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Arizona has not funded a ‘general and uniform public school system’

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The Legislature recently approved a state budget proposal that prevents any new net reductions to K-12 education in Arizona this fiscal year. Though the budget increases overall funding for K-12 education, it does not do so equally, and all students in Arizona do not have the opportunity to benefit. We are not OK with that. So, what now?

As the Legislature adjourns and schools begin to close for summer, we can’t forget the battles we have ahead for next year to ensure our public schools and their children are fully funded the way the Constitution originally intended.

Instead of providing “for the establishment and maintenance of a general and uniform public school system,” the state has steadily reduced its support of public schools by nearly eliminating all funding for school buildings and capital needs.

Tim Ogle

Timothy Ogle

In 1998, the state passed the Students First legislation as its promise to rectify an unconstitutional funding system (Roosevelt v. Bishop, 1994). The state has broken that promise and the gross inequities suffered by public school students remain.

So, what does the Legislature and governor expect from public school districts, as it gives with one hand and takes away with the other?

Beginning in fiscal year 2016, Proposition 123 will provide $2.9 billion over ten years to districts while cutting $3.8 billion to capital funding during the same period.

The governor and Legislature sold Proposition 123 as $3.5 billion over ten years in additional money to schools (both districts and charters), while at the same time increasing the size of budget cuts to capital (aka District Additional Assistance). District Additional Assistance has been cut over $2 billion since 2009 and the state is currently cutting $380 million a year.

And let us not forget the massive blow public schools received with the expansion of Empowerment Savings Accounts and School Tuition Organization tax credits. Instead of providing “for the establishment and maintenance of a general and uniform public school system,” the state has expanded its support of privatization of public education.

Combined, STOs and ESAs divert $168 million from state coffers annually and their reach is designed to grow.

Arizona, which made some of the steepest cuts in the nation during the recession, is one of only a handful of states still cutting today, even in a steadily improving economy. However, corporate tax cuts continue as scheduled. How is this good for the state?

Past Arizona Governor Jan Brewer, who signed the tax-cut legislation, was recently quoted in the Arizona Capitol Times, saying those cuts were a mistake and overly aggressive. The result being a reduction in revenues needed for state services. She even mentioned that the “the boys at the Legislature… wanted more.”

And now the state has shifted its responsibility to local property tax payers. The state share of all district education funding is at an all-time low. Local communities, by taxing their property wealth, are left to pick up the slack. Property wealthy communities can do so with modest tax increases. Poorer communities must tax themselves at much higher rates to make up for the reduction in state funds. This is unfair and unconstitutional.

Local property owners must take on an additional tax burden if they want to protect the value of their homes by having good schools that attract new families and are the center of the community.

In 2016, 20 percent of Arizona’s 223 public school districts had bond or override measures on the ballot because of declining state funding that has made it difficult for districts to maintain class sizes, increase teacher salaries and upgrade technology to meet state testing needs.

How can voters in this state accept the inadmissible treatment for the 1.1 million students attending public schools, who count on us for an equitable and sustainable education?

As the state continues to ignore its constitutional responsibility, school districts can no longer survive on crumbs. The lawsuit filed May 1 to force the state to pay for school maintenance and construction is no surprise to the Legislature and governor. It’s the obvious next step toward getting our children the revenue they need and rightfully deserve.

— Timothy Ogle is executive director of the Arizona School Boards Association.

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The views expressed in guest commentaries are those of the author and are not the views of the Arizona Capitol Times.

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