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Shortchanged: Arizona schools to suffer, blame goes around as court kills K-12 funding

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What the Devil won't tell you

Shortchanged: Arizona schools to suffer, blame goes around as court kills K-12 funding

Losing Prop. 208 tax for K-12 education means Az remains mired at bottom of national standings

  • Arizona kids keep getting nickeled and dimed by our state, and the blame extends beyond the usual suspects.
    Mara Friedman/Cronkite NewsArizona kids keep getting nickeled and dimed by our state, and the blame extends beyond the usual suspects.

Long ago, in a Phoenix 100 miles away, Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey decided Arizona could no longer rank 49th in school spending. No, that was completely unacceptable.

By golly, he was going to do something about it.

In 2016, he got voters to approve Prop. 123. That ballot proposal raided the state land trust to give schools an extra $300 million in spending per year. without a tax increase.

Then in 2018, he struck a deal with teachers to increase school spending by $500 million.

The one thing he would not allow is for Arizona to establish a permanent funding mechanism to give schools some of the cash they needed to compete with the rest of the country.

He, and the entire supply-side establishment in Phoenix, opposed to Prop. 208, which raised state income taxes on the rich from 4.5 percent to 8 percent after it was narrowly approved by Arizona voters.

Maricopa County Superior Court Judge John Hannah fired the kill shot into Prop. 208, after the state Supreme Court ruled the plan violated constitutional school spending caps.

So where does our school funding rank compared to the rest of the nation? According to the U.S. Census, it ranks 49th in both per pupil funding and in percentage of state personal income.

We haven't budged. Those numbers are from 2019 but Arizona lags Mississippi at No. 48 by about $600 million a year. The state has not added $600 million to school spending since then. Hell, Prop. 208 only boosted school funding by $800 million annually.

And yet Ducey is happy as a clam. He tweeted this upon hearing about the victory over progress:

“Arizona is – and will continue to be – a state that knows how to prioritize education, while keeping taxes low and attracting jobs.”

No, Arizona prioritizes education less than every other state but Idaho and Utah. We are in the same fix were were in back in 2015, when Ducey said it was unacceptable. 

The court ruling means Arizona remains where it's always been — at the bottom of the national ladder in school funding. The untenable has become permanent, and everyone is to blame.

The court ruling

It's easy to focus ire right now on the judge who ruled that the ballot initiative violated the state Constitution.  

That’s because it did. Voters in 1980 established a spending limit in school funding based on only increasing funding by inflation and rising population from that year forward.

Well, that year, Arizona ranked in the bottom 10 in school funding, just ahead of some southern states, which have since gone on a spending tear and left our state behind.

Attorneys for the Invest In Ed coalition tried to argue that the money didn’t count against the spending cap, because it was actually a grant.

Sigh. Really? I don’t watch state Supreme Court hearings that much but even I knew that argument wouldn’t fly with the justices. They are consistent with their strike zone. It’s small but reliable. They don’t let the Legislature reinterpret plain-text readings and the nine justices appointed by Republicans sure aren’t going to let liberals do it.

Hey, attorneys for Invest in Ed opponents argued only the Legislature could raise taxes and had to do it by a supermajority. The Arizona high court laughed that argument out of the room and said, yes, voter initiatives can as well.

On the other hand, the court probably didn’t need to throw the whole thing out and could have just allowed the state to spend up to the limit. Where they have discretion, they are going to use it like the Republicans they are.

How’s that shocking?

Time to make amend(ment)s

This is why the pro-schools crowd should have pursued a constitutional amendment.

I said as much back in 2016, right after Gov. Doug Ducey won approval for raiding the state land trust to pay for some K-12 spending.

“Every two years from now until the job is done, school advocates are going to have to work hard to circumvent the Legislature by putting constitutional amendments on the ballot and winning voter support.”

Golly, I seems smart now.

Constitutional amendments can’t be ruled unconstitutional by the courts. They do require an extra 120,000 to 150,000 signatures to reach the ballot.

I will confess, the constitutional spending limit did not occur to me when I wrote in favor of Prop. 208 prior to the election. I mistakenly thought that the backers would have thought of it.


This isn’t the first time the court nixed an Invest In Ed plan. The group first sought to run a proposition in 2018. They just messed up the ballot language by confusing percent with percentage points and the Arizona Supreme Court tossed the language as wildly misleading. It wasn’t a 3.5 percent increase in income taxes. It was a 3.5 percentage point increase that damned near doubled the taxes the better off would pay.

Yes, there is a difference. Ask a math teacher.

Then in 2020, Invest In Ed got their act together and put together a ballot proposition that survived a seriously stupid lawsuit and court opinion by a Superior Court judge that was straight-up lunacy. The judge basically ruled that any ballot proposition must list all potential arguments against the question and do so within the 100-word limit set by state law. His opinion was convoluted and insane and the Supreme Court reversed it. However, there was a larger truth in his opinion.

Investing in education at a necessary and sufficient level will require defeating the entire state power structure. Doing that requires getting the extra signatures up front for a constitutional amendment.

So K-12 advocates must go back to the lesson plan and gather a signature total equal to 15 percent of the total number of ballots cast for governor in the previous election. To get a ballot initiative, which is just a change of law, requires 10 percent.

One wrinkle: The Legislature rather shrewdly sent to voters this year a ballot proposition requiring a 60 percent vote to change the state Constitution. The Invest In Ed initiative only passed with 52 percent.

It’s entirely possible a bunch of progressive voters will take 2022 off to show their displeasure with the Biden administration, as left-leaning Democrats did in 2010, pissy about Barack Obama, and 1994, ticked off at Bill Clinton.

In a state that is still slightly more red than blue, I give that proposition a healthy chance of passing. 

The shortchange model

We need to emphasize again the peculiarity of the argument the radical right is making here.

I might be with the Republicans if Arizona were New Jersey. Converting $1,000 of the $20,0000 per pupil in K-12 funding into a tax cut might make sense where tax rates are hurting the economy. Hey, Governor Blake could pass a $1.3 billion tax cut in the Garden State and the schools would still be funded in the top five nationally.

No one in Arizona is talking about funding at New Jersey levels. Good lord. Arizona spends $8,600 per pupil. With the $800 million injection from Prop 208, Arizona may – may – have passed Nevada for 45th place.

Right-wing elites in Arizona are specifically arguing the state is such a lousy place to be, Arizonans can only have economic growth if it ranks 49th in school spending.

Were voters to pass a ballot initiative adding $1.5 billion in school spending to pass Alabama, the state might as well change it's name to the Bolshevik Republik of Woke-i-stan. And Arizona would still trail 40 other states, including some ruby-red ones.

Why spend money so Arizona kids can learn, when low taxes can attract well-educated workers from other states to prop up our economy? Let well-educated Chicagoans make the money for the state's landed gentry. Arizona kids are a ready-made infrastructure of serfs who will ask the Midwest nobility "Would you like some fries with that?"

One might say our state’s economic models requires immigrants to take our jobs – California immigrants – and then insist Arizona kids get schools that are starved to the bone.

Are the Republicans not seeing the irony here, as they bloviate about Guatemalans? Hondurans aren’t moving into Buckeye and Goodyear.

The policy is starting pay off as the state ranked fourth in growth rate behind Idaho, Utah and Montana. Idaho and Utah are the two states that spend less on schools than Arizona.

It can be a winning formula for business leaders but a loser for parents. And if the state goes through a stretch where it fails to attract massive new migration, the whole economy shudders.

Is it a coincidence that Arizona climbed out of the Great Recession much more slowly than most states? Without migrants, Arizona’s economy didn't grow. Other states manage to thrive based on the skills of their native work forces.

Lousy schools for Arizona kids aren’t a bug of the economic model. They are largely the model. State spending must remain minimal for the tax rates to be minimal. Public school spending is the biggest part of the state budget. It doesn't take a Jersey kid to figure out the plan is to shortchange Arizona kids.

Pretend it's Bernie

The non-radical conservatives have got to get their act together before the Right does to us what Russian tanks are struggling to do to Ukraine: make the state an autocracy. They are now mulling legislation to jail teachers, ban the teaching of slavery as it actually happened (let alone talk about Jim Crow) and the rights of transgender people are the first to go. Wait, sorry, voting rights will be the first to go.

When you start with the premise that only one party gets to decide if an election was fair, it’s all downhill from there.

When you start hoping for school funding that trails the rest of the country, you aren’t starting from a particularly high vista.

Well, that’s where the normal people are, today.

So Democrats ,and anyone who wants to catch up to the rest of the country in K-12 spending will have to finally get off their backsides and take state politics as seriously as they take Bernie Sanders.

Until then, there's work to do. Get after it.

Blake Morlock is an award-winning columnist who worked in daily journalism for nearly 20 years, and as a communications director for the Pima County Democratic Party. Now he’s telling you things that the Devil won’t.

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