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Looming fiscal crisis forces disparate education groups to work on new tax

Education groups from across the spectrum are putting their differences aside to work on a ballot measure that would raise taxes for K-12 education and put into place reforms that could fundamentally change the way schools operate in Arizona.

A coalition of public education advocates, charter school proponents and other groups has worked for about two months on a wide-ranging ballot measure that already has members of the business community pledging their tentative support for the proposal, but with the caveat that the coalition must unify around one proposal.

In normal times, getting groups like the Arizona Education Association and Arizona Education Network to agree with school choice advocates like former state Superintendent of Public Instruction Lisa Graham Keegan and former Intel CEO Craig Barrett might be impossible, even with the backing of major business groups hanging in the balance. But these are not normal times.

The November 2012 election is the last chance for the groups to get voter approval for a new funding source before the 2013 expiration of Proposition 100, a three-year, one-cent sales tax hike that offset budget cuts with hundreds of millions in K-12 education funding.

“That’s one of the things that’s keeping people at the table. You’re looking at when Prop. 100 goes away, that’s roughly a billion dollars that disappears,” said consultant Jaime Molera, who served as superintendent of public instruction in 2001 and 2002 and is a member of the state Board of Education.

The other thing that’s keeping the disparate entities together is the business community. Some groups, such as Greater Phoenix Leadership, are already working with the coalition, while others, such as the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry, are tentatively in favor of the effort, but won’t pledge any kind of support until they see the final product.

But for all of the business groups, one thing is certain — they’re only going to throw their support behind one ballot measure, and they don’t want any competing propositions blurring the ballot.

“I think the influence, the pressure from the outside community … to find one approach has been influential in trying to find common ground,” said Susan Carlson, executive director of the Arizona Business & Education Coalition, which is helping to mediate the discussions.

In addition to that impetus, Carlson said schools will also have to implement new common core standards around the same time Prop. 100 expires, and they’ll need money to do it. A pilot program for the new standards begins in 2012, and schools must implement the full program in 2013.

Despite the obvious differences between the education camps, which were visible during the coalition’s inaugural meeting in early June, the various stakeholders say they are getting closer to a proposal that would be acceptable to everyone involved, as well as the business groups whose backing will be needed for a statewide ballot campaign.

James Zaharis, vice president for education at the Greater Phoenix Leadership, which is tentatively supporting the effort, said any proposal must include performance pay for teachers, while Keegan said the different groups, including the Arizona Education Association and Arizona Education Network, have agreed to performance-based measures. Zaharis said the stakeholders, who have met at least half a dozen times in the past two months, have made a lot of progress in the last 10 days or so.

AEA President Andrew Morrill echoed that sentiment, saying the loose coalition that began with Keegan and Arizona Education Network President Ann-Eve Pedersen is gaining traction.

“You don’t want to get in a situation where there appears to be contradictory ballot measures,” Morrill said. “I’m more optimistic than I was, and I think others in the room are sensing that we might be able to come to agreement on something. Everyone knows we don’t have much time and we certainly want to be mindful of what’s possible.”

Keegan agreed that there’s reason for optimism. She said the group has set a deadline of Oct. 1 to have some kind of proposal in writing, though an actual ballot measure will take a bit longer. Past that, she said, it would likely be too late to do anything and the coalition will abandon its efforts.

“I don’t think that’s going to happen. We’re 80-20 this is going to go. I think we’re pretty optimistic,” said Keegan, founder and president of the Education Breakthrough Network, a school choice advocacy organization. “I don’t think any of us believe that we can’t get it together for something in November of next year.”

Outside of the general agreement on performance-based reform for schools, Keegan wouldn’t divulge many details of the discussions. There are still a lot of questions about exactly what performance-based reforms might be included, whether they’ll address the issue of how state funding might be equalized to give charter schools a bigger share — one of Keegan’s stated goals at the June 8 meeting.

No one is even sure what kind of tax hike would be on the ballot. “It would be one of the three — sales, income, property,” Zaharis said.

The discussions have included a broad cross-section of education advocates and organizations in the state, including the AEA, Arizona Education Network, Stand for Children, Teach for America, Arizona School Boards Association, the Arizona Department of Education and the Scottsdale Parent Council.

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