It was just a few short years ago that Arizona’s school districts won a huge lawsuit against the Arizona GQP legislature after years of neglecting funding public schools adequately as required by the Arizona Constitution.
Our lawless Gov. Ducey and GQP legislature came up with a gimmick, Prop. 123, essentially stealing money from the state education trust fund – stealing from future generations – to increase school funding and teacher salaries by only a marginal amount today. School districts were given the extortionary demand “take this deal or you get nothing.” The school districts acceeded to this extortion demand, foregoing their much larger judgment against the state.
This successful extortion was only possible because our lawless Gov. Ducey and GQP legislature were openly prepared to defy the court’s order and judgment. To paraphrase President Andrew Jackson, “The court has made its decision; now let it enforce it.” This would have created a costitutional crisis of immense proportions.
In the end, Prop. 123 solved nothing. Arizona Is Dead Last (#51) In Classroom Instruction Funding When The State Has A $5.3 Billion Surplus (excerpt):
Beth Lewis, the director of Save Our Schools Arizona, said many teachers and those involved with the education system have “kind of gotten used to” the state’s low ranking on school funding.
“Schools are not able to afford a music teacher, an art teacher, a classroom aide,” said Lewis, who is also a teacher. “Teachers are trying to be everything; counselors, assistant principals, nurses.”
Arizona remains mired at the bottom of the rankings despite a 17.3% increase in per pupil funding between 2015 and 2020, according to the Census Bureau. But that still lagged behind the national average of an 18.5% increase during the period.
Advocates are hopeful – but not optimistic – that the situation will change next year, with the state sitting on a budget surplus that could be as high as $5.3 billion.
That hope was crushed this week with the radical Republican legislature’s eleventh hour attempt to revive its “vouchers for all” plan to privatize Arizona’s public education system, something Arizona voters overwhelmingly rejected at the ballot just a few short years ago.
Our lawless GQP legislature is once again making an extortionary demand, “Give us our vouchers or you get nothing.” It’s not clear where out lame-duck Gov. Ducey stands on this bill.
It's deja vu all over again: House panel OKs universal vouchers. But this time they insert poison pill to kill additional aid to schools if @arizona_sos refers it to ballot again so voters have another chance to kill it. But voucher foes remain adamant. https://t.co/FrCKWV4a8l
— Capitol Media Services – exposing BS 50+ years (@azcapmedia) June 16, 2022
The Arizona Mirror reports, GOP plan to expand school vouchers to all 1.1 million students advances, but appears doomed:
A proposal to let all 1.1 million Arizona students get taxpayer dollars to attend private school cleared a state legislative committee on Wednesday with Republican support, but it won’t have the votes needed to win approval in the full House of Representatives. [Are you so sure?]
And even if GOP leaders are able to wrangle the votes needed, public education advocates say they’ll ensure voters get the final say on the idea in 2024 — much as they did in 2018, when voters overwhelmingly rejected a similar expansion to the Empowerment Scholarship Account program that Republican legislators passed the prior year.
“These vouchers are a grift. These vouchers are a scheme to line the pockets of the wealthy,” Beth Lewis, the executive director of Save Our Schools Arizona, a group that was formed to fight expansions to the ESA program, told the House Ways and Means Committee.
Save Our Schools Arizona said Wednesday that it was committed to referring this year’s ESA expansion to the ballot if lawmakers approve it.
But the Arizona GQP legislature has made it much more difficult to get a citizens referendum on the ballot since the last time. They have been rigging the rules of the game so that they always win.
House Bill 2853 would allow every Arizona student to get an ESA account. And because a cap on participation expired in 2020, there would be no limit to the number of students who could take the voucher money to enroll in a private school, though legislative budget analysts estimate only 25,000 students would likely do so.
Rep. Ben Toma, a Peoria Republican and the bill’s sponsor, said there’s a philosophical difference between school-choice advocates and public school advocates over whether the government or parents should decide where a student goes to school.
“It’s not about private versus public education. It’s about parents getting a choice … for that particular child,” he said.
And that means the state should foot the bill for sending a child to private school if that’s what the parent thinks is best, Toma said.
Accountability for parents, but not for taxpayers
But critics said the beneficiaries of the expansion will be wealthy parents who don’t already qualify for ESAs and private school operators, while taxpayers will be left not knowing if the money is being well-spent or if there are any educational gains.
“Private schools are going to be raking in hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars … and there won’t be any accountability,” Lewis said.
The bill includes a provision requiring the students that would be newly eligible to take a national standardized test every year, which Toma and other proponents said was intended to provide accountability.
But those test scores would largely be kept secret: The aggregate scores at a school would only be provided to ESA parents who ask, and only if the school has at least 50 students attending with ESA funds.
The state would not be able to see those scores, which was a sticking point for many Democrats on the panel.
“It’s totally unaccountable,” said Rep. Kelli Butler, D-Paradise Valley. She noted that not only would the state not have a way to see if student achievement improves for ESA recipients, but the law doesn’t require students be taught to the same standards as exist in public schools.
That lack of accountability is likely to be what blocks the bill from garnering the support it needs in the full House. Three Republican lawmakers — Joel John, Joanne Osborne and Michelle Udall — have blocked ESA expansions in the past and said they would only change their positions if stricter accountability measures are added to the law.
Osborne is now a cosponsor of HB2853, indicating she feels the standardized testing provision is adequate accountability. (She did not return requests for comment.) But neither John nor Udall signed on to introduce the bill, and Udall told the Arizona Mirror that she remains opposed.
She said that the testing provision is too weak and “will not prevent bad actors from taking advantage of children and parents.”
Instead of requiring parents to test their children and keeping the results secret, Udall said private schools that accept ESA students need to test all their students and report their scores to the state.
“ESAs should only go to schools that can show their students are learning academics at or above grade level,” she said. “Without this type of academic accountability there will be schools that open, market aggressively, and don’t teach the academics they’re being paid to teach.”
Udall, a teacher in Mesa, likened it to “the early days of charter schools,” but with virtually no oversight or regulation. That, she said, will lead to profiteering at the expense of students and parents — and taxpayers.
Toma said that providing test scores to parents was sufficient, as they would in turn hold the schools accountable.
What about rural students?
Democrats also said the expansion would overwhelmingly help students in urban areas at the expense of students in rural Arizona, where there are few, if any, private schools.
An Arizona Mirror analysis of ESA participation data published by the Arizona Department of Education shows that more than three-fourths of ESA students — about 76% — live in either Maricopa or Pima counties. More than 58% of the students live in Maricopa while almost 18% live in Pima.
In rural counties, relatively few students use ESAs: Coconino, Graham, La Paz, Mohave and Santa Cruz counties combined to account for about 1.4% of all ESA students.
Even in large swaths of Maricopa County, particularly in lower socio-economic areas, there are few private schools. Marisol Garcia, the incoming president of the Arizona Education Association and a middle school teacher in Phoenix’s Isaac Elementary School District, said she has seen her students recruited to sign up for ESAs, only for the parents to realize there weren’t any private schools willing to take their students.
And that’s another problem, Lewis said: The ultimate choice for ESAs isn’t for the parents or the students, but for the private schools, who can decide who to admit and who to reject.
The ESA expansion comes amid the backdrop of a historic budget surplus — an estimated $5.3 billion, or about 40% of the current year’s spending. At a press conference before the legislative hearing, Lewis lamented that Republican legislators have no desire to use that money to make the public school system better and would instead prefer to take that money away to use for vouchers.
“This budget could have been a record-setting success that would help families all across Arizona — if we had a legislature that cared about Arizona kids and families,” she said. “But we don’t.”
The bill passed the committee on a 6-4 party-line vote, as did a companion measure that would add $400 million to K-12 funding — about half of it in a one-time boost — but only if the ESA expansion becomes law. Toma said the second bill was “an incentive” to mollify ESA opponents, but they were uninterested.
“An incentive for what? Who’s being incentivized?” wondered Rep. Mitzi Epstein, D-Tempe.
Toma recognized that the attempt was unlikely to win over ESA opponents.
“The voters will get a chance, no doubt, to weigh in on this in the future,” he said.
But wait! There’s more!
I have been posting about this lawsuit since it was first filed in 2017 – that’s right, this case has been languishing in court for five long years – but it is about to finally get a trial date, and the judgment in this case could far exceed the judgment that school districts won just a few short years ago. And the law is on their side: our lawless Arizona GQP legislature has been openly defying an Arizona Supreme Court opinion and order for decades.
Howard Fischer reports, Lawsuit vs. AZ funding formula for school construction can go to trial:
Arizona schools are entitled to get their day in court on their claim the state has shorted them by billions of dollars.
In a ruling released Wednesday, Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Daniel Martin rejected arguments by state officials and Republican legislative leaders that he has no right to rule on the legality of the formula they use to finance new schools and repairs for existing schools.
Martin said it’s clearly within the purview of the courts to determine if the state is complying with the constitutional requirements to maintain a “general and uniform’’ school system.
The judge also rejected arguments that he cannot review the claims first filed five years ago because the state has made adjustments to its capital funding system.
“Accepting defendants’ arguments based on mootness would preclude courts from ever deciding whether Arizona’s capital finance system complies with the constitution,’’ Martin wrote.
“Because a case of this complexity always will span multiple years — and multiple legislative sessions — the Legislature can always pass some new law that nibbles around the edges of the system, and claim that the case is moot and unripe,’’ he wrote [i.e., acting in bad faith.] “Not surprisingly, Arizona law does not support such a contention.’’
There was no immediate comment from legislative leaders.
The lawsuit, filed in 2017 by a coalition of public schools and education organizations, contends lawmakers have been shorting schools each year for the capital funds to which state law says they are entitled.
The cumulative loss to schools from failure of legislators to obey the funding formula is now close to $6 billion, Danny Adelman of the Center for Law in the Public Interest, one of the plaintiffs’ attorneys, said Wednesday.
The issue’s roots date back to 1994.
In 1994, in Roosevelt Elementary School District v. Bishop, the Arizona Supreme Court struck down the State’s school facilities funding system under the State constitution’s “general and uniform” provision, holding that the facilities funding system must provide to all school districts the facilities and equipment necessary to offer all students the opportunity to master the State student learning standards. The Court also held that the State’s funding mechanism must not cause substantial disparities among districts.
Prior to then, construction of new schools and needed repairs were presumed to be solely the responsibility of local districts. But in a historic ruling that year, the Arizona Supreme Court said that created gross inequities and left some schools without adequate facilities.
“Some districts have schoolhouses that are unsafe, unhealthy, and in violation of building, fire and safety codes,’’ the justices said, noting there were schools without libraries, laboratories or gymnasiums. “But in other districts, there are schools with indoor swimming pools, a domed stadium, science laboratories, television studios, well-stocked libraries, satellite dishes and extensive computer systems.’’
The justices said that ran afoul of the constitutional obligation for a general and uniform school system.
After several more rulings, state lawmakers eventually created a School Facilities Board to come up with minimum guidelines and created a system to finance new schools as needed as well as to provide $200 million a year for upkeep.
However, lawmakers have not fully funded that formula for years, adopting a more year-by-year approach of having districts seek funds.
The result, according to challengers, has been a shortage of funds to pay not only for repairs but for other needs ranging from school buses to textbooks. They said that forces school districts to use locally raised funds — assuming voters are willing to go along — to pay for needs the Supreme Court concluded are a state responsibility.
Josh Bendor, another attorney representing the schools, said Wednesday that adds to the disparities the high court found illegal.
He said some districts have more property wealth than others. That means adding $1 to the local property tax in a rich district raises far more than the same levy in a property-poor district.
Put another way, Bendor said, people in poor districts have to raise their tax rates by three or four times as much as those in rich districts to raise the same amount of money.
No date has been set for a trial.
Note: A six billion dollar judgment plus attorneys fees and costs would far exceed the current $5.3 billion state budget surplus. It’s not really a “surplus” when it exists only because our lawless GQP legislature is refusing to adequately fund public education in an attempt to starve public schools into mediocrity and thus create a demand for private schools that promise a better education experience, so that they can achieve their dream of privatizing public education.
Many state legislators over the years have established or worked for ESA private school foundations so that they can personally enrich themselves from this grift of taxpayer dollars. And they have made certain that there are no ethics rules which find this blatant and obvious conflict of interest unethical. They write laws which essentially use the state’s checkbook to write checks to themselves to enrich themselves. This ought to be considered theft, and they re thieves.
By the way, our lawless GQP legislature only has until July 1 to enact a state budget. So be on the alert for the horse trading in coming days to pass HB2853 and to put it into the state budget.