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Published in Print: June 14, 2000, as Ariz. Lawmakers Reconvene To Tackle School Finance

Ariz. Lawmakers Reconvene To Tackle School Finance

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Gov. Jane Dee Hull's $450 million education plan for Arizona appeared to have a lot going for it last week on the opening day of a special legislative session.

A new poll showed 62 percent of Arizonans favoring it. Educators and the state's business leaders had pledged their strong support. And when the bill was introduced in the legislature June 7, it had enough co-sponsors to pass both the House and the Senate.

As of last Friday, though, the Republican leaders of both chambers were holding up the governor's plan in hopes of substituting a measure that wouldn't raise taxes.

"I want to thank those of you who came here today with an open mind and a positive attitude," Gov. Hull told lawmakers gathered in Phoenix for the start of the special session on June 6. "For those of you not so inclined, I would ask you one question: If not now, then when? Let's not leave this for the next legislature."

In the Cellar

The governor, a Republican, wants to raise the state sales tax from 5 percent to 5.6 percent to generate $450 million a year for additional education spending. School spending in the Grand Canyon State has failed to keep pace with inflation over the past 10 years, and Arizona ranked last among the states in a survey conducted for Education Week's Quality Counts 2000 that compared per-pupil expenditures.

While some of the new revenue under Gov. Hull's plan would go to colleges and universities, 85 percent of the money would go to K-12 schooling. The money would allow the state to issue $800 million in bonds to finance the court-mandated repair of rundown schools, at a cost of roughly $70 million a year. ("Arizona Leaders Urge Tax Hike for Education," April 5, 2000.) Roughly $47 million would be used for merit-based pay raises for teachers. Schools could use the remaining revenue to reduce class sizes, tutor students for standardized state tests, or improve teacher training, among other purposes. The proposal would also lengthen the school year by five days and hold schools more accountable for the academic performance of their students.

Ms. Hull's plan would also pay for a statewide student database, advocated by state schools Superintendent Lisa Graham Keegan, that would allow the state education department to track spending by schools. Ms. Keegan made her support of the governor's proposal contingent on funding for the database— known as the Student Accountability Information System.

The governor wants the legislature to put the education proposal on the November election ballot so voters can decide its fate.

Leaders' Plans Differ

But hers is not the only proposal on the table. The most prominent alternatives under consideration last week were separate proposals from the leaders of the House and the Senate, both of which are controlled by the GOP.

Speaker of the House Jeff Groscost's plan would increase education funding by postponing $70 million in corporate-tax reductions. Another $50 million would come from the proceeds of the legal settlement between the states and tobacco companies, $13 million from a tax on lottery tickets, and $29 million in state budget cuts.

The speaker would give every K-12 teacher a direct pay raise of $3,000, and would generate more than $265 million a year in new school funding.

"The current proposals raise taxes on working families, while allowing tax cuts for corporations," Mr. Groscost said in unveiling his plan last month. "It simply isn't fair to ask taxpayers for more of their hard-earned dollars, while at the same time we are cutting corporate taxes and increasing funds to state bureaucracy by more than double the rate of inflation."

On the Senate side, the leadership's plan would avoid both a tax increase and a hit for the business community. The proposal would tap $40 million from the tobacco settlement and shift more than $400 million over five years from administrative overhead to classroom instruction.

School districts would be required to increase classroom spending by at least 2.2 percent a year until 68 percent of all their funding was going directly to instruction.

The Senate plan would also allow students in failing schools to use publicly financed vouchers to attend private or religious schools, and empower principals to hire and fire teachers, as well as set their salaries.

Union Likes Hull Plan

The state affiliate of the National Education Association is backing Gov. Hull.

"We have been very supportive of the governor's efforts to bring a comprehensive education plan to the legislature," President Penny A. Kotterman of the Arizona Education Association said. "The money in the Senate plan is less than half of what the governor is offering, with a voucher plan attached to it. And Speaker Groscost's proposal to eliminate tax loopholes is unlikely to generate the kind of money we need."

The business community has also lined up behind the governor. A coalition that includes the Arizona Chamber of Commerce signed a joint statement supporting increased education funding through a sales-tax increase and the concept of revenue bonding to satisfy the state's school repair needs.

And as part of her full-court press to sway legislators, Gov. Hull recruited former Phoenix Suns star Kevin Johnson as a lobbyist. The basketball player appeared at a rally of teachers and school administrators last week before lobbying lawmakers.

Despite the star power and fanfare, the governor's aides are prepared for a protracted battle.

"The real issue is whether Senate and House leaders are going to try to block the governor's bill," said Jaime Molera, Ms. Hull's executive assistant for education. "We know now that they will."

Vol. 19, Issue 40, Pages 14,18

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