The conventional wisdom among public school educators and supporters is that Arizonans overwhelmingly want more money for public education but the state’s conservative leaders at the Capitol are failing to listen to them.
The “blame the state” excuse is used every budget year as teachers and parents go begging to their local school boards for more pay, more teachers to lower class sizes, more programs, better technology and better school facilities but are turned away because there’s no money.
But election results the past four years show “the state” might not warrant the majority of the blame. Blame appears to lie with us – we Arizonans – who have repeatedly denied schools the funding they seek through our votes for legislators and through votes for school bonds and budget overrides.
Several lawsuits in the 1980s and 1990s altered the way Arizona funds its school districts. School boards in each of Arizona’s more than 200 public school districts used to control school funding – they set local property tax rates which was augmented by modest contributions from the state garnered from a small state property tax and from the sale of public lands.
But poor school districts that had too few properties to assess taxation argued the state’s school funding system violated the 14th Amendment’s guarantee of equal protection under the law – rich school districts were able to better educate their districts than poor districts.
A federal judge agreed and the state changed the funding mechanism to funnel all locally collected property taxes to the state, which then doled it back out on a per-student basis.
A similar suit changed the way new schools and school renovations and improvements were paid for, preventing local districts from passing bonds for such construction. Instead the state funds that construction.
Both suits meant the idea of local control was over, the state was now in control of school funding.
But districts still had the opportunity to give themselves a little extra funding boost through voter-approved budget overrides that allowed districts to exceed state funding caps by 10 percent a year over a set period of years with the increase percentage reducing year-by-year.
By the late 1990s, voters in nearly every school district in the state had approved budget overrides and repeatedly renewed those overrides every five to seven years.
Not anymore though.
In Maricopa County, 27 school districts proposed a total of 39 school bond and budget override questions (small bond votes for some school amenities are still allowed) but voters rejected 15 of them.
In Pima County, three school districts proposed bond or budget overrides and all three lost. The story was the same in most of the state’s other counties. In Pinal County, voters rejected budget and bond measures in all six districts that sought them. In Yavapai County, voters in three of the four districts seeking more funding denied the district those funds.
It was a similar story two years ago when voters rejected nearly every school budget and bond measure proposed across the state. And in 2008 and 2009, voters in Tucson Unified School District twice defeated a budget override. Now TUSD is in a budget crisis, having to consider whether to close schools, layoff teachers or cut pay across the board, or some combination of the three, to close a $17 million budget gap.
If the override had passed, the gap might not be as wide and the pain of closing it not quite as severe. But in the debate over the district’s school-closing plan, much of the rhetoric about the district’s budget woes has been the same “blame the state” refrain.
But the Legislature is only part of the problem.
The overwhelming defeat of Prop. 204, a school funding measure that would have permanently raised the state’s sales tax by 1 cent on the dollar, also adds to the evidence that the Legislature is not the sole source of the school funding woes in Arizona.
Arizona ranks last or nearly last in many advocacy groups’ rankings of public school funding. Many of our schools are crumbling, overcrowded and don’t have adequate technology to prepare students for an ever increasing technological world.
And the majority of us appear to be OK with that.
So we can stop the “blame the state” excuses. The fault lies with all of us.