Published on March 12, 2022 at 4:07 p.m.
Long ago, in a Phoenix 100 miles away, Arizona Governor Doug Ducey decided that Arizona could no longer rank 49th in school spending. No, that was completely unacceptable.
Hell, he was going to do something about it.
In 2016, he got voters to approve Proposition 123. This ballot proposal raided the state land trust to give schools $300 million in additional spending a year. without a tax increase.
Then in 2018, he struck a deal with teachers to increase school spending by $500 million.
The only thing he wouldn’t allow was for Arizona to establish a permanent funding mechanism to give schools some of the money they needed to compete with the rest of the country.
He and the entire Phoenix supply establishment opposed the Prop. 208, which raised the income tax on the wealthy from 4.5% to 8% after it was narrowly approved by Arizona voters.
Maricopa County Superior Court Judge John Hannah fired the shot at Prop. 208, after the state Supreme Court ruled the plan violated constitutional caps on school spending.
So where does the funding for our schools compare to the rest of the nation? According to the U.S. Census, it ranks 49th in both funding per student and as a percentage of state personal income.
We didn’t move. Those numbers are from 2019, but Arizona lags Mississippi at No. 48 by about $600 million a year. The state hasn’t added $600 million to school spending since then. Hell, Prop. 208 only increased school funding by $800 million a year.
And yet Ducey is happy as a clam. He tweeted this after hearing about the victory over progress:
“Arizona is – and will continue to be – a state that knows how to prioritize education, while keeping taxes low and attracting jobs.”
No, Arizona prioritizes education less than all other states except Idaho and Utah. We are in the same situation we were in 2015 when Ducey said this was unacceptable.
The court’s decision means Arizona remains where it has always been — at the bottom of the national school funding ladder. The untenable has become permanent, and everyone is guilty.
The court decision
It’s easy to focus anger right now on the judge who ruled that the ballot initiative violated the state constitution.
It’s because he did. Voters in 1980 established a spending limit for school funding based solely on increases in funding through inflation and population growth from that year.
Well, that year, Arizona ranked in the bottom 10 for school funding, just ahead of some southern states, which have since started a spending tear and left our state behind.
Lawyers for the Invest In Ed coalition tried to argue that the money didn’t count against the spending cap because it was actually a grant.
Sigh. Really? I don’t watch state Supreme Court hearings much, but even I knew that argument wouldn’t fly with the judges. They are consistent with their strike zone. It’s small but reliable. They’re not letting the Legislature reinterpret the plaintext readings, and the nine Republican-appointed justices certainly won’t let the Liberals do that.
Hey, lawyers for opponents of Invest in Ed argued that only the legislature can raise taxes and should do so by supermajority. The Arizona high court laughed off that argument from the room and said, yes, voter initiatives can too.
On the other hand, the court probably did not need to dismiss everything and could have simply allowed the state to spend up to the limit. Where they have discretion, they will use it like the Republicans they are.
How shocking is that?
It’s time to make changes
This is why the pro-school crowd should have pursued a constitutional amendment.
I said the same thing in 2016, right after Governor Doug Ducey got approval to plunder the state land trust to pay for some K-12 expenses.
“Every two years from now until the job is done, school advocates are going to have to work hard to get around the Legislative Assembly putting constitutional amendments on the ballot and winning voter support. .”
Golly, I seem smart now.
Constitutional amendments cannot be declared unconstitutional by the courts. They need 120,000 to 150,000 more signatures to reach the ballot.
I confess that the constitutional spending limit did not occur to me when I wrote in favor of Prop. 208 before the elections. I mistakenly believed that the funders would have thought of that.
This is not the first time that the court has canceled an education investment plan. The group first sought to put forward a proposal in 2018. They just spoiled the ballot language by confusing percentages with percentage points and the Arizona Supreme Court dismissed the language as grossly misleading. It was not a 3.5% increase in income taxes. It was a 3.5 percentage point increase that nearly doubled the taxes the wealthiest would pay.
Yes, there is a difference. Ask a math teacher.
Then, in 2020, Invest In Ed got its act together and crafted a ballot proposal that survived a seriously stupid trial and a court opinion from a Superior Court judge that was sheer madness. The judge essentially ruled that any ballot proposal must list all potential arguments against the question and do so within the 100-word limit set by state law. His opinion was convoluted and insane and the Supreme Court overturned it. However, there was a greater truth in his view.
Investing in education at a necessary and sufficient level will require overcoming the entire power structure of the state. To do this, one must obtain the additional signatures in advance for a constitutional amendment.
K-12 advocates must therefore go back to the lesson plan and collect a total of signatures equal to 15% of the total number of ballots cast for governor in the previous election. To obtain a ballot initiative, which is only a change of law, you need 10%.
One catch: The legislature rather shrewdly sent voters this year a ballot proposal requiring a 60 percent vote to change the state constitution. The Invest In Ed initiative was only adopted with 52%.
It’s entirely possible that a group of progressive voters will take away 2022 to show their displeasure with the Biden administration, as left-leaning Democrats did in 2010, pissed off at Barack Obama, and 1994, checked against Bill Clinton.
In a state still slightly more red than blue, I give this proposal a good chance of passing.
The shortchange model
We must re-emphasize the particularity of the argument that the radical right is making here.
I might be with the Republicans if Arizona was New Jersey. Converting $1,000 of the $20,0000 per student in K-12 funding into a tax cut might make sense when tax rates hurt the economy. Hey, Governor Blake could pass a $1.3 billion tax cut in the Garden State and schools would still be funded in the top five nationally.
Nobody in Arizona talks about funding at the New Jersey level. Good God. Arizona spends $8,600 per student. With the injection of $800 million from Prop 208, Arizona may have overtaken Nevada for 45th place.
Right-wing elites in Arizona specifically argue that the state is such a lousy place, that Arizonans can only have economic growth if they rank 49th in school spending.
If voters pass a ballot initiative adding $1.5 billion in school spending to pass Alabama, the state might as well change its name to the Bolshevik Republic of Woke-i-stan. And Arizona would still follow 40 other states, some of them ruby red.
Why spend money so Arizona children can learn, when low taxes can attract well-educated workers from other states to support our economy? Let well-educated Chicagoans earn money for the landed gentry of the state. Arizona children are a ready-made infrastructure of serfs who will ask Midwestern nobility “Do you want fries with that?”
You could say that our state’s economic models demand that immigrants take our jobs—California immigrants—and then insist that Arizona kids go to schools that are starved to the bone.
Don’t Republicans see the irony here, as they glorify Guatemalans? Hondurans are not moving to Buckeye and Goodyear.
The policy is starting to pay off, with the state ranking fourth in growth rate behind Idaho, Utah and Montana. Idaho and Utah are the two states that spend less on schools than Arizona.
This can be a winning formula for entrepreneurs but a losing one for parents. And if the state goes through a period where it fails to attract new massive migrations, the whole economy shakes.
Is it a coincidence that Arizona came out of the Great Recession much slower than most states? Without migrants, Arizona’s economy did not grow. Other states manage to prosper thanks to the skills of their indigenous workforce.
The lousy schools for Arizona kids are not a bug in the economic model. They are largely the model. Government spending must be kept minimal for tax rates to be minimal. Public school expenditures represent the largest portion of the state budget. It is not necessary for a Jersey child to understand that the plan is to deceive the Arizona children.
Act like it’s Bernie
Non-radical conservatives need to get their act together before the right does to us what Russian tanks are trying to do to Ukraine: turn the state into an autocracy. They are now considering legislation to jail teachers, ban the teaching of slavery as it really happened (not to mention Jim Crow) and transgender rights are the first to go. Wait, sorry, the voting rights will be the first to go.
When you assume that only one party can decide if an election was fair, it all goes downhill from there.
When you start hoping for school funding that follows the rest of the country, you’re not starting from a particularly lofty prospect.
Well, that’s where the normal people are today.
So Democrats and anyone else who wants to catch up with the rest of the country on K-12 spending will finally have to give up and take state politics as seriously as they take Bernie Sanders.
Until then, there is work. Go after that.
Blake Morlock is an award-winning columnist who has worked in daily journalism for nearly 20 years and as director of communications for the Pima County Democratic Party. Now, he tells you things that the devil won’t say.
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