Education groups are luke-warm to Gov. Doug Ducey’s proposed spending on public education for the 2021 fiscal-year.
More than half of Ducey’s proposed $12.3 billion budget, which he unveiled January 17, dedicates some form of funding to education initiatives across the state, and while education groups see the proposal as promising, they say it’s not nearly enough to make schools whole following decades of cuts.
Ducey’s chief of staff, Daniel Scarpinato, said January 17 that public schools are, in some ways, in a better position than before the Great Recession and that many of the earmarks of that period were not sustainable and had to be cut.
“The investments we’re making are ones that are sustainable – the money in the rainy day fund and smart budgeting – we’re in a position to actually fulfill these commitments,” Scarpinato said.
In all, nearly half of new spending in the budget is dedicated to K-12 education, but Dawn Penich-Thacker, communications director for Save Our Schools Arizona, said that still leaves Arizona near the bottom of national rankings.
She said her group and other education groups were pleasantly surprised by how much Ducey proposed for public education in total and that it was more than they predicted.
SOS was especially surprised to see Ducey put more money, $58 million, toward hiring more counselors and cops and to hear the announcement of $44 million earmarked for Project Rocket, a pilot program aimed at closing the achievement-gap in poorer school districts.
Ducey’s spending plan includes the final $175 million installment of the 20 by 2020 plan, and $35 million in results-based funding to higher performing schools.
It also speeds up the District Additional Assistance restoration to FY21, two years ahead of schedule. The Governor’s Office wants to spend $204 million more this year, bringing the annual total to $371 million.
The original plan was to dole out five payments of $68 million over five years through FY23, but to get ahead of schedule, Ducey and lawmakers made two payments in FY20 and the three remaining payments will be made in FY21.
Scarpinato said that even with the proposed increase in spending, more needs to be done and the office wants to make sure the state is getting “more bang for our buck” by putting more money “on the resource front,” giving schools more flexibility over how to spend that money and do it above inflation.
Thacker said her group was still disappointed to hear Ducey continue to push for vouchers, including his plan to permanently allow parents on the
Navajo Nation to send their kids to private schools in New Mexico.
The group would rather see more money spent on improving in-state schools, rather than sending kids away and further neglecting schools, a policy she called “mind boggling.”
Even in the best case scenario, restoring every cut schools suffered during the Great Recession might not be possible during Ducey’s tenure or even in the next 10 years, said David Lujan, director of Arizona Center for Economic Progress.
Lujan, a former lawmaker who authored the most recent Invest in Ed ballot initiative, a measure that taxes the state’s richest people to fund public education, said his main concern is that the bulk of the additional money available this year is only one-time funding and schools can’t use it to budget for on-going needs.
“Our revenue in terms of ongoing revenue, just doesn’t grow that much,” Lujan said, adding that even in good economic times, the state isn’t seeing large enough surpluses to give schools certainty from year to year. “It’s a symptom of three decades of tax cuts that we don’t have the revenue to properly invest in education or many other things.”
Lujan said even if Ducey were governor indefinitely, at this rate of investment year over year, it would take a long time to recover from the recession. The majority of Ducey’s proposed education spending is one-time money, which Lujan said makes it harder or impossible for schools to plan for the long term.
Lujan took issue specifically with results-based funding – not all schools get it and those that do can’t rely on it from one year to the next. Project Rocket, while a good-intentioned program is also problematic, Lujan said.
“It’s only intended for three years … that’s not going to work for low-income school districts,” Lujan said. “They need permanent, sustainable funding to address their needs.”
That isn’t something Lujan expects to see from Ducey or the Legislature anytime soon. He thinks that change will have to come from the will of the voters through something like the Invest in Ed ballot initiative and bipartisan efforts through the Legislature. Lujan said he’d feel satisfied fulfilling half of the amount schools have been shorted since the recession, but even that’s not realistic.
Even if it were, he said, he’s not entirely sure if that’s the standard the state should be aiming for because the state has put schools in such a big hole.