Arizona legislators who have served on House and Senate education committees said they will work together to solve the budget shortfall, support settling the school inflation funding lawsuit and expect more attempts this session to try to repeal Arizona’s College and Career Ready Standards.
During a mid-November panel moderated by Dennis Welch, political editor for 3TV and co-host of Politics Unplugged, the legislators said they were waiting to hear if they would continue to serve as education committee members.
The discussion was part of a legislative workshop hosted by three of Arizona’s leading public education groups – Arizona School Boards Association, Arizona Association of School Business Officials, and Arizona School Administrators.
“Education needs to be better for our kids and our future generations because every child deserves an excellent education here in Arizona,” said Sen. Carlyle Begay (D-7), who has served on the Senate education committee. “Unfortunately we’re not doing a good job of prioritizing that.”
The last six years have been tough on education funding, said Rep. Eric Meyer, (D-28), the newly-elected House minority leader who has served on the House education committee for the past six years.
“We are in a situation here that looks a tad bleak, but you cannot give up. You cannot say every circumstance is against us. We have to fight to make this work,” said Sen. David Bradley (D-1), president pro tempore of the Senate and an education committee member for years.
Educators and school district leaders should reach out to their legislators now with their concerns before the session starts, said Rep. Heather Carter (R-15), a House education committee member for years who is a clinical associate professor at Arizona State University’s Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College.
“Be prepared to let people know what’s going on in your school districts,” Bradley said. “If they’re going to say ‘no’ and they’re not going to support you, make them say that to your face and let them realize the consequences.”
“I’m afraid that public education in many people’s minds is losing its value, and that’s not the facts,” Coleman said. “We need to advocate for ourselves.”
When Welch asked panel members what the biggest issue will be this year at the Legislature, they all agreed it is the budget.
“The budget is always our priority,” Carter said. “It is our constitutional responsibility to produce a balanced budget at the end of each fiscal year for the state.”
The Joint Legislative Budget Committee’s forecast of a $520 million budget shortfall in 2015 and a $1 billion shortfall in 2016 isn’t what was anticipated, Begaye said.
What are some of the options for solving the shortfall?
“I don’t think just more tax cuts are going to solve the problem,” Meyer said. “We need a long-term strategy. Everything needs to be on the table, whether it’s suspension of tax cuts that we have in place, or figuring out different ways to generate revenue.”
It may be helpful to delay implementing the corporate tax credits approved over the past few years, Begay and Coleman said.
“That’s one option we’re considering,” Begay said. “I know that many of the statewide candidates campaigned on not entertaining a temporary statewide sales tax increase, but I think the biggest question is: Where will we get the money from?”
Getting a tax increase on the ballot, may require a citizens’ initiative, said Bradley, “because there is a sense that dealing with the Legislature in this regard is hopeless.”
Carter and Coleman said they don’t think the Legislature will support a tax increase.
“There are a lot of different things we’ve talked about – perhaps postponing some of the tax cuts,” Coleman said. “I think we’re going to have to look at all areas and various ways to consolidate.”
Meyer said he is concerned that eliminating state income taxes as Governor-Elect Doug Ducey suggested during his campaign. That would take $4.5 billion in revenue from the state budgets – “that’s exactly what we spend on our schools in this state. I don’t think that’s a viable plan moving forward,” Meyer said.
While Coleman said he knows everything is on the table, he said he hopes that education is spared more cuts.
“The cuts in Arizona were the third deepest in education in K-12 of any state. We cut 17.5 percent from public education, which is just a travesty,” Coleman said. “In my mind, the rainy day fund was created with dollars from the one-cent sales tax intended to go to education. It’s been raining for a while.”
A bipartisan coalition would help in preventing further cuts to K-12 education, Meyer said.
“The last two sessions we did protect some education funding,” Meyer said. “Still the education community took some cuts, but they weren’t as deep.”
There is also concern that universities and community colleges do not bear the brunt of more cuts, Meyer said.
“We made the largest cuts to those systems and had the largest tuition increases in the country here,” Meyer said.
All panel members said the state needs to settle the public school inflation funding lawsuit and come up with a feasible payment plan.
“The longer we continue to appeal that lawsuit, the more expensive it gets for the State of Arizona,” Carter said. “The sooner we solve this this the better it will be for Arizona kids, families and our schools, and that needs to be priority number one.”
Also, the Legislature needs to “prioritize the new funding that no doubt will be invested in education,” and make sure they are “investments that pay off in the long run” Begay said.
“I’ve heard from many educators who said that teacher salaries are probably one of the biggest needs in the State of Arizona,” Begay said. “In rural Arizona, transportation is a huge issue. We have many school districts that have thousands of school bus routes.”
Begay said focusing on the needs of rural Arizona and tribal school districts is important, because “what we experience here in Phoenix is a lot different than my colleagues in (rural and tribal areas like) Piñon, Ganado, Chinle, or the Navajo Nation in San Carlos experience.”
If there’s not going to be any talk about new funding sources, then there’s going to be talks about cuts, Bradley said. He sees an either-or scenario shaping up: either talk about new funding sources or talk about cuts.
“We talk a lot in the legislature about freedom and choice. I like to talk about responsibility and consequence,” Bradley said.
Cuts mean no expansions in empowerment scholarships, tax credits for donations to public schools and student tuition organizations, charter school capital projects and funds to reduce charter schools’ waiting lists this year, Bradley said.
“When we’re running for office, it’s poetry. When we’re in office, it’s prose,” Bradley said. “Sometimes when people find out the situation they’ve inherited – particularly at the executive level – some of the things they were holding onto and saying during the campaign will fade away.”
People need to watch how their legislators vote on education issues and hold them responsible, Coleman said.
“We need to hold people’s feet to the fire and ask them why weren’t you battling with our friends for public education funding?” Coleman said. “Let them know that you know what their voting record is.”
Carter said she thinks more funding decisions are made locally through bonds and overrides.
“You’re going to see more of that out in the landscape in terms of what we’re asking voters to do in terms of funding schools, Carter said.
Yet, when districts have cut over $50 million from their budgets in the past several years, “a 15 percent override doesn’t begin to restore even half of those cuts. It helps us, but it doesn’t get us out of the massive hole we’re in,” Meyer said.
Financial needs continue to increase despite upswings in some areas, and the gap between richer and poorer school districts continues to grow, Bradley said.
“It is ludicrous to think we are going to make up this gap if we keep doing this,” Bradley said. “The best ticket out of poverty is education. We have to communicate that to the people who represent you.”
The new standards
The panelists said there may be more attempts this session to repeal Arizona’s College and Career Ready Standards after unsuccessful efforts last year.
When people talk about getting rid of the standards and starting over again “that is an expensive proposition,” Bradley said.
“I honestly think in the Senate, at least, that there is a coalition among both the minority and some members of the majority to squelch that (efforts to repeal the standards), stop it or change it so its impact will be minimal,” Bradley said.
Meyer said he knows there will be discussion about the standards.
“The question is whether we will continue down the path that our universities, business leaders, communities and teachers in most cases have supported with moving forward with so we can compare Arizona with other states to know how we’re doing, and whether the votes are there to get the bills out of the House and the Senate to the Governor’s office,” Meyer said.
Perceptions about the standards often differ greatly from what the standards are, and people questioning what they’ve heard seek reliable information to answer their questions, Coleman said.
“Our communities need to truly understand the difference between standards, curriculum and instruction,” Carter said. “When we start to talk about what is and what isn’t happening in our schools, there’s a lot of misinformation out there.”
Many schools have met with parents and community members about the standards to talk about what students should master at each grade level and how that will better prepare them for college and career, Carter said.
“When I stop to talk to people and they say I want to ban Common Core, I ask them to point to exactly what it is that they want to stop,” Carter said. “A lot of times it’s something that’s completely unrelated to any standards.”
Carter said when she reads the standards to them, such as “Will be able to count to 100,” there’s not a lot of argument about learning that.
“We need standards to bridge the gap from K-12 to our universities so we don’t have to spend so many resources on remedial classes at the university level,” Coleman said. “These standards do that.”
Begay said he is concerned about the new AzMERIT test that students in third through eleventh grades will take for the first time in spring 2015.
“One of the priorities I’ve heard so far from teachers, is we need help with curriculum development and that’s a focus that many schools are aware of,” Begay said.
Meyer said he has asked Governor-Elect Ducey “to have at least biweekly meetings with our leadership so we could be involved in the decision-making process with him.”
“We need a plan for economic prosperity, if we want to invest in education and invest in our future,” Meyer said. “If we want to be able to attract jobs to our state we need to fund our schools and education our kids and get them into college or into the workforce.”
When Carter talks to Ducey, she said she will ask him to settle the education funding lawsuit and to protect the work the Legislature did to solve the healthcare issue.
“If I did get to talk to him, there are some funding issues going on in education and I think we need to look at the entire process for public, charter and district schools,” Coleman said.
Bradley said he’d like to talk with the governor about how to reinforce and fund the relationship between students and teachers that is so important to students’ success.
Begay said he appreciates the governor-elect’s willingness to listen and learn.
“A priority of mine is to bridge the gap between urban, rural and tribal communities in Arizona,” Begay said. “A big part of my efforts is to tell the Legislature that what’s in the best interest in tribal communities is in the best interest of the State of Arizona and vice versa.”