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Removing school-performance money raises legal questions

The Arizona Legislature has redirected money away from the education department’s school accountability program, a move that potentially guts what a ranking Republican senator called the “spinal cord” of the education system.

The $4.7 million the Legislature took from the program in mid-March was a small sum of money considering the magnitude of the financial crisis that policymakers grappled with during the last budget round.

But state education officials say the school accountability program is important because it allows the education department to evaluate which schools are performing well and which ones aren’t. And it puts those underperforming schools on a track toward improvement.

The bigger problem, though, might be that redirecting money from a program that measures school performance might have violated voter-protections outlined in Proposition 105.

Approved in 1998, Prop. 105 prohibits lawmakers from amending laws and funding mechanisms approved by voters unless the change furthers the purpose of the initiative and is approved by three-fourths of the Legislature.

“I mean you are talking about shutting the (Student Accountability Information System), which is the spinal cord of the education system and you are talking about shutting down the whole research and evaluation section,” Sen. John Huppenthal told the Arizona Capitol Times earlier this month.

During the budget debate March 11, the Chandler Republican said the budget option violated voter-protection by because it took money from a program that voters authorized as part of Proposition 301.

More recently, however, Huppenthal backed off that claim, saying opposition is futile because the education department must find a way to save SAIS and keep its research and evaluation system functioning, regardless of the Legislature’s move to take the money.

In 2000, voters approved Prop. 301, which called for a sales tax increase for education. The ballot measure outlined where the sales tax revenue would go, and it specifically dedicated money for “accountability purposes” such as measuring student achievement and classifying performance levels of schools.

Under Prop. 301, the Legislature is required to allocate $7 million of that sales tax revenue to the department each year for “accountability purposes.” That money previously went into two pots: About $2.3 million for achievement testing and about $4.7 million for School Accountability.

Instead, though, the Legislature and the governor redirected the $4.7 million from the school accountability program, which meant achievement testing got all $7 million from the sales tax revenue generated by Prop. 301.

All of the money will still go to the education department; it’s just not supposed to be used for school accountability.

During the past two years, the state has appropriated from its general fund about $8 million to achievement testing. That money was added to the $2.3 million from Prop. 301.

By shifting more Prop. 301 money to achievement testing, the state was able to eliminate almost $5 million in general fund spending as it closed a billion-dollar budget deficit.

Several Republican lawmakers said they were totally unaware of the funding sweep.

Sen. President Bob Burns spoke generally about the need to use that money due to the state budget deficit.

“The way I understood it, it was going to be a cost to us. And that was a part of the (reason) we’re doing it because obviously we don’t have the money. We’re still in deficit by a tremendous amount,” Burns said.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne agrees that the Legislature’s move was unconstitutional. He said the money from Prop. 301 should be used as voters intended – to cover the costs of categorizing schools’ performance on a scale between highly performing and failing, to provide resources for improvements at underperforming schools, and to intervene when schools are failing.

“All those things are set forth in the referendum that that’s what the money is supposed to be used for,” Horne said. “Testing is not named as a legitimate use of that money.”

SAIS was created to electronically store student and school-finance data submitted to the Arizona Department of Education, which is necessary to comply with statutory requirements to calculate school funding and determine students’ academic progress.
Meanwhile, the Arizona Education Association is closely looking into the matter to see if the legislative move jibes with the state Constitution’s voter-protection provisions.

“We want to examine the school accountability funding that apparently was redirected and see whether… they had the authority do that,” said John Wright, president of the teachers’ union.

Huppenthal said he is waiting to see what the education department’s response is going to be.

“What they are going to have to do is shift money from other places to keep it functional or use federal funds – that type of thing – because the whole system will come to a grinding halt if they don’t keep SAIS up and doing,” he said.

But Horne said there is no money to shuffle because other areas have seen severe budget reductions as well.

The education department is now proposing to the State Board of Education to eliminate some tests to free up money for the school accountability program, he said.

If the proposal is denied, Horne said the alternative would be to suspend the system of accountability for schools.

“Nobody would know who is doing well and who is doing badly. There would be no ability to stop schools from operating in mediocre fashion in which kids don’t learn,” he said.

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