PHOENIX - Gov. Jan Brewer is meeting with financial aides Monday to see how much more money the state can put into public education.
Brewer said she recognizes the deep cuts that have been made in the past. Now, however, she said the state is in a better financial position, complete with cash in the bank.
But the governor made it clear she's not willing to simply boost funding for schools in hopes that will lead to smarter students. She said there have to be strings attached.
"If we're going to do things, we need accountability," Brewer said. "That's what it all comes down to."
The governor's action comes just days after voters overwhelmingly rejected a ballot measure that would have created a permanent 1-cent-per-dollar surcharge on the state sales tax, with most of the money dedicated to education.
Brewer opposed the measure, at least in part because only $90 million in funding was directly linked to performance measures. She promised, even before the election, to look at ways to restore some of the cuts made to education during the recession.
Backers of Proposition 204 will be watching.
Ann-Eve Pedersen, who coordinated the initiative, said the Arizona Parent Education Network she heads will take a wait-and-see posture before deciding whether to try again in 2014.
She said lawmakers need to restore $1 billion they have cut from public education, although a legislative report says the changes since 2008 are closer to $600 million, including elimination of state funding for full-day kindergarten.
A lot will depend on the state's financial health.
"We're not afloat with a lot of money," Brewer said.
"But we certainly have a balanced budget, a cash carry-forward and a rainy-day fund," the governor continued. "So we can do things as we need to."
Legislative budget staffers predict Arizona will end this fiscal year on June 30 with $676 million left over, on top of $450 million lawmakers put into the "rainy-day" fund.
Estimates are that surplus will continue through the next budget year, even with some built-in increases in spending like more students in public schools.
But legislators are clearly worried about what will happen in January 2014 when the federal Affordable Care Act kicks in and Arizona is suddenly required to expand eligibility for the state Medicaid program.
One scenario suggests a $411 million deficit in the 2014-15 fiscal year, increasing to close to $1 billion the year after that.
Proposition 204 was an effort to protect education spending from legislative cuts.
Pedersen's group promoted Proposition 204 as simply a permanent extension of the 1-cent temporary tax voters approved in 2010, noting it would not have kicked in until June 1, keeping the current 6.6 percent rate in place. It also legally required that about 75 percent of the estimated $1 billion the tax would have raised annually to go to K-12 education, with other funds earmarked for universities, road building and a new "family stability and self-sufficiency fund."
Brewer said money needs to be tied to accountability, though she has no specific plan for how to measure that.
"I leave that up to the experts," she said. But the governor made it clear that student testing has to be a key component of that.
Pedersen and the governor appear to be on the same page on the issue of providing more money when the state expects more from its schools. The problem has been at the Republican-controlled Legislature.
For example, Brewer sought $50 million to pay for a new mandate that students be able to read at a third-grade level before being promoted to fourth grade.
Lawmakers cut that by 20 percent and refused to fund any of the governor's request for $100 million for things like books and computers.