Diane Douglas gets one thing right

Diane DouglasLast week, Superintendent of Public Instruction Diane Douglas, the woman who cannot seem to play well with others, Board of Education escalates feud with Diane Douglas, nevertheless proposed an intriguing plan to get more education funding to Arizona’s schools (albeit after having remained largely silent during the past legislative session). Superintendent Diane Douglas wants $400 million for teachers:

Arizona’s schools chief is joining the already-long list of leaders calling for more state education funding.

Superintendent of Public Instruction Diane Douglas on Friday asked Gov. Doug Ducey and the Legislature for the “immediate appropriation, for this fiscal year, of $400 million to go specifically to teachers in classrooms,” for salaries and hiring more teachers to reduce classroom sizes.

Douglas said in a news release that the request is the first of many initiatives that will be part of her “AZ Kids Can’t Afford to Wait! Plan.” Superintendent Douglas: Arizona Kids Can’t Afford to Wait for Funding (.pdf). Additional parts of the plan will be announced next month.

“As I traveled the state during the campaign, and then for several months on my We Are Listening Tour, the number one concern I heard was the lack of funding and support for teachers,” Douglas said in a statement. “After seeing revenues so far above forecasts just a few months into this fiscal year, I believe that Arizonans can no longer afford to wait to provide higher quality education to our children.”

The state ended fiscal year 2015 in June with a $325 million balance, about $250 million of which was estimated to be ongoing annual revenue, according to the Joint Legislative Budget Committee’s most recent report. It projected the state would end this fiscal year with a $278 million balance. The state also has about $458 million in its “rainy day fund.”

Douglas said she is sharing her plan with legislative leadership and looks forward to meeting with them next week.

The editorial opinions of Douglas’ proposal  have been favorable. The Arizona Daily Star editorialized in an Opinion: Fund Arizona’s schools now:

Gov. Doug Ducey and House Speaker David Gowan — announced that they’ve found ways to increase school funding without raising taxes.

Both of those plans involve taking money out of the state land trust, which is earmarked to support K-12 education. State schools superintendent Diane Douglas and state Treasurer Jeff DeWit, also a Republican, have come out against those proposals.

The Ducey and Republican leadership plans would require voter approval, which means the earliest funding could actually increase would be 2017.

Douglas said last week there’s no reason to wait. As reported by Howard Fischer of Capitol Media Services, Douglas pointed out that the state ended the last fiscal year on June 30 with $325 million to spare. And revenues so far in this new year are above projections.

“If not now, then when?” Douglas, also a Republican, asked while proposing that the Legislature convene this fall to appropriate $400 million immediately.

Douglas is correct. Arizona’s schoolchildren have waited far too long.

The Arizona Republic editorialized Our View: Right education message, wrong messenger:

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Diane Douglas lacks leadership skills, stature and credibility.

But she’s got one thing right: Our schools need more money. Now.

She wants an “immediate appropriation, for this fiscal year, of $400 million to go specifically to teachers in classrooms.” She says that was the take-away lesson from her listening tour around the state.

Douglas may be the only state leader listening to what people say about funding schools.

Unfortunately, she’s the wrong champion for schools. She has no coalition and no foundation on which to build one.

Her intransigent style and shortage of sandbox skills sowed discord between the Department of Education she heads and the state Board of Education of which she is a member. That sparked a recall effort.

Douglas has been in a low-key feud with Gov. Doug Ducey since shortly after she took office. But she needs the governor because her plan can happen only if he calls a special session to make an immediate appropriation. Fat chance of the governor helping out the superintendent.

She’ll need GOP lawmakers, too, but they’re politically astute to know the dangers of hopping into Douglas’ boat. Besides, they have their own education-funding plan, which does not include anything like the appropriation Douglas wants.

The lawmakers’ plan builds on the governor’s proposal to temporarily increase the take from state trust-land earnings. Lawmakers also want to siphon money from First Things First, which voters established to fund improvements in child care for all Arizona children.

Ducey’s proposal requires voter approval. The lawmakers’ scheme needs voter approval for the trust-land changes and to raid First Things First.

As Douglas points out, this delays the effective date of funding from both the governor’s and the GOP lawmakers’ plans. Complicating matters, state Treasurer Jeff DeWit opposes Ducey’s plan as detrimental to future education funding.

* * *

The kids have been waiting for the adults to settle a lawsuit over voter-mandated inflation funding that’s owed to schools. The court says Arizona owes about $330 million a year going forward. That could grow to about $1.3 billion if the state has to pay for what schools were shorted during the recession.

The solutions being offered by Ducey and lawmakers expire after 10 years, creating a nasty fiscal cliff.

Another funding disaster looms: the six-tenths of a cent sales tax for education approved by voters in 2000. It collected nearly $350 million for the classroom site fund last fiscal year, in addition to funding other education-related costs. But it goes away in 2021 unless voters reauthorize it.

Lawmakers should be working now to put the tax on the ballot in a high-turnout presidential election. There are only two of those left before the funding disappears.

In the meantime, there is no reason to continue shorting our schools, which have not recovered the funding they lost during the recession.

Students and teachers need adequate resources to meet tough new academic standards. The state needs an education system that will attract and keep businesses that offer high-paying jobs.

With a budget surplus of $325 million and $450 million in the state rainy-day fund, there is no excuse to continue starving our schools.

Douglas is right when she says money is available now. Too bad she’s chased away anyone who might listen to her.

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