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Education funding battle heats up

Sen. Leah Landrum Taylor addresses the audience as part of a panel discussing Arizona's education challenges on Oct. 20. (Photo by Bill Coates)

Sen. Leah Landrum Taylor addresses the audience as part of a panel discussing Arizona's education challenges on Oct. 20. (Photo by Bill Coates)

Watch the 3-minute video recap

Lawmakers and representatives from the education community clashed over funding for Arizona’s public education during a forum Oct. 20 at a downtown restaurant.

Rep. Rich Crandall, a Mesa Republican, said he was taking the position as a “realist” and warned that cuts to education are inevitable next year given the size of the state’s budget deficit.

Sen. Leah Landrum Taylor, a Democrat from Phoenix, said the worst thing policymakers can do is to “go backwards” and cut funding for schools.

A representative of a teachers union argued for more funding even as the state is experiencing its worst budget deficit in history. And a representative from the Arizona Business and Education Coalition said the state needs to restructure its education funding formula to make it more equitable for all taxpayers.

Meanwhile, Tom Horne, superintendent of public instruction, defended the direction he’s carved out for the state’s school system and said accountability is needed if the education community wants more resources.

This clash in views was a preview of the debates that will take place when lawmakers reconvene to address a $1.5 billion budget shortfall this fall or in January. And the money problems likely will continue next year.

“I’ll be the realist and the CPA in the group,” Crandall said at the forum, which was hosted at Tom’s Tavern by the Arizona Capitol Times. “There is no way that there will not be cuts to education this next January.”

Crandall, chairman of the House Education Committee, said the cuts most likely will include inflation funding as well as money for “soft capital” expenses such as school supplies and textbooks. The challenge for policymakers, he said, is to keep cuts to education to a minimum.

But Landrum Taylor said she doesn’t think schools can continue operating effectively if the education funding is reduced. She said cuts can be made in other areas of the state budget – but not in education.

Instead, Landrum Taylor argued that the state needs to raise revenue to cover part of the budget deficit. She told the Capitol Times she would support Gov. Jan Brewer’s proposal for a temporary 1-cent sales tax increase, as long as the revenue is used to support education, public safety and health and human services – in that order.

She also wants the sales tax referral to be a stand-alone issue in a special session.

Democratic lawmakers voted in a block against the sales tax referral this year. Asked why she is supporting the referral now, Landrum Taylor said she doesn’t like the alternative: deep cuts to education and other programs.

“It is like Hurricane Katrina,” she said. “Here’s the tidal wave coming in your face. It’s time do something.”

During the forum, Andrew Morrill of the Arizona Education Association said when lawmakers ask how deep the cuts to education can be, it shows they have lost sight of the overall goal.

“What’s the proper amount to cut? There isn’t one,” he said.

The Arizona Education Association has been saying that state budget for education – that is, money that actually goes into instructional programs – is one of the lowest in the nation.

“You want to think outside the box? Fund public education as it ought to the funded,” Morrill said. “Inject funding into public education, and you help drive the economies of every local community.”

Horne said Arizona students are performing above average in tests even while their budget is below the national average. To be one of the top-performing states in the nation, spending for education has to at least reach the national average, he said.

“That would cost an extra $1.5 billion, approximately,” he said. “And, right now, we are $1.5 billion in the wrong way in the state budget.”

Horne added: “I see my job as making sure that we can demonstrate to the Legislature that we have a high coefficient of effectiveness. If we do get those extra resources, we will show academic results for those resources. And that requires accountability.”

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