of Education released a report in early August that compared the percentage of administrative expenses in the annual budgets of each of the state’s school districts. It showed that school administrative costs in Arizona were below the national average, and that one-to-one comparisons between the state’s school districts aren’t possible because of numerous variables. Even a spokesperson for Arizona Tax Research Association, a conservative anti-tax lobbying group, wondered if the report was “meaningful.”

The Department of Education’s report was the result of legislation passed several years ago by the Republican-controlled Legislature wherein all of state’s school districts were required to submit annual financial reports to the department. The idea was that publication and comparison of these reports would bring much needed light to local school budgets. Apparently it didn’t occur to Republican legislative leaders that the costs of creating the reports would increase school administrative expenses, or that school district budgets were the responsibility of locally elected school boards.

It’s clear that Arizona’s Republican leaders have been mesmerized by a radical Libertarian political ideology wherein the overriding issue is to minimize taxes – no matter the cost.  I don’t know if they’re so politically naive that they really believe in it, or if the conservative dark money groups promoting it are so generous with their donations that they can’t afford to disagree with it. But it’s never worked in the real world, and there’s plenty of evidence to show they are leading Arizona to ruin. It was recently reported, for example, that Arizona lost out on 3,000 new jobs because a couple of large companies decided against relocating to Phoenix because of they were afraid they couldn’t find good schools for their children and it would be difficult to recruit any outside talent that had school-aged children.

Updates

On January 8, 2018, Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey gave his annual state of the state speech wherein he addressed public school funding and promised to begin to “restore long-standing cuts from the recession made before many of us were here.” He did not, however, explain where the money would come from. A report from the state’s Joint Legislative Budget Committee in late 2017 estimated that there would be a $24 million shortfall in the state’s FY2018 budget which would likely grow to $80 million for FY2019, largely as a result of the corporate tax cuts supported by Ducey.

In late January 2018 a group called the Arizona Education Project began running TV ads to convince people that Arizona’s public schools were in better shape than most people believed. By March they had spent over $1 million on the ads, and planned to continue running them.

On March 28, 2018, thousands of teachers rallied at the state capital to hold a #RedForEd rally to demand more funding for education in Arizona.

On April 10, 2018, Gov. Ducey, criticized protesting teachers by saying that he wasn’t interested in meeting with people involved in the “political” #RedForEd movement.

On April 12, 2018, Gov. Doug Ducey announced a new budget proposal to increase teacher pay by 9% in the next school year, and a total of about 20% over a four year period.

On April 19, 2018, Arizona teachers voted to conduct a statewide teacher walkout on April 26. Their spokespersons explained that Gov. Ducey’s pay raise proposal was not sustainable under the current state revenue structure and would probably come at the expense of other needs.

On April 20, 2018, Gov. Ducey vetoed 10 bills and told state legislators to send him a budget that included his teacher pay raise proposal.

On April 23, 2018, Gov. Ducey said he didn’t know why teachers were planning to strike because the new budget he’d introduced promised them some bigger pay raises.

On April 26, 2018, about 50,000 teachers and school supporters rallied at the Arizona state capital to begin a statewide teacher walkout to demand that the state’s government make large increases to public education funding.

In the early morning hours of Thursday, May 3, the Arizona legislature passed a school funding  bill that was quickly signed by Gov. Ducey. Striking teachers and their supporters were still at the state capital and celebrated a partial victory but promised to keep working to achieve the rest of their goals.

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