By Gloria Gomez/UA Don Bolles Fellow/AZ Mirror
An eleventh-hour proposal that would make sweeping changes to how Arizona schools are funded won Republican approval on a legislative panel Monday, despite the devastating budget cuts that critics say many schools will face if it becomes law.
The amendment attached to Senate Bill 1269 increases total K-12 funding by as much as $215 million, but there are caveats. Programs that provide additional teacher funding for school districts would be eliminated. District schools would be allowed to opt in to the new State Student Funding Formula, but would be required to eliminate their bonds and budget overrides — which are approved by voters and increase property taxes in the district — to qualify.
Through these reforms, the bill aims to close the disparate funding gaps between schools, but it risks shortchanging some public schools instead. School districts, and not charter schools, would bear the brunt of funding cuts.
Critics of the measure said that passing the amendment in the last House Appropriations Committee hearing of the session and failing to include education experts in the drafting was irresponsible.
Rep. Kelli Butler, D-Phoenix, said the 101-page proposal wasn’t made public until late last week, which left legislators and school officials scrambling to research the effects. And introducing the sweeping legislation as a strike-everything amendment — a procedural move that allows proposals unrelated to the underlying measure — means it also wouldn’t benefit from the lengthy deliberations most measures undergo.
“To be doing this in the very last committee in the last week that this is possible to do — reordering the entire funding formula for Arizona schools in a striker (amendment) … that we got on Thursday night is the most absurd thing that I can ever imagine,” she said.
Butler also denounced the lack of input that Republican backers sought from schools, teachers and other public education advocates. Great Leaders Strong Schools, a school-choice advocacy group, helped develop the bill, but top education associations and school officials were not consulted.
“We’re asking for some kind of seat at the table,” said Mesa Public Schools Assistant Superintendent Scott Thompson.
And there wasn’t much time for input during Monday’s committee hearing, as Chairwoman Regina Cobb limited testimony on the bill: Three speakers for the bill and three opposed, with a limit of two minutes each. Only three proponents were present, but the seven opponents had to choose between each other to pare down their speakers. Cobb, a Kingman Republican, heatedly rebuked Butler when the latter insisted that more opponents be given time to speak, including a superintendent who drove nearly two hours from Chino Valley.
One of the speakers against the bill was Chuck Essigs, a lobbyist for the Arizona Association of School Business Officials who is widely regarded as understanding Arizona’s school finance system better than anyone, who said that the 121 school districts that would face funding cuts because of the bill wouldn’t be able to recoup the money from property tax increases or changes to the state’s school transportation formula.
“School districts are facing the most difficult year that I ever remember, with inflation running well above the 2% that’s going to be provided in the formula,” he said.
Schools are busy trying to remedy learning losses caused by the pandemic, Essigs said, and changing the funding formula only further complicates their efforts to keep a balanced budget. And the new formula doesn’t solve the ever-present aggregate expenditure limit, which limits total spending by school districts — and it may even aggravate it by adding new funding that counts towards the spending cap, he said.
The schools facing the deepest funding cuts would be those in rural Arizona. Rep. Gail Griffin, R-Hereford, said she’d been told that districts in Cochise and Santa Cruz counties, which she represents, could face funding reductions of as much as 20%.
Rep. Jennifer Longdon, D-Phoenix, echoed this when she brought up data she’d been provided on costs per pupil. Payson, she said, might lose $259 per pupil; Tanque Verde could see a reduction in $100 per student; and Coolidge would suffer a loss of $683 per pupil.
Proponents of the measure argue that current school funding, based on property tax and enrollment numbers, makes for an uneven funding landscape.
“Taxpayers and parents are taxed at vastly different rates irrespective of where their student attends and allows many of those dollars to stay at that campus regardless of if that student chooses to leave that campus,” said Matthew Simon, a lobbyist for Great Leaders Strong Schools.
Simon noted that students in the Phoenix Unified High School District should not be worth $5,500 more in per pupil funding than students at Sunnyside Unified School District in South Tucson. Revamping the formula, he said, would resolve this kind of unfairness.
Rep. Michelle Udall, R-Mesa, agreed with this view, saying the bill helps level the playing field for schools that can’t access additional funding programs like those eliminated by the bill, bonds, or overrides.
“This is a huge step towards a more equitable school funding system where we pay the same amount for each child,” said Udall, who chairs the House Education Committee and is currently seeking the GOP nomination for superintendent of public instruction.
Pima Unified School District Superintendent Sean Rickert said bonds and overrides are often out of reach for rural communities where voters regularly reject property tax increases, and this bill would help schools without that recourse reach the level of funding charter schools already have access to.
However, to access that funding, rural schools would need to ask voters to approve a property tax increase. Butler questioned the ability of schools to meet that requirement when voters in those areas showed previous reluctance to approve bonds and overrides.
Rep. Judy Schwiebert, D-Phoenix, objected to the requirement that school districts get rid of their bonds and overrides, saying it was unfair to give charter schools easier access to the new funding formula. She was also unimpressed by the bill’s failure to include an opportunity weight for low-income students, which would help schools struggling with poverty.
“While charter schools would get 100% of their money from the formula, district schools would still have to rely on that voter approval of a property tax increase to cover a participation fee in the program — something that many districts that have a difficult time passing bonds and overrides would not be able to do,” she said.
The bill also allocates funding based on the letter grade schools receive from the State Board of Education. Butler argued that this would increase inequity by taking away much-needed funding from schools that need it the most, and blatantly favored charter schools over public school districts.
“This clearly shifts funding to higher performing schools, many of those charter schools,” she said.
Butler added that eliminating the Teacher Experience Index, which gives extra funding based on a district’s faculty seniority, would harm rural districts that depend on the funding to keep their staff on the payroll.
Udall argued that providing school districts with more money for experienced teachers creates a cyclical trap for schools. Those that receive more funding are able to keep high quality teachers, while those who can’t access the funding also can’t hire more experienced teachers.
School officials said the changes to the transportation formula in the bill fail to address the complex costs involved in ferrying kids to and from school. Essigs said traditional and special education buses require different amounts of funding that schools must absorb to service all students. Paratransit buses, which service disabled students, have different staffing and structural needs, and often end up costing more.
“As long as you combine them into one formula, you’re not going to have an accurate representation of what the actual cost is to provide those services, because it’s a totally different type of transportation,” he said.
Mesa Public Schools is currently running a deficit on its transportation costs, and the new transportation formula does little to alleviate that. Thompson, the district’s assistant superintendent, said Mesa spends more than it receives in transportation funding and is consistently forced to shift revenue streams around to make up the difference. The new formula, he estimated, only provides Mesa $1.9 million in additional funding, which means the approximate $5 million deficit that Mesa deals with only shrinks to $3 million.
Joe Thomas, president of the Arizona Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, worried that forcing school districts out of their bonds and overrides to access a new funding source would result in faculty cuts. Mesa Public Schools, he said, has $43 million in override funding, and phasing that out would invariably result in staff cuts to make up the forfeited revenue. This would have a negative impact on educational quality.
“We should all feel confident about the ability to fund our schools and not put them in a situation where they have to lay off people to get to a new funding program,” he said.
The bill passed 8-7 along party lines, with Republicans in favor and Democrats opposed.
Shortly after the vote, the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry tweeted its support of the action, calling it a “great step toward a fair funding formula that supports all Arizona students”.
Senate Democrats felt differently, denouncing the rushed bill and comparing it to the unthinking haste which created problems for Republicans after they pushed through a bill that eliminated precinct committeemen elections.
Gloria Gomez, a senior at the University of Arizona, is the 2022 UA School of Journalism’s Don Bolles Fellow working with editors from the Arizona Mirror. Gomez has interned at the Arizona Daily Star and worked at the Arizona Daily Wildcat. She is a dual major in journalism and political science, with a Spanish minor. She’s a member of the Investigative Reporters and Editors and National Association of Hispanic Journalists. The UA School of Journalism started the fellowship in 1977 to honor Don Bolles, an Arizona Republic reporter killed in a 1976 car bombing.