The state’s top Senate Republican on Friday accused Democrats of hampering the state’s recovery by complaining about the state’s public education system.
Senate President Andy Biggs said claims by members of the other party that the Republican-controlled Legislature has cut $4 billion in education funds in the last half decade are “dangerous and erroneous.” Biggs said while there were cuts for several years early in the Great Recession, the state is now spending more than it ever has. And he said Arizona provides “a good education,” though it may have “a ways to go.”
“But if you want to consistently say to business, ‘Hey, you know what? We have a crappy education system,’ you’re not helping the state, you’re not helping our education system, and you are hindering our economy,” Biggs told an audience of business executive at a forum just ahead of the new legislative session which begins Monday.
House Minority Leader Eric Meyer said he never used such a term.
But he did not dispute that Democrats have complained about cuts in education funding. And he said that, adjusted for inflation, the state is spending less on each student now than it had before and that the figures for the accumulated dollars of those cuts are accurate.
“The facts are the facts,” said Meyer, a former governing board member of the Scottsdale Unified School District. And he said that points to the need for improvement.
“If we don’t develop a long-term plan to ensure that our kids are successful, the statistics show, the test scores show that our kids are not meeting the standards that we need to meet to be successful in college and in the workforce in our state,” Meyer said. “And we need to change course.”
Newly elected Gov. Doug Ducey, speaking earlier to the same audience, did not specifically address the question of education funding.
Ducey repeated his stance that he will not increase state revenues, even in the face of the fact that projected revenues for the coming budget year do not match anticipated expenses. But Ducey hinted that he will not seek further cuts to education, saying he will propose “a responsible and balanced budget that protects what’s most important in Arizona in terms of public safety and classroom spending.”
The new governor said what will eventually balance the budget is economic growth. And Ducey, who a week ago extended an existing moratorium on new regulations, said he now wants to start eliminating some of those already in place.
“I’m going to call on the business community to help me identify areas of overregulation that we already have on the books so we can improve our fiscal situation in this state and we can improve the business climate in this state going forward,” the governor said. He provided no specifics of what rules he thinks might be unnecessary.
But the more immediate problem when lawmakers return is school funding.
It starts with a court order to immediately give schools an additional $317 million, what state aid would have been had lawmakers not ignored a 2000 voter-approved law to adjust per-student funding each year to account for inflation. And a separate demand for more than $1 billion in missed additional aid is pending.
But there are other cuts that were made in how schools are funded.
Figures prepared by legislative budget analysts put state aid to schools in 2006 for basic maintenance and operation at $3,909 per student. For the current school year, that figure is just 3 percent higher, at $4,040.
But that’s just part of the story.
The report also says that, after accounting for inflation, that $3,909 in state dollars for each student actually is now worth 13 percent less. And even when local and federal dollars are added in, the report shows that per-student funding has not kept pace with inflation.
Biggs said that education “is the first and most legitimate function of government.” And he said the Republican-controlled Legislature has lived up to that obligation to the extent possible, given the recession and the drop in state revenues.
“And with our budget, we have said consistently education is our most important priority,” Biggs said. “And so we fund it at a level we are capable of funding it.”
But Biggs said none of that merits the kind of criticism of the public education system that is coming from Democrats.
After the presentation, Meyer said it’s not like what the Democrats are saying is a surprise to anyone in business here or looking at relocating to Arizona.
“I was at a guy’s business yesterday who does manufacturing,” he said.
“He can’t hire trained people to work in his business,” Meyer said. “And he’s going to move to L.A.”