Arizona Grapples With How to Boost Spending on Schools
Lean K-12 budget puts state leaders at odds
Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey and legislative leaders are pushing competing plans focused on bolstering the state's K-12 school budget.
The three-way struggle between the Republican governor and Democratic lawmakers, as well as those from his own party, comes as the state grapples with the specter of budget cuts on top of those that have severely hamstrung funding in recent years, escalating the state's teacher shortage and inflating class sizes, education advocates say.
"The ongoing discussion is based on how much the state can afford when our economy in Arizona is still recovering," GOP state Sen. Kimberly Yee, a former chairwoman of the Senate education committee, wrote in an email.
"There are a number of plans on the table, but it would be safe to say that education funding will certainly be a priority."
Ducey's proposal would inject roughly $2 billion into the state's schools over the next decade, primarily by increasing the distribution from a state land fund created by Congress to help finance education in Arizona. The state has a $9.1 billion budget, with roughly $3.9 billion devoted to K-12 education, said Charles Tack, a spokesman for the Arizona education department. If state legislators back the governor's plan, voters would still have to approve it in November 2016.
A proposal by Republican members of the state House and Senate would give schools an additional $500 million a year over a decade by drawing money from the trust land fund and a voter-approved tobacco tax that pays for early-childhood education and health programs. Their plan would require two statewide votes.
The Democratic caucus plan calls for adding nearly $4 billion to K-12 funding over 10 years. The total includes roughly $250 million in additional annual revenue from income tax collections the state expects to reap over the next three years.
The Democrats' proposal also would cap corporate contributions to private school tuition organizations, limiting the amount of money diverted from the state's general fund to pay for students to attend private schools as part of Arizona's tax-credit scholarship program.
Despite optimism on all sides that they'll reach a compromise, the proposals have all come under criticism, possibly foreshadowing hurdles to a final deal.
"There is really no silver bullet proposal by anybody," said state Sen. David Bradley, a Democratic member of the Senate education committee. "There's consensus that something needs to be done but no consensus on how to do that."
Support Our Schools Arizona, a group of parents, teachers, and union members, urged Ducey to call a special legislative session this fall to tackle lingering education funding issues. That hasn't happened.
"We have a window of opportunity that's open right now," said Andrew Morrill, the president of the Arizona Education Association, the state teachers' union. "Politically, it's difficult to keep those windows open indefinitely."
The governor and state lawmakers see the next round of budget negotiations as an opportunity to not only boost funding for K-12, but also to enhance the state's appeal to new businesses.
In the meantime, the budget battle, likely to begin when the legislature reconvenes in January, could take a back seat to another matter: an appeal to a court decision that could force the state to hand over more than $1 billion in back payments to school districts shortchanged during the Great Recession.
GOP leaders are appealing a 2013 Arizona Supreme Court ruling that the state illegally withheld funding increases from K-12 schools by ignoring a statewide mandate that required automatic inflation adjustments. As a result, the state could be forced to pay roughly $1.5 billion total to make up for previous shortfalls in district budgets.
"Our goal is to resolve the lawsuit," said Ducey spokesman Daniel Scarpinato. "The lawsuit has been hovering over all these budget discussions."
Legislative leaders have requested that the court delay ordering full payments until the appeal is resolved.
Funding Roller Coaster?
The uncertainty has roiled educators in the state.
"We're looking for stability and certainty. We need some sign that we're not going on a funding roller coaster," the AEA's Morrill said.
The state's K-12 funding has been headed downhill for more than two decades, according to a U.S. Census Bureau report released this past summer that shows Arizona's per-pupil school spending is among the lowest in the nation.
Data from the bureau's "Public Education Finances: 2013" also show that Arizona has become more reliant over the past two decades on federal and local dollars for education funding increases.
As a result, Arizona's per-student ranking among states based on a combination of federal, local, and state funding dropped from 34th in 1992 to 48th in 2013. Arizona students receive only 69.5 percent of the national per-pupil average, when all funding sources are considered.
The study found that Arizona spent $7,208 per student in fiscal 2013, well below the national average of $10,700.
"There seems to be an acknowledgement that the funding level needs to be increased," said Bradley, the Democratic state senator. "The business community is finally rallying around the notion that education funding is a big deal."
Key business groups and Arizona schools chief Diane Douglas, who has clashed with fellow Republican Ducey on a number of issues, both back the governor's proposal to use money from state trust lands to boost K-12 spending.
But that doesn't mean the governor has drawn a line in the sand during budget negotiations, his spokesman said.
"He's open to other ideas," Scarpinato said. "Ultimately, we think parents and students will see a difference in funding and in classrooms."
Vol. 35, Issue 09, Pages 14-15