As we report today, civic and business leaders, educators, students, parents and retirees from across Arizona gathered earlier this month in Mesa to develop a blueprint for reforming and increasing public school funding in Arizona.
Of note was the near absence from the Arizona Town Hall of state legislators and the governor. They weren’t invited mainly because they have demonstrated time and again that they are part of the problem, not the solution. They continue to intone their mantra of private school “parental choice” even as teachers are leaving in droves, thousands of classrooms are staffed on a near-permanent basis by noncertified substitutes and Arizona remains mired near the bottom of the 50 states in per-pupil spending.
As recently as 2016, despite years of experts both inside and outside the state recommending a dedicated state tax that would substantially hike school funding, Gov. Ducey and Republican lawmakers punted. Instead of a tax hike, they made a take-it-or-leave-it offer to voters to tap the state land trust fund for an extra $325 million a year for 10 years. That is an 8 percent hike in state public school spending of about $4 billion a year, still not enough to move the needle on teacher salaries, classroom size, or building repairs and classroom equipment.
Around the state, groups of education advocates like the Flagstaff LAUNCH coalition have identified the resource shortfalls and tried to do local work-arounds. Voters in FUSD regularly renew the district’s 15 percent budget override, the maximum allowed under the state equalized funding law. Businesses, civic groups and academics have coalesced around STEM curriculum support in the classroom. And many local schools have leveraged the state extracurricular tax credit to the hilt.
But now they have compared notes and emerged speaking with one voice. They have focused not just on raising teacher salaries but on charter school recruitment tactics that result in “educational segregation” and results-based school funding that favors the wealthy and widens the achievement gap. They want more funding for all-day kindergarten and pre-school access for poor children. And they want the state to keep its promises to fund new schools and repairs.
The price tag for all of the above isn’t cheap – about $1.3 billion in one-time new spending and $2 billion a year thereafter. But Arizona has done public education on the cheap for so many years that the measures, if fully funded, would only get the state back to the middle of the 50 states in average spending and other fiscal measures.
DETAILS AND BUGS
There are of course details and bugs to be worked out. How would a statewide property tax be newly distributed to charter schools? Will still higher sales taxes unfairly burden the poor unless new exemptions can be carved out or tax credits expanded? Should teacher raises be calibrated according to the student demographic challenges they face instead of across the board? What kind of accountability measures should teachers be held to if salaries are to be raised?
The answers might need to come on the fly, as time is running short to craft various funding initiatives and get them onto the same November 2018 ballot as the challenge to the Legislature’s expansion of private school vouchers. Ideally, the tax proposals and others would arise out of bipartisan hearings and negotiations among our elected representatives at the state Capitol. But we are not holding our breath, given the demonstrated antipathy of many Republican lawmakers toward more funding for mainstream public schools with higher taxes.
Instead, if enough business leaders and their deep pockets come aboard, we’d anticipate a grassroots petition drive this spring and summer while the momentum from the Town Hall is still strong. Other states have already figured out that cutting taxes doesn’t underwrite the kind of growth that Arizona in particular needs to pulls its public schools out of a deep hole. If the Arizona Legislature won’t accept the obvious, then an end run to the ballot by the Town Hall and education advocates is entirely appropriate.
Let the campaign begin!