Proposition 301 will be the last initiative listed on the November ballot, but it is a top priority among local educators.
It is the proposition that Governor Jane Hull and the Legislature crafted to address the facts that Arizona ranks 50th in the nation dead last in per pupil expenditure; the state's low teacher salaries, 34th in the U.S., don't bode well in an era when teachers are in short supply; and Arizona has the fourth highest class sizes in the nation.
According to Proposition 301, the price for correcting those inequities is an increase of .60 percent in the state use or sales tax rate, from 5 percent to 5.6 percent, for 20 years.
What that means to Arizona consumers can be confusing, Payson Unified School District Superintendent Herb Weissenfels said.
"You will pay 12 percent more in sales tax, but that's a far cry from a 12 percent tax increase," Weissenfels said. "What you'll pay, an extra 6 cents for every $10 subject to sales tax, is not a bad price to have Arizona's kids better educated."
The confusion over the size of the proposed tax increase is just one reason Weissenfels is concerned.
"It just isn't as simple as it looks," he said. The bill that the referendum is based on, for example, is 92 pages long, and it won't be enacted unless the referendum passes.
The manner in which the additional revenue would be spent if the sales tax referendum is approved by voters further complicates the issue. It would be distributed as follows:
The first $70 million would be used to correct existing deficiencies in school buildings.
The next $55 million would go to colleges and universities for technology, research-based initiatives, and workforce development programs.
Five additional school days would be phased in over a five-year period at a cost of about $15 million per additional day per year.
The next $8 million would be spent on school safety and character education grants.
The next $7 million would be spent developing a system to measure school performance.
The next $15 million would be distributed to failing or non-performing schools for tutoring programs.
The next $25 million would offset income tax credits for low-income families and individuals.
Finally, the remaining $320 million would go to school districts and charter schools based on student count for teacher salary increases, performance incentives and "classroom enhancements" such as reduced classroom size and dropout prevention programs.
"The revenue projections that allow enough money to trickle down to teachers are based on a continued annual growth rate of 6.5 percent and annual revenue of $440 million," Weissenfels said. "If these assumptions are correct, it works. Right now, it doesn't look like it's going to be quite that high."
Another component of the proposition requires the state to increase the amount it spends on schools by 2 percent a year.
"What got us into the mess we're in," Weissenfels said, "is that in 1990 inflation increases were eliminated. That has meant a 20 percent drop in school spending. This bill would make a significant impact on that."
While Proposition 301 is far from perfect, Weissenfels said, it's a start.
"Voters need to support it," he said, "because the alternative would be for Arizona to slip to 51st in the nation if that were possible. It is the first real positive thing that's happened to Arizona education in a long time."
If the growth and revenue projections hold up, and that's a big if, Weissenfels said, Arizona's teachers could see an annual salary increase of $3,000. Payson teachers, he said, are realistic about how much that means to them. "It's not enough to move them up the scale much, but there is no alternative," he said.
Weissenfels thinks a defeat for this proposition would set the state back many years. "If this goes down," he said, "you won't see another reform move for another decade. I don't know if we'd ever dig out of that hole."
Weissenfels has twice served as president of the Arizona Superintendents Association, so he thinks he has a good feel for what is going on in the state's classrooms.
"A lot of schools have lost their fine arts programs," he said, "for the simple reason that they have run out of money."
Right now, there is no organized opposition to Proposition 301, and "the most recent poll was in the low 60s 61, 62 in favor," Weissenfels said. "Overall, this is so important for education," he said. "If we pass 301, it will mean Arizona has finally stepped over the line."
A "yes" vote has the effect of approving an increase in the state transaction privilege (sales) tax and the state use tax of six-tenths of one percent to raise revenues in support of education, a state income tax credit in mitigation of those tax increases, inflation adjustments in state aid for education, a termination of an exemption from education funding revenue control limits for excess utility costs and a limitation on the school district qualifying tax rates and the county equalization assistance for education rate.
A "no" vote has the effect of rejecting the proposed increase in state taxes and the other proposed tax mitigations and education budgetary controls.