Looking for a scapegoat a year ago, Gov. Doug Ducey accused school officials for the woes of the Arizona teacher, whose average salary is among the lowest in the nation.
He claimed school administrators weren’t budgeting properly and not because the state wasn’t giving them enough money.
Nearly a year later, the governor sounds like a changed man.
Ducey praised local school officials in his State of the State address on January 8, citing statistics provided by school business officials that touted a 5 percent hike in the average teachers’ salary since he took office. One lobbyist for school officials called it a breakthrough.
In contrast, Ducey said a year ago that there’s “plenty of money in there for additional money for raises for teachers,” referring to his budget plan. “That will be put on the superintendents and the principals. And I encourage them to give raises across the board.”
It’s the governor’s attempt to make nice with K-12 schools in the final year of his term, after 2017 saw protests at the Capitol, dissatisfaction with his proposals for schools and teachers, and a grassroots effort that blocked an expansion of vouchers for private schools he had championed.
Some lawmakers, particularly Democrats, remain distrustful of Ducey’s overtures. They had applauded Ducey’s vow of a pay hike for teachers in his 2017 State of the State address, only to balk at his offer of a 2 percent raise phased in over five years. Others find the governor’s overtures about increasing K-12 funding disingenuous, given that he had signed budgets that cut millions of dollars that he now wants to restore.
His allies, however, said the governor is offering significant infusions of cash, and it doesn’t always help to dig up the past.
But Ducey’s offer of more money have left school officials weighing the realities of their situation versus the best of expectations, and must decide how to reconcile the money the governor has put forward for K-12 schools amidst an ongoing lawsuit over the state’s failures to adequately fund education in the past.
Ducey’s budget proposal provides $100 million in additional assistance to district and charter schools in fiscal 2019, but Sen. Steve Farley, a Tucson Democrat running for governor in this year’s election, quickly pointed out that doesn’t even cover the $116 million cut to the program Ducey had signed three years ago.
“If you burn down the house and call the fire department, you’re not the hero,” Farley said.
Ducey may boast of a proposed $2 million increase to fully fund career and technical education districts, better known as JTEDs. They currently receive $28 million annually, which covers 95 percent of their operating budget. But what the governor won’t mention, Farley said in a joint hearing of the House and Senate Appropriations committees, is that he was the one who cut the program in the first place.
The budget Ducey signed in 2015 eliminated the $30 million state budget for JTEDs, which lawmakers then scrambled to restore, although not fully, the next year.
“Now that everyone is talking about the need for education funding, he’s finding a way to be able to claim that he’s investing in education when he’s still putting back a fraction of what he cut,” Farley told the Arizona Capitol Times. “I just find that very disingenuous.”
Ducey spokesman Patrick Ptak said Farley’s criticism ignores the financial woes Arizona faced when the governor first took office in 2015. Ptak noted that Ducey inherited a $1 billion budget deficit, and tough decisions had to be made.
“But in doing so, this administration has focused on protecting K-12,” he said.
There are bright spots in Ducey’s current budget proposal, said Chris Kotterman, director of government relations for the Arizona School Boards Association. But not everyone will view the governor’s latest pitch for K-12 funding in isolation, as there are too many memories of the “classrooms first” talking points and promises to K-12 public schools that failed to meet expectations.
Worst of all to some was the governor’s decision to expand a school voucher program for private education less than one year after claiming Proposition 123, which diverts trust land funding for K-12 education, is a first step toward better funding public schools.
“We did not appreciate that, so we have a little bit of trust trying to be rebuilt on both sides,” Kotterman said.
The governor’s abandonment of the blame-the-districts narrative is at least a sign that no one bought what Ducey and GOP legislators were selling during last year’s budget debate, according to House Minority Leader Rebecca Rios, D-Phoenix. Republicans, who are in charge of both chambers at the Capitol, were trying to deflect the blame for not allocating enough funding for schools and teacher raises, but “they didn’t want the public to recognize that.”
To Rios, the governor’s promise to restore recession-era funding cuts should be viewed with caution. She criticized Ducey for what she describes as an opportunistic State of the State address, speculated that he is deliberately trying to get plaintiffs of the maintenance and construction funding lawsuit to drop their challenge and questioned his sincerity.
“Unfortunately, I think it is a sad attempt to curry favor to get school boards and the others involved to drop the lawsuit. I hope I’m wrong,” she said.
Schools have been down this path before, and Rios said she’s concerned the governor and Republican legislators are setting up schools to accept less than what they’re owed – again.
Rios noted that Prop. 123 provides about 70 percent of what a Maricopa County judge had ordered the state to repay for years when lawmakers failed to adjust funding for K-12 schools to account for inflation.
Similarly, Ducey’s proposal to phase in the restoration over five years will get state spending back to statutorily obligated levels by FY2023, but not backfill what schools were owed in the past.
Rios said she won’t disparage or blame any organization that decides to drop out of the ongoing capital funding lawsuit filed by the Arizona Center for Law in the Public Interest on behalf of districts and education groups. The state has forced them into a situation where they’re “literally starving for funding,” she said. The Arizona Association of School Business Officials withdrew from the lawsuit.
But this reminds Rios of another criticism of Prop. 123 – it rewards lawmakers for ignoring a voter-approved mandate.
“They won with Prop. 123 by again paying far less on the dollar than what was owed. If this happens again with the capital lawsuit, that reinforces that behavior,” Rios said. “Starve them long enough, and eventually they’ll come around for the scraps.”
Doesn’t matter why
Ptak said Ducey hasn’t actually changed on the subject of putting more money into classrooms.
“The governor has always said that he wants to see money going to teacher raises,” Ptak said. “And last year, the analysis had not been done about where a lot of these dollars, like Prop. 123 dollars, were going. Now we have that data.”
To some local school officials, how the governor arrived at his budget proposal is largely irrelevant.
“We have to work with whoever is willing to do the work,” Kotterman said. “The governor proposed something that is undeniably good for schools.” As for trust issues with the governor’s office, Kotterman said they’re working on it. “We’re trying to do that by saying we’re not just going to slap away $100 million just because you’re you.”
That means that school officials are viewing Ducey’s fiscal 2019 budget proposal in a much more positive light, and are encouraged by the acknowledgment that more money is needed for K-12 education.
Chuck Essigs, lobbyist for AASBO, said he appreciates the governor’s “valiant” effort to work with what’s available in the state budget. It was AASBO that provided the governor with data showing school administrators are, in fact, investing in teachers.
“We’re still not able to pay teachers what they need to be paid, and we need to do a lot more work in that area, but it’s nice to be recognized that districts are taking their responsibility to try and do, with limited resources, everything they can to increase teacher salaries,” Essigs said.
Rep. Heather Carter, a Cave Creek Republican and vocal advocate of Ducey’s plan, said there’s already skepticism from some Republicans about borrowing money for new school construction and spending, and added that debating the past is only going to distract from getting the funding approved.
“It’s a better use of our time to spend it talking about how we can get more money into schools immediately, and this proposal does that,” she said. “So, let’s talk about this proposal right now, and we can get it done.”
It can be difficult to keep the past in the past, but Kotterman said it won’t prevent school officials from accepting a good offer.
“The impulse to be distrustful is high,” he said.
At the same time, “here’s a governor who, within his ideological construct, is willing to throw what he considers to be serious money at the issue,” Kotterman added. “There’s no reason why we shouldn’t take that deal, in terms of trying to help (Ducey) get that across the finish line.”