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Funding Arizona's K-12 education
All eyes on Gov. Ducey’s Prop 123 promise

Any discussion of K-12 funding will be complicated by efforts by some legislators to expand the existing program which gives parents a voucher of state dollars they can use to send their children to private or parochial schools. (VVN File Photo/Bill Helm)

Any discussion of K-12 funding will be complicated by efforts by some legislators to expand the existing program which gives parents a voucher of state dollars they can use to send their children to private or parochial schools. (VVN File Photo/Bill Helm)

PHOENIX – When Gov. Doug Ducey asked voters last year to approve Proposition 123 he promised it would be just the first step toward providing more money for K-12 education.

The 2017 Arizona Legislature, by the numbers

House of Representatives:

This year -- 35 Republicans and 25 Democrats

Two years ago -- 36 Republicans and 24 Democrats

Senate:

This year -- 17 Republicans and 13 Democrats

Two years ago -- 18 Republicans and 12 Democrats

Deadline for adjourning this year (Saturday the week of the 100th day, counting Saturdays and Sundays) -- April 22

Adjournment last year -- May 17

Length of last year’s session -- 117

Longest session -- 173 days in 1988

Number of bills introduced last regular session (not including miscellaneous resolutions and memorials) -- 1,247

Number sent to governor -- 388

Bills signed -- 374

Bills enacted without signature -- 0

Bills vetoed entirely -- 14

Bills subject to line-item veto -- 0

Veto record -- 58, set in 2005 by Janet Napolitano

-- Capitol Media Services

Voters did their part even though the $300 a year per student it produces for the next decade is just a fraction of what schools were owed from the prior illegal refusal by the legislature to give schools what voters said they were owed. And most of the money, in fact, comes from a trust account that already belongs to education.

Now all eyes are on Ducey who gives his State of the State speech Monday as the Republican-controlled legislature convenes to see what that promise means for the 1.1 million students in Arizona public schools.

But the governor, in an interview with Capitol Media Services, sought to tamp down anticipation that his promise of additional steps means he will propose a big increase in what the state spends.

“I think this idea of checking numbers off a box is just politics,’’ he said.

“We want to measure the success of K-12 education by outcomes and results,’’ the governor continued. And he said that, being a growing state, “we’re always going to have resource issues and dollars that are needed.’’

About the only thing he would promise is that there will be money in his budget for teacher pay.

“We think teachers make the biggest difference in terms of results inside of the classroom,’’ Ducey said. “And we want our teachers to feel respected and rewarded.’’

But there is pressure building up to do something fairly substantial.

Diane Douglas, the state superintendent of public instruction, put down her marker last year in asking for an additional $680 million for schools, above and beyond that Proposition 123 funding.

Douglas said Proposition 123 was not any sort of real boost for education. Instead it was simply the settlement of a lawsuit filed by schools after then-Gov. Jan Brewer and lawmakers ignored a 2000 voter mandate to increase basic state aid each year to match inflation.

So what she is proposing is an immediate $200 million increase in basis state aid. That translates out to about $180 a student on top of the approximately $3,600 that schools get.

And Douglas wants another $140 million specifically for pay hikes, a move designed not so much to get people into the profession but keep them there. She cited figures that 20 percent of new Arizona teachers quit in the first year, with another 20 percent leaving the profession the following year.

Money may not be the total answer. But Douglas said it is a factor, citing figures by the National Education Association putting the average classroom teacher salary at $58,064, versus $45,477 in Arizona. And she estimated the average starting salary for Arizona teachers at less than $32,000 a year.

There also is a move among some lawmakers to ask voters for a sales tax hike for a more substantive solution that could produce up to an additional $1 billion a year, not just for K-12 education but also for the universities that have taken major funding hits under Ducey.

But any move along those lines will get opposition from the governor who campaigned in 2014 on a promise not only not to raise taxes but to propose a tax cut every year he is in office.

“We’re in a dynamic situation with other states that are competing for businesses and investments and citizens,’’ he said. “So we’re going to keep the commitment that I made to voters,’’ Ducey continued, insisting he can do that while putting more money into K-12 education.

Even if there is no movement this year for new sources of revenue, lawmakers will have to address it eventually.

A 2000 ballot measure which mandates inflation indexing for schools also includes a 0.6 percent state sales tax which raises about $600 million a year. But that levy self-destructs in 2021, though the inflation mandate remains.

There is some sentiment among lawmakers to extend that now rather than waiting. And there also are calls for having that extension, which likely would have to go to the ballot, actually boost the funding to a full penny.

That would be above and beyond the additional penny levy already being discussed.

And even the $350 million a year from Proposition 123 is time-limited, disappearing in 2026.

There’s something else hanging over the new legislature: The failure to adequately fund new school construction and repair.

More than two decades ago the Arizona Supreme Court voided the system under which each district was responsible for capital costs. The justices said having schools raise funds only from local property taxes created gross inequities, with one school district having a domed stadium while another had bathrooms that did not work.

photo

VVN File Photo/Bill Helm

After several false starts, lawmakers agreed to have the state assume responsibility for building new schools where they are needed and providing adequate funds to keep the buildings in shape.

But all that went out the window as a budget-saving maneuver during the Brewer administration, with the system now providing dollars only when it is determined there is a pressing need. The result has been to once again put the burden on individual districts and their taxpayers, exactly the situation the state’s high court found wanting.

Ignoring the problem is not an option: The same interests who got that 1994 ruling are gearing up for a new court fight if changes are not made.

Any discussion of K-12 funding will be complicated by efforts by some legislators to expand the existing program which gives parents a voucher of state dollars they can use to send their children to private or parochial schools.

The vouchers, formally known as “empowerment scholarship accounts,’’ were started on a limited basis for students with special needs that could not be met in public schools. Since then there has been a gradual widening, first to students from foster homes and, most recently, to any student in a school rated D or F.

But supporters have made it clear the ultimate goal is a universal voucher program, allowing each of the 1.1 million students in schools to be able to use public dollars to go wherever they want.

Backers contend it’s simply an extension of the school choice agenda.

Arizona already has open enrollment, with students able to attend any public school that has space for them. Students also can attend charter schools which under Arizona law can be operated by both nonprofit and for-profit corporations.

The difference, though, is these are all public schools which cannot pick and choose among applicants and cannot charge parents anything beyond what the state pays. Private and parochial schools can not only decide who to accept or reject but, being exempt from state regulation, can include religious instruction.

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