Earlier this year our anti-public education GQP-controlled Arizona legislature averted a fiscal cliff in public education funding with an eleventh-hour short-term fix that solved the problem only for the last fiscal year, but did not address the current fiscal year school budget. Financial Doomsday for Arizona Schools Averted: Arizona State Senate Joins the House and Passes a Suspension of the School Budget Cap.

Senate Democratic Leader Rebecca Rios, according to reporting by NPR, chastised Republicans for putting undue stress on children, educators, staff, and families, stating “this was a crisis we unnecessarily created. She also called for the permanent removal of the state expenditure limit.

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(The correct answer would have been for the legislature to refer the education aggregate expenditure limit, enacted by voters decades ago, back to the voters for repeal on the November 2022 ballot. But Republicans wanted to keep this leverage over public schools because of the statewide referendum to stop the universal voucher expansion also passed by the GQP legislature. Save Our Schools has until the end of the day on Sept. 23 to gather at least 118,823 valid signature on referendum petitions to keep Gov. Doug Ducey’s expanded school vouchers law from taking effect until the next general election in 2024, when the referendum will appear on the ballot and the voters will decide.)

The next public school funding fiscal cliff crisis must be addressed.

The Arizona Daily Star reports, School districts call on Arizona Legislature to lift spending limit:

A total of 191 school superintendents throughout Arizona, including those of nine major school districts in Pima County, are calling on state legislators to hold a special session to lift schools’ aggregate expenditure limit.

As it stands, the limit, known as AEL, could cost public schools an estimated $1.3 billion during the current fiscal year, according to the two letters written to Gov. Doug Ducey and to House and Senate members.

“We respectfully ask that a special session be called prior to the general election with the purpose of fixing the AEL. Specifically we would ask that the AEL be lifted for one more year,” one of the letters states. [So yet another short-term fix for just this fiscal year, as provided for in the constitutional provision.]

The school administrators said failure to address the AEL would threaten districts’ abilities to cover teacher pay raises, minimum wage increases, funding for capital projects and continued work to improve school safety.

The following nine school superintendents, as well as Pima County Schools Superintendent Dustin Williams, signed the two letters dated Sept. 6:

Todd Jaeger, Amphitheater Unified School District

Mary Kamerzell, Catalina Foothills School District

Kevin Stoltzfus, Flowing Wells Unified School District

Dan Streeter, Marana Unified School District

Manuel Valenzuela, Sahuarita Unified School District

Jose Gastelum, Sunnyside Unified School District

Scott Hagerman, Tanque Verde Unified School District

Gabriel Trujillo, Tucson Unified School District

John Carruth, Vail Unified School District

The AEL, according to the Arizona School Administrators group, was enacted in 1980 to set a cap on statewide school spending.

Last year, state legislators narrowly met the deadline to waive the spending cap that would have otherwise instructed school districts to cut their budgets by an average of 16% across the board. This year, school districts are facing a 17% budget cut if the AEL is not lifted, the school administrators group said.

The Arizona Mirror explains in greater detail, AZ teacher, school staff pay raises at risk if spending limit isn’t lifted:

Schools in Arizona could lose access to more than $1 billion lawmakers gave them this school year if the state doesn’t take action to lift a 40-year-old spending limit placed on school districts.

School superintendents from districts across the state with markedly different student populations — from Bullhead City School District on Arizona’s western border, which has a student poverty rate of around 36%, to Scottsdale Unified School District, where just 7.8% of students live in poverty — banded together to ask the state to lift the limit for the 2023 fiscal year.

Around 190 superintendents signed onto a letter sent Tuesday, urging the Arizona Legislature to support Gov. Doug Ducey in calling for a special legislative session to lift the Aggregate Expenditure Limit prior to the fall’s election. The legislature is currently not scheduled to return to work until January 2023.

The AEL, added to the Arizona Constitution by voters in 1980,  implemented a shared monetary limit based on the spending and enrollment at all public school districts in the state, according to the Arizona Education Association. Once districts reach their shared limit, they can do no more spending in that fiscal year.

What is the Aggregate Expenditure Limit (AEL)? It is a Constitutional Amendment that was passed by Arizona voters in 1980 which created a spending limitation for school districts based on the aggregate expenditure of all districts. This limitation excludes charter schools and only applies to district public schools.

In the Scottsdale Unified School District, the expected shortfall if the cap isn’t lifted is expected to be more than $28 million — enough to cover more than six weeks of operational costs for the district and amounting to 20% of its annual maintenance and operational budget, SUSD Superintendent Scott Menzel told the Arizona Mirror.

The cap goes into effect April 1, with around two months left in the 2023 school year. [Conveniently around the time legislative leaders and the governor are trying to negotiate a state budget behind closed doors.]

“The impact of that kind of reduction that late in school is pretty significant,” he said.

The legislature and the governor dedicated around $600 million in new, permanent funding to K-12 schools in the 2023 state budget, passed in June. But once districts across the state meet their shared limit, they can’t spend any of that money even if they have it in the bank. That’s why superintendents are so desperate to see it lifted.

“The sooner this is addressed, the better it will be for schools in terms of moving forward,” Menzel said. 

In the letter, the superintendents stressed that the additional education funding in this year’s state budget made it possible to approve pay raises for teachers and support staff, which were necessary for districts to be competitive. In Arizona, around a quarter of the state’s teaching positions typically remain unfilled a month into the school year, according to annual surveys conducted by Arizona School Personnel Administrators Association.

On Tuesday night, the SUSD school board voted to raise the district’s minimum wage to $15 per hour, to give teachers and principals a 3% raise and to give a $2,500 raise to other administrators.

Those increases were meant to help employees deal with inflation and to attract and retain talent, but the pay raises will be at risk if the cap isn’t lifted, Menzel said.

The state constitution allows a two-thirds majority in both the state Senate and House of Representatives to override the limit for one year. Lawmakers have only voted to do so three times, in 2002, 2008 and in February of this year, according to the Arizona Education Association. The vote in February lifted the cap for the 2022 fiscal year, which came to a close at the end of June, and spared schools from having to cut roughly $1.2 billion from their spending plans in the final weeks of the school year.

If the spending limit isn’t lifted, the impact will vary by school district, Menzel said. Some small rural districts that receive a lot of aid from the state might not be able to make payroll if the cap isn’t lifted, he said.

“As some of the largest employers in our respective communities, these cuts would devastate our local economies and the families in our communities, not to mention the aggregate effect on the state economy,” the superintendents said in their letter to the legislature.

Gov. Doug Ducey did not respond to a request for comment from the Mirror asking if he planned to schedule a special session to lift the spending limit.

While we re on the topic of teachers getting paid, the Arizona Mirror further reports, Arizona teachers face a 32% pay penalty, among the worst in the nation:

Arizona has one of the biggest teacher pay gaps in the nation.

Public school teachers across the country are paid significantly less than their similarly-educated counterparts, and a new report from the Economic Policy Institute shows that teachers in Arizona faced a 32% wage penalty in 2021 compared to college-educated workers employed in other fields.

Arizona has the fourth-largest teacher pay gap in the nation, behind only Colorado at almost 36%, Oklahoma at 32.8% and Virginia at 32.7%.

“The financial penalty that teachers face discourages college students from entering the teaching profession and makes it difficult for school districts to keep current teachers in the classroom,” EPI said in the report.

Teacher pay penalties are contributing to a severe teacher shortage in Arizona, as well as across the rest of the country.

“Providing teachers with compensation commensurate with that of other similarly educated professionals is not simply a matter of fairness but is necessary to improve educational outcomes and foster future economic stability of workers, their families, and communities across the U.S.,” EPI said in the report.

EPI is a non-profit think tank created in 1986 with the goal of, “including the needs of low- and middle-income workers in economic policy discussions.”

The average weekly pay for public school teachers in the U.S., when adjusted for inflation, only increased $29 from 1996 to 2021, while weekly wages for other college graduates increased $445 during that time, according to EPI.

And while teachers typically receive more compensation in the form of benefits than those employed in other fields, those benefits typically don’t make up for the wage gap. Even with benefits factored in, the compensation gap for teachers was still at 14% nationally.

As of January, 31% of teaching positions across Arizona were unfilled, according to a survey from the Arizona School Personnel Administrators Association. Since 2016, around a quarter of teaching positions in the state remained unfilled a month into the school year, according to the association’s annual surveys.

“Arizona teacher pay remains one of the lowest in the country, even with the recent teacher salary increases,” the association said in a news release. “The inability to offer competitive salaries severely limits public schools from attracting the best and the brightest. The severity of the teacher shortage must be addressed. Arizona’s leaders must make a collective effort to ensure the recruitment and retention of effective teachers through increased funding. Highly educated and skilled workforce are cornerstones to a growing and thriving economy.”

Arizona’s low pay for teachers shouldn’t come as a surprise, as the state has historically ranked among those that spend the least on education.

In 2020, Arizona had the third-lowest per pupil on K-12 education in the country, according to numbers from the U.S. Census Bureau. And when it came to spending on instruction, Arizona ranked 51st, behind all the states and the District of Columbia.

Teachers in Arizona are paid, on average, among the lowest in the nation, according to a2021 report from the National Education Association that ranked Arizona at 44th for teacher pay.

Arizona’s 2023 fiscal year budget, signed into law by Gov. Doug Ducey in June, included nearly $600 million in new, permanent public school funding, but it’s unclear how much of that funding will go toward pay increases for teachers. Districts could also face barriers in spending the money allocated in the 2023 budget, unless state legislators agree to lift a spending cap based on a formula put into place more than 40 years ago. (see above).

While teachers unions and education advocates praised the increase in education funding that came in the 2023 bipartisan budget, many also agreed that it was still not enough to fix the teacher shortage and bring K-12 education funding to where they believe it should be.

“Without targeted & significant policy action-not just on teacher pay but on school funding …there can be no reasonable expectation of reversal in sight for pandemic-stressed schools and those who serve public ed,” Marisol Garcia tweeted in response to the EPI report.

Garcia is president of the Arizona Education Association, a statewide teachers union.

An anti-public education GQP legislature is never going to fix the education aggregate expenditure limit or teacher pay, because they want it this way – it is not a bug but a feature of Arizona’s woeful public education policies.

If you actually want to fix these problems, you must vote Republicans out of office and give Democrats control of the state legislature, the governor’s office, and the superintendent of pubic instruction office. If you vote for a Republican you are simply not serious about fixing Arizona’s woeful public education policies, which is why Arizona’s public education system is in such a sorry state.




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