Arizona GOP renews its war on public education


Last year Governor Doug Ducey was forced into increasing his offer of a one percent pay increase for public school teachers to an incremental twenty percent pay increase over two years in response to the Red For Ed teacher strike in Arizona. Governor Ducey suggested at the time that this was just a down payment on restoring massive cuts to public education since the Great Recession and subsequent years over the past decade. Governor Ducey went so far as to market himself as the “education governor” in his reelection bid.

Now that the election is past, that down payment on public education funding talk is nowhere to be found. In his State of The State address on Monday, “the governor talked mostly about programs and initiatives he’s rolled out before, such as the Arizona Teacher’s Academy and his school safety plan. He did not propose any new funding plans, sticking to his 20 by 2020 plan and doubling down on his promise for no tax hikes. What Gov. Doug Ducey said (and didn’t say) about education in State of the State address:

Ducey said he would continue to “hold the line” on raising taxes, signaling a lack of support for any education-related tax increases, possibly like the one state Sen. Sylvia Allen, R-Snowflake, proposed before the legislative session even started.

The governor didn’t address the possibility of finding new revenue streams for education.

He did pledge to keep his promise to raise teachers’ salaries by 20 percent by 2020.

The governor is halfway there, with last year’s 10 percent raise. This year, he’ll need to add $165 million to the budget for teacher pay to stick to that promise.

Critics say Ducey’s 20 percent raise proposal doesn’t go far enough to make teacher pay in Arizona competitive with other states — and public schools need more money to fix problems beyond teachers raises.

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Ducey also said he would continue to work to address the state’s dire teacher shortage by expanding the Arizona Teachers Academy, a program aimed at keeping students enrolled in teaching programs at state universities in Arizona after they graduate.

“If someone graduates from an Arizona university, is willing to stay in Arizona, and teach in a public school, why not allow them to graduate debt-free by providing a scholarship?” he said. “We are going to create a pipeline of talent and the next generation of Arizona teachers.”

A report on the program from the Arizona Board of Regents found that the three in-state universities served 221 students in the academy’s first year, but interest in the program far outweighed the resources available to expand it.

The schools needed more support, in money and staff, to support it, the report indicated.

The governor in his address pledged to build and expand career and technical education programs, known as CTE programs. The promise comes after the state’s CTE programs almost endured a $30 million funding cut after funding formula changes. A bill in 2016 reversed the cuts.

“These are programs we plan to build, expand and align with the jobs of tomorrow. And my budget will do just that,” he said.

More details about CTE funding will come Friday in the governor’s budget, according to a news release.

As Laurie Roberts of The Republic comments, Spend more on Arizona schools? To Gov. Doug Ducey, that is so 2018:

Arizona’s public schools are still $700 million short of where they were before the Great Recession.

So naturally, Gov. Doug Ducey on Monday announced plans to add $538 million to the state’s $462 million Rainy Day Fund, far more than state law even allows.

This, to ensure that money is there to educate tomorrow’s students. As for today’s students?

Well, last year’s re-election campaign – education, education, education — is clearly over.

Ducey, in his State of the State address, committed to funding for the second half of last year’s promised 20 percent teacher pay raises. Beyond that, however, his plans for improving school funding rated only a vague note that “more is needed … a focus on results, resources and reforms.”

Never mind that even members are his own party are beginning to call for a tax increase for the underfunded schools. Among them, Senate President Karen Fann, Sen. Kate Brophy McGee and even the staunchly conservative chairwoman of the Senate Education Committee, Sylvia Allen.

Given that the state funding formula allocates $336 less to educate a student today than it did in 2008, once inflation is factored in, more is certainly needed.

I would have hoped that Ducey, blessed with a $1 billion budget surplus, would have laid out his plan to supply it … before today’s third graders graduate.

Especially given that it’ll take change in law to squirrel away that much money. Currently, the Rainy Day Fund currently has $462 million, representing 4.5 percent of general fund revenues. State law limits the fund to seven percent.

I can certainly see adding some money to the Rainy Day Fund. But to overstuff it at a time when today’s students are being shortchanged? That’s just not right.

It’ll take either a tax referendum by the Legislature or an initiative by the teachers to try to at long last restore the full funding to the public schools. [Educators tried this in 2018. The Arizona Supreme Court tossed their initiative after the Arizona legislature and governor enacted new rules to make qualifying an initiative more cumbersome.]

The education governor (sic) signaled Monday that he isn’t willing to do what it’ll take to make the schools whole again.

Voter overwhelmingly rejected the “school vouchers on steroids bill” enacted by the Arizona legislature and Governor Ducey in a citizens referendum of the bill in 2018. Arguably, the Voter Protection Act should apply to prevent this special interest bill from resurfacing again, but apparently not. Two months after voters say ‘no,’ lawmaker has new bill on Arizona school voucher program:

Two months after voters rejected a massive expansion of Arizona’s school voucher program, a state lawmaker has introduced a new bill to alter the so-called empowerment scholarship account program.

State Rep. Mark Finchem, R-Oro Valley, has proposed legislation that would move some of the program’s administrative oversight from the Department of Education to the Treasurer’s Office.

The change is similar to the plan voters rejected as Prop. 305, which was defeated 65 percent to 35 percent in the November election. That measure would have made all students in Arizona eligible to apply for an ESA, which takes public money from public schools and gives it parents to use for private school.

The group that put Prop. 305 on the ballot and successfully campaigned to overturn the voucher expansion is vowing to fight Finchem’s House Bill 2022.

“We see this as a direct violation of what voters wanted,” Save Our Schools spokeswoman Dawn Penich-Thacker said. “If this moves forward we will fight hard to oppose it.”

Should the legislation pass and be signed by the governor, it would likely result in a court fight over whether the defeat of Prop. 305 is voter-protected under Arizona law, meaning it could only be changed with a supermajority of the Legislature in a way that furthers the intent of what voters approved.

Can lawmakers tweak issues in a referendum?

Multiple legal experts have said they consider the law unsettled on whether voter protections apply to referendums because the courts have never decided the issue.

The 1998 Voter Protection Act, which was passed by voters, said voter protections apply when voters “decide” a referendum.

“It’s never been tested in the referendum context,” said Roopali Desai, the lawyer for Save Our Schools. “What decided means is really key. … A no vote is a decision. That indicates to me there’s a strong argument it’s voter protected.”

Staff attorneys for the Legislature wrote a memo in 2018 that concluded only a “yes” vote would be voter protected. The memo said that “when the people exercise their referendum power to ‘decide’ a measure that was previously enacted by the legislature, they are not voting on whatever general principle or subject the enacted measure might be dealing with but only on the specific language of the particular measure itself.”

However, the memo said the staff attorneys cannot be certain this would stand up to a legal challenge because the issue has never been decided by the courts.

Finchem, a right-wing nut from Oro Valley in the mold of former state senator Cap’n Al Melvin (it must be something in the water) has introduced a parcel of bills which includes an attack on Red For Ed educators, according to Tim Steller of the Arizona Daily Star:

Finchem also introduced the session’s second bill, HB 2002, which you also may have read about in the Star. It would require K-12 education to be boring (that’s my reading of it) by threatening with termination any teacher who veers into “controversial” subject matter. Specifically it prohibits teachers from introducing into the classroom “any controversial issue that is not germane to the topic of the course or academic subject being taught.”

It also would prohibit teachers from advocating for or against candidates, legislation or judicial action. That’s fine by me, but a state law already prohibits teachers and other school-district officials from advocating for an outcome in elections.

What you may not have heard about are Finchem’s efforts to extend his campaign against the university system, perhaps the most prominent theme of his legislative career. The third bill introduced this session, HB 2003, would require tenured professors to retire at whatever the employee’s “normal retirement date” is, as established by the Arizona State Retirement System. It would also prevent a university employee from obtaining tenure once past that age.

It turns out that Finchem’s proposed ethical code for teachers is identical to the proposed code of ethics from the Stop K-12 Indoctrination campaign, a project sponsored by the far-right, anti-Muslim David Horowitz Freedom Center. Arizona Lawmaker Lifted Teacher Code of Ethics From Far-Right Group:

The similarities were first spotted by Peter Greene, an education policy blogger.

The Southern Poverty Law Center, which monitors hate groups, describes founder David Horowitz as “a driving force of the anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant, and anti-black movements.”

Color me not surprised.

Finchem is not the only right-wing legislator who wants to retaliate against Red For Ed educators. Rep. Kelly Townsend (R-Mesa) wants school district employees and board members investigated at the whim of any legislator who questions the legality of their policies. And she wants the Attorney General’s Office to do the job despite the strain already imposed on the office by existing law. Republican lawmaker takes aim at public schools:

Townsend’s proposal in House Bill 2018would expand a 2016 law that allows any state legislator to ask the attorney general to investigate an ordinance, regulation, order or other action taken by a municipality or county to determine whether it is in compliance with state law.

The bill would require the attorney general to investigate any policy, procedure or other official action taken by a school district governing board or any school district employee that lawmakers allege violates state law. If investigators find the law has been broken, the superintendent of public instruction would be directed to withhold up to $5,000 per violation from offending districts’ state funding.

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Townsend said SB1487 must be extended to school districts because laws have been broken without consequence for years.

“The things that are happening at the school level have been overlooked for long enough that people are offended that we’re asking them to abide by the law,” she said.

A state law already forbids the use of public school resources to influence elections and allows violators to be penalized.

But Townsend said the law has no teeth and may not be enough for some officials to take action. She said Attorney General Mark Brnovich won’t hold that office forever, and those who come after him may think they have bigger fish to fry than district employees potentially using school resources to influence elections.

“We as legislators, at least Kelly Townsend, think that this is a big enough fish to take care of,” she said. “Our election process has to be pure.”

Laurie Roberts of The Republic writes, Look out, Red for Ed: Arizona legislators planning to retaliate:

We are now getting a glimpse of how at least some Arizona legislators intend to respond to last year’s revolt by teachers fed up with a decade’s worth of neglect of the public schools.

Not with resolution – as in being resolute to fix, finally, the shameful under funding of Arizona’s schools.

But with retaliation.

First came House Bill 2002, Rep. Mark Finchem’s proposal to gag teachers and to address what reads like a laundry list of his grievances against the schools.

Now comes HB 2017, Rep. Kelly Townsend’s proposal to prevent any possibility of another teacher walkout aimed at forcing the Legislature to address the shameful fact we are (still) stiffing the public schools.

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“People are saying, ‘Oh, you know, this is just a response to Red for Ed.’ Who’s saying it isn’t?” Townsend told the Arizona Capitol Times’ Katie Campbell. “So many parents were inconvenienced. The students were inconvenienced and scared of what was going to happen if they had to stay beyond graduation day. Absolutely – and I don’t apologize – it is a response to Red for Ed.”

Quite a telling response to Red for Ed, in fact.

But if parents were inconvenienced and students were scared, whose fault was it, really?

That would be our lawless Tea-Publican Arizona legislature which has underfunded public education for year in defiance of the Arizona Constitution.

Retaliation begets retaliation. A handful of bills introduced ahead of the 2019 legislative session are already stirring up tensions in the education community, leaving some to wonder if the Capitol will again be awash in red. Bills to restrict teachers reawakens Red for Ed movement.

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