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Arizona lawmakers face uphill battle on education funding

Arizona teachers and education advocates march at the Arizona Capitol protesting low teacher pay and school funding in Phoenix.
Ross D. Franklin
Arizona teachers and education advocates march at the Arizona Capitol protesting low teacher pay and school funding in Phoenix.

By Howard Fischer
Capitol Media Services

PHOENIX -- Arizona lawmakers took the first tentative steps to ensure that public schools don't have to shut down before the end of the academic year.

But it remains unclear whether there are the votes in the full legislature to make that happen.

The House Education Committee voted 8-1 late Tuesday for a one-year waiver of the constitutional "aggregate expenditure limit'' on what schools can spend.

If there is not final action by the full legislature by March 1, schools collectively will be forced to cut nearly $1.4 billion they already have been allocated for the current year about 17 percent of their annual budgets -- and do it before the end of June, which translates out to cutting 70 percent of their budget for the last few months of the school year.

State schools chief Tom Horne, a Republican like a majority of lawmakers, urged committee members to approve the measure to avoid what he said would be "an incredible disaster.''

"If we have a 70 percent cut and two-thirds of the teachers are laid off, I believe parents all over the state, of all political ideologies, will greatly resent what was done to their kids,'' he said.

Horne pointed out all the waiver does is permit schools to spend the money already approved by the legislature.

"I think it is in the interests of everyone in this room that the actions of the Legislature be respected,'' he said.

"And that means respecting the budget that was passed,'' Horne explained. "And that means we must pass HCR 2001 and provide an exception to the aggregate expenditure limit.

And Rep. David Cook, R-Globe, who is the sponsor of HCR 2001 to waive the limit, said shuttering schools should not be acceptable to fellow Republicans.

It remains to be seen, however, whether the Republicans who control the House and Senate will provide the necessary votes or insist on some concessions from Democratic Gov. Katie Hobbs to approve some of the things they want. And what some want is what they call "reforms.''

Sen. Jake Hoffman, R-Queen Creek, head of the Freedom Caucus, said the group's members -- about a third of all legislative Republicans -- have questions about whether the money the schools already have is being properly spent. As proof, he cited figures that only 28 percent of eighth graders are considered "proficient'' in reading.

"And only 32 percent of 11th graders were able to pass the state's math assessment,'' Hoffman said.

The problem, he said, is that schools are not emphasizing "the basics.''

"They've now embarked on ideologies and political ideologies that, unfortunately, don't help children achieve proficiency in reading or math or English or history or science,'' Hoffman said.

He specifically mentioned "critical race theory, comprehensive sexuality education, gender confusion ideology.''

Cook told Capitol Media Services he is open to looking at these issues.

But not now.

"Those are discussions to happen after this,'' he said. "This is to clean up last year's budget.''

That has to do with the fact that legislators last year, with a state budget surplus, provided additional dollars to public schools, restoring many of the cuts made in the prior decade.

Only thing is, a 1980 voter-approved constitutional amendment caps total education spending at what it was then, with annual adjustments for inflation and student growth. But the new infusion of funds, coupled with a decline in enrollment due to COVID, puts that cap now at close to $1.4 billion less than what the nearly $7.8 billion schools already have.

That 1980 constitutional amendment does allow lawmakers to enact one-year waivers, which is what HCR 2001 seeks to do.

Approval, however, takes a two-thirds vote of both the House and Senate. And that, in turn, means a minority of lawmakers -- just 21 representatives out of 60 and 11 of the 30 senators -- can effectively veto the waiver unless they get what they want.
It's even more dire than that.

Senate President Warren Petersen, R-Gilbert, told Capitol Media Services on Tuesday he will not bring the waiver to the floor unless a majority of his 16 Republicans agree. So that gives just nine of them a veto.

What foes of the expenditure limit waiver want, Hoffman said, is to ensure that "dollars flow to the classroom.'' But what is realistic, however, is a bit less clear.

The most recent report by state Auditor General Lindsay Perry says Arizona schools, on average, spend 55.3 percent of their dollars on instruction. But she said that figure does not paint the whole picture of what is effectively going into the classroom.

For example, Perry said, student support, consisting of counselors, audiologists, speech pathologists, nurses, social workers and attendance services, all necessary parts of running a school, ate up another 9.1 percent of every dollar.

And there was 5.8 percent for instructional support, defined as librarians, teacher training, curriculum development and instruction-related technology services. That brought what she considers total classroom spending up to 70.2 percent versus 69.3 percent the prior year.

Schools also spent an average of 11.7 percent on building maintenance, equipment repair and the costs to heat and cool buildings.

There also was 4 percent for food service and 3.7 percent for the cost of operating the school bus fleet.

What's left is 10.4 percent for administration. That includes superintendents, principals business manages and other staff who do everything from accounting to payroll.

And there is data to show that Arizona schools spend less on administration on a per-student basis than the national average.

Hoffman, however, said he is not convinced that teachers and classroom instruction are getting as much as they should.

"So we're calling for these reforms to accompany the AEL'' waiver, he said.

"And we need Katie Hobbs and we need Republican leadership and Democrats to come to the table,'' Hoffman continued. "This is something we should all be able to agree upon.''

Hobbs, however, has given no indication she wants to deal.

Hoffman also told KTAR talk show host Mike Broomhead he is not concerned about the issues raised by Horne about closing schools and how parents might resent lawmakers whose votes against waiving the limit would force schools to close before the end of the year.

"I understand there is the concern about political fallout,'' he said.

"But the reality is, doing the right thing is our job,'' Hoffman continued, saying he and his supporters want to support students going to public schools. "So if that means I don't win my reelection because I'm standing up for parents and standing up for the kids that are in our schools, so be it.''

A temporary waiver would solve the problem for only this year.
Hobbs said earlier this month at an event in Avondale that it is time for the expenditure limit to go away, since this is the second year in a row the limit was reached and it is likely to happen again.

"We can keep suspending it every year and going through this exercise, but we need to repeal it,'' Hobbs said. That, however, requires a public vote.

"And if the Legislature is not willing to refer a measure to the ballot to do that, then I'm willing to … lead that effort to get into the initiative on the ballot to that,'' the governor said.

A permanent repeal of the cap also would prevent what happened this past year.

Former Gov. Doug Ducey had promised Democrats during budget negotiations that he would call a special session to raise this year's limit before he left office in December. But that never happened.

If the Legislature fails to override the constitutional limit, public school districts would be forced to cut


Bob Christie of Capitol Media Services contributed to this report.