A well-intentioned bad bill: raising bond limits for schools


by David Safier

Arizona Republicans have balanced the budget on the backs of children over the past few years through draconian cuts to education funding, meaning our schools are desperately underfunded. I'm all for more money for schools. So I should support HB2399 which just passed the House. It allows school boards to double the amount of bonds they can float to help fund their schools. I have to admit, if I were in the legislature, I would have voted for HB2399 along with the Democrats and a few Republicans (it passed 31-26), but I hate the bill. It hastens the movement back toward inequitable funding of school districts, where communities with affluent families give their children well funded schools while children in poorer communities have schools that scrape by with the bare essentials.

In the bad old days, school districts were dependent on passing school levies which determined the amount of property taxes people paid to fund their schools. If a levy passed, the district had funds, and if the levy was substantial, the district was flush with cash. But if a levy didn't pass or it was minimal, the district was barely able to keep its school doors open. Districts in affluent areas usually spent far more per student than districts in poor areas. The rich folks loved to brag that they supported their kids, unlike the riffraff in poorer areas. Ironically, rich communities often paid lower property tax rates for their schools than poorer communities. When you have lots of million dollar homes, you don't have to charge much per thousand dollars of value to shower your schools with funding. In a poorer area where homes are worth far less (and lots of people are renters), you have to charge more per thousand dollars of value to end up with school funding that's barely adequate.

This gross funding inequity (Jonathan Kozol wrote a book on the subject titled "Savage Inequalities") changed in Arizona and elsewhere when funding was equalized. The state guaranteed all school districts would get more-or-less the same funding, using a formula that weighs a variety of factors — types of students, transportation needs, etc. — to raise or lower the amount given to each district. Ideally, that means all schools, in rich or poor areas, are funded at equitable levels.

In the real world, however, there are ways for individual schools with wealthy families to spend more on their children's education than schools with poor families, even if they're in the same district. There's always fund raising — it's not hard to raise tens of thousands of dollars in affluent communities while neighboring areas with poorer families raise a few hundred dollars on bake sales — and then there are 100% refundable tax credits which favor affluent taxpayers. At the district level, voters can decide to assess themselves for bonds up to 10% of their tax base. HB2399 doubles the bonding limit to 20%.

Boosting districts' bonding capacities is part of a slippery slope toward increasingly inequitable educational funding. It allows the state to continue reducing what it budgets for education and giving districts the ability to increase their funding locally. It's inevitable that more affluent areas will vote to increase their bonding levels more often than poorer areas.

This is one more manifestation of our national movement toward increasing economic inequality. The children of rich parents get better funded schools which increase the educational advantage they already have, while children of poor parents slip further and further behind in underfunded schools.