Wow! Talk about biased reporting and it’s not even from the “lame stream liberal” media, but a right-wing rag, The Wall Street Journal[i]. From the get go, it is clearly biased against education or, should I say, “the Education Spending Lobby.”
Jon Gabriel writes in the Wall Street Journal that Governor Doug Ducey “appears to have solved one of the hairiest problems in Arizona politics: How to give more money to teachers – without raising taxes – and settle a long-standing billion-dollar lawsuit filed against the Grand Canyon state by its own school districts.” Gabriel goes on to say that “Mr. Ducey, a former CEO of Col Stone Creamery, apparently knows how to wheel and deal.”
Give me a break! First of all, the money that Governor Ducey is “giving” the teachers already belongs to public education. The voters mandated this inflation funding be paid annually starting in 2001, and the AZ Legislature hasn’t paid it since 2009. Secondly, some school districts, along with the Arizona School Boards Association, Arizona Education Association and the Arizona Association of School Business Officials filed suit after trying to reason with the Legislature to no avail. Then the court agreed the Legislature owed Arizona school districts the money and they still didn’t pay up.[ii] Finally, after five years of lawsuits, the plaintiffs negotiated a deal that was acceptable albeit much less than ideal.
The Wall Street Journal article doesn’t talk about the amounts owed: $331M per year for failing to fully fund inflation and $1.3B in back pay and increased per pupil funding. It also doesn’t mention that increasing the state trust lands monies withdrawal rate from 2.5 percent to 6.9 percent will deplete future revenues for public education. Yes, AZ Treasurer DeWitt was originally concerned about exceeding 3.75 percent in withdrawals but then he said he could live with as much as a 5 percent withdrawal rate. Ducey wouldn’t budge from his proposed 6.9 percent however, leaving Dr. Randy Friese, LD 9 AZ Representative (D) to wonder if Ducey’s reason was that it would give him credit for the largest bump ever to public education.
Why did the plaintiffs agree to a deal that wasn’t ideal? That’s easy. It gets more money into district schools as early as late 2016. Arizona recently ranked dead last in the nation in public school spending per student a fact directly tied to the state’s performance in K-12 education.[iii] In addition, state “leadership” hasn’t exactly proven itself responsive to the voters, why should public education advocates have faith that would change? As for the WSJ article’s assertion that education funding was misspent because AZ had lower than national averages of classroom spending, that’s easy to explain. Yes, non-classroom spending (plant operations, food service, transportation, student and instruction support such as counselors, school nurses and librarians and administration) had increased as a percentage of overall spending. When less than two percent of what should have been funded for school facility maintenance and repair was paid, the costs for keeping old, rundown, less energy efficient facilities is naturally going to be higher.[iv] When bus fleets can’t be recapitalized, of course it costs more to maintain an aging fleet. And oh by the way, much of the so called “non-classroom spending” is fixed overhead costs which must be born no matter the level of overall funding. Naturally then, when the denominator decreases when the numerator stays the same, the percentage of the numerator increases.
Money is not the only answer to fixing public education, but it is definitely a part of the solution. At best (factoring in cost of living) Arizona teachers still make $12K less than the national average.[v] Class sizes also matter, that’s why it’s one of the first things private schools tout to attract students. Money does make a difference, that’s why wealthy parents will spare no expense in sending their children to the best that money can buy.
Sorry, I can’t buy in to Governor Ducey as the 2015 Public Education Hero of the Year. He has brokered a deal that pays the districts only 70 percent of what the voters mandated and the court validated was due. In addition, he is basically taking the money for that deal out of the public education’s own bank account. And oh by the way, the voters still have to say yes again in May 2016 for it to actually happen. Arizona has a rainy day fund of $460M on hand as well as a $325M budget surplus, some of which at least, could have been given to the districts now.[vi] No, I don’t think I’ll clap for the Governor just doing his job, sort of.