PHOENIX — Education and civic groups are pushing state lawmakers to use the $325 million budget surplus and $450 million in the state’s “rainy day fund” to finally fund schools at the level they say voters intended — and do it now.
Julie Erfle of ProgressNow Arizona said Thursday there is an immediate need for more dollars. And she said with that kind of money in the bank, Arizona schools should not have to wait while a lawsuit is appealed or legislative leaders suggest alternatives.
But their plea on the lawn of the state Capitol is likely dead on arrival.
Gov. Doug Ducey has his own proposal to instead tap into trust land proceeds. That plan, however, not only requires voter approval but at this point would not generate any money before 2017.
Senate President Andy Biggs is willing to use some of what he calls the “cash carry forward” — he won’t call it a surplus — as part of a broader plan he said eventually would generate an additional $500 a student on top of the $4,300 in state aid.
But the biggest barrier to any plan to put more dollars into schools could be the attitude of many legislators toward claims that more is needed.
“The narrative these folks continue to throw is that there’s a direct causation between funding of education and outcomes,” he said of the group of education supporters that just hours earlier had called for the immediate new funding.
“Nothing could be further from the truth,” Biggs continued. “Otherwise, Washington, D.C., would be just the paragon of education achievement.”
But Jonathan Parker, a teacher at Thunderbird High School, said money does matter if Arizonans want quality, experienced teachers in the classroom. He spoke of two teachers in his school who, after five years and minimal raises, chose not to come back.
“They are carrying crippling college debt,” Parker said. “They didn’t want to leave but they can no longer afford to stay.”
Wrapped up in the middle of all this is a ruling last year by Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Katherine Cooper that legislators and the governor, seeking to balance the budget, have for years ignored a 2000 voter-approved mandate to boost state aid to schools each year to account for inflation. Cooper put the amount immediately owed in excess of $330 million; she has yet to rule whether the state owes schools more than $1 billion for funds that were not delivered in prior years.
With the state ending last fiscal year $325 million in the black, Jennifer Johnson of Support Our Schools Arizona said it’s time to put the issue to bed.
“Follow court orders, respect authority and do what is right for our children,” she said at the Thursday press conference involving 18 different groups. “The parents of 1.1 million children are watching this issue very carefully and we are not going away.”
But Biggs said it’s not that simple.
He points out that the case is not over, with lawmakers having appealed Cooper’s ruling.
Lawsuit or not, questions remain about whether Arizona should be putting more dollars into schools.
The most recent report from the U.S. Census Bureau has Arizona spending less than all but two other states in overall funding from all sources; when just state dollars are counted, Arizona was listed as dead last.
But even with the state having weathered the deficit — and even with lawmakers having approved hundreds of millions of dollars in tax breaks for business — there is no broad consensus among the Republicans who control the Legislature about the need for additional dollars.
“Some schools are excelling, doing an incredibly great job” even with current funding, Biggs said.
He conceded, though, that viewpoint about funding may not be shared by many rank-and-file Arizonans. And he expressed it in an us-versus-them manner, with “us” being the GOP-controlled Legislature and “them” being the education community.
“The other side has won the narrative war,” Biggs said, with a “significant group” of people who believe the state is not properly funding its schools.
“I appreciate that narrative,” he continued. “But I would say to them, ‘How much is enough?’”
Still, Biggs said he is willing to push his own proposal to use a little of the surplus, tap into trust funds and see if voters can be convinced to take money from early childhood development programs to instead put into K-12 education.
He said that could generate an additional $500 per student on top of about $4,300 the state now provides. Biggs said assuming a classroom of 20 students, that’s an additional $10,000 a year.
But even if that $500 is added to current state, federal and local funds, that does not raise Arizona very far in national standings: The Census Bureau report, which had total per-pupil funding from all sources in Arizona at $7,208, put the national average at $10,700.
The governor’s plan, by contrast, adds another $300 per student by simply using trust fund proceeds.
In either case, the public would have to approve adjusting the formula taking money out of the trust. And absent a special election, that would not occur until November 2016.
“What we are saying to the governor and to legislators is let’s not ignore this today, let’s not push it off another two years,” Erfle said. She said it would be fine to talk about either plan “once we’ve settled the lawsuit.”
Gubernatorial press aide Daniel Scarpinato said his boss is open to all ideas for both additional funding and the possibility of having a special election next spring. But Scarpinato was noncommittal about any idea for immediately using the money the state now has in the bank.