By JAY KAPROSY, Veridus
AFTER YEARS OF SUFFERING THROUGH THE REPETITION OF “ARIZONA IS 49TH IN EDUCATION” AND CUTS TO PUBLIC EDUCATION OF $1 BILLION, ARIZONANS ARE SAYING ENOUGH IS ENOUGH. THE PUBLIC OUTCRY HAS
reached the capitol and Governor Ducey and legislators have taken note. In fact, the Governor, Republican caucus, and the Democratic caucus have all introduced plans to pump new monies into education. Further evidence was the late-October Special Session of the Legislature called together for the sole purpose of infusing new monies into public education. However, the demand for additional investments in education is far from over.
After talks to settle the lawsuit over inflation funding for schools fell apart earlier this year, Governor Ducey stepped in to bring the parties together for a settlement. The lynchpin of the eventual agreement was the infusion of new revenues from State Trust Lands in exchange for legislative authority to suspend inflation payments in the event of another economic downturn. Ultimately, the Special Session resulted in the referral of a ballot measure that will allow for the advance of State Trust Land revenues to schools. If passed by the voters, the package of new investments in education will yield approximately $3.5 Billion to schools over the next ten years. The ballot measure, Proposition 123, will go to voters in May 2016.
Before the ink was dry on the Governor’s signature, the Ari- zona Education Association and the Arizona Association of School Business Officials made it clear that this was merely a first step in restoring education funding and addressing underfunded aspects of public education. The next set of priorities include: restoring funding to the Joint Technological Education Districts (JTEDs) that provide career and technical education, fully funding growing special education costs, and securing funding for facility maintenance. These
issues will certainly be advanced in the upcoming session, and based on recent polling and the overwhelming passage of recent school district bond and override elections, voters are likely to be on their side.
Another critical piece of the school finance discussion is the result of the Governor’s Classrooms First Council. The Council was tasked with a daunting goal of providing recommendations on how to make school finance more equitable, understandable, and uniform among all students whether they attend a charter school, school district, or take advantage of Arizona’s many school choice options. The Coun- cil’s work has yielded some consensus recommendations, but much of the hard work remains to be done. Early recommendations include: a special education cost study, simplifying school district accounting, and treating school districts equally when it comes to additional teacher experience and evaluation funding. A recommendation on school finance formula reforms must strike the right balance between local control, tax policy, and the number of “winners and losers” affected by bold reforms. The Council is expected to submit a report to Governor Ducey in December.
Finally, it is important to note that there is a great deal of good going on in Arizona public education. Arizona can boast five of the top twenty ranked schools in the country. Recent scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) showed that while most states slipped in their performance, Arizona remained stable and improved in several subject areas. Arizona is not “49th in education”; our state’s performance far exceeds many states with higher funding levels.
As the discussion around education gets much deserved attention, let’s hope that the debate is informed and focuses on both the funding needs of the system and the successful academic outcomes for all students.