The Wall Street Journal thinks AZ Gov. Ducey is saving public ed

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.

[i] http://www.wsj.com/articles/arizonas-end-run-around-the-education-spending-lobby-1448656992

[ii] http://azsba.org/?attachment_id=11411

[iii] http://www.azcentral.com/story/opinion/op-ed/laurieroberts/2015/09/28/arizona-teachers-rankings-wallethub-study/72982460/

[iv] http://www.azcentral.com/news/articles/2012/01/31/20120131arizona-school-funding-gap-grows.html

[v] http://tucson.com/news/local/education/study-tucson-teacher-pay-well-below-national-average/article_87eb5060-940a-5262-a791-8e32c35f7ca7.html

[vi] http://www.azcentral.com/story/news/arizona/politics/education/2015/09/16/jeff-dewit-doug-ducey-arizona-education-funding/72013722/?from=global&sessionKey=&autologin=

AZ Public Education Funding is Far From Fixed!

Unless you’ve had your head under a rock, you’ve probably heard the Prop. 301 Inflation Funding lawsuit has been settled.  As with any compromise, no one got everything they wanted and there is still plenty of concern about various parts of the agreement. One of the more contentious is the Governor’s plan to increase the withdrawal percentage on the State Trust Lands Fund. AZ’s state treasurer, Jeff DeWitt, does not concur with any plan to pull more than 3.75 percent out per year, the Governor’s plan calls for 6.9 and will, says DeWitt, significantly reduce the amount of money available for public education down the road.

Public education supporters would certainly have liked to receive all districts were legally due. But, I’m guessing they just wanted to get what they could and move on. The harm though is that this agreement has proven to the AZ Legislature they can defy the people’s mandate and court orders with little impunity. I am guessing they will feel emboldened by the compromise reached, which because of all the loopholes they’ve put into place doesn’t really cost them anything in terms of doing whatever they want in the long run.

Secondly, I fear the settlement of the inflation lawsuit will convey to the public that public education funding has been fixed in Arizona. This is far from the truth, but with 45 districts’ bonds or override requests on the ballot this November, anything that drives doubt in the mind of the voters about the need could be very damaging.[i] Never mind the fact that it was the AZ Legislature that caused the necessity for local funding in the first place. After all, the Legislature made Arizona first in the nation in public education funding cuts since 2008 and these cuts just shifted the tax burden the local level in the form of bonds and overrides.   Unfortunately, this type of funding provides very little stability due to voter whim and is not the solution. An example is the Oracle School District override continuation that failed in 2013 by only 62 votes, costing the District $140,000 in funding the next year. Fortunately, the continuation passed in 2014, but numerous have had multiple years of failed override initiatives.

A big part of the problem is political. The Republican Party of Maricopa County recently announced their opposition to all 28 ballot initiatives in the Phoenix Valley, claiming that districts haven’t been fiscally responsible.[ii]  This allegation just isn’t true, as annual Auditor General Audits prove. Our public districts have also worked very hard to become more efficient and according to the AZ Office of the Auditor General 2014 report, administrative costs continue to decline. Yes, costs for plant operations, food service and transportation increased slightly,[iii] but with only two percent of the funding requirement provided for facility renovations and repairs between 2008 and 2012, increased expenses can be no surprise.

Of course, this is about much more than just our public schools. It is about an assault on our communities, our way of life and our very democracy. As Garrison Keillor said: “When you wage war on the public schools, you’re attacking the mortar that holds the community together. You’re not a Conservative, you’re a vandal.” No offense meant to our GOP brethren who support public education.

Arizona’s school children need your support on November 3rd. Six straight years of state cuts to education combined without success in seeking locally approved funding have led four school funding referendums on the ballot in Pinal County this year. Apache Junction is seeking an M&O Override for 15 percent, J.O. Combs Unified is pursuing a bond measure for $40 million, and Florence Unified and Coolidge Unified are seeking a consolidation/boundary change. Each one of these measures is critical to providing their students the opportunities they deserve. Each of these is in fact, critical to moving our communities, our county and our state forward.

Apache Junction has been forced to operate without override funds since 2010 and J.O. Combs has been unable to pass an override continuation for three years resulting in a loss of $2 million. The Florence and Coolidge Unified consolidation/boundary change will decrease the tax rate for CUSD, provide necessary classroom space for FUSD, provide more efficient use of taxpayer monies. Tax payer monies will be saved because FUSD will accept $16 million in CUSD debt bringing three schools and 40 percent of San Tan Valley area, vs. laying out $60 million for a new high school. These ballot measures make sense, are about our children, and make long-term best interest for the voter.

Now it is up to you. Ensure you are registered to vote, get informed and then actually vote. If not for Arizona’s children, then for yourself. Arizona can’t compete if our students can’t compete. Our students can’t compete if their teachers are underpaid, their schools are poorly maintained and their technology is yesterday’s. Today’s students, are tomorrow’s leaders, whether they are ready or not.   Let’s ensure they are ready!

[i] http://www.azcentral.com/story/news/local/arizona/education/2015/10/28/many-arizona-school-bond-override-races-face-polarized-voters/74416714/

[ii] http://www.azcentral.com/story/news/local/arizona/education/2015/10/28/many-arizona-school-bond-override-races-face-polarized-voters/74416714/

[iii] http://www.azauditor.gov/sites/default/files/AZ_School_District_Spending_FY2014_State_Pages.pdf