PHOENIX — Schools in Arizona won’t have to immediately cut budgets and possibly lay off teachers and close schools.
By a 23-to-6 margin on Monday, the Senate gave final approval to lifting the voter-approved constitutional cap on K-12 spending. The move, which is only good for the rest of this school year, will prevent estimated cuts of more than $1.1 billion by June 30, or about 16% of each school district’s current spending.
Monday’s vote comes just days before a March 1 deadline for lawmakers to act.
The House previously approved the cap waiver last week by a 45-14 margin. The measure, having now secured the necessary two-thirds vote of each house, takes effect immediately, as Governor Doug Ducey has no say and has deflected all questions about what he thinks of the decision.
Senate President Karen Fann, R-Prescott, chastised anonymous individuals who were “basically intimidating and threatening some of our members.
“It’s not acceptable,” she said. “That’s not how we do things here.”
And Fann insisted, despite being only a few days ahead of the deadline, that he had always intended to act – and get the necessary votes. She said even some of those who were hesitant to approve finally recognized what was at stake.
“We realize the importance of school funding,” Fann said.
“Our job is to make sure the kids stay in school,” she continued. “They’ve already lost enough education by being held back because of COVID and stuff.”
But while all 14 Senate Democrats voted for the measure, Fann was unable to garner the votes of just seven of the 16 Republicans — six who showed up to vote against, plus Sen. Kelly Townsend, R- Apache Junction, which had previously said it was opposed, missed Monday’s vote.
At issue is a 1980 voter-approved constitutional amendment that capped spending at then-prevailing levels, with annual adjustments based on inflation and student growth.
The Arizona Constitution allows legislators to approve waivers. And they’ve done it twice in the past.
This year, lawmakers’ failure to exempt certain other K-12 expenses previously approved by voters from the cap, coupled with last year’s drop in enrollment due to COVID, set the limit at over 1.1. billion more than the budgets already approved by lawmakers.
This fact has actually been known for months. But it has taken until now – just before the deadline – to get legislative action.
Sen. Vince Leach, R-Tucson, said he actually tried to get a permanent fix for the cap two years ago. But that, he said, has been pushed aside by the COVID outbreak.
Since then, he said, the political climate has changed, at least in part because parents have had to deal with schools that have closed during the pandemic. But that, Leach said, is not all.
“Parents all of a sudden started recognizing what their children were being taught,” he said. “And I don’t know what was more problematic: the fact that they weren’t in school or being taught.
For Leach, the answer is not to waive the limit, but rather “backpack funding,” where state aid follows each child to whatever school the parent wants, whether public. , private, parochial or even at home.
Senator Michelle Ugenti-Rita, R-Scottsdale, had her own similar objections to waiving the cap and allowing schools to spend the money.
“They injected fear and anxiety into our children,” she said, accusing schools of politicizing COVID. But Ugenti-Rita said all schools want to talk about needing more money.
“Money isn’t going to solve the problem because money isn’t the problem,” she said.
“We are capitulating to education extremists who are holding our children hostage,” complained Ugenti-Rita. And she said parents don’t ask for more money.
“What they are talking about is the bureaucratic-educational machine that takes advantage of children – abuses them, in my opinion – does not listen to parents and continues to do the same thing they have always done: complain about money,” Ugenti- said Rita. “And the only way to solve the problem is when we realize we don’t have a money problem.”
Sonny Borrelli, R-Lake Havasu City, who also voted against the waiver, complained that the education community doesn’t give Republicans credit for things the legislature has done. The result, he said, is that funding for education accounts for half of the state’s $12.8 billion budget, claiming that this is lost in “the lie of the educational-industrial complex and media of shame”.
His No. 1 piece is the 20% salary increase for teachers approved by the Republican-controlled legislature in 2018.
But Senate Minority Leader Rebecca Rios, D-Phoenix, said that’s not something Republicans actually want to do. In fact, she pointed out, Ducey’s own budget for that year only proposed a 1% salary increase.
It wasn’t until educators descended on Capitol Hill, Rios said, that lawmakers and the governor relented.
Other Republicans who have so far refused to commit to waiving the limit said they agreed to follow suit after receiving certain assurances.
Sen. JD Mesnard, R-Chandler, said his big concern was an ongoing lawsuit over the legality of Proposition 208.
This 2020 voter-approved measure sought to impose a 3.5% surtax on personal taxable income above $250,000 to raise more than $800 million for K-12 education year.
The only thing is that the Arizona Supreme Court said the levy could not be imposed if the revenue would cause the state to exceed the spending cap — the same cap at issue here. So the judges sent the case back to Maricopa County Superior Court Judge John Hannah to decide if there was a legal way to collect and spend the money.
Hannah has not ruled yet. And Mesnard, who opposed Proposition 208, said he fears that if lawmakers set a precedent this year, the judge would use it to conclude that it is possible to collect the additional revenue.
What changed his mind, Mesnard said, were assurances that Monday’s vote was only on the spending cap for the current school year. The question before Hannah is what happens in the 2022-2023 budget year.
Sen. David Livingston, R-Peoria, said he agreed to follow through due to the crisis, with schools having already allocated the funds through the June 30 end of the fiscal year. But he warned his colleagues that this does not solve the problem definitively, saying that there are already indications that school spending for the coming fiscal year will exceed the spending cap by up to $1.8 billion.
Fann, who is leaving the Senate at the end of this year, agreed that something more permanent was needed.
“When this was set up in 1980, we didn’t have Chrome tablets or whiteboards or whatever we have now that teaches our kids,” Fann said. “We had textbooks and blackboards and all kinds of things that didn’t cost as much.”
The focus, she said, should not be so much on artificial boundaries — and having to revisit waiver over and over again — but on the larger question of what it takes to educate children.
Currently, she noted, per-student funding is about $14,400 per year. This figure, however, includes all local, state and federal sources; state dollars total about $6,600.
“Is it sufficient?” Fan asked. “It may be in some districts, but not in others.”
Rios said she made no apologies for asking for more funding, citing numbers that show Arizona is nearly last in state funding. And she agreed with Fann that there had to be a more permanent solution, calling the cap an “obsolete, arbitrary and outdated limit”.