Arizona schools avoid ‘doomsday’ budget cuts after Senate votes to lift spending cap
Schools would have had to cut $1.4 billion next month if the constitutional spending limit wasn’t raised
Lawmakers on Wednesday waived a school spending limit that would have forced schools to cut $1.4 billion from their budgets next month, amid vehement resistance from some Republicans.
Schools were nervously facing down the prospect of mass layoffs and closures if a constitutional spending cap, called the aggregate expenditure limit, wasn't overridden by lawmakers by March 1. With just under three weeks left before that happened, lawmakers succeeded in gathering the required two-thirds majorities in each chamber to do so — despite calls from more conservative members to enact transparency measures in exchange for allowing schools to spend the money they have already been given.
"Putting a Band-Aid on a bleeding wound does not stop the problem," warned Sen. Janae Shamp who voted against House Concurrent Resolution 2001, a measure to lift the cap.
The Republican from Surprise compared lifting the cap for this school year to "throwing bad money after good" and criticized "woke ideologies" being taught in classrooms — a common complaint from conservative lawmakers who oppose what they view as liberal social agendas.
"SEL is still being taught, and so is CRT," echoed Sen. Justine Wadsack, R-Tucson.
Social and emotional learning, or SEL, and critical race theory have become catch-all terms for Republicans to describe perceived leftist lesson plans.
Seven GOP senators on Wednesday voted against lifting the spending limit, most of them members of the far-right Arizona Freedom Caucus. A minimum of twenty votes in support were needed to lift the limit, and, in the end, 23 were secured.
Sen. Jake Hoffman, R-Queen Creek, the head of the Arizona Freedom Caucus, slammed the effort to waive the limit, pointing to low test scores and student reading proficiency as proof of public schools' failures. Arizona students performed at or near the national average in both reading and math for the 2022 school year.
"Thank God that last year the Republican majority passed the universal ESA program," he said, referring to a GOP-backed expansion of school vouchers, known formally as Empowerment Scholarship Accounts. "Thank God that we gave parents, students and families all across the state an escape hatch."
Hoffman promised to continue pushing transparency measures so that parents may be given more power in their children's education.
Senate President Warren Petersen voted to support lifting the cap, but added that he agreed with the concerns of his fellow Republicans. He said his support was purely political: He didn't want Republicans to bear the brunt of the blame if schools were forced to shut down.
"This money has been appropriated," he said, in closing remarks. "We need to see how it's being spent. We need to see some accountability here..
Democrats presented a united front in voting to lift the cap, applauding the final vote in celebration while lawmakers across the aisle watched silently.
"I am grateful that we are acting today to relieve the stress and anxiety that parents, students, teachers and communities have been facing," said Sen. Christine Marsh, D-Phoenix.
The legislature's success in lifting the cap for the academic year is a one-time override. Any effort to recalculate the formula to a more recent year's spending levels — instead of those in 1980, when voters placed the limit in the state constitution — or repeal it entirely would have to be put to voters.
Schools, teachers call for next steps
The education community celebrated the win, and called on legislators to advance a permanent fix.
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne, who visited the legislature several times in the past months to urge lawmakers to act, lauded the result.
"It is great news for the education system that the exception to the school spending limit was passed by the legislature," he said in an emailed statement.
Horne added that the Arizona Department of Education, under his leadership, would work to provide the accountability and transparency lawmakers have asked for.
The Arizona School Boards Association said that the focus should turn next to providing voters with the choice to give schools across the state more stability via the 2024 ballot.
"Annual overrides are an untenable situation for school districts and the Legislature alike," the organization wrote, in an emailed statement. "It is time to resolve it once and for all..
The cap has been successfully lifted three times in the past, in 2002, 2008 and 2022.
Marisol Garcia, president of the Arizona Education Association, the state's largest teacher's union, reminded lawmakers that the spending limit is likely to present the same problem next year, and its continued threat does little to mitigate the state's persistent teacher shortage. A report from the Arizona Personnel Administrators Association found that as many as 9,000 teaching positions were vacant for the 2022-2023 academic year.
"Our state legislature needs to eliminate the cap entirely, so that we are not forced to have this same fight year after year," Garcia said. "Educators are signing contracts for the 2023-2024 school year right now, and the constant, looming possibility of months-long school closures only makes it that much harder for schools to retain qualified and passionate educators."
This report was first published by the Arizona Mirror.