Six little letters threaten Arizona’s students 

Guest Opinion//August 19, 2022

Six little letters threaten Arizona’s students 

Guest Opinion//August 19, 2022

Most of us want the same things for Arizona’s schools: the opportunity for every child to succeed, transparency, accountability and flexible options for the unique needs of families.

But two issues deeply threaten the ability for Arizona to achieve those goals – the AEL (Aggregate Expenditure Limit) and ESA vouchers (Codename: Empowerment Scholarship Accounts).

Dick Foreman

First, the AEL, which was established nearly 45 years ago to limit school expenditures based on school attendance and inflation using 1980 as the base. Yeah, 1980. The Academy Award for Best Picture was “Kramer vs. Kramer,” the cost of a gallon of gas in Arizona was $1.21 and a dozen eggs set you back 50 cents. But the AEL has never been enforced or used because, frankly, it simply cannot work without catastrophic disruption.

Today, districts are addressing teacher pay issues, fixing rundown buildings and hiring much needed staff. If the AEL is enforced for the first time in history now it will cut nearly $1,500 per child from the current budget, creating an educational and economic disruption the likes of which we have never seen in Arizona.

Maybe the idea of putting a ceiling on a teacher’s ability to earn a living wage somehow sounded reasonable at first blush. But it sure doesn’t today. We can’t think of a reason to lay off a single teacher or turn away a single student from their classroom because of the AEL. And remember, every penny being spent has been legislatively approved.

Further, the AEL doesn’t even apply to charter or ESA students or other publicly funded schools, which now make up over 20% of all students served. In 1980, we had neither option so it’s interesting that when those came online, they were exempted from the AEL. We think that all publicly funded schools should get treated the same way. What’s the necessary first step? Legislatively waive the AEL immediately. The next step is to refer the AEL to voters for repeal, which we are confident would be supported in a massive way.

Rebecca Gau

Speaking of the voters, you may have heard that the legislative expansion of ESA vouchers is at risk from a ballot referendum. Some legislators are threatening to hold the AEL waiver hostage to the ESA referendum. But many of these same legislators voted for the budget in June, so this talk is disheartening at best. A small change to the program qualifications could have covered all low-income families for a fraction of the cost had the concept demonstrated merit.

As it now stands, ESAs may be a parental choice issue for maybe 5% of Arizonans who use it, but it is a major taxpayer concern for the rest of us. Parents, as a group, make up about 35% of Arizona taxpayers.  So, by inference, they pay about 35% of the costs of public education. That means that about 65% of the rest of us pay the balance.

So, when we say “parent choice” we cannot and should not exclude accountability and transparency for the other 65% of us who get the bill. In other words, it is not just up to parents how and where we fund public education, it should be up to all taxpayers. In fact, failing charter schools that are closed by the State Board for Charter Schools can just reopen as private schools using ESA vouchers to fund themselves. That’s the opposite of accountability. That’s a carnival trick.

We respectfully ask our Legislature to not use the AEL as a “negotiating ploy” to try to stop a citizens’ referendum on ESAs. We hope for a refreshing, new call for how we invest in public education. Let’s get back to our ABCs instead of our AELs and ESAs.

Dick Foreman is the president & CEO of the Arizona Business & Education Coalition.

Rebecca Gau is the executive director of Stand For Children Arizona.