Hobbs calls for more money for public schools, oversight for charters in first State of the State 

Hobbs calls for more money for public schools, oversight for charters in first State of the State 

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Democratic Gov. Katie Hobbs is putting education at the top of her agenda for 2023. In her State of the State address on Monday afternoon, Hobbs said she wants to lift a spending cap that could kneecap public schools, increase funding for public education and improve oversight of non-district schools that receive public money. (Capitol Media Services photo by Howard Fischer)

Gov. Katie Hobbs is putting education at the top of her agenda for 2023. 

In her State of the State address on Monday afternoon, Democrat Hobbs said she wants to lift a spending cap that could kneecap public schools, increase funding for public education – specifically teacher pay – and improve oversight of non-district schools that receive public money. 

“Arizonans have made clear it’s time to rebuild and reinvest in our public schools,” Hobbs said, echoing a promise that was at the center of her gubernatorial campaign last year. And she made clear that her education policies will mark a departure from her predecessor, former Gov. Doug Ducey, who focused on expanding the state’s Empowerment Scholarship Account (ESA) program, known as school vouchers. 

“For years, our leaders have chosen to ignore parents, teachers and students who know we can have the greatest public education system in the nation – but instead are too often saddled with crumbling infrastructure and crowded classrooms,” Hobbs said. 

First up on Hobbs’ education agenda will be lifting the Aggregate Expenditure Limit (AEL) which, if it’s not raised by March, will limit public schools’ ability to spend money they’ve already received, including funding increases included in last year’s historic bipartisan budget. 

Hobbs’ speech came during Opening Day ceremonies marking the beginning of the 2023 legislative session. This year’s session will see the return of divided government to the Arizona Capitol, with a Democratic governor and Republican majorities in both the Arizona Senate and Arizona House of Representatives. 

Hobbs said Democrats are ready to lift the AEL, but in her speech she highlighted a Republican who supports the idea, pointing to a bill introduced by Rep. David Cook, R-Globe, that would raise the limit through the end of June. (Rep. Matt Gress, R-Phoenix, also introduced a similar measure on Monday.) 

With her party in the minority in the legislature, Hobbs will need to choose where she wants to spend her political capital and what battles she wants to pick with the GOP legislative majority. In a news conference after the State of the State, Hobbs confirmed that education is one of the battles she plans to fight. 

“I think it’s the most important issue we’re facing, and probably the area that’s going to be harder to find common ground,” she told reporters. 

In her speech Hobbs previewed plans to put more money into public schools, but a dollar amount for that plan won’t come until later in the week. 

“(W)hen my budget is delivered on Friday, you will see that it truly invests in public schools and students,” she said in Monday’s speech. She also indicated that hanging onto the state’s teacher workforce will be a specific focus of her education agenda. Arizona public teacher salaries are among the lowest nationwide. 

“The reality is we don’t have an educator shortage, what we have is a retention crisis,” Hobbs said. 

Hobbs also wants lawmakers to expand audits that cover public district schools, but currently don’t review the finances of other schools that get state money. In the news conference, Hobbs said that would mean auditing charter schools, but she also wants to implement oversight of institutions receiving school voucher money – though she acknowledged the latter would be more difficult. 

“We have seen too many examples of individuals and shady corporations taking advantage of the system and our students,” she said in her speech, also warning that the ESA program “lacks accountability and could cost the state $1.5 billion over the next ten years.” 

The 42-minute speech was punctuated by standing ovations from Democratic lawmakers sitting on the left side of the House of Representatives chamber, as well as many people sitting in the House gallery. Republican lawmakers remained seated on the right side of the chamber and the caucus didn’t applaud any portions of the speech. 

At one point, as Hobbs spoke about abortion access, some Republicans turned their backs or walked out. 

Beyond K-12 education, Hobbs mentioned a few other big-ticket spending plans, touching on policy areas that were key to her campaign: she wants to put $150 million in the state’s Housing Trust Fund, allocate $50 million to provide child tax credits to low-income families, and use state funding to match federal money for reproductive healthcare.  

She offered promises, but few details, to work on border security and immigration, saying she supports a “holistic, realistic, and humane approach.” 

Speaking to reporters, Hobbs said that, even with the spending packages, her budget proposal won’t dip into the state’s hefty rainy day fund that now has more than $1 billion. 

The State of the State came four days after Hobbs’ inaugural address, in which she pledged a bipartisan approach to lawmaking and offered lawmakers an “open door” to discuss ideas. On Monday she repeated those promises, before getting into more details about the policy agenda she wants to move through the legislature. 

“I think the governor started out with an olive branch saying, ‘Let’s work together.’ And then she also threw out some Democrat red meat to get her base excited,” said Kirk Adams, a former Speaker of the House and chief of staff to Ducey. 

Though her speech never mentioned him by name, Hobbs took a few digs at Ducey – the critique of the ESA program was a clear shot at his education policy and she accused him of not keeping a promise to address the AEL before he left office. 

She also said she’s planning to release a report that the Arizona Department of Water Resources has apparently been sitting on, which shows parts of the Phoenix area are already falling short of 100-year water supply levels. 

“I do not understand, and do not in any way agree with, my predecessor choosing to keep this report from the public and from members of this legislature,” she said.  

The Arizona Education Association, which lobbies on behalf of public education workers, was happy with the speech. “Having a governor who makes public education a priority is a game changer for Arizona,” the group wrote in a news release. 

Tony Cani, a Democratic consultant, praised Hobbs, saying in a text message that her speech showed she’ll “spend her time in office tacking issues Arizona families care about.” 

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Gov. Katie Hobbs delivered her State of the State address Monday, to a joint session of the Arizona Legislature. (Photo by Camryn Sanchez/Arizona Capitol Times)

Despite the criticisms of her predecessor, Hobbs offered assurances to business leaders – a key Ducey constituency – that she’s not looking to reverse the business-friendly policies that the former governor was known for. 

“(T)o Arizona’s business community, I want you to know I profoundly believe in the power of prosperity, and I am committed to partnering with you to build on the thriving, dynamic foundation we have in this state where businesses and the people who make them run succeed together,” she said. 

Hobbs did mention one former Arizona governor by name – a Democratic woman who governed while Republicans held majorities in both legislative chambers. But it wasn’t Janet Napolitano, the state’s most recent Democratic governor and one who is frequently compared to Hobbs. 

Instead, Hobbs pointed to former Gov. Rose Mofford, who occupied the state’s top office from 1988 to 1991 and, like Hobbs, had a long career in state government before becoming governor. Hobbs described Mofford’s tenure using some of the same themes she’s used to talk about her own approach to the office. 

Mofford, Hobbs said, “knew when to find bipartisan compromise and when to stand firm in her beliefs.”