Invest in Education’s effort to bolster one of the worst-funded education systems in the country will once again not make the November ballot because of technical objections to a 100-word summary on the petition gathering forms, a judge ruled late last week.
Several other ballot measures — including a renewed effort to legalize recreational marijuana, added pay for front-line health care workers and changes in the state’s criminal sentencing laws may face a similar challenge. All are subject to lawsuits seeking to keep them off the ballot.
Backers suspended signature gathering efforts for a “dark money” reform ballot measure that would have required the full disclosure of corporate and dark money contributions spent on political campaigns. Backers have asked a judge to let them keep the signatures they’ve gathered and finish the signature drive once the pandemic eases.
The Invest in Education measure would have slapped an income tax surcharge on people making more than $250,000 for an individual or $500,000 for a married couple. The measure would have raised $1 billion annually for schools, earmarked for teacher salaries, teacher mentoring, technical education, and teacher training.
One recent national survey noted that Arizona schools are among the worst-funded in the nation, with results to match. The state has the largest classes, the 49th lowest percentage of certified K-12 teachers and the 47th highest dropout rate, according to a comparison posted on the Wallet Hub website. The state ranked 49th overall when you include the District of Columbia. Only Louisiana and New Mexico fared worse.
The Invest in Ed ballot measure grew out of the Red for Ed movement three years ago. Backers gathered enough signatures to put the measure on the ballot in 2018, but a judge threw it out on technical grounds — saying voters may not have understood the 100-word summary on the signature petitions.
“Invest in Education circulated an opaque ‘Trojan horse’ of a 100-word description, concealing principal provisions of the initiative,” Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Christopher Coury wrote.
“No matter how well-intention Invest in Education’s initiative was, its nontransparent description violates Arizona law,” he continued. “Consequently, this self-inflicted shortcoming will prevent voters from considering this initiative — a result that understandably will disappoint and trouble teachers, administrators, some education advocates, and many Arizona voters.”
In 2018, the issue involved wording that stated the percentage of income people affected would pay, but didn’t say how big a percentage increase in their taxes that represented. The measure would add a 3.5% income tax surcharge on top of the current rates for the state’s wealthiest residents. The change could have increased the taxes owed for those upper-income residents by between 76% and 98%.
This time, Coury deemed the 100-word summary “misleading by its omission of principal provisions,” and concluded this created a “substantial likelihood of confusion for a reasonable Arizona voter.”
Backers vowed to appeal the decision to the state Supreme Court, which means it’s possible the measure could still end up on the ballot.
Backers gathered 435,669 signatures, far more than the 237,645 required.
Coury’s decision included an entire list of questions about things the backers could have included in the 100-word summary.
But Arizona Education Association President Joe Thomas said the judge set an impossible standard for the 100-word summary.
“Our state has more than 1.1 million K-12 students that Judge Coury let down with his judicial activism — and that’s shameful,” he said.
Arizonans for Great Public Schools and a Strong Economy said the judge ruled correctly and the summary was “flawed and misleading.”
The lawsuit also claimed backers violated the law with the bonus system it used to pay some of the signature gatherers. The judge did not rule on that portion of the legal challenge. Even if that challenge succeeded, backers probably still had more than enough signatures.
If the Invest in Ed measure doesn’t make the ballot, it could affect the dynamics of a high-stakes November election in Arizona. Control of the Arizona House and the U.S. Senate is up for grabs. The Invest in Ed measure would likely have generated additional intense interest in the election among education advocates, potentially affecting turnout and other races on the ballot.
Education funding has already shaped up as one of the key issues in Arizona Legislative District 6 in the General Election. The district includes Flagstaff, Sedona, the Verde Valley, Rim Country and the White Mountains. The district is considered key to keeping Republican control of the state House and spending will likely prove heavy between now and Nov. 3.
Arizona enacted some of the deepest cuts in K-12 education during the recession a decade ago, and still has not restored the cuts to either K-12 schools or the community colleges and universities. The Arizona Legislature began to fill the gap in the past two years, including providing money over three years for an average 20% teacher pay raise and finally beginning to fund a portion of the billions in deferred building additions and repairs withheld over the course of the past decade.
However, when the pandemic hit the Legislature adopted a “skinny” budget with only minimal new funding and adjourned — anticipating a big state deficit due to the shutdowns. The deficit proved less than expected, thanks in part to federal support from the CARES Act. However, education advocates say schools are now facing big additional costs due to the demands of reopening schools in the midst of the pandemic. Arizona COVID-19 cases have soared in the past two months — but have finally started to level off or decline in the last two weeks.
The Wallet Hub study showed the impact of decades of underfunding on Arizona’s K-12 schools.
Arizona ranked third from the bottom, with a composite score of 37 in the Wallet Hub study. Louisiana scored 35 and New Mexico 28.
Top-scoring states included Massachusetts (72), Connecticut (66) and New Jersey (66).
Neighboring states Colorado and Utah both scored 55. California scored 46 — all far above Arizona’s dismal rating.
Some states spent a lot of money and didn’t score very well — including Arkansas, the District of Columbia, Rhode Island, Hawaii, California, Ohio and Oregon.
Other states did pretty well despite low spending, including Utah, Virginia, Colorado, Florida and Indiana.
Most states had results that closely matched their per-student spending levels. Arizona ranked 49th in spending and 49th in results.
The study took into account things like bullying, threats and injuries suffered by high school students, teacher-student ratios, ACT and SAT scores, reading scores, math scores, dropout rates, and other factors.
To see the ratings go to: https://wallethub.com/edu/e/states-with-the-best-schools/5335/.