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Home / Capitol Insiders / After Prop. 204 defeat, experts agree schools need an infusion of money

After Prop. 204 defeat, experts agree schools need an infusion of money

After Prop. 204 defeat, experts agree schools need an infusion of moneyIn a more prosperous time, the Cottonwood-Oak Creek School District in northern Arizona received a grant to buy computers.

Many of those technological wonders are still serviceable, but that’s precisely the problem. David Snyder, the district’s director of business services, said the computers are old — about seven to nine years old.

“They’re still usable, but they’re failing. Everything fails after a point,” he said.

Getting money to replace those computers is just one in a long list of needs at the Cottonwood-Oak Creek School District No. 6. It reflects the challenges facing school districts throughout the state following the defeat of Proposition 204, which would have extended a 1-cent sales tax primarily to benefit education.

Over at Phoenix Union High School, Superintendent Kent Scribner said new textbooks haven’t been purchased in five years. Officials in other districts echoed the lament — they need, at the least, money to pay for computers and textbooks.

And as resources have dwindled, everybody is worried about implementing several significant policy changes mandated by the state, such as a new system for evaluating teachers and principals and requiring reading competency by third grade.

So it hasn’t come as a surprise that the failure of Prop. 204 in early November spawned a sense of impending crisis in the education community. The recession and ensuing cuts in state subsidies have forced schools to forego buying or replacing equipment, lay off teachers, and end programs such as full-day kindergarten.

For now at least, the public’s rejection of the initiative seems to have created a consensus among policymakers and education advocates that more money needs to be infused into education.

Gov. Jan Brewer already indicated she wants schools to get more funding.

“We haven’t completed my budget yet at this point in time,” Brewer told reporters on Nov. 26. “But you all know that education is one of my top priorities, and I will do everything that I can possibly do to restore whatever it is that is needed and work with everyone that has an interest in funding education and accountability for our students.”

Additionally, influential legislators said they’re willing to listen.

Indeed, while Sen. Don Shooter, the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, is dismissive of state agencies’ quest for funding increases, he told the Arizona Capitol Times that money for education is the one item he’s willing to consider.

Advocates for schools have already begun reaching out to lawmakers and the Governor’s Office to persuade them to provide, at the very least, funding to effectively carry out big policy changes, such as the adoption of Common Core standards, evaluating teachers and principals based on students’ academic progress and preparing for an assessment exam that will be administered online.

The advocates said they’re realistic about their goals. But while they readily acknowledged that they’re unlikely to see all of their funds restored, they have higher expectations for the upcoming session.

“The one thing that’s exciting is to see that everyone around is rallying around trying to fund education,” said Janice Palmer, who lobbies for the Arizona School Boards Association.

“It’s one of those moments and I think we have the time to capitalize on, and if we don’t, we’d miss this huge opportunity,” she said.

Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction John Huppenthal said he’s hopeful about increased K-12 funding after talking to Brewer and lawmakers.

“We’ve had some extraordinarily positive discussions with some extraordinarily difficult lawmakers,” Huppenthal said.

Huppenthal said his priority is for the Legislature and Brewer to restore about $200 million that has been cut from schools’ per-student funding formula. The cuts have largely come from “soft capital” funding that pays for equipment, Huppenthal said. He added that the cuts forced schools to divert funds from other areas.

“The system’s been deprived of oxygen a little bit,” he said.

He also hopes the Arizona Department of Education will get an additional $37.6 million to upgrade its deficient IT system, restore cuts to the state’s GED program and adequately fund career and technical education programs.

• • •

At the Cottonwood-Oak Creek District, Snyder said he would like to replace those old computers. But doing so could be difficult. The district, which is home to about 2,200 K-8 pupils and where 70 percent qualify for free and reduced price meals, saw its budget shrink by roughly $2 million over four years, a 20 percent drop.

In seeking more funding, the education community will be competing with the state’s other needs, and since lawmakers permanently cut more than $3 billion from the budget during the recession, that list is long. Even Arizona’s senators have four-year old laptops, and they, too, face technological challenges with their software and servers.

And so the question is not only how much schools will get, but more significantly, where the money will come from.

One idea that has been gaining traction is to withdraw a portion of the cash in the state’s “rainy day” account and put the money into schools.

Rep. Kimberly Yee, R-Phoenix, the incoming chairwoman of the Senate Education Committee, recommended using the state’s “rainy day” account to ensure that education funding remains whole when revenues from the current 1-cent sales tax increase stop coming next year.

“We do have a temporary amount of money there as a hold,” Yee said, referring to the $450 million that’s in the account.

Brewer said she’s willing to consider the possibility as well.

“I have said that before, that we’ve got a cash carry-forward and we’ve got a rainy day fund. And it’s there. And between the Legislature and I, if we determine that’s where it needs to be used, absolutely,” Brewer said.

In the meantime, Yee said she wants the education community and Capitol leaders to identify where the deficiencies are in education funding.

But the “rainy day” fund, as the name indicates, is one-time cash.

Consequently, conservative lawmakers will presumably resist paying for ongoing programs and the discussion will revolve around identifying one-time needs.

State Treasurer Doug Ducey, who led the charge against Prop. 204, said the state should look at using the “rainy day” fund and money from Arizona’s operating account, which has about $1.4 billion.

That one-time money, he said, could go to one-time expenses, such as training teachers in Common Core standards.

“There are dollars available. What’s important to me is that people make the case of where this money will go and what outcome it will improve in the classroom,” Ducey said. “What do we want dollars for in K-12 and where will we apply them? I’ve heard people talk about the database that’s needed, and I think it will be a worthy investment if we have proper data.”

Huppenthal said he’d prefer that K-12 be funded by ongoing revenues, not the “rainy day” fund, though he acknowledged that what becomes available would largely depend on Arizona’s economic growth.

Another proposal is to temporarily allow schools to maximize their bonding capacity, which would generate additional revenue locally.

The idea was introduced as a bill in the last session, but it failed to get out of the Senate.

Lawmakers will likely revisit the proposal in the upcoming session.

“That won’t solve all the problems for all the districts, but it will help,” said Chuck Essigs, a lobbyist for the Arizona Association of School Business Officials.

Some are also hoping that a gubernatorial task force that is looking into restructuring Arizona’s sales tax system will propose expanding the tax base, thereby increasing revenue for the state.

A less popular idea is to suspend or delay the tax cuts that the G.O.P.-controlled Legislature recently approved.

In the past two sessions, the Republican-led Legislature approved tax cuts whose cumulative impact to the state’s bottom line over the next eight years is at least $2.5 billion.

That’s a “static analysis,” meaning it doesn’t take into account the overall positive effect of tax cuts to the economy.

• • •

Some at the Capitol, however, aren’t necessarily swayed that the education community faces a looming crisis.

Kevin McCarthy, president of the Arizona Tax Research Association, anticipates that lawmakers and the governor would try their best to fund the growth in student population.

He also favors putting some money into building renewal.

But he said the education community’s mantra in good and bad years is the same — that school funding in Arizona is near the bottom among states.

“Do you remember a year when that wasn’t the mantra?” he said. “All that is pretty standard pre-legislative session positioning that goes on.”

Ducey said funding increases for schools should be tied to outcomes and advocates of increased spending need to justifiably explain why it’s needed.

“I want to see accountability for the dollars that we spend,” he said.

But Tim Ogle, president of the Arizona School Boards Association, said the status quo is not acceptable.

Even as schools’ funding was cut, they’re also mandated to implement reforms, he said.

Ogle’s biggest worry is losing out on the ability to provide the best environment for a generation of pupils now.

The funding cuts in FY2008 means children who joined the school system that year have now gone through four years when class sizes have grown and workers have been laid off.

“Our current third graders have never attended a school that is appropriately staffed,” he said. “And here they are, they are a quarter of the way through their school career.”

And that’s why schools have immediately shifted their focus on what lies ahead following the defeat of Prop. 204, said Arizona Education Association president Andrew Morrill.

“I think there are a lot of people out there that are going to expect that the education community, and maybe the AEA in particular, (are) especially raw about the loss of Prop. 204,” he said.

“(But) we are too focused on the needs of our students, the needs of our schools and the important work at hand to figure out how we are going to responsibly fund education… to worry about the loss of Prop. 204. It is time to move forward. That had its day, and it’s done,” he said.

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