Arizona schools avoid budget crisis as Senate OKs lifting spending cap
Arizona schools won’t be shutting down before the end of the academic year, at least not because they can’t pay their bills.
On a 23-7 margin, the Senate gave final approval Wednesday to lifting the constitutional spending cap for education, at least for the current school year. That vote, following action Tuesday by the House, ensures that schools will not have to cut 17% from their annual current budgets — and do that in just four months.
But even some supporters of HCR 2001 said they are not happy with the academic results, given the additional dollars that the Legislature has put into K-12 education in the past seven years. And they want more transparency on how the money is being spent.
And Senate President Warren Petersen (R-Gilbert) said at least part of the reason he was supporting the measure was because he believes Republicans would be blamed if schools, deprived of their ability to spend money already given to them, were forced to shut their doors. Yet he said GOP lawmakers don’t get the credit for all the additional funding — the cash which pushed K-12 spending above the constitutional limit in the first place.
Hear KJZZ politics editor Ben Giles discuss the AEL with host Lauren Gilger on The Show
The vote comes as total state and local spending this school year is expected to approach $7.8 billion. But a constitutional cap imposed by voters in 1980 sets the current limit at $6.4 billion even after annual adjustments for inflation and student growth.
Without HCR 2001, schools would have lost the ability to spend the difference, even though the dollars had been authorized last year by the Legislature. And that would have forced drastic spending cuts, including layoffs and school closures.
Sen. Anthony Kern (R-Glendale) said he supported the increased overall education funding over the years, including a measure that was designed to provide teachers with an average 20% pay hike over four years.
“And it is still not enough for the public education system out there,” he said. “They have never given us a number to where they will be happy and say, ’OK, that’s enough, we can now educate our students with this amount.’”
What that’s left for lawmakers, Kern said, is “continually throwing money ... at a bloated, bureaucratic nightmare which really is not benefiting our kids.”
Sen. Justine Wadsack (R-Tucson) who also voted against the waiver, said there are good schools in her districts, particularly praising Marana and Vail school districts.
Much of her ire, however, was aimed at Tucson Unified School District. And some of that goes to the fact that, despite the state funding to boost teacher salaries by 20%, the Auditor General’s Office reported that average salaries actually decreased by nearly 4% between 2017 and 2021.
“I don’t understand how that even happens,” Wadsack said.
“We keep giving money to the schools and the teachers are losing,” she said. “I thought all of this was supposed to be about the teachers and the classrooms and the students.”
Auditor General Lindsey Perry, in her report, had no specific explanation for what happened in TUSD. But she said some of what can affect this figure overall is a district’s “teacher population.”
Specifically, Perry said when more experienced teachers retire, they are replaced with “new teachers with little to no experience who often are paid lower salaries.” And she said teachers who are new to a school district start out lower on the pay scale.
But Wadsack said that’s not the only issue, saying she wants to “start protecting the children from political ideologies” and have more transparency in where the dollars are going.
And there’s a personal element. Wadsack said TUSD claimed it did not have the money to provide the special assistance needed for her 19-year-old non-verbal daughter who has epilepsy and cerebral palsy who was left in the back of the class alone in her wheelchair sitting in her own urine.
Rep. Jake Hoffman (R-Queen Creek), another foe of the measure, also said more fiscal transparency is needed.
“Parents should be able to see where their dollars are going in real time because that’s an indicator of what the priorities of the school district are,” he said. But Hoffman said greater academic transparency is needed.
“It is the 21st century, people,” he said. “We should be able to let parents see exactly what’s being taught in their classroom, all the way down to the assignments, everything, every material, every bit of what their children are being taught.”
Kaiser also raised the issue of where the funding is going. He cited figures from the latest Auditor General report which showed just 55.3% of every dollar given to schools going into the classroom.
But even Perry said that does not paint the whole picture of spending effectively going into the classroom.
She said student support, consisting of counselors, audiologists, speech pathologists, nurses, social workers and attendance services at up another 9.1% of every dollar.
There also was 5.8% for instructional support, defined as librarians, teacher training, curriculum development and instruction-related technology services. That brought what Perry considers total classroom spending up to 70.2% for the most recent year, versus 69.3% for the prior year.
After Wednesday’s vote, Gov. Katie Hobbs put out a statement saying the action that educators have assurance schools will remain open.
“It means our teachers can focus on giving students every opportunity to achieve success,” she said.
But Hoffman said Hobbs, who has no legal role to play in the override vote, is “part of the problem” in the lack of accountability and academic progress in Arizona schools.
“She isn’t just merely silent on the issue,” he said. “She’s complicit in the failure of the system on behalf of kids.”