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Public school advocates hold some inequities sacrosanct

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It was a surprise and a pleasure to see the Arizona School Boards Association President Tim Ogle weigh in so publicly about his concerns with equitable school funding. On this point, taxpayers and school advocates should be in harmony: Arizona’s outmoded funding formula is ill designed for the 21st century.

ASBA declared their support in this newspaper for a constitutionally mandated “general and uniform” system for K-12 education, where students are funded equitably. They argue that while the recently

Sean McCarthy

Sean McCarthy

adopted state budget increased spending on K-12 education, “…it does not do so equally…We are not OK with that.” This turnabout is a welcome sign from a group that said equity was not an issue just last year during the Governor’s Classrooms First Council, and instead declared the state should focus on adequacy, a target which moves like the carrot dangled in front of the horse.

The annual knife fight over available revenues in the state budget is often an exercise in directing dollars toward a specific constituency. $38 million dollars into the base for K-12 education is swallowed by the enormity of the $10 billion system and is lost in the rounding. Directing those dollars toward smaller groups such as high performing schools makes an impact. Clever though the idea may be, it is in discord with the construct of equity, where a pupil’s purchasing power is worth the same no matter the public school they attend.

Real progress in school finance reform awaits a time when school advocacy groups find consistency in their view of equity. New programs which they do not approve are decried as inequitable while archaic dollars which do not “follow the child” created decades ago are defended as sacrosanct.

Most Arizonans are probably unaware districts are allowed to spend the high watermark level of their transportation formula, regardless of the number of miles they are driving today, typically benefitting older districts. This feature costs local taxpayers at least $75 million per year.

The most awful legacy of nonformula spending is the tax for Desegregation and Office of Civil Rights violations, where 19 districts that were accused of racial discrimination decades ago continue to benefit financially today. Any reform attempt of this $211 million scam benefitting a random fraction of students is met with apoplexy. It has nothing to do with poverty or demographics despite disingenuous attempts to argue otherwise. The poorest school districts in the state actually do not benefit; Deseg districts represent a cross-section of Arizona.

No serious policymaker defends the present system as justifiable, but those who benefit from various wrinkles maintain a tight grip on their advantage, be it the ability to pass both types of overrides, large bonding capacity, or one of the many other inequitable features of the system.

At minimum, all public schools should be on even footing for General Fund budgets as they compete for teachers and students. Simple fairness and the Constitution demand it. It is also the only safe harbor for taxpayers who ultimately are on the hook for school funding lawsuits, which will continue like the monsoon season.

School advocates rationalize their intellectual dishonesty in equity debates by pivoting to adequacy and decrying Arizona’s low per-pupil expenditure ranking. State policymakers should recognize that for the convenient dodge it is and begin addressing equity issues within reach. In the meantime, it would be useful if all parties could agree to not make the system more inequitable and admit equity problems cut in many directions.

— Sean McCarthy is a senior research analyst with the Arizona Tax Research 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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