Arizona’s public education system could use more money– a point few argue against. The disagreement comes when elected officials and education advocates start talking about how to get there.
Arizona School Boards Association lobbyist Chris Kotterman made that observation as he reflected on a proposal to increase personal income taxes for the wealthiest Arizonans.
He recalled a roomful of the education community’s representatives discussing the idea and his own trepidation about it..
An income tax hike would draw too much well-funded opposition to be successful, he said, but don’t expect ASBA to lobby against the proposal.
The proposal now billed as the Invest in Education Act may not be a perfect solution, but he said it’s a response from voters who look at the political establishment as not funding what’s important to them.
“For a long time, we’ve been on the ‘lower taxes are always better’ train, and the last 20 years have borne out that we haven’t been able to keep pace with the voters and what they say they want,” Kotterman said.
He said the state’s revenue structure does not match its priorities.
Education may be at the top of that list, but politics cloud the discussion around a workable policy solution.
Kotterman pointed to the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry as an example– both the chamber and ASBA are in favor of a strong public education system, he said.
But the chamber likes Empowerment Scholarship Accounts; ASBA thinks they are “harmful.”
“It’s not as simple as being able to set aside your differences and come to the table,” Kotterman said. “It’s that, literally, these organizations see things completely differently.”
The chamber swiftly came out in opposition to the Invest in Education Act, arguing it would harm small businesses, tie teacher pay to a volatile funding source and damage the state’s competitiveness.
But spokesman Garrick Taylor said the chamber is right there with the education community in that business leaders want to see more funding for schools.
He said that need is recognized on all sides, including the chamber and Republicans at the Capitol. He pointed specifically to their support for the extension of the sales tax under Proposition 301, which was accomplished this year even after the effort appeared dead, and the chamber’s backing of the budget that included Gov. Doug Ducey’s teacher pay raise plan.
Kotterman praised the recently passed budget and additional dollars given to education, but he said that wasn’t enough to solve the problem entirely.
And the people are tired of promises of more to come.
“Red for Ed demonstrates that the hunger for vast improvement in a short period of time is very strong,” Kotterman said. “Incrementalism is not an approach that’s going to satisfy education supporters at this point.”
At the heart of the Red for Ed movement was the idea that there has not been leadership at the Capitol intent on improving education in Arizona.
“I don’t want to dismiss the frustration, but the idea that there are leaders at the Capitol who are just whistling past the graveyard is one that we would reject,” Taylor said.
Taylor said public education walked away with significant wins this session, and he believes more will come–perhaps not in 2018 with a ballot initiative to tax the rich, but perhaps sooner than we think.
“There is evidence that Arizonans of all stripes can coalesce around a policy solution,” he said.
That’s the problem as some education advocates see it, though. Not only is there disagreement about how Arizona achieves a more stable, well-funded public education system but also about what that system should look like in the first place.
“I have no idea what the right number is because we don’t even know what the right system is,” said Chuck Essigs, director of government relations for the Arizona Association of School Business Officials. “How can you say what it’s going to cost to build a house when you don’t even know what the house should look like?”
He referred to an oft cited number in the argument for more education funding: about $1 billion to bring the state back to 2008 levels.
But will that produce the public education system the people want? Essigs doesn’t know.
What about if the state returned to 1990s levels of funding? He said that would likely double the amount. And would that be enough? Maybe.
To know how much something is going to cost, he said, you have to know what you want it to look like.
He proposed an adequacy study to find out, to bring together the business and education communities to specifically describe what they want public education to accomplish. With common goals, perhaps the state could settle on a common price tag.
Stand for Children’s Stacey Morley added another layer to Essigs’ argument.
She pointed out that the state’s formula to disburse funds is grossly out of date compared to the education system now focused on choice.
She said the current school finance system was designed more than three decades ago for a system that only accounted for traditional district schools.
The public education system has since evolved around school choice, but the underlying school finance model has not.
And that, Morley said, has limited the state’s flexibility to adequately fund education while exacerbating tensions between charter and district schools.
Everyone has a “little kingdom” they’re trying to protect, she said. Everyone is afraid of losing what they have.
And no one is winning.
“Until we’re willing to put everything aside and really look at it holistically, I don’t know that we’ll ever solve it,” Morley said. “Even if we have enough for a few years, it’ll come back.”
So, too, may the hordes of angry educators.
Like ASBA, the grassroots group Save Our Schools Arizona was not excited by the Invest in Education Act. And like ASBA, SOS Arizona is content to let the Arizona Center for Economic Progress-led coalition behind the initiative lead the charge on income taxes.
But spokeswoman Dawn Penich-Thacker said there’s something to be learned from the proposal and the conversation it evolved from.
She said the political establishment is between a rock and a hard place: Donors and the party playbook want one thing, and voters want something else entirely.
Lawmakers on both sides have told her about that struggle, she said, but the fact that they see a choice other than representing their constituents is the problem.
“I don’t think that anyone feels that’s how democracy is supposed to function,” she said. “You’re elected, but you don’t know whether you should do what your voters want or what your donors want? … Those two entities are at odds.”
And the people have shown they are ready to take matters into their own hands.
“If you’re not going to look at options that the rest of us normal people, regular people see as being on the table, then I guess we’ll just do it,” Penich-Thacker said. “Regular voters and regular people don’t care about the party playbook.”