Arizona Finance Law Unconstitutional, Suit Says

By Darcia Harris Bowman — October 03, 2001 3 min read
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Arizona has been slapped with another lawsuit that questions the constitutionality of the way the state finances public schools.

The suit was filed Sept. 20 by lawyer Timothy M. Hogan, the executive director of the Arizona Center for Law and the Public Interest in Phoenix, who said a court ruling in his favor could force the state to put millions of additional dollars into programs for impoverished students. He filed the suit on behalf of seven school districts against the state, the Arizona board of education, and state schools Superintendent Jaime Molera.

The plaintiffs are seeking a court declaration that Arizona’s method of paying for education violates the state constitution’s mandate for a “general and uniform” public school system because the state is failing to provide needed services to some 200,000 poor children deemed at risk of academic failure.

“Students from low socioeconomic backgrounds are at substantial risk of failing in public school if they are not provided with the additional programs and services that are necessary in order for them to overcome the disadvantages that their socioeconomic status creates for them,” the complaint filed in Maricopa County Superior Court argues. “Arizona’s school finance system fails to provide any funding for such programs or services.”

Some state legislators disagreed.

“I reject the fundamental premise that we just have to add more dollars to certain groups of students because they’re more difficult to educate,” said Sen. Ken Bennett, a Republican and the chairman of the Senate education committee. “By that reasoning, we should add a negative weight for the kids who are easier to educate.”

But the state is bracing for the potential of another expensive loss to Mr. Hogan, who invoked the same “general and uniform” clause of the Arizona Constitution in a suit against the state 10 years ago. In that case, a coalition of poor districts challenged the way the state paid for school construction and maintenance.

Arizona’s Supreme Court sided with the coalition in 1994 and eventually approved a plan that shifted most school facility costs from the local property-tax base to the state. The estimated price tag: $1.2 billion. (“Ariz. High Court OKs Plan to End Facilities Lawsuit,” Aug. 5, 1998.)

Mr. Hogan also mounted a successful legal challenge to the state’s method of funding programs for students with limited proficiency in English. A federal judge ruled in January that the additional $150 per child Arizona gives districts to help educate those students is not adequate.

He ordered the state to increase that amount, but did not specify by how much. (“Ariz. Faces Sanctions in LEP-Student Funding Lawsuit,” May 23, 2001.)

Recurring Concern

“I think Mr. Hogan is out of control,” Sen. Eddie Farnsworth, a Republican, said.

He added that “the courts don’t mind violating the constitution by telling the legislature what to do. The legislature has kowtowed to this judicial activism before, but I’m hoping it won’t this time.”

State education spending has been a recurring source of contention over the past decade as, year after year, the state has trailed most of the nation in per-pupil school funding.

In an effort to change that poor standing, Gov. Jane Dee Hull, a Republican, won public support last year to raise additional education revenue by increasing the state sales tax.

But that measure, called Proposition 301, places no special emphasis on needy students.

As evidence that the state is doing too little to help at-risk students meet state standards, Mr. Hogan points to student scores on the Arizona Instrument to Measure Standards, or AIMS, exam, which the state board plans to use eventually as a bar to be surmounted for high school graduation.

“Proposition 301 funds are not targeted to the at-risk population. That’s a population that needs substantial help if we expect them to achieve the state’s academic standards,” Mr. Hogan said. “The [at-risk students’] failure rate on AIMS is twice the general student population’s, according to preliminary data from plaintiff school districts.”

While state education officials had not yet decided last week how to respond to the lawsuit, Superintendent Molera expressed his disagreement with Mr. Hogan’s argument.

“The superintendent has a problem with labeling kids at-risk and using their families’ income as a barometer for how successful they’ll be,” said Tom Collins, Mr. Molera’s press secretary. “It’s like saying without more money, these kids can’t make it.”

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