Gov. Doug Ducey’s State of the State speech this week called for more alternatives to traditional public schools, summer school programs to reduce learning losses and fewer pandemic restrictions on campus.
Key public school advocates, however, faulted him for not proposing budget increases for the worst-funded public schools in the nation — and not mentioning a looming financial cliff facing most districts.
Traditional public school districts face a $1.1 billion cut in funding if the state Legislature this year doesn’t lift a 40-year-old spending cap, known as the aggregate expenditure limit.
If the spending cap remains in place, almost every district in the state will have to make deep cuts. That includes a $2 million cut in the budget for Show Low schools and a $2.7 million cut for Payson schools.
Most districts will have to trim budgets by about 16% if lawmakers don’t increase the spending limit before March.
“Lawmakers have waived the limit before without issue, but this year it’s turned into a politically fraught game of chicken at the cost of Arizona’s school children. Passing a waiver will require a two-thirds majority, but that’s looking increasingly hard to come by as some lawmakers are unnecessarily tying the cap to Prop. 208 and demanding it be overturned,” according to a statement released by Save our Schools, a public schools advocacy group.
Prop. 208 imposed a big increase in the state’s top income tax rate, which would have raised about $1 billion through an income tax surcharge on individuals making more than $250,000.
Lawmakers then passed a big decrease in the state income tax, which eliminated the bulk of the voter-approved funding increase for schools.
Education groups have gathered signatures to put a measure on the ballot in November revoking the lower, “flat” income tax rates — essentially restoring Prop. 208 funding.
The governor did not mention the high-stakes issue in his speech on Monday at the state Capitol.
He did call for any additional expansion of school choice. That would include more money for public charter schools. It could also apply to expansion of the state’s controversial voucher program — which gives parents taxpayer money if they want to move their child from a district public school to a private or religious school.
Rep. Paul Boyer has already said he’ll reintroduce a bill to expand vouchers to make them available to about 70% of the state’s students — rather than limiting the roughly $100 million program to students with special needs or students attending public schools that get a failing rating on the state’s school grading system.
Voters four years ago through Prop. 305 overturned the Legislature’s last attempt to dramatically expand eligibility for the voucher program.
Arizona has among the worst-funded public schools in the nation, based on per-student state support. It has more generous public support for private schools than almost any state in the country, however.
Ducey also sharply criticized schools that resisted a law that would have barred mask mandates on campus to cope with the pandemic. Arizona courts ultimately overturned the ban on mask mandates, leaving the decision up to school boards.
Ducey, however, noted that “some school leaders did everything possible to keep kids in the classroom. But too often, politics and virtue signaling took center stage. In the process, more parents got involved. And thank God they did. But other families have seen their kids fall behind. There’s been too much attention on masks and not nearly enough placed on math; a focus on restrictions rather than reading and writing. And it’s students of color and those in poverty who have been most impacted by the COVID-era posturing and politics of some school board bureaucrats.”
The governor also said too many schools have divided children by race by teaching some aspect of critical race theory, a mostly university-based analysis that examines patterns of institutional racism in American history and institutions.
“This session we’ll make it clear. Students should be taught to think critically, not taught critical race theory,” said the governor.
No school districts in Rim Country and the White Mountains say they teach critical race theory, although they may teach about slavery, the civil rights movement and other topics related to race in history classes.
Education advocates complain that the governor’s State of the State speech mentioned almost none of their top priorities for the upcoming legislative session. The state’s universities, community colleges and K-12 schools account for more than half of all state spending. The state ranks 48th in per-student spending for K-12 schools, although it gets more federal money per student than most other states.
Save our Schools is calling for a host of new measures to support education. That includes:
• Increases in school funding, supported by the state’s current, $2 billion surplus
• Support for special education, including counseling and mental health services
• Money for teacher retention and recruitment to cope with the worsening teacher shortage
The Save our Schools report also listed bills education advocates plan to oppose, including:
• Any expansion of private school vouchers
• HB2009, which would reduce state funding to any school district that did not obey legislative intent, a law inspired by resistance to the state’s ban on mask mandates
• A proposed law to bar teachers from discussing controversial topics in the classroom
• A bill to expand the definition of homeschooling to provide taxpayer money to cover the cost of micro-schooling for small groups of children in private homes and facilities
• SB1010, which would make school board elections partisan elections, with a Republican and Democratic primary