Now Reading
How Az schools can catch Mississippi (for the love of God) without tax hike
opinion

From the archive: This story is more than 5 years old.

What the Devil won't tell you

How Az schools can catch Mississippi (for the love of God) without tax hike

Finding $1 billion without taxes requires common sense, cunning and guile

  • Gov. Doug Ducey speaking at the Arizona Chamber of Commerce & Industry's luncheon with U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, May 6.
    Gage Skidmore/FlickrGov. Doug Ducey speaking at the Arizona Chamber of Commerce & Industry's luncheon with U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, May 6.

Catch Mississippi.

Let that be our war cry when it comes to the funding crisis in Arizona schools as much as the very term "funding crisis in Arizona schools." Better yet, let's make it Catch — for the love of God — Mississippi.

You know it's a crisis when 1) you have to catch Mississippi and 2) Gov. Doug Ducey wants to look like he is trying (or is trying, legitimately) to do something about it.

Ducey has unveiled plans to use state land trust money over 10 years to ramp up school funding. The problem is that his $2.5 billion, 10-year plan slams smack into new evidence that shows just how bad the funding crisis is in Arizona schools.

The U.S. Census Bureau released new numbers and no, governor, $250 million a year won't even come close to fixing it — even if the state added the $300 million the courts say it owes the schools, we're not there.

By "fixing" I don't mean getting Arizona to the average per-pupil funding. I mean $250 million won't vault Arizona out of 49th place in K-12 funding.

It's becoming a bit kitsch, though, to blame Ducey and the Legislature's "no tax pledge" for this problem. It's not their fault (for absence of tax hikes, anyway).

Tax hikes are not a viable political option in Arizona anymore than landing the Winter Olympics. Arizona voters in 1986 passed a constitutional amendment requiring a super-majority to raise taxes and ain't no way, no how Ducey is going to find 40 House votes and 20 Senate votes for a tax hike, barring Jedi mind tricks.

It would be the easiest mathematical way to catch — for the love of God — Mississippi, but it's by no means the only way. First let's outline the urgency in getting the job done, because Arizona is going to have to use astronomical units and parsecs to measure the distance the state must travel to catch, not just the middle-of-the-road states, but the states ranking 40-47.

I'm going to use 2013 numbers because they are the most recent available through the Census and because I figure Ducey and the Legislature would appreciate me being conservative. Those who question my use of the Census Bureau's numbers should not mention the Auditor General's report about Arizona's non-classroom spending because they are the same numbers.

Say Arizona woke up tomorrow, said "oh, screw this noise" and decided to increase funding by $900 million to K-12. That would be another $900 per student (there are just about 1 million students in our schools, making the math easy) and an immediate never-before-witnessed 23 percent increase in state support to public schools. It wouldn't even catch — for the love of God — Mississippi. Where does Mississippi rank? No. 47.

In fact, a historic 10 percent one-year increase in state K-12 funding won't catch Oklahoma at No. 48. We are $922 million behind Mississippi and $464 million behind Oklahoma. Interestingly and alarmingly, a similar $1,000 per-pupil injection into Mississippi's school budgets would bounce them up 10 places, right into 38th place. That's how badly Arizona trails the field.

The most disconcerting number related K-12 funding in Arizona is this: the state ranks 49th out of 50 states in spending measured against income.

Arizona taxpayers fork over less of their take-home than any other state in the country except Florida. Mississippi may be a lot of things, but they are a poorer state trying harder than we are to get their kids an education — spending 33 percent more than Arizonans for every $1,000 of personal income.

Don't have a heart attack, Arizonans don't have to boost their taxes massively to do it. Tennessee ranks 46th. Billy Joe and Bobbi Sue Whiskey spend just $1.50 more per $1,000 in income than Joe and Joanna Yucca do per $1,000 in their income.

If you are trailing in a marathon, you don't say "let's go get the Kenyan up front." No. You say, let's catch the guy in front of us who obviously had his affection bought by his parents with snack cakes. Then you move up the pack.

So let's catch — for the love of God — Mississippi first, so when Ducey says "'Classrooms first,' he doesn't actually mean 'Classrooms 49th.'"

Solve for X

Let's also talk about what we are not talking about. The average state spends $10,700 per student on K-12 instruction. Get that out of our sun-dried minds. It's never going to happen. We're not going to finish this marathon in the middle of the pack without a lot more P90X and a massive change in diet. Make it into the top 10? Here's an equation P (probability of Arizona ranking in the Top 10 of K-12 funding) = 1/(Never x ain't gonna happen)34. If that equation makes no sense to you, you may have been educated in Arizona.

Here's the good news: Arizona seems in little danger of ever falling behind Utah and Idaho who are quite happy to be tucked in at 51st and 50th respectively. They just have lower poverty rates than Arizona, which affects student more than school funding. Plus it's Utah. If Arizona could just pass a law to make every family a Disney Channel family, then the state might not have to spend as much on schools.

Catch as catch can

Ducey's pledge may offend some, but he doesn't have to break it to lift Arizona out of 49th place. He doesn't have to violate the Constitution to give the schools more money.

For instance:

1) New money. Dedicate the growth in budget revenues to K-12 first and tax cuts and rainy-day funds second. I get that lawmakers want to cut taxes, cut taxes and cut taxes some more. However, that's been happening more or less for 25 years. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker did it for six years and now thinks he's so radically improved the state, he should be president. How many more bites at that apple does Arizona need to finally get it right?

So, dedicate the first $300 million in new revenue as it comes in to the baseline of K-12 funding. Right there, that's easy. It's not a one-time shot but is built into the budget. No worries about future budgets falling apart, because Ducey and the Republicans are on it, right? Destroying the safety net for poor families and 25 years of tax cuts that will have businesses lining up to set up in Arizona have fixed our budget problems. It's all manna from heaven now, right? Or am I missing something? You guys have run the show for 25 years, so finally you got it right, right?

Four percent growth shouldn't be too hard to achieve. Stash one percentage point in a reserve fund and keep $300 million for schools.

2) Take the leash off local districts. The state limits what local school districts can spend, without a direct approval from voters in the form of an over-ride election. What local school boards spend on education should be a local political decision. School funding right now is a matter of state dollars and local school district dollars for classrooms and overhead. Some federal dollars help with specific purposes not typically related to the classroom.

Arizona does fine in terms of local support, ranking 34th in the country as far as what school districts pony up. The jackboot of Washington provides about 17 percent of the state's total education budget, well ahead of the national average of 12.5 percent. (Golly, I wonder why such a high percentage of dollars doesn't make it into the classroom?) We rank dead last in what the state provides. So, if the Legislature won't fix the problem, can the Legislature help let the local school districts do it?

Immediately, the local approach will mean Scottsdale schools will be richer than schools on the South Side of Tucson,. It may violate the "fair and uniform" provision of the Arizona Constitution. However, if "as nearly free as possible" has no meaning, than this provision may not either. Something has to be done.

Right now, Arizona spends pretty close to the national average in local dollars per 1,000 in income on K-12 schools. We're at $16.22 per $1,000 of income and the average is $19.12 The state contribution is just $27 per $1,000 in income, compared to the national average of about $37 per $1,000.

Obviously, the mathematical deficit is in how little the Legislature spreads the pain around. However, red-meat-gnawing, gun-toting states such as South Carolina, Texas and Georgia are doing more at the local level. If we wait for the perfect to be best friends with the good, we're going to end up trailing not just Utah, but Venezuela.

Another 5 percent in school funding from local sources will give Arizona another $200 million and we still won't pay what Florida pays (though the feds only break per-pupil down by revenue, not spending — it's close at the local level but not one to one). We're up to $500 million. Just like that. Holy cow, we passed Oklahoma. Doesn't that feel good? Duck. They're shooting at us.

3) Do what Ducey said. Four words I don't type very often, but this is enough of a crisis that I'm willing to tax generic peanut butter and white bread to fix it (staples of my diet). It's not a horrible idea to grab say $250 million a year more of the state land trust, so long as it's not gobbling up the principal.

My only issue with Ducey's plan (aside from the suspicion that he wants to look like he's doing something about it without actually doing something about it) is that he assumes a certain amount of sales from the land trust, which basically exists to use the sale of state land to pay for education.

Get schooled on state land trust

Please allow a crude explanation of state trust lands; one that will have people on both sides of the the argument saying, "Yeah, but Blake, that's only partly true." To which I retort, "I know, I've done 4,000 state land trust stories but this is a background graf so step off."

State trust land is not anything like U.S. Forest Service land, which has some environmental purposes (don't confuse Forest Service land under the Department of Agriculture for National Park Service land under the Department of Interior). Arizona state lands have virtually no environmental purposes as they exist solely to be sold at the "highest and best" use — to the highest bidder. So lands get managed at cross purposes with lands surrounding them. It's silly.

Several times voters have been asked to undo the checkerboard of state lands speckling Arizona, and using a good instinct badly, they have said "no" because they didn't understand the question. Put it back up for a vote in 2016, explain why it is needed so Forest Service land can be contiguous and State Trust land can also not be interrupted. The Forest Service land would be easier to manage and the State Trust land would be easier to sell. Maybe we could raise more money, even.

Oh. Wow. Mississippi doesn't even see us coming. We're at $750 million. We haven't raised a tax.

Lie, cheat & steal

4) Lie. Cheat. Steal. Make the counties do it. Lie and say you are not raising taxes, cheat and order the counties to send more money the state's way and steal their cash at the local level.

You think this sounds crazy? It's called the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System. AHCCCS is one of the biggest destinations for your county property tax dollars. The counties collect money and send it to Phoenix to pay for the state's Medicaid program (such as it isn't).

Now, when you tell the counties to come up with an extra $130 million they will lose their collective minds and you will face hostile fire — perhaps literally — in places such as Prescott and Parker because they'll be forced to raise taxes for you. But it's a way to get education funding up to the point where Arizona catches the state that traditionally ranks last in everything.

What's more, the Legislature has already done this once this year. They shifted to counties, community colleges and cities a burden for funding education that the state no longer wants to pay for. Do it again. Just do it bigger.

It bears pointing out that for every $100 nationally raised in property taxes at the local level, $4.50 cents is raised locally through other taxes. Arizona takes in $0. Fixing this part to the national average would raise about $130 million.

Look at that! We're at $880 million and Mississippi just saw us. They're tearing off their white sheets and moving their fat legs faster, cursing their moms for all those Moon Pies.

5) Just Cheat. Now we'll get a bit more aggressive and suggest a work-around for the no-tax thing. Create an independent body that oversees all school funding and give them the power to raise "fees" and "surcharges" to give the state's schools another $120 million more. It's no more unconstitutional to use Legislative "absolute immunity" in appropriations to do this than it is to provide college education at a price that is "as politically convenient as possible" rather than "as nearly free is possible." It probably is unconstitutional but the courts won't likely bust you for it.

The problem with Arizona's state aid lagging so far behind the rest of the country is almost entirely a product of only using "general assistance" for school funding. It's 97 percent of Arizona's state contribution. Nationally, the number is more like two-thirds. Another $120 million would only be a little more than 10 percent — still far behind the national standard but oh my God, Mississippi is cursing us as "infernal scalawags" as we blow passed them. Our parents are cheering us on.

What's that? You raised taxes? No we didn't. How didn't we? We said we didn't.

C'mon! You are Republicans. You are awesome at doing shit and then saying you didn't do it. As a former communications guy, I say this with a sense of awe and not derision. The GOP never sold tax cuts as an economic stimulus twice as big as Obama's. That never happened in 2001. The Republicans never let Iraq come unglued. You guys can easily claim credit for funding schools without tax hikes because you never voted for a tax increase. Use that power for good and not death panels, then call anyone who disagrees "not conservative enough."

Gov. Ducey, if your press guy Daniel Scarpinato is sick or out of town, I'll even help you with this: "Just as I stand by the tough decisions we made as a state to give Arizona kids a fighting chance, I stand by my record on cutting taxes and not once raising them."

See? It's that easy.

We did it! We just raised per pupil spending by over a $1,000 — a billion dollars in total — without a tax hike by the Legislature. Did we farm out some revenue enhancements? Says you. I would then argue that we need to diversify the tax base so the next time Wall Street lays a rotten egg, Arizona kids don't get crammed into classrooms with 40 other kids because sales tax revenues are boom-bust in nature. We may also want to look at taking K-12 (and even the universities) off-budget, which is a fancy way of saying that savings from school budgets can't go to pay for any other programs.

To say the Legislature itself has to raise taxes and Ducey's leadership should provide it, or we're all screwed, is misleading. It just takes some creative problem-solving.

Another interesting thing to see in the 2013 Census report is the geological record of where and how states have gained and lost in funding schools. Since 1995, Arizona has added $800 per pupil while the rest of the country has added $2,500. Also in 1995, states like Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee and Alabama got tired of being the murderer's row of illiteracy and upped their game throughout the 2000s. Adding an average of about (I did some rounding) $2,940 between them between 1995 and 2013 to Arizona's $800. 

It's doable because these gummint-hating, gun-loading conservatives in Jesus T-shirts did it.

Inputs and outcomes, and money on the table

If somebody like Glenn Hamer, president of the powerful Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry, is reading this, he has been shaking his head. As he told Capitol News Services guru Howard Fischer in January, there is no link between school funding and student achievement. It's an argument repeated by a lot of folks on the right.

Let's deal with it by asking: "Really, Glenn. No link? None?"

Fine. I'll take that action. Five bucks. Your 10 least-funded schools on the Census list versus my top 10 in a game of academic achievement. I get Vermont and Massachusetts. You get Mississippi and Oklahoma. Straight up. No gimmicks, odds or point spreads because our kids don't get extra credit for being reared in a land of this philosophy. Senate President Andy Barr, you've said Arizona provides a fine education. Put up. You take Tennessee and Arizona and I'll take Iowa and Minnesota — not even the Top 20. Sadly, the difference is, when you lose, you are out five bucks and our kids face a dimmer future.

Money is in no way a sufficient condition in school achievement any more than speed is in a pass rusher, a good script is necessary for a good movie or good looks are for a good date. It sure freaking helps to have them, though.

It's the corner conservatives find themselves in arguing that less is more in Arizona. The Arizona Chamber of Commerce isn't the Indiana Chamber defending Gov. Mike Pence's cuts to school funding dropping them out of 31st place. They are left defending the number 49. It's indefensible.

Money isn't sufficient to fix everything that might need to be fixed in Arizona schools but it is wholly necessary to fixing the school funding gap and catching — for the love of God — Mississippi.

Blake Morlock covered Arizona government and politics for 15 years, including 11 in the Tucson Citizen. He also worked on Democratic Party campaigns in the field of political communications. Now he’s telling you what the Devil won’t.


— 30 —

Best in Internet Exploder