Size Matters!

The recent Arizona Town Hall on “Funding PreK–12 Education”, reported that, after “three days of serious and intense deliberations, [we] believe there is a state of emergency with respect to Arizona’s underfunding of our preK–12 education system, which requires urgent, decisive action.” This Town Hall effort was non-partisan, including a cross-section of diverse participants traveling from across the state to convene in Mesa. The intent of the effort was to discuss how best to fund preK–12 education now and in the future while improving the quality of education provided.

In their yet draft report, the Town Hall states in that, “Arizona already dedicates approximately 43% of the state’s general fund to K–12 education spending – good enough for a ranking of 11th nationally, as compared to average general fund spending of 35% among other states – the problem has more to do with the ”size of the pie” than a lack of relative support for preK–12 education spending.

That led me to notice an Arizona Daily Star story today titled, “Here’s how to use your tax credits to help public schools.” Although there isn’t a public school out there that doesn’t appreciate the tax credit dollars that come in, in the bigger picture they are as much as part of the problem, as they help. Firstly, they exacerbate inequities between private schools and public schools and between public schools themselves. Taxpayers can claim a five-fold greater tax credit for private schools (up to $1,089 per person versus only $200 for public schools.) Secondly, the tax credit monies given to private schools can be used for any purpose versus the limitation to extracurricular activities or character education programs that public schools must live with.

There is also the reality that wealthier communities are always capable of providing more funding support to their public schools than more disadvantaged communities. Yes, tax credit donations to schools are a one-for-one deduction of the state taxes you owe, but first you must earn enough to owe the taxes you’re looking to offset. And, oh by the way, “when the impact of state tax credits is combined with federal [and sometimes state] tax deductions, some [wealthier] taxpayers in nine states (Arizona included) can actually turn a profit by making these so-called ”donations“ to School Tuition Organizations (STOs) which funnel money to private schools. The non-profit, non-partisan Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP) writes, ”The potential for wealthy individuals to turn a profit by claiming these credits is accelerating the diversion of critical resources away from public schools.”

The problem is compounded when we look at it from the state-level, especially when one considers all the tax credits available. In 2014, about $287 million was redirected by individual taxpayers from the state treasury including these widely available ones:
* Qualifying Charitable Organizations = 105,500 redirected $28.2 million
* Private-school tuition organizations = 109,300 redirected $84 million
* Public-school extracurricular = 266,000 redirected $51 million

To exacerbate the problem, Governor Ducey signed SB 1216 into law in 2016, doubling the Qualifying Charitable Organization tax credit donation limits and separating out the Foster Care Credit so as to allow taxpayers to claim both. The public school tax credit limit was not increased.

Arizona also allows corporations to claim tax credits through School Tuition Organizations (STOs) and is in fact, only one of four states that allow businesses to claim a larger credit than individual taxpayers. These corporate tax credits are for low-income students (from families not exceeding an annual income of $82,996 for a family of four) and, for displaced/disadvantaged students. In 2008, three-fourths of Arizona companies paid only the minimum $50 in corporate taxes and with a 20% increase in cap allowed every year, the program is causing significant impact to the state’s general fund. In fact, the “low-income corporate tax credit alone is expected to grow to more than $250 million a year” by 2025. It should be no surprise that in 2016, the $67 million annual limit on corporate tax credit donations in Arizona for low-income students was met in a matter of hours. For FY2017/18, that limit was over $74.3 million and the one for disabled/displaced students was $5 million.

What makes matters worse, is the plethora of evidence from around the nation that these tax credit programs do not improve student outcomes. In Arizona, it is hard to tell since there is no requirement for the private and parochial schools receiving the dollars to be accountable or transparent.

What these programs do very successfully though, is drain our state coffers of critical funding, shrinking the size of the pie that funds our public schools. This, while lining the pockets of wealthier taxpayers and helping fund private and parochial schools and the STOs that funnel taxpayer dollars to them (like the one owned by AZ Senate President Steve Yarborough.)

This is NOT what fiscal responsibility looks like, people. Fiscal responsibility means that we get what we pay for. Fiscal responsibility means that when we say we want our public schools adequately funded, we actually invest sufficiently in them, then hold them accountable for delivering a good return on our investment.

Workarounds to adequate funding like tax credits, may make taxpayers feel like they are doing their part, but they are just that…workarounds. If we really want our children to have every opportunity to succeed and our teachers to make a living wage, we must do our part to provide (as per the Town Hall report), “dedicated, sustainable funding sources for Arizona’s pre-K–12 education system that meet the needs of schools, teachers, and students in an equitable manner. The state’s funding system should also be transparent and promote accountability.”

My mantra over the coming year will be “if we want different, we must vote different.” I know I’m preaching overwhelmingly to the choir, but for those already on-board with supporting our public, district schools, you have more work to do. Until you’ve done everything possible to fight back against the assault on our public, district schools, you haven’t done enough. Get to know which of our Legislators are pro-public education by checking out the Friends of ASBA Voting Record and research the legislative candidates running throughout our state (I previously wrote about my favorite three.)

Remember, it doesn’t so much matter what district they are in as it does that we get more pro-public education legislators in our Legislature. That’s because no matter what district they are in, even if you can’t vote for them, they can vote for you and the high-quality public education you want to see. Help these candidates by donating, volunteering, and promoting them on social media. Yes, the education privatizers may have the money, but we have the many. Let’s show them our power!

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Budget Shows What We Value

In reading a story today on Tucson.com, I learned about how the Vail Unified School District is thinking about building tiny homes for “cash-strapped teachers.” Although I laud their innovative approach, I can’t help thinking that to some degree, the culpability we all have in creating the need.

The reality is that the starting base salary for a teacher in Vail is about $36,000 in an area where the “household income is $83,000 and the median home sale price is about $260,000.” It also is reality that there is “not a single apartment complex anywhere in the district’s 425-square-mile boundary.”

This situation is not isolated. Vail might be the first district in the country to bring the tiny house concept to fruition, but they aren’t the only ones considering such an option. A charter school in Sedona and school district in Colorado are also looking at it, for example. And, offering housing as part of teacher’s contracts has long been a strategy employed by rural school districts. The Baboquivari Unified School District on the Tohono O’odham Nation has dozens of rental units for teachers and Patagonia Public schools turned an old school building into apartments for teachers.

What I find truly ironic, is that our lawmakers, Governor Ducey included, continually push for a greater percentage of education dollars to be spent in the classrooms, when the inadequate funding they provide for education actually forces energy and funding to be spent outside the classroom — as in creating cheaper housing for teachers ? Truth is, Arizona district schools already have the lowest administrative costs in the U.S. and those costs, are half those of charter schools in our state. That narrative though, doesn’t serve lawmakers’ purposes, so they continue to rail about the inefficiencies of our public district schools, all while doing what they can to try to make it true.

The recently concluded 110th Arizona Town Hall, on “Funding and preK–12 Education”, reported that, “the state needs to fulfill its constitutional mandate by providing adequate funding for state schools.” As the AZ Daily Sun pointed out though, state legislators and the governor “weren’t [even] invited [to the Arizona Town Hall on Education] 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.”

The old adage “If you don’t have time to do something right the first time, when will you have time to do it over” comes to mind. In fact, the AZ Town Hall reported that, “Arizona’s current education funding system has regressed over the past 40 years into a complicated patchwork of temporary solutions.” That’s certainly how it has appeared to me and I continue to see new workarounds under consideration, such as a “soda tax” to help fund our schools.

How about this? How about we just decide we want our students in fully funded classrooms, housed in safe, adequate, properly maintained facilities? How about we decide we want high-quality, certified teachers and then pay them a living wage? How about we decide the children of Arizona deserve as much opportunity to succeed as any child living anywhere else in our country? And then, how about we put our money where our collective mouths are? Or as former Vice-President Joe Biden put it, “Don’t tell me what you value, show me your budget and I’ll tell you what you value.”

Arizonans have time and again said we want our public schools adequately funded and there are plenty of solutions to do so, many without raising taxes. Yet, those that vote (less than half of those eligible) , continue to vote for lawmakers who are doing everything they can to destroy our system of public education and turn it over to market forces. Until we vote different, we won’t get different. It’s that simple.

Take No Prisoners

During the last legislative session in Arizona, lawmakers approved a full expansion of vouchers to all 1.1 million Arizona students against very vocal opposition. In response, Save Our Schools Arizona conducted a grassroots petition drive with over 2,500 volunteers collecting over 111K signatures to get the issue on next year’s ballot.

To fight back, privatization proponents have recently ramped up their “take no prisoners” war on public education in Arizona with attacks on Arizona’s 2016 Teacher of the Year, Christine Marsh. According to The Arizona Republic, the American Federation for Children (AFC), (“dark money” group previously led by Betsy Devos), recently “unleashed robocalls” in the Phoenix area targeting Marsh. In a related effort, a Republican state legislator, Rep. David Livingston, R-Glendale, also filed an ethics complaint against Rep. Isela Blanc, D-Tempe, accusing her of disorderly conduct.

What is the egregious violation these women are accused of? According to voucher proponents, (during the drive to gain petition signatures for an anti-voucher referendum), both circulated petitions without a box at the top of the petition checked. The box, according to state law, is required to be checked prior to petitions being circulated, to reflect whether the circulator is a volunteer or paid petition gatherer. In Livingston’s complaint and in AFC’s robocall, Blanc and Marsh respectively, are accused of “falsifying petition sheets” by marking the boxes after the signatures were collected.

I understand the law is the law, but I’ve circulated many petitions and I can tell you that not one signatory has ever given a damn about whether that little box was checked. They don’t care who is circulating the petition, just that it is legitimate and for a cause they care about. The “box” in question likely matters to someone, but certainly not to the voting public.

Yet, AFC chose to reach into Arizona to demand Marsh “come clean on who altered” her petition. “I’m calling from the American Federation for Children with an alert about an election scandal in this district,” the call said. “Christine Marsh, candidate for state Senate, circulated a petition sheet which was later falsified and filed with the Arizona Secretary of State, a felony. Christine Marsh won’t say whether it was she or someone else who broke the law by tampering with the document. Christine needs to come forward with the truth. Christine, stop hiding behind the 5th amendment and come clean.”

Always one to cut right to the heart of the matter, Marsh told The Republic “she was ‘incredulous’ that an out-of-state special-interest group was spending money in her race 15 months before the election.”

I personally know Christine Marsh, am very proud to have had her representing our state, and understand why AFC and the pro-privatization lobby is threatened by her. Christine has taught English Language Arts for almost a quarter century and she still thinks she has the best job in the world. She is passionate about her students’ success and is a great example of the type of excellent teachers we have in our public district schools. She doesn’t do it for the money, but because she absolutely loves the students. She is also a vocal advocate for her students and public education and is not afraid to speak out to combat injustices. She is now running for the AZ Legislature (a job that will pay even less than she makes as a teacher), because she knows that is the only way she’ll have a chance at affecting real change.

Dawn Penich Thacker, spokeswoman for Save Our Schools Arizona (leaders of the referendum effort) said, “It’s telling that robocalls are coming from a Washington, D.C., area code to attack an Arizona teacher for volunteering to give Arizonans a vote on how our tax dollars are used,” she said. “For all their talk of choice, it seems our state’s pro-voucher groups have chosen a flawed national agenda over the basic respect and rights due Arizona citizens.”

The majority of AZ voters (the actual people on the ground in Arizona) are not in favor of vouchers that siphon funding from our public district schools to private and religious schools. That’s not only true in Arizona, but all across our Nation. There has not in fact, ever been a time, in ANY state, where vouchers, when referred to the ballot, were approved by the voters. Privatization proponents have only succeeded in expanding vouchers when they don’t ask voters what they want.

In Arizona, we know this is all about profit and power. We also know we are ground zero in the fight for our public district schools and in the long run, our very Democracy. Blogger Jan Resseger wrote in June about Gordon Lafer’s new book, “The One Percent Solution: How Corporations Are Remaking America One State at a Time”. In it, he explains that “far-right tax-slashers have attacked public education, including all the money to be made by privatizing large parts of our nation’s biggest and most pervasive civic institution, in which, “the sums involved… are an order of magnitude larger than any other service.” But, Jan writes, ”he believes another motive of the privatizers is far more significant:“ “Finally” says Lafer, “the notion that one’s kids have a right to a decent education represents the most substantive right to which Americans believe we are entitled, simply by dint of residence. In this sense… for those interested in lowering citizens’ expectations of what we have a right to demand from government, there is no more central fight than that around public education.”

Make no mistake, this is a war…for the very soul of America. Will we continue to be a country “of the people, by the people and for the people”, or, will we continue to move toward a complete oligarchy where the rich call all the shots and the rest of us live in a matrix of their making?

Thomas Jefferson understood civic engagement is critical for the survival of a democracy. He said, “An educated citizenry is a vital requisite for our survival as a free people”, and “Educate and inform the whole mass of the people… They are the only sure reliance for the preservation of our liberty.” This latest assault on civic engagement in Arizona, from both within and outside the state, says volumes about the true intentions of the privatization proponents. If you believe it’s really about the kids, I’ve got some Arizona ocean front property to sell you.

Arizona’s Voucher Battle Continues

The Arizona Republic reported today that Save Our Schools Arizona will now hire paid circulators to “boost the chances that voters get the last word on the legislatively approved expansion” of Empowerment Scholarship Accounts (vouchers.) According to The Republic, leaders of SOSAZ had intended to gather the required 75,321 valid signatures with only volunteers by the August 8, 2017 deadline. Now though, the organization finds itself with unexpected money and has decided to hire paid circulators for the last push to get at least 120,000 petition signatures for sufficient cushion.

As is often the case in Arizona though, GOP leaders in the Legislature are already working to undermine the effort. Senator Debbie Lesko, a Republican from Peoria has been the prime proponent of the effort to expand vouchers and is coincidentally (or maybe not), the Arizona Chair for the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC.) As the likelihood of getting the repeal referendum on the ballot increases, she is planning ways to end run the effort. One of those is for the Legislature to repeal SB 1431 thereby eliminating the need for a public vote. Then Lesko and her GOP pals would just pass another expansion in the next legislative session. This move would not only require opponent vouchers to start a new referendum drive from scratch, but would also prevent the voucher vote from drawing more Democrats to the polls in November 2018.

Whether the petitions are being circulated by paid circulators or volunteers, they must contain sufficient valid signatures to qualify the referendum for the ballot. If you are an Arizona voter who hasn’t yet signed one of the petitions, please go to http://sosarizona.org/events or https://www.facebook.com/SaveOurSchoolsArizona/ to locate signing opportunities. If there is no opportunity in your area, you can email SOSAZ at SaveOurSchoolsAZ@gmail.com to make other arrangements.

There is no doubt that Lesko and her buddies will do what they can to continue to thwart the will of Arizonans, as has been their modus operandi in the past. For now though, “we the people” must do what we can, to ensure our government stays “of the people.” When it comes to slowing down the attack on our public schools, repealing the full expansion of vouchers is where we need to focus our efforts now. The 95% of Arizona’s students that attend our public schools are counting on us and the future of our state depends on our engagement. Please do your part and sign a petition this week, or for sure, by August 8th!

One Big Ass Shell Game

Governor Doug Ducey has pledged to reduce taxes every year he is in office and likes to tout he is doing just that. The GOP-led Legislature also seems to be totally on-board with doing less with less unless that is, they are handing out corporate welfare. At least that is, while they still need corporate donations to help fund their reelection campaigns.

Evidently though, once out of office, GOP “leaders” can see the error of their ways as with former Governor Jan Brewer who just told Capitol Media Services that, in hindsight, the tax cuts she approved were “a little bit too aggressive.” She went on to say that the result has been a reduction in revenues for necessary state services and that “sooner or later, you have to pay the fiddler.” Just like GOP leadership today though (who claim school boards, not they, are responsible for teacher salaries), she passes the buck by saying her approval of the cuts was a political compromise because “the boys at the Legislature…wanted more.”

The tax cuts Brewer and “her boys” put in place a decade ago will in the FY2018 budget year alone for example, reduce state revenues by another $107.2 million. Since 2015, the 30% reduction in the corporate tax rate has amounted to $400 million. Unfortunately though, economist Dennis Hoffman of the W.P. Carey School of Business at ASU says, “There is no discernible evidence that corporate economic activity accelerated in response to the cuts.” He went on to say that “net corporate collections this fiscal year will likely be less than 60 percent of the net flows observed in fiscal year 2012 or 2013 despite the moderate growth we have seen in the overall Arizona economy since then.” Or, as Howard Fischer, of Capitol Media Services writes, “if the cuts were supposed to convince more corporations to move to Arizona and start to pay taxes, that hasn’t been the experience.” Need I mention how Sam Brownback’s Kansas experiment with “trickle down has worked out?”

The tax cuts aren’t though, the only form of corporate welfare GOP lawmakers are really good at handing out. In fiscal year 2016, state law allowed $13.7 billion in taxes to go uncollected via a long list of exemptions, deductions, allowances, exclusions or credits. That number, the AZ Capitol Times reports, is likely to grow by another $1-to–2 billion once individual income tax deductions are added to it. The Arizona Department of Revenue estimates that more than half of all state taxes haven’t been collected for at least a decade. These “tax expenditures,” amount to $136.5 billion since fiscal year 2007, about the same as the sum of state budgets over the past 15 years. Most of these tax expenditures (exemptions) come from a variety of “carve-outs” to the transaction privilege tax, Arizona’s version of a sales tax. In fiscal year 2016 alone, almost $12.3 billion was excluded, about half of it due to services being exempted.

Of course, any attempt to reign in these tax exemptions has been met with resistance from GOP legislators and in fact, an amendment to the AZ Constitution passed by voters in 1992 requires any changes to the tax code that would increase revenue, to be approved by a two-thirds supermajority in each legislative chamber instead of a simple majority. This is a tall order, but even so, Senator Steve Farley (D) and Senator David Farnsworth (R) introduced SB 1144 this year to require a review of tax expenditure to TPT every ten years. Representative Vince Leach (R) was one of the many opposed to the bill, making it clear he didn’t like the word “expenditure” in the name of the review committee (Joint Legislative Tax Expenditure Review Committee) the bill called for. Leach said the name would give the impression that the Legislature is appropriating funding with the exemptions rather than just not collecting it. I would call that a serious splitting of hairs. The bottom line is whether you call them tax exemptions or tax expenditures, the affect is the same…they are making our state poorer and ultimately, due to cut services and programs, meaner.

But wait, there’s more. Not content with all the giveaways they already have in the pipeline, GOP legislators agreed this year, to cut another $10 million from state revenues by allowing Arizonans an additional $100 exemption of their income from state taxes. This is definitely more show than go though, since even the wealthiest Arizonans – those making more than $150,000 a year – will see a difference of just $4.54 when they file their taxes;those making less will see even less.

Of course, there’s nothing like political spin to put a different face on facts. Of the $100 increase in personal exemption, gubernatorial press aide Daniel Scarpinato said, “Any time you’re improving the tax code and letting people keep more of the money they earn, you’re going to see an impact. This is money that people will be keeping of their own and putting into the economy rather than just going into government.” Really? A max of $4.54 per taxpayer will get our economy moving? Why didn’t we think of this before?

The state needs to find the balance of “providing enough revenue to pay for all the other stuff that businesses and the public want to make a nice environment to live in” says economist Jim Rounds. And, although it doesn’t take an economist to figure that out, some voters still may not realize that many of the tax cuts the AZ GOP has handed out aren’t cuts at all for the citizens of Arizona. Rather, they are part of a complex shell game that lets the Governor and legislators look like they are cutting taxes while just shirking their responsibilities to fund our schools, repair our highways, and care for the neediest amongst us. Instead, they increasingly pass the costs down to the taxpayers at the local level in the form of increased sales taxes, overrides and bonds for school districts, and local taxes to repair our roads. In the case of monies for road repair specifically, the revenue for the repairs has been raised year after year, but then also each year, swept up by the Legislature to use elsewhere.

Yes, the funding of our state is one big ass shell game which we are currently losing. Want to start winning? Elect legislators by their commitment to giving Arizonans what they deserve: well funded public schools with adequately compensated teachers, well maintained highways and roads without potholes, a Child Protective Services agency that actually protects children, and much more. Face it, we are effectively in a war between care for the people and their common good and care for corporations and the wealthy. Your vote is your most effective weapon in that war; use it wisely.

False Choices for Arizona

Just when I was starting to think highly of the AZ Republic Editorial Board’s judgement, they came out today with: “The focus of this budget was clearly education – from kindergarten through the university level. It is the beginning of a long climb to provide Arizona’s schools with the resources they need to serve our youth and help drive the state’s economic growth.” Wow! Talk about drinking the Koolaid!

After all, this headline a couple of days ago: Gov. Doug Ducey gets much of what he wanted for education, was bad enough. Those in Ducey’s camp no doubt read it as him being successful, but those who know what he proposed against what our districts need, know that his getting “much of what he wanted” wasn’t well…all that much.

Instead, it is clear that his commitment to delivering tax cuts every year he is in office is much more important to him than fixing our state’s severe teacher shortage. That’s clear in his woefully inadequate proposal of a permanent 2% increase, rolled out over five years which amounted to only $15 per month  in the first year for the average teacher. As it turns out, the Legislature funded a 1% increase for next year with a “promise” to fund it again the following year. This funding is only for existing teachers, is more a stipend than a “raise” since it is not distributed on a per-student basis and therefore doesn’t increase with inflation. It amounts to about $500 per year, or about $40 per month. The Republic Editorial Board writes that, educators “will be watching next year to see if this is a good-faith effort.” Not so much I think. I mean, fool us once, shame on you. Fool us twice, shame on us. I don’t think educators or public education advocates have much faith in any promises the GOP-led Legislature or this Governor make to public education.

The Results Based Funding Plan of $37.6M he proposed for students attending excelling district or charter schools was pushed by none other than the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry (led by “teachers are crybabies” Glenn Hamer.) That tells me up front this isn’t going to be a great deal for our district schools. Appears I am right with The Republic reporting that 65% of this funding ($25M) will go to middle and higher-income schools. And, 26% of the monies would go to charters schools (and 12% of that to BASIS and Great Heart chains exclusively) versus districts, even though charters only educate 16% of the state’s public-school students. The money is misplaced infers Dr. Anabel Aportela, director of research for the Arizona Association of School Business Officials and Arizona School Boards Association. “BASIS is receiving a lot of attention for its top spots in the rankings and that’s great, but collectively the five BASIS school graduated just over 200 students, according to the latest data,” Aportela said. This a mere drop in the bucket of the 94% of the 13,778 students district high schools graduated in 2015, and doesn’t even begin to represent the diversity of those district graduates or the state at large. In addition, Ducey’s results-based funding uses only AzMERIT scores to determine where the money goes, but Arizona’s new A-F school accountability plan uses a more realistic set of factors that gives any school in the state the opportunity for a higher grade, not just those in higher socio-economic areas. Public education advocates would much rather have seen this funding added to teacher compensation where they believe it would have done the most good.

Speaking of good, that may be what Ducey’s proposed $10M next fiscal year and $20M the following year (the final budget allocates $8M and $12M) for full-day kindergarten or early literacy programs at schools looks like, but there is more to the story. This program provides additional funding where at least 90% of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch (FRPL), but will help certain charter schools much more than it is likely to help school districts. That’s because in order to qualify, the entire school district must meet the 90% threshold even though they may have several schools that meet it. Charter schools though, are each considered separate districts, even if they are managed by the same for-profit corporation. Once again, Ducey leans in for school choice over our 1.1M district students.

Yes, Ducey’s plan included $20M the Legislature didn’t fund, to help school districts deal with the negative impact of the change to current-year funding. Keep in mind though, that this change to current year funding versus prior year funding was totally a self-inflicted wound on the part of the Legislature last year. This, even though they had tried current year funding prior in 1980 and it proved to not work. The GOP-led Legislature didn’t care about that last year when they saw it as a way to save $31M in the budget. This change will hit districts with declining enrollment hard this year, making long-term planning difficult and making it even harder for them to attract and retain teachers.

Our Governor also asked for and got $17.2M in one-time money for school construction and building maintenance and the Legislature added $63M more for new school construction projects. But – and this is a big but – districts have been denied about $2B in funding in this area since the AZ Supreme Court ruled that the state needed to fund it. This is why now, 20 years after the Arizona Supreme Court originally ruled that the state’s method for capital funding to districts was unconstitutional, education plaintiffs are forced to file suit again. “Districts are funded at about 15 cents on the dollar for capital” and Joe Thomas, president of the Arizona Education Association said, “When you give a child an option of you’re going to have an air-conditioned room or you’re going to have a teacher, that’s a false choice for Arizona.”

In my mind, these are all “false choices for Arizona.” We know what needs to be done to recruit and retain quality teachers, properly maintain our facilities and buses, and give our students every opportunity to succeed. We, and I mean the collective “WE”, just don’t have the political will to do it. Money is not the only answer, but it is definitely a big piece of the equation and all this pretension that it isn’t is just freakin’ exhausting.

The Bucks Stop Here

The latest talking point about education funding coming out of GOP leadership at the AZ Legislature is that “teacher raises are the responsibility of school districts, not the state.” Senate Education Committee Chair Sylvia Allen, recently said this as week as that districts “did not use Prop 123 monies to give teacher raises” and then that “some did and some didn’t.” And, she made the point that districts also used the funds to give administrators raises.

Well, technically, she is not wrong. School district governing boards are responsible for approving the budgets for their districts, or rather, how those budgets are sliced and diced. Some districts used more of the Prop 123 monies than others to give teachers raises. And, yes, some administrators were also given raises, but keep in mind that these “administrators” aren’t necessarily just district superintendents and principals. The administration line item also includes business managers, clerical and other staff who perform accounting, payroll, purchasing, warehousing, printing, human resources and administrative technology services. And, even if some districts gave raises to superintendents and principals so what? Truth is, the state has a shortage of these personnel as well.

Toward the end of 2016, the Arizona School Boards Association asked 83 districts across the state how they used their Prop 123 funds for FY2016 and how they budgeted for them to be used for FY2017. The survey showed that a majority of the school districts spent the 2016 funds on teacher or staff raises. For 2017, 75 percent was budgeted toward compensation increases. Some districts were forced to also use the funds to restore cut classes and programs, purchase classroom resources and technology, replace out-of-date textbooks, make overdue facility repairs, and replace old buses.

Let’s face it, Prop 123 provided very little “new” funding to school districts, it really was just 70% of that which was already owed. It did not provide sufficient monies to make up for increasing general operating costs and severe funding cuts made by the state – $4.56 billion since 2009. These cuts included $2 billion to capital funding (including technology, textbooks, desks, building repair and maintenance and school bus purchases) and $1.5 billion for full-day kindergarten (which many districts still provide out-of-hide because it is critical to student achievement.) The Legislature also currently funds just 20% of what the law requires them to for building of new schools and major school repairs via the School Facilities Board. That’s why public education plaintiffs have filed another lawsuit (the first suit over this same issue was in 1994) to force compliance with the state’s obligation to “adequately fund the capital needs of public schools under a 1998 court ruling.” In fact, Arizona is one of only a handful of states still cutting today, even in a steadily improving economy. Because of these cuts, district governing boards have been faced with very tough decisions about which holes to plug first and as the ones closest to the ground, they are the right ones to make it.

But, it is totally disingenuous of Senator Allen to intimate that school boards “chose” to not give their teachers sufficient raises. First of all, the vast majority of districts did give teachers significant raises (my very small district for example, gave 7%.) Secondly, forced to deal with the highest cuts in per pupil funding in the nation, Arizona school districts are not even remotely close to the “self-actualization” level on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, but just barely at the safety and security level. District leaders are faced with daily decisions about how best to just keep students safe in light of deteriorating facilities and aged buses.

Allen and her legislative cronies can deflect all they want, but the state constitution is clear, “The LEGISLATURE shall enact such laws as shall provide for the establishment and maintenance of a general and uniform public school system…” STATE lawmakers, not school district governing boards, are responsible for ensuring adequate funding for the “maintenance of a general and uniform public school system.” District governing boards may have responsibility for slicing up the pizza pie they are served, but just like a personal pan pizza won’t serve a family of four, state education funding that has been cut 23.3% since 2009, just doesn’t provide enough to go around. And, with the 0.6% state sales tax funding from Prop 301 set to expire in 2021 (not to mention the Prop 123 monies disappearing in 2025), it is only going to get worse. If only Senator Allen would remember and act on the saying: politicians think of the next election, leaders think of the next generation. And just in case she didn’t quite understand the nuance, President Truman’s famous saying appropriate here is “the buck stops here”, not “the bucks stop here.”