Kind of like filling a bucket with a hole in it.
That’s how a lot of educators feel about the effort to bolster school funding in one of the worst-funded public school systems in the country.
Educators last month won a solid victory when a Superior Court judge rejected an effort to prevent implementation of Proposition 208, which would generate up to $940 million annually by imposing and added 3.5% state income tax on individuals making more than $250,000 annually or couples making more than $500,000 annually.
Opponents — including the Goldwater Institute — asked Maricopa Superior Court Judge John Hannah to issue an injunction to keep the state from collecting the extra money. The lawsuit claimed the proposition needed a two-thirds approval, since the Arizona Constitution requires a supermajority for the legislature to impose a new tax. The lawsuit also claimed the measure might exceed a constitutional limit on school spending.
The judge rejected all the objections and refused to issue the injunction. Opponents can still press for a full-blown trial. The judge ruled that the requirement for a two-thirds vote applies to the legislature, not ballot measures. He said it’s unclear whether the constitutional limit on education spending would apply, since the money could be considered a grant outside of the education spending limit. In any case, it would require a full-blown trial to answer that question, he concluded. In the meantime, it’s unclear if the measure would in fact generate enough money to exceed the cap.
The ruling plugged one hole in the school funding bucket.
However, the state budget deliberations this year promise to punch a new hole in that battered bucket.
The pandemic dealt a heavy blow to most school districts this year, contributing to a more than 4% decline in school enrollment statewide — the loss of some 50,000 students. Many local schools suffered 10% enrollment declines. In addition, the state pays districts less for students enrolled in online classes. The forced shift to online classes this year cost districts like Payson some $400,000 in funding. The proposed budget for the upcoming year does not change the formula for enrollment declines, which will lock in this year’s losses if students don’t return to district schools.
Statewide, schools lost some $266 million in funding — including $2 million in Gila County.
The state would have to boost school spending by about $3.5 billion annually to reach the national per-student average, according to the Save Our Schools advocacy group.
“Despite the new revenues from Prop. 208, Arizona will still rank in the bottom five states in the nation for education funding,” the group concluded in a recently issued “State of Education in Arizona” white paper.
Moreover, previously approved ballot measures Proposition 123 and Proposition 301 will essentially expire in the next few years, eliminating some $775 million in annual school funding if they’re not renewed or replaced.
In the meantime, the legislature’s considering a three-year, $600 million state income tax cut as well as a massive expansion of the state’s voucher program that provides taxpayer subsidies to pay tuition costs in private schools. The current program costs the state about $82 million annually.
So when it comes to school funding, the budget bucket’s still got lots of leaks.