Arizona Imposed Deepest Cuts On Schools

National study raises stakes in struggle over ballot measure to extend sales tax for schools

Chester Crandell and Tom Chabin

Chester Crandell and Tom Chabin

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The fierce struggle centered on a ballot measure to extend a one-cent sales tax to benefit K-12 schools continued this week in the shadow of a report showing the Arizona Legislature cut education more deeply during the recession than any other state.

Meanwhile, backers of the initiative complained that the Legislature didn’t remove bias against the measure from ballot language, despite an order from the state Supreme Court.

Proposition 204 remains one of the most controversial measures on the November ballot — and a battleground in many state legislative races, including the struggle in Legislative District 6, which represents Northern Gila County.

The initiative would earmark the money for K-12 schools, a children’s health insurance program, university scholarships and a transportation infrastructure fund, mostly to build highways.

The campaign heated up this week when the non-partisan Center on Budget and Policy Priorities issued a report saying the 22 percent cut in K-12 funding in Arizona represented the deepest proportionate cuts in the nation.

“Legislators have pretended that education and accountability can be improved while they drastically slash resources,” said Dana Wolfe Naimark, president of the Children’s Action Alliance. “Parents and voters know that just isn’t true. Our leaders are setting Arizona up for failure.”

The Legislature cut more than $1 billion from K-12 funding while trying to balance the budget in the face of sharp drops in state revenue. Lawmakers approved a bundle of business tax cuts along with the deep cuts in medical care for the poor, universities, K-12 schools and welfare programs.

“Across much of the country, kids are going back to school to find more crowded classrooms and — in some cases — shorter school weeks,” said Phil Oliff, policy analyst at the Center on Budget Priorities and author of the national report.

Payson schools have laid off teachers in each of the past three years and closed one elementary school. The cutbacks resulted in an increase in average elementary school class sizes from about 23 to about 28 and eliminated school funding for most sports and extracurricular activities, now supported almost entirely by private donations.

Republican lawmakers and many business organizations have waged a stubborn struggle against Proposition 204, which would continue a $1-billion-a-year sales tax increase the Legislature approved in the depths of the recession to balance the state budget.

Republican Secretary of State Ken Bennett initially refused to put the measure on the ballot because of a difference in wording between the electronic copy of the initiative filed with his office and the description on top of the sheets on which backers gathered signatures. A judge overturned Bennett’s ruling and ordered the measure on the ballot.

Legislative leaders who opposed the measure then drafted ballot language that described the extension of the existing, temporary one-cent sales tax as a tax increase and made references to funding scholarships for the children of illegal aliens. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that language was biased and ordered lawmakers to draft new language.

Backers of the initiative decried the new language as also biased and didn’t provide enough context so that voters would understand that the measure would extend an existing sales tax, not impose an additional tax.

Proposition 204 would divide up the $1 billion annually and also in theory prevent the Legislature from cutting education funding below existing levels.

Backers say only such a measure will prevent the Legislature from cutting even more from education, rather than adding to total education spending. They point out that Arizona ranked 48th in per-student spending even before the recession hit, triggering deeper proportionate cuts in Arizona than any other state.

Many Republican leaders and business interests criticize the measure as a tax increase just when the state’s business economy has begun to recover.

Other critics maintain that the Legislature must tackle education reform and financing in a comprehensive way. They point out that the state’s heavy reliance on the sales tax instead of the income tax creates a boom-bust state budget, with steep reductions in state revenues during recessions when the state needs revenue most.

Others point out that overlapping voter initiatives have made a mess of the state budgeting process, with the Legislature struggling to get around voter-imposed mandates.

The issue appears likely to play out in the fiercely competitive legislative contest in state Legislative District 6. The newly redrawn district lines have plopped Rim Country down into a legislative district centered on Flagstaff, which includes Sedona, the Verde Valley and Prescott.

Flagstaff Democratic state Rep. Tom Chabin is running for state senate in District 6 on a platform that calls for gradually eliminating all the exceptions to sales tax in the current law, which he says would roughly double state revenues. He would devote about one-third of that money to boosting state per-student spending to the national average and to sharply reducing tuition costs at public colleges and universities. He would devote the rest to lowering tax rates overall.

Heber state Rep. Chester Crandell is running for the District 6 senate seat on the Republican side on a platform that calls for shifting education to more of a private enterprise model, which would encourage a diversity of public and private schools and give parents a choice as to which schools their children should attend. He would radically change school financing to pay schools based on student outcomes — like graduation rates and gains on standardized tests.

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