Months have passed since Arizona voters approved Proposition 123, but the public’s call for increased school funding has only grown louder. Rarely are so many groups representing so many interests so singularly focused.
Finding money and deciding how to spend it will be a top priority at the Legislature.
Gov. Doug Ducey has said it will also be a priority for him. But other than to hint at additional funding for teacher salaries, he’s offered no details about his plans.
“We’re going to have an exciting education agenda this year and you’re going to hear about it in the State of the State,” he said. “We’re going to talk about how we fund schools going forward.”
Ducey will deliver his annual address Jan. 9 and the Legislature will begin its work the next day.
Education advocates aren’t waiting. They have already begun lobbying for their wish lists. Some of the proposals bubbling to the top include funding for all-day kindergarten, changing the state funding formula for charter schools, and expanding the Empowerment Scholarship Account school-voucher program.
RELATED: 5 fundamental facts about education funding in Arizona
Extending the voter-approved Proposition 301 sales tax dedicated to education is also expected to top the debate on education. Prop. 301 currently designates six-tenths of a cent per dollar paid in sales tax to education, bringing in about $600 million annually. The tax is set to expire in 2021. Any renewal or expansion of the tax must go to the voters.
Here is what some of the state’s education influencers are lobbying for this year. Some of the groups have overlapping memberships, and can work together on issues.
Nearly a year ago, the business organization Greater Phoenix Leadership brought together a variety of business and education figures to discuss what should happen after passage of Prop. 123, which settled a long-running lawsuit over school funding.
The group called itself Project 456 and members have been working behind the scenes to guide the education-funding conversation.
“Prop. 123 was good because it took the lawsuit off the table,” said President and CEO Neil Giuliano. “But the consensus of the group is that we still have a crisis in education funding in Arizona. And we don’t use that word lightly.”
Giuliano said the group is pushing Ducey and lawmakers to develop short- and long-term plans to address funding. If they won’t do it themselves, Giuliano said, then Ducey needs to form a group of political, business, education and philanthropic groups and charge them with developing a proposal.
“Do your job, Legislature,” he said. “We recognize there isn’t money just sitting there. So how do we go raise money? When do we talk to voters? At some point, we’re going to have to compel them to pay more for a quality education system.”
He said his organization doesn’t believe just renewing Prop. 301 at its current level is enough. He said there are conversations about whether to increase it to a full cent, which would bring in about $400 million more a year, or adding a penny, which would bring in an additional $1 billion.
To put it in perspective, restoring all-day kindergarten statewide would cost an additional $240 million. Giving teachers a $10,000 raise would cost the state an additional $600 million.
Giuliano said there are a handful of state lawmakers he believes will introduce education-funding proposals this session. But he’s unsure how they’ll fare at the Legislature. His group’s role, he said, will be to make it clear the business community supports finding additional funding and to push for someone to begin planning.
“The status quo is unacceptable in Arizona,” he said. “We should all be alarmed by where we’re at, even after Prop. 123, and we should all be compelled to do something about it.”
Another Prop. 301 backer
Stand for Children Arizona advocates for school funding and to improve student achievement. This past election, it supported a bipartisan group of both pro-district and pro-charter legislative candidates. Its top priority is school funding. A poll the group released in late December indicated a majority of those surveyed support more funding for schools and would vote for raising the sales tax under Prop. 301 to a full cent. That would bring an additional $400 million to schools.
“Hopefully this helps provide some important information to the leaders in our state to come together about real solutions,” said Executive Director Rebecca Gau. “It looks like Prop. 301 is the next best opportunity to do more for schools.”
RELATED: Poll: Arizonans say they’d pay higher taxes for education
She said the debate should also focus on accountability tied to how schools spend the money and how it’s allocated.
“The primary objective is we need to nail down when, how much and what for,” she said. “We’ve been having, for almost a year, the circular conversations and our number one priority is asking legislators to take a position.”
Business and education
The Arizona Business and Education Coalition includes school leaders, businesses, non-profit and advocacy organizations. President and CEO Dick Foreman said their focus this session is very specific: education revenue.
“The state continues to struggle with its commitment to public schools. … We’re going to help generate dialogue with policy makers and advocates on every side of the aisle on specific revenue streams that Arizona might utilize to support education,” he said.
The group hasn’t settled on a particular source for that money, whether it’s increasing the Prop. 301 tax or considering another tax form. Proposals need to come from lawmakers, he said, and he’s unsure if they will propose anything this session.
“It’s always easier to hunker down than to poke your head into the fire,” he said. “But there’s no courage in hunkering down.”
Expect More Arizona, representing more than 200 business, education and community leaders, is advocating for creating a world-class education system in Arizona. It is focused on improving performance in math and reading proficiency, high-school graduation, college attendance and teacher pay and has developed the Arizona Progress Meter to track it.
Chief Operating Officer Erin Hart said the group’s priorities for this legislative session are: improving teacher recruitment and retention; increasing the percentage of students who can read by the end of third grade; and boosting education funding from preschool through college.
“When you look at median pay for teachers, Arizona is 50th,” she said. “We are in the middle of a teacher recruitment and retention crisis and our student success depends on having great teachers in the classroom.”
RELATED: Full-day kindergarten? What you need to know
She said the group is still working on a goal for where they would like to see teacher pay in the next few years.
Hart said funding “quality, developmentally appropriate kindergarten” will also be a priority. And she said they are discussing Prop. 301 funding. “There’s an opportunity to get some consensus on that,” she said.
Arizona Charter Schools Association President and CEO Eileen Sigmund said her organization is focusing on two goals — one broad and one specific.
“Our motto for this year is to simply fund what works,” she said. “We want to prioritize the very limited and scarce state dollars to schools that are either achieving at a high level, rapidly improving or doing great work in communities of exceptional need.”
She said they will push to overturn already-approved changes to charter-school funding that will cut tens of millions from the schools. Several of those cuts were put on hold last year.
But aside from that, Sigmund said her association wasn’t yet backing any specific proposal to overhaul the way charter schools are funded or to increase school funding. She said they will wait to see what lawmakers propose.
The second goal, Sigmund said, is to make changes to state statute to ensure there are no roadblocks to students enrolling both in high school and community college at the same time.
Arizona Education Association President Joe Thomas said their focus is also on money.
“If we had solved last year’s problems, we might have a different agenda this year,” he said. “But we need to get a real investment back into our classrooms.”
They are pushing a tweak to the already-approved but not yet implemented way schools are funded based on their student numbers. The change was intended to more quickly fund schools based on the students they currently have and not on numbers from prior years, which is particularly beneficial to charter schools that may see large influxes of kids from year to year. But district schools have said it makes it difficult to budget and hire teachers when they don’t know what the next year’s budget will look like. The AEA is proposing to average the funding over three years.
The AEA is also pushing the Legislature to tweak teacher evaluations.
“I talked to two recent teachers of the year and due to the framework, neither of them are rated highly effective,” Thomas said. “It’s stunning. One of them is the best teacher I’ve ever seen. The tool is inexact.”
Thomas said they also will join the other groups in discussing funding. He said he hopes Prop. 301 isn’t the next solution, only because it could take a couple of years to get it passed and to the voters.
“We can’t wait two years to get some kind of infusion or investment into our schools,” he said. “We have to stop cutting taxes. We have to stop tax credits.”
Superintendent of Public Instruction Diane Douglas unveils a new funding proposal that would give the state’s public schools $680 million to pay for teacher raises, school facilities repairs and new school buses. Rob Schumacher/azcentral.com
State schools Superintendent Diane Douglas in her Arizona Kids Can’t Wait! Education Plan listed several of her priorities:
- Additional funding for schools, teacher salaries, rural-school needs such as transportation and capital funding for school construction and maintenance.
- Develop a more comprehensive assessment of schools.
- Reduce statewide testing and promote local control.
- Additional programs for gifted students.
- Additional support for students in high-needs communities.
A for Arizona
The organization A for Arizona is an education-advocacy group overseen by chambers of commerce. Executive Director Lisa Graham Keegan said they are focused on restoring a state system for grading schools and channeling funding to high-performing schools that serve low-income students.
“We want to make sure we can get the highest number of low-income kids into high-quality classrooms as quickly as possible,” she said. “We need to make sure the best quality schools have enough funding.”