The right to know how tax dollars are spent

The just released AZ Auditor General’s Office report on Arizona School District Spending – Fiscal Year 2018 states that,

“In fiscal year 2018, Arizona districts spent 54% of available operating dollars on instruction—the second consecutive increase in the instructional spending percentage in 14 years.”

It also stated that,

“Arizona school districts spent about $3,500 less per pupil than the national average and allocated their resources differently, spending a lower percentage of resources on instruction and administration and a greater percentage on all other operational areas.”

Six key takeaways from an article about the report in the AZ Daily Star are:
1. Even with recent increases to teacher pay, Arizona’s teacher salaries remain over $11,000 below the national average. According to Lindsey Perry, the AZ Auditor General, part of the lower salary may be due to an AZ average teacher experience of 11 years compared to 13.7 for nation.
2. After adjusting for inflation, total per pupil spending is $177 less now than in 2004 and $861 below that of 2008.
3. Arizona spends $8,300 per student with 54% of that being in the classroom, compared with a national average of $11,800 and 60.9% in the classroom.
4. The lower amount Arizona spends in the classroom isn’t due to high administration costs which are only 10.4% of total dollars versus a national average of 11.2%. Rather it can be attributed in part, to higher energy costs due to extreme temperatures, more money spent on food services, higher transportation costs to serve rural and remote areas and higher class sizes.
6. Student support cost is high due to the large percentage of students living in poverty or those with special needs.

Also important to note when discussing classroom support expenditures, is that Arizona lawmakers and educators disagree with the AZ Auditor General’s exclusion of instruction and student support when calculating classroom support dollars. In 2015 in fact, the governor, legislators and educators agreed to a change in state law that required, (beginning with the FY 2016 budget) to include reading and math intervention specialists, media specialists, librarians, counselors, social workers, nurses, psychologists and seed, occupational and physical therapists in the classroom support line item. They understood that these specialists directly contribute to improved academic outcomes for students and should be included in the classroom support totals.

The Auditor General report goes on to state that,

“Although factors outside a district’s control—such as district size, type, and location—can affect its efficiency, some districts operate efficiently and have lower costs despite these factors, while others do not. What the report does not discuss, and is what has never been included, is how charter and private schools perform with the taxpayer dollars they receive.”

Yes, at least charter schools do get audited (not by the state, but an auditor of their choice), but it is a compliance audit, not one to determine efficiency of operations. And, it is the State Board for Charter Schools rather than the AZ Auditor General who is responsible for audit and compliance oversight, so the results of audits are not reported by the latter which makes it difficult to compare them with those of district schools. We do know however, that administration costs in charter schools have typically been double that of district schools. So much for charter schools being models of efficiency.

What we are in total darkness about, is the efficiency of private and parochial school tax dollar spending (via corporate and individual tax credits and vouchers) which in 2017 was about $200M and grows exponentially every year. Funny how those who rail about inefficiencies at public district schools, seem to never be as concerned about tax dollars spent by alternative options. Fortunately, this tide has been turning lately, given all the charter school scandals in the news. As for what’s going on in private schools, that’s anyone’s guess.

Here’s the bottom line. WHEREVER public tax dollars are spent, the public has a right to know the efficiency and effectiveness of that spending. If educational entities accept our money, they should be forced to accept our oversight. It is that simple.

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$23 Billion – The Wrenching Reality

U.S. News and World Report and CNN recently highlighted an EdBuild report that shows $23 billion dollars separate America’s white and nonwhite school districts. In other words, “nonwhite school districts get $23 billion less than white districts despite serving the same number of students.”

More than half of all U.S. public school students are enrolled in racially concentrated school districts” which the EdBuild report defines as more than 75% white or nonwhite students. In addition, about 20% of students are enrolled in districts that are both poor and nonwhite, but just 5% of students live in white districts that are equally financially challenged. These conditions help create an average disparity in the U.S. of about 19% or $2,600 less per student in poor nonwhite school districts than those in affluent white ones.

At least Arizona is one of the 35 states that “actively works to redistribute education money to make up for the fact that wealthier school districts generate more local funding than poor school districts.” It is called “equalization funding”, and provides school districts a base funding of $3,960 for every student enrolled (2018–19). With the school funding system reliant on local taxes however, EdBuild says smaller districts can have the effect of concentrating resources for a small, privileged few. And not only do wealthier districts have higher property values to better support the district, they may enjoy more active PTAs and well-funded school foundations to provide additional assistance. These conditions have resulted in Arizona having the biggest funding gap between districts where predominantly nonwhite districts received an average of $7,613 less per student.

Moreover, when we consider poor nonwhite districts to poor white districts, the disparity gets even worse. In Arizona, 34% of students attend racially isolated school districts, with 32% attending high-poverty, predominantly nonwhite school districts, and 1% attending high-poverty predominantly white school districts. “The average high-poverty, nonwhite school district in Arizona has 5,920 students compared to 433 in the average high-poverty, white school district. The difference in funding between them is 59%, or $11,000 less per student. Where the average revenue (funding) per student is $10,400, that can be hard to wrap your head around. But, Chuck Essigs of the Arizona Association of School Business Officials, and Matthew Ladner, Senior Research Strategist at the Arizona Chamber Foundation, agreed that EdBuild should have added up expenditures for all white and non-white school district groups, and divided that number by the number of students in each group. If they had said Ladner, the disparity would have been about $772 per student, rather than the astronomical $7,613 that EdBuild reported. On the high poverty, racially concentrated schools, the actual disparity would have been about $1,400 rather than the nearly $11,000 EdBuild reported.

 

According to EdBuild, “Because schools rely heavily on local taxes, drawing borders around small, wealthy communities benefits the few at the detriment of the many. White districts enroll just over 1,500 students – half the size of the national average, and nonwhite districts serve over 10,000 students – three times more than that average.” This problem is exacerbated in Arizona where many of the mostly white districts are small and rural and the nonwhite districts tend to be larger, in urban areas. “The comparison groups are like oranges and apples,” contends ASU Teachers College assistant professor Margarita Pivoarova. “We can’t really compare, not in terms of size, not in terms of location.” Other Arizona officials admit there is a disparity, but say EdBuild should have factored in more of the state’s students, such as charters with just a dozen students. Anabel Aportela, the director of research for the Arizona School Boards Association said, “There’s so many things to question about the data [like the small school weight formula], you can easily dismiss the message.”

I know Anabel and if she says there’s more to the story, there is. But, we must be open to the truth that our current school funding formula, which has been in place for 35 years — before charters, school tax credits, and vouchers were part of the landscape — needs to be relooked.

“”So long as we link opportunity to gerrymandered borders and school funding to local wealth, we will never have a fair education system,“ Sibilia says. ”The wrenching reality is that“, says Rebecca Sibilia, CEO of EdBuild, ”from any angle, America is investing billions more in the future of white children.” And that should not be, of course, acceptable to anyone.

Should seniors skate?

The Legislative session doesn’t start for another week and a half and I’m already tired of the bad ideas being proposed. I previously wrote about HB2002 Rep. Mark Finchem’s (R-Oro Valley) proposal, which would “allow the state to fire teachers who discuss politics, religion, or racial issues in classroom settings.” Yesterday, Newsweek picked up on Phoenix New Times reporting that nine of the points in his bill were “lifted directly from the Stop K–12 Indoctrination campaign, which the David Horowitz Freedom Center sponsors. The Southern Poverty Law Center describes David Horowitz as ‘a driving force of the anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant, and anti-black movements.’” Not to be outdone, Rep. Kelly Townsend (R-Mesa) submitted HB2015 which covers the same territory.

Now, we have “a self-proclaimed ‘tax activist’ who wants to excuse anyone 65 or older from paying property tax. Her name is Lynne Weaver and she is working with a former state GOP chairman to permanently ban property taxes on AZ home owners 65 and older.

What a ridiculous idea! As a Capitol Media Services article points out, if the initiative passes, homeowners under 65 would be left to make up the property tax burden the elderly were relieved of. This tax money after all, funds public education, emergency services and other community programs. In a perfect world, we wouldn’t rely on property taxes to fund these programs because it inevitably results in winners and losers. But the funding for these essential services has to come from somewhere and for now, that’s property taxes.

According to the AZ Department of Health Services “2014–2018 Arizona Healthy Aging Plan”, the number of Arizonans aged 65 and older was 14% in 2010. By 2025, the plan states “there will be as many people over 65 as under age 15 living in Arizona. These increases will be accompanied by a decrease in the proportion of working-age Arizonans who help support older adults in numerous ways including paying taxes on wages that help fund Social Security and Medicare.”

So, not only will there not be enough young people to support the older ones, but Weaver’s initiative would have those young people responsible for picking up the bill for elders’ property tax relief as well?

A California transplant, Weaver’s tried to limit property taxes before with efforts based on California’s disastrous Proposition 13, “a 1978 measure rolling back property valuations and capping year-over-year increases.” With this latest effort, she thinks she’ll have more luck targeting only seniors. But, she’ll need to get 356,467 valid signatures by July 2, 2020 for the initiative to make the ballot next year.

Which brings me back to another of Finchem’s proposals. He recently announced he wants to allow initiative organizers to collect signatures online. This caught my attention because although Sandy Bahr of the AZ Sierra Club lauded his proposal, I know (given his denial of climate change), he is not proposing this change to help promote renewable energy, or any other sane issue liberals care about.

What if Finchem wants the on-line initiative signing capability to help Weaver’s initiative qualify for the ballot? And if it qualifies, what’s the chances the voters will approve it? I don’t know the answer to that, but I do know that the 65+ age group are the most reliable voters of them all.

Then again, maybe I’m just getting cynical in my old age. No, I’m not 65 yet, but I do live in an active adult community. And yes, I believe in paying taxes for public education. Retirees (and others) paid for mine after all, and I want to ensure there are plenty of well educated young people to take care of all of our futures. Crazy concept, huh?

If it sounds too good to be true…

Okay, so maybe Governor Ducey and the Legislature really are trying to solve the problem. You know, the one they, and those before them, created by pushing tax cuts, corporate welfare, and school privatization. But, it is REALLY hard to have the faith, when they throw out words like “advance-appropriated.” As in, “we can’t give you all 20 percent right now teachers, so we are going to advance-appropriate it in the next two budgets.”

I googled “advance-appropriate” and got nothing on the first page of search results. On the second page, there was a report from the New America Foundation titled, “Advance Appropriations: A Needless and Confusing Education Budget Technique.”

The New America Foundation appears to be fairly non-partisan with a vision that includes, “Equitable, accessible high-quality education and training over a lifetime”, “A society that promotes economic opportunity for all”, and “Equal representation in politics and participation in accountable governance.” Its Board of Directors includes New York Times Op-Ed Columnist David Brooks, ASU President Michael Crow, and many others from business, higher-education, and journalism.

Their report on advance appropriations referenced above, discusses the practice of this funding mechanism in Congress, and calls such a, “rarely understood budgeting approach that shifts funding into the fiscal year following the year covered by the appropriations process.”

In the report’s summary on the first page, it states that,

Advance appropriations add complexity to the education funding process and are of no practical benefit to recipients…Congress should end advance appropriations for education programs by providing a one-time funding shift that moves advances back a fiscal year so that they align with the current funding cycle. A new scoring rule to prevent future advances should also be enacted. The combined effect will reduce complexity and increase transparency in the federal education budget process. Such a change does not increase or decrease education funding. But it does promote transparency, simplicity and clear decision-making in federal education budget matters.

Likewise, the Government Accountability Office’s Glossary of Terms Used in the Federal Budget Process states,

The use of the advance appropriations technique makes it difficult to assess the actual level of funding…because the program is funded in three pieces…Education advance appropriations also make it difficult to compare spending to the rest of the federal budget, because virtually all programs funded through appropriations receive only one regular appropriation.

Fast forward to yesterday and Arizona Capitol Reports writing that,

The budget appears to fix what has been a source of contention among teachers who worried that the raises promised in future years would never materialize. To ensure that teacher pay raises in future years get funded, the raise money will be advance-appropriated. The budget advance appropriates the five-percent raises in FY20 and FY21, an allocation that could only be reversed if a future Legislature votes to take the raises out of the budget. The $371 million that Ducey promised in district additional assistance is also advance-appropriated in the proposed budget.

Call me cynical, but what’s the difference between “advance-appropriated” and “a promise”. The statement above, that “an allocation that could only be reversed if a future Legislature votes to take the raises out of the budget” doesn’t provide me much peace of mind. After all, our Legislature routinely approves budgets at the last-minute, in the dead of night, to provide the least amount of transparency possible. And, even when we have laws that provide dedicated funding to education, they have managed to refuse to pay in accordance with the law – Prop. 301 inflation funding (that resulted in Prop. 123) ring a bell?

This latest workaround to the REAL solution – finding or creating new, dedicated, sustainable funding for K–12 education, isn’t the only such shell game obfuscating the truth. You may have heard that even with the state trust lands money Prop. 123 delivered, our districts are still funded at almost one billion less per year than in 2008. What you may not have heard, is that for the past decade, the state has rolled over each year’s final K–12 payment of $930 million to the next fiscal year. The Grand Canyon Institute (GCI) reported in its January 2018 report titled: “The State of the State Budget 2018: The Revenue Systems is Broken” that,

The lack of revenue resources means the state will likely enter the next recession with this rollover still on the books.” The report goes on to say, “With dollars extremely tight, the state has been unable to allocate funds to eliminate rollovers, so continues the $930 million K–12 rollover whereby the last payment of the past fiscal year is rolled over into the next one. This rollover represents 9.5 percent of the General Fund expenditures, more than three times as large as the use of rollovers in FY2008…The rollover is twice as large as the budget stabilization fund of $460 million – and consequently hides a significant ongoing deficit.” When the General Fund per capita real dollars (the state now has only $3 for every $4 it had in 2007), and the rollovers as a % of the General Fund are combined, Arizona is not running a balanced budget, but a deficit of “$5 billion ($1 billion in rollovers and $4 billion in lost revenue not recovered since FY2007 – half of the General Fund).

These funding schemes may work in good times, but what happens when the inevitable downturn arrives and the bills come due? Don’t think we want to take out a second mortgage on the Capitol buildings sold and leased back at a considerable cost to the state under Jan Brewer’s reign. It is way beyond time that our Governor and Legislature give up on the gimmicks and make the tough decisions to truly deliver for the people of Arizona. That is, oh by the way, what REAL LEADERS do. ASU economists have credited 90 percent of the state’s decline in revenue on tax reductions and analysis by GCI shows that the reliance on trickle-down as a viable economic policy has not produced the jobs promised. “Actual state employment growth” writes GCI, “has lagged below the ”natural growth“ estimated by the JLBC in 2011 [with the New Employment Tax Credit]…Arizona’s employment performance here is far less with about one-third of the actual employment growth actually translating into jobs being eligible for the tax credit.”

Unfortunately, Governor Ducey and this Legislature, seem blind to the truth and unwilling to do what needs to be done. Just think back if you will, to May 2017, when AZ education advocacy groups were fighting for 4 percent for the teachers and were told 1 percent was all the state could afford. How can we now, without ANY new revenue, afford 20 percent? Reminds me of that old saying, “if it sounds too good to be true…”

The Perfect Haboob

There are a lot of unique things about living in Arizona and our storms rank near the top. I know, I know, people who don’t live here are thinking what storms, thought it is always sunny and hot? Well, there is that, but we also have our crazy monsoon rains and wild walls of dust called “haboobs”, an Arabic word meaning “blown”.

According to Arizona’s ABC15.com, “Haboobs are giant walls of dust created from high winds rushing out of a collapsing thunderstorm. Cold air in front of the storm rushes down at an incredible rate, picking up massive amounts of dust and sand and blowing them into the air.” A 2011 haboob in Phoenix, was almost a mile tall and stretched across the entire valley, over 50 miles long. These storms can stretch as far as 100 miles wide and are dangerous not only to drive in, but to just be outside in, as rocks and debris thrown around by winds of up to 50 mph can be dangerous, and bad air quality causes many people difficult breathing.

What’s going on with public education right now in Arizona feels a lot like that. First of all, our Governor and Legislature have turned a cold shoulder to the crisis facing our teachers and the districts they serve. The assault on our public schools has been fast-paced and fueled by out-of-state monied interests like the Koch Brothers’ Americans for Prosperity and Betsy DeVos’ American Federation for Children, despite overwhelming support for our public schools from Arizonans. And, all of this serves to obscure the real truth, which is that the focus on tax cuts and the push to privatize, are draining our public schools of available resources, making it very difficult for them to “catch their breath” and make the strides our state needs.

So, the big question at the beginning of this Legislative session was whether SOS AZ’s voter initiative would make it on the ballot. A couple of court decisions later and it looks like yes, it will. Of course, the Legislature might still repeal and even try to replace, the law that fully expanded vouchers last year (although that effort seems overcome by other events for now). There is also the possibility that the Prop. 305 (the name of the initiative), might be left on the ballot so that a Koch Brothers’ backed effort can produce the first-ever win on vouchers at the ballot box. This of course, would set them up for a full-court, across the country, privatization sweep. Either way, our mighty warriors at SOS AZ have vowed they “will continue to fight for public education because in order to have a strong state, we need strong schools.” Amen!

The second major issue for AZ public education was the decision by a Federal judge, that the funding plan for Prop. 123 to increase aid to schools from additional withdrawals of state trust lands money, was unconstitutional. Remember that? Can you believe that was announced just a month ago?

Changes made at the Federal level may fix the problem going forward, but whether the state must repay at least $344 million into the state trust lands is yet to be decided. Arizona has pushed back on the Federal ruling, but this fight is a long way from over and may even require the issue to go back to the voters according to former State Treasurer Jeff Dewitt. When it first aired, this was big news, but just as a haboob can blot out the sun, it’s been totally eclipsed by subsequent events.

Meanwhile back at the ranch, Arizona education groups had been working for some time on a plan to get new funding for our schools. They looked at a variety of potential solutions, including sales and income tax increases, and the elimination of tax credits and loopholes. The effort was largely sidelined though (at least temporarily) when the wave of teacher strikes, from West Virginia, to Kentucky, to Oklahoma, finally hit the shores of Arizona.

With teacher salaries at the bottom of the barrel, a Governor and GOP-led Legislature prioritizing corporate welfare over adequately funding our schools, and a kick-ass #RedForEd movement in the news, it was only a matter of time before AZ educators said “no más”. They began to organize as Arizona Educators United, and made their demands, (including a 20% pay raise for teachers), known.

In a presumed attempt to head them off at the pass, Governor Ducey announced a 20% teacher pay raise and $100 million to [begin to] restore District Additional Assistance (capital funding). But his plan, writes the Phoenix New Times, includes no new state revenue, relying on overly optimistic revenue forecasts according to the Joint Legislative Budget Committee who says it could result in a $300 million budget shortfall. This, coupled with the other unaddressed demands, pushed 78% of 57,000 (out of 60,000) teachers to vote to walkout on April 26th.

Fast forward to yesterday, when AZ Representative Noel Campbell, Republican, LD 1, announced “he will introduce a budget amendment – whenever Republican legislative leaders introduce a budget – for a three-year, 1-cent education sales tax increase.” His plan would raise $880 million in new revenue and required the state restore full funding for kindergarten, but also requires approval by two-thirds of the Legislature and the Governor.

Although in favor raising new revenue, AZ Dem legislative leaders made it clear yesterday that they do not support it coming in the form of an increase in sales tax. In a letter to Governor Ducey they wrote, “We should consider broadening the sales tax base for certain services, reversing decades of unproductive, revenue draining tax cuts for the wealthiest Arizonans, closing tax loopholes, and at a minimum capping tax credits that divert state revenues away from neighborhood public schools and into private schools.” The letter went on to say that, “These and other options – including federal tax conformity – are available and would more fairly and equitably restore the cuts to education and bring our educator pay to parity with our neighboring states.”

Ultimately, no matter what happens between now and our Primary election on August 26th, and the General on November 6th, Arizona’s voters will have the final say. My most sincere hope is that they will use that say to elect candidates at all levels, who understand education is an investment, not an expense. Candidates who understand that quality companies care about more than a tax credit, they want quality schools for their employee’s children, they want an educated workforce and they want modern, well-maintained infrastructure. Candidates who understand that they work for the people, ALL the people, not just those who are from the same party or support them with campaign contributions.

Arizona teachers will take a brave stand tomorrow, one that does not come without cost to them personally. The best thing we can do to support them, is to work to bring more parity to our Legislature, forcing all sides to be heard and all good ideas to be considered. To do this, we need only flip two seats in the AZ Senate and 5 seats in the House.

Arizonans understand we aren’t getting the results we want from our Governor and Legislature. We have the power to make positive change. Let’s hope we wield it wisely and forcefully.

Not Fake News, Just Propaganda

Yesterday, a friend emailed me a copy of a Goldwater document that had been placed in all the “mail” boxes at his “Life Plan Community” (retirement/assisted living). The document was titled, “The Truth about Teacher Pay”, and dated April 12, 2018.

Even without the Goldwater logo at the top, I could have easily identified it as a right-wing propaganda piece. In it, the Goldwater Institute Director of Education Policy, Matthew Simon, began by making the point that “though fingers are pointed at state legislatures with calls for higher teacher salaries, the reality is that in many cases, locally elected school district governing boards are responsible for the size of paychecks.” He went on to write that, “independently elected governing boards wield considerable power in their positions by creating policies, crafting school district budgets and setting teacher pay.”

Simon provides a couple of examples of the significant difference in pay between various school districts to make his point. He then writes that, “teachers in Arizona have launched their demands at legislators in a well-coordinated campaign.” Of course, this “well-coordinated campaign”, is just a dog-whistle to infer the big bad “union” is driving the train. Truth is, the #RedForEd effort comes from a grassroots movement. There is no statewide collective bargaining unit in Arizona, because our state is a “Right to Work” state. Which means, employees really have no rights at work.

“If Arizona teachers and the public have a gripe with elected officials”, Simon continued, “the elected officials they should be targeting with this anger need to be their locally elected school district governing boards. When a school district governing board prioritizes teacher pay, teacher pay is higher.”

The problem with Simon’s piece isn’t that it isn’t factual, but rather, that he propagandizes the facts. As defined by Merriam-Webster, is “ideas, facts, or allegations spread deliberately to further one’s cause or to damage an opposing cause.” I believe, the “particular political cause” in this case, is to try to take the pressure off the state legislature for their failure to adequately fund public education, and instead, put it on the backs of governing board members. If I wanted to be really cynical, I could say it is just another attempt by the Goldwater Institute and monied out-of-state interests, to force the privatization of our public schools down Arizonans’ collective throats. You know, discredit governing board members and local control and tout that the only way to fix the resulting dysfunction is to turn our kids over to the profiteers.

Yes, it is true that the Arizona Constitution gives school board members the authority to set salaries for their district’s teachers. Arizona Revised Statute 15–341.A.17 states, “The governing board shall: Use school monies received from the state and county school apportionment exclusively for payment of salaries of teachers and other employees and contingent expenses of the district.” The phrase “contingent expenses of the district” however covers a wide range of other costs governing board members must ensure are not only budgeted for and appropriately allocated.

Therein, they say, lies the rub. You see, governing board members can only allocate that which the state Legislature, (which oh by the way, has responsiblity for the “establishment and maintenance of a general and uniform public school system”), provides. In fact, education, along with public safety, roads and infrastructure, is one of the three constitutionally-mandated functions the Legislature is responsible for. Thing is, over the past decade, that has been woefully inadequate. You’ve probably already heard that Arizona had the highest cuts per pupil in the nation, 2008 to 2014, that the average salary of our elementary teachers is 50th in the nation and high school teachers is 49th, and that our capital funding, (for facility maintenance and repair and other big-ticket items like buses), was cut 85% in the last decade. You’ve also probably heard that the Legislature continues to funnel public tax dollars to private and religious schools with almost zero accountability and transparency; passing the full expansion of vouchers for all school children last year.

You may not have heard, that in the past couple of years, two non-partisan, serious studies of education funding determined that there can be no meaningful fix to the way Arizona’s education funding is allocated, until additional funding is resourced. In 2016, the Governor Ducey appointed chair of the Governor’s Classrooms First Council said, “that, ”the schools aren’t going to significantly improve unless they get more money.“ In a previous post, I wrote about the statewide, non-partisan 2017 AZ Town Hall on PreK–12 Education Funding, which determined that the problem is not so much the percentage of the state budget allocated to our districts, but the size of the overall state budget ”pie”.

And yet, Arizona governing board members continue to lead to deliver with the resources they are provided. After Proposition 123 was passed, they ensured 90% of the additional funding was allocated to teachers. Between FY 2015 and FY 2018, they enabled their districts to hire almost 1,800 more full-time equivalent teachers, and raised teacher salaries across the state by an average of $2,044.

Governing board members know that the number one in-school factor for determining student success is a high-quality teacher and with our ongoing critical shortage of teachers, they are eager to incentivize good teachers to stay in their classrooms. But, teachers aren’t the only critical need. After all, when 30% of Arizona buses fail safety inspections, schools are closed for emergency repairs to fix unsafe facility conditions, and some classrooms are forced to use 12-year old computers, governing board members must make tough decisions about resource allocation.

Matthew Simon did not write his piece to inform, but rather, to deflect blame for the funding crisis we find ourselves in. A funding crisis which is largely self-manufactured. Yes, our Legislature also had to make tough calls during the recession in 2008, but “economists say the real culprit is the cumulative impact of two decades of Arizona governors and lawmakers chipping away at the bottom line.” In 2016, tax cuts over that period cost the state’s general fund $4 billion in revenue according to an analysis by economists with Arizona State University. These economists also wrote “More than 90% of the decline in revenue resulted from tax reductions.”

According to an AZ Capitol Times article from May 2017, data compiled by the Arizona Department of Revenue showed that more than 50% of all state taxes hadn’t been collected for at least the past ten years. ‘Called “tax expenditures,” they amount to $136.5 billion since fiscal year 2007, roughly equivalent to the sum of the state budgets spanning the past 15 years.’ In FY 2016 alone, over $12 billion was excluded from sales tax collection. Governor Ducey has continued the trend, vowing (and thus far keeping that promise) to cut taxes every year he is in office.

Governing board members share no more, and no less blame for this situation than does the average voter. After all, they are also voters and the reason our lawmakers have gotten away with pursuing the repeatedly failed “trickle-down” (Kansas anyone?) philosophy is that Arizona voters continue voting the same lawmakers into office. The bottom line is that until voters truly draw the nexus between the results they want and the candidates they elect, we can’t expect any different or better.

Focus People, Focus!

I was at a SOS AZ presentation on public education funding last night and after a slide about corporate tax credits, one young woman advocated for holding the corporations responsible for not supporting our schools. Although I would normally be one of the first to vilify corporate America for their greed at the expense of the rest of us, I think her ire was a little misplaced. Arizona corporations after all, are just taking advantage of the laws incentivizing them to act a certain way. These aren’t loopholes that corporations are paying high-powered lawyers and accountants to find for them, but incentives the Legislature has directly handed to them to. It isn’t after all, like the tax credits allow the corporations to pocket more profit, they are still paying out the same amount of money (whether in taxes or credits), they just get to choose where their taxes go.

THEREIN lies the rub. THEY get to choose where their tax dollars go…not us, the people. That’s the problem with all these tax credits and exemptions, 331 is the number I heard last night, that the Arizona Legislature has granted. You see, ideally, tax credits should be granted to incentivize behavior that voters want and that produces good for all of us. We’ve all heard the saying though, that “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” When all the power in a government is consolidated on one side, the tendency is not to look at the common good, but the good of “your” people. And, when it is apparent to lawmakers that they can act with impunity because they will continue to get reelected despite their failure to provide for all the people in their care, the tendency is for them to do whatever they want.

Yes, corporations also have a responsibility to care about the common good, but I really don’t blame them for taking advantage of legal incentives for directing their tax dollars where the Legislature wants. The rest of us suffer though, because these incentives reduce the size of our general fund “pie”. We also suffer because the diverted funding, essentially our tax dollars, then has no accountability nor transparency associated with it. We don’t know if it is being used for the purpose intended and we certainly don’t know the return on our investment.

This is a huge problem in Arizona with at least 75% of corporations paying the minimum $50 in state taxes. Again, it isn’t like they aren’t giving up the money, but it isn’t coming into the general fund in the form of tax dollars that we can then hold the Legislature accountable for. In fact, on a budget of less than $10 billion, Arizona gives away almost $13 billion in corporate sales tax relief alone. This is just one of the reasons the Arizona Town Hall on PreK–12 Funding last year, wrote that it is the “size of the pie” that is the problem, not the relative percentage given to our public schools. This was clearly illustrated by the SOS AZ briefing when a slide comparing state populations versus annual budget was shown. AZ has about 7 million people, with a budget under $10 billion versus Wyoming with 585,00 people and a budget of $8.8 billion and Maine with a population of 1.33 million people and a budget of $7.6 billion. To be sure, there is a lot to unpack here, but it is interesting none the less.

None of this is by accident, the AZ Legislature is just following the “drown it in the bathtub” playbook to reduce the size of government. No sense, (I’m guessing they think), in having government do something the private sector could do better and cheaper AND…make a profit on.

Only problem is, that often isn’t the case. Take the privatization of Arizona prisons for example. Arizona’s corrections annual budget is over $1 billion—at 11% of the General Fund, the third largest appropriation of any state agency. When the decision was made to privatize them in 2005, bids by the prison companies no doubt touted lower operating costs than the state. Since then though, spending on prisons has grown by at least 45%. Of course, we aren’t entirely sure of the exact amount because in 2012, the state Legislature repealed the statute requiring cost and quality comparison reviews between the state’s public and private prisons. Before that repeal, the Arizona Department of Correction found in a 2010 review, that medium-security state prison beds cost $48.16 while medium-security private prison beds cost $55.30. In fact, between 2008 and 2010, Arizona overpaid for its private prisons by about $10 million. Now, the lack of transparency and accountability for our tax dollars is most assuredly guaranteeing skyrocketing costs, lackluster results, and pay-for-play abuses between lawmakers and the private prison corporations.

The same thing is happening with our public schools. Tax credits and Empowerment Scholarship Accounts (ESAs), divert or withdraw funding from our General Fund and the public schools it resources, and give it to private entities with no responsibility for transparency and accountability. And, because there are huge out-of-state monied interests that are using Arizona as ground zero for war against public education, our lawmakers are being bought off (via campaign contributions or influence peddling) to do their bidding. Numerous charter school operator abuses that have recently come to light are, no doubt, just the tip of the iceberg.

The Washington Post tag line, “Democracy Dies in Darkness” says it all. If our democratic republic is to stay strong and vibrant, we must have transparency and accountability so that our government, at all levels, can remain one of the people, by the people, and for the people. The privatization of programs and services that provide for the common good (the military, public schools, prisons, police, fire, etc), is simply a way to take “the people” out of the equation…to ensure we no longer have a say in how we are governed. It is absolutely critical for these “common good” programs and services to be paid for by all of us so that we retain ownership, the authority and yes, the responsibility, to ensure they produce OUR desired return on investment. It is really this simple, to have a government that works for us, we must work for it.