A series of court rulings could force the Arizona Legislature to restore as much as $1.6 billion in funding for schools — but key lawmakers are already promising to thwart the latest ruling.
Depending on additional court rulings and the legislative response, the Payson school district could enjoy a windfall of nearly $660,000 — or about $274 per student according to estimates by the Joint Legislative Budget Committee.
That’s more than twice as much as the district normally receives from its Credit for Kids donations — enough money to cover the salaries of 17 teachers and more money than the district saved by closing Frontier Elementary School.
However, the state continues to resist a September ruling by the Arizona Supreme Court that the state broke the law when it ignored a ballot measure approved by voters and withheld an inflation adjustment for the K-12 budget for three years in the depths of the fiscal crisis.
The state says it should be allowed to fund inflation going forward, without having to pay back to schools the money withheld for three years during the recession.
National studies show that Arizona schools suffered the deepest cuts in the nation during the recession and that the state now ranks third worst among the states when it comes to per-student spending for K-12 schools.
Voters approved a ballot measure years ago that required the state to increase school funding each year by at least enough to cover the rate of inflation. Then in 1998, the voters approved another ballot measure that required the Legislature to fund any voter-approved measures.
However, during the recession the state’s sales-tax-dependent revenues plunged by nearly one-third, one of the steepest drops in the nation. The Legislature funded only a portion of the inflation-based increase for schools in 2010-11 and eliminated the adjustment completely for the next two years.
Bedeviled by shrinking revenues and dwindling enrollment, Payson schools have gone through a series of traumatic budget cuts in the past three years. The board closed Frontier, laid off teachers for three years running, eliminated district funding for most extracurricular programs and significantly increased class sizes — especially at the elementary school level.
The Legislature anticipated losing the court case this year by including a 1.8 percent increase in school spending, which came to about $82 million.
The public interest law firm from the Valley that filed the lawsuit is now seeking $290,000, while the state has offered just $59,000. The two sides also disagree on how much the state should pay to make up for not providing inflation adjustments in the past.
However, House Appropriations Committee Chair Rep. John Kavanagh told the Capitol Times that the courts can’t force the Legislature to fund inflation or increase overall school spending, since the Legislature remains free to cut money elsewhere no matter how much it designates as an inflation adjustment.
The Center on Budget and Policy priorities did a national study on state spending on education during the recession. The study concluded that Arizona had among the deepest cuts in the nation, a reduction of 17 percent in the past six years when adjusted for inflation. That amounted to a reduction of $629 per student. Without that reduction, Payson would have had an extra $1.5 million to spend.
Only Oklahoma and Alabama made deeper cuts — 23 and 20 percent respectively.
In the meantime, federal aid to schools has also declined since 2010, down about 12 percent, with billions cut from programs like Title I and special education.
Payson depends heavily on both of those federal programs, with nearly 70 percent of the students qualifying for free and reduced federal lunches and therefore Title I funding based on family income. Payson also has among the highest percentages of special education students in the state.
Nationally, schools have lost 324,000 jobs since 2008, according to the report.
The U.S. Census Bureau reported that Arizona spent an average of $7,666 per student in 2011, behind only Oklahoma, Idaho and Utah. Arizona spent about 27 percent less than the national average.
Arizona provided a smaller share of school budgets than almost any other state — 36 percent of funding compared to a national average of 44 percent.