OP ED

Why use the surplus for a tax cut when some Arizona schools are literally crumbling?

Opinion: Arizona has the cash to fix inequities between rich and poor school districts. Instead, legislators would rather use it to cut taxes for the rich.

Daniel Adelman and Josh Bendor
opinion contributors
A hole in the wall of a school district locker room in Gila Bend on Oct. 15, 2019.

This year the state has the opportunity to address massive inequities in our education funding system. We have an unexpected budget surplus, a large “rainy day fund” and a one-time influx of federal dollars.

Yet rather than choosing to live up to the Constitution’s demand that the state provide a “general and uniform” public school education for all Arizona children, our legislators are considering a tax cut that predominantly benefits only the wealthiest Arizonans.

It doesn’t need to be this way. Our state has a unique opportunity this year to address the unfairness of a system under which districts with high property wealth consistently get to spend 300-400% of what districts without that wealth can spend on capital needs.

We could responsibly provide districts with the resources to keep their facilities in good shape, to buy buses when they are needed, to enable all school districts to have up-to-date technology, quality air conditioners, walls that are not crumbling, and reasonable safety and security to protect our students and teachers.

Instead, our legislators are being asked to vote for a budget that continues to shortchange our children.

Rich schools can fund repairs. Poor schools can't

For so many years, the Legislature and the governor justified gutting capital funding for schools on the basis that Arizona had to make difficult decisions because of the Great Recession. It is a fact that Arizona cut more school funding during the recession than any other state.

And we have consistently ranked among the very bottom of states nationwide in our funding of schools. Our districts are being asked to educate our kids using $5,000 less per child than the average state. Year after year, our school districts’ capital budgets were slashed up to 85%.

Our technology standards were written more than 20 years ago (and still call for one computer for every eight children!). Our safety and security standards were written before Sandy Hook. Our state will not pay for necessary protections like a single point of entry or classroom doors that lock from the inside so that teachers don’t have to open their classroom doors in the middle of an active shooter situation.

Local taxpayers have been asked repeatedly to shoulder the load by approving bonds and overrides. Many times, those taxpayers answered the call and – particularly in wealthier districts – they have been able to meet these crucial needs.

But districts without sufficient property wealth have repeatedly been left behind. This should be unacceptable to every Arizonan and to every legislator (from either party). 

State hasn't inspected most schools for years

The last time the Arizona Supreme Court threw out our capital funding system as unconstitutional, the Legislature fixed the problem.

Part of the solution involved fixing up schools that were deficient and providing adequate funding so they could be kept up. Part of the fix required the state to inspect all schools every five years to assure every school remains in good shape and continues to comply with Arizona’s minimum guidelines.

But the state has done virtually no inspections for years (citing budget cuts to the agency that is supposed to do them).

The few inspections that were done have revealed deficiencies like having excessive CO² in the classroom. Such issues can only be corrected if they are discovered. Yet the current budget provides no funding for these inspections. 

In fact, the proposed budget does not adequately address any of these problems. We are being told that the current budget will finally restore District Additional Assistance to the pre-recession level. That’s certainly a positive step (and long overdue).

But it is being restored to a formula number from more than 20 years ago that has never been adjusted for inflation. In real dollars this “fully restored number” is less than 65% of what it was when the formula was created.

Before lawmakers pass the budget, consider this:

I hope that legislators who are thinking of voting for the proposed budget ask themselves these questions:

  • Can I justify giving public school less in real dollars than they had 20 years ago for buses, computers and curriculum?  If not, insist that District Additional Assistance be indexed to inflation, the same way that Charter Additional Assistance is.
  • Is it acceptable that Arizona will not pay for safety and security items for our public schools, so that only wealthier districts can afford to make their campuses reasonably secure?
  • Is it acceptable that our technology and other guidelines were written more than 20 years ago? If not, insist that new minimum guidelines be created this year and provide funding to allow schools to implement them.
  • Is it OK that poor school districts are being asked to shoulder the cost of a massive tax cut for the wealthy?  If not, please do not vote for this proposed budget. We are a better state than that.

Arizonans have heard the bragging about how we have a billion dollars in the “rainy day” fund. Well, that billion dollars was funded by cutting hundreds of millions of dollars every year from District Additional Assistance (the funds used to pay for everything from school buses to computers).

Now that there is a surplus, isn’t it time to provide adequate funding to the schools that educate our children? 

Daniel Adelman is executive director of the Arizona Center for Law in the Public Interest. Josh Bendor is a partner in the Phoenix law firm of Osborn Maledon P.A. Both are counsel for the plaintiffs in the capital funding lawsuit, Glendale Elementary School District v. State of Arizona. Reach them at danny@aclpi.org and jbendor@omlaw.com.