As with all legislative sessions, there are things left undone. Important decisions regarding the future of statewide assessments, teacher evaluations and English language learners were left behind in the rush to sine die. These nuts and bolts policy issues may not make good campaign fodder, but they are crucial to Arizona’s students.
However, when it comes to school funding, what did happen was critically important, long overdue and, we’ll be honest, quite unexpected when the session began in January.
During the final days of the 2018 legislative session, legislators, who faced a sea of red-shirted educators and a frustrated public demanding more funding for public school salaries, provided a major increase in funding for teacher salaries in district and charter schools. This significant step forward came just weeks after a legislative vote extended the 0.6 percent sales tax dedicated to education by another 20 years, eliminating a significant source of anxiety for districts statewide, who worried these funds may be left to expire in 2020.
Adding to the sales tax extension and funding for salaries was acknowledgement by legislators of a lesson learned in 2017: Directing specific sums of money to individual teachers is best left to local public school leaders, not the Legislature. The final budget reflects this, and Governor Ducey recently reaffirmed it, saying, “The state’s going to remain in the resource business and let the superintendents and principals stay in the personnel business.”
That, of course, has been the intent of the school funding formula since it was implemented in the 1980-81 fiscal year, when the Legislature spelled out the formula’s intent: “To increase the authority and responsibility of local school boards in determining how revenues will be utilized.” This commitment was evident in funding decisions this session.
While there are still those in the Legislature who lay Arizona’s low teacher salaries at the foot of school boards, discussions this session — in the public arena and at the Capitol on both sides of the aisle — acknowledged that school boards cannot spend money they don’t have. The state must supply the resources for K-12 education, either directly via appropriation or indirectly by setting the conditions under which districts can raise local revenue. That is why the state investments in teacher pay this year and beyond, totaling more than $500 million over three years, are sorely needed by local districts.
It is also why the restoration of $95 million in state funding for district capital such as textbooks, furniture and technology with the promise of full restoration over a five-year period is a good thing. But we can’t let the size of the number distract from reality. These investments are necessary now because our education system is in crisis from years of state funding neglect following the Great Recession.
The FY19 budget is the first payment to settle a tab that was due years ago. As education advocates, we are now faced with protecting these from Arizona’s favorite political pastime — finding ways to give away revenue. Together, we must continue to do what is right for all kids in Arizona.
— Chris Kotterman is the director of government relations for the Arizona School Boards Association and Chuck Essigs is the director of governmental relations for the Arizona Association of School Business Officials.