What education advocates hope for this Legislative session - AZEdNews
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What education advocates hope for this Legislative session

Chris Kotterman With Arizona School Boards Association And Marisol Garcia With Arizona Education Association Speak With Ted Simons On Arizona Horizon About What Education Advocates' Priorities Are For The Upcoming Legislative Session On Jan. 4, 2023. Photo Courtesy Arizona Horizon

Education advocates say lifting the aggregate expenditure limit for school districts is one of the first things they would like to see happen during the Arizona Legislature’s session that starts Monday, Jan. 9, 2023.

What education advocates hope for this Legislative session Screenshot-2023-01-06-at-8.52.21-AM
Marisol Garcia

Lifting the limit would let schools use the state funds allocated to them in the bi-partisan budget approved in June, and avoid budget cuts of $1.3 billion, or 17%, on April 1, just weeks before classes end for summer. The Arizona Legislature has lifted the AEL for school districts in 2007, 2008 and 2022.

“The aggregate expenditure limit needs to be dealt with. It’s a lot of stress being put onto educators shoulders every day wondering whether or not they’re going to be able to keep the schools open ‘til the end of the year,” said Marisol Garcia, president of Arizona Education Association, on the Jan. 4 episode of Arizona Horizon broadcast by Arizona PBS.

Arizona voters approved an amendment to the Arizona Constitution in 1980 that created the aggregate expenditure limit for school districts. It restricts total spending of all Arizona’s public K-12 school districts to an amount that fluctuates each year based on changes in the state’s total student population and changes in inflation measured by the Gross National Product (GNP) price deflator. Charter schools, also public schools, are not included in the AEL because they did not exist in 1980.

“Times have changed since 1980, technology has changed, the needs of our students have changed,” Garcia said. “If we want to use the money that has been allocated in last year’s budget, we need to be able to have almost like an override.”

Several factors led to the AEL being exceeded this year – funds generated by Legislators extension of Prop. 301 in 2018 were no longer exempt from the limit since it wasn’t voter approved, decreasing enrollment, special education expenditures, and the restoration of  district additional assistance funding that was cut during the Great Recession.

Arizona Horizons host Ted Simons asked what education advocates would like to see Gov. Katie Hobbs do.

What education advocates hope for this Legislative session Chris-Kotterman
Chris Kotterman

“The Governor has a limited role to play in terms of logistics, because the Legislature has to do the override and it would require a constitutional amendment to change the formula. Both of which can go directly from the Legislature to the voters,” said Chris Kotterman, director of governmental relations for Arizona School Boards Association.

“The Governor has a bully pulpit to play here, and she’s been a big supporter of schools, and we will need her leadership to help shepherd a deal through both houses of the Legislature, which have their own differences even though they’re both controlled by Republicans,” Kotterman said.

In early September, more than 190 school superintendents sent a letter to the Arizona Legislature to thank them for the increase in public education funding and to ask them to lift the aggregate expenditure limit so they could use those funds.

Several factors led to the AEL being exceeded this year – funds generated by the Prop. 301 extension in 2018 were not exempt from the limit because the extension was not voter approved, decreasing enrollment, special education expenditures, the restoration of  district additional assistance funding that was cut during the Great Recession.

ESA expansion concerns

Also, education advocates expressed concern that revenue is being diverted from public schools to private schools through expansion of Empowerment Scholarship Accounts, or vouchers that provide public tax revenues to fund students’ private school tuitions.

“There are those who want to expand it, who want to make it more money, more uses, and we’re already at $300 million, and we expect it to keep going a little bit,” Kotterman said.

“If we’re not careful that program is going to eat up our entire budget surplus, and critical needs of the state even outside of education will be in trouble so we need to keep an eye on where it goes from here,” Kotterman said.

“Is keeping an eye on it the best you can hope for right now?” Simons asked.

“Yeah, and preventing expansions with the help of the Governor hopefully so that we can just contain the program and make sure we have revenue available for the state’s priorities, including schools,” Kotterman said.

“That’s a huge priority that we need to have a good look on where taxpayer money is being spent in schools, who they’re going to, and even more so for us, it’s about retention of teachers,” Garcia said.

Investing in teacher retention

“Realistically, I think that we need to have a conversation about investing in the Arizona educators in schools now – keeping them there,” Garcia said. “They’re there three to five years, and then we see this huge exodus where they’re leaving to be able to go to a state that will pay them (more), where they can buy a home, and raise children.”

The state has been investing in teachers, and “we want to be able to continue to make this a priority to have a minimum salary, and then have an average salary close to $66,000,” Garcia said.

The cost of health care is a big issue for educators, Garcia said.

“We have educators paying $1,000 to cover their children, which eats away at their salary,” Garcia said.

Along with salary and benefits, working conditions are important for teacher retention, Kotterman said.

“We need to stop placing additional burdens on teachers in the classroom,” Kotterman said. “They need to be able to teach their students and not worry about as much data collection, reporting, and paperwork.”

“The more time the teacher spends doing that stuff, the less contact they have with their students,” Kotterman said.

Those extra responsibilities impact administrative spending, which Legislators often focus on, Kotterman said.

“I often tell them, if you don’t want us to spend on administration, stop giving us things for administrators to do, because reporting, data collection, analysis and all that ends up in the administrative side of the house,” Kotterman said.

“Do you include testing in that?” Simons asked.

“I do in the sense that we are required by federal law to test, but we have a large state mandated testing apparatus that requires things like reading assessment, dyslexia, all those things. All well-intentioned by and large. No argument there,” Kotterman said.

“But we need to take a look at the time, energy, and resources those are taking and make sure that we’re doing it smart,” Kotterman said.

Legislators’ respect for and trust in educators is another concern.

“I think parents trust us or they wouldn’t let their children out of their car into our classrooms,” Garcia said.

“I think the school system and educators have recently even more so been politicized and used to garner votes or to try to move things across the aisle,” Garcia said. “Quite frankly, we just want people to understand the work we’re doing, and treat us like the professionals that we are.”

Making funding more equitable

Last year, Legislators made strides in making education funding more equitable, Kotterman said.

“We added for the first time in Arizona’s history a weight that considers students income in the form of free- and reduced-lunch to the formula, which is good. Increased special education funding – also in there,” Kotterman said.

People who have never worked and lived in underserved communities do not understand how “the extreme poverty that exists outside the walls of the school impacts what happens in school,” Garcia said.

“When kids walked into my classroom, not a day passed where kids didn’t ask for food or a sweatshirt or anything that they could take home with them. That impacts learning,” Garcia said.

“Every day I’m checking students learning. I’m making sure they hit goals I set for them. But we also have to talk about what happens in the community at large,” Garcia said.

Resolving the capital funding lawsuit

Legislators increased funds for books and supplies last year “for the first time in a long time, which was beneficial,” Kotterman said.

“What we’re hoping on that, honestly, is that this Governor and this Attorney General will be interested in finally resolving, after almost a decade the capital (funding) lawsuit that’s currently underway,” Kotterman said.

“The Legislature has put out a lot of money for building renewal, building maintenance. The last part of that is consumable capital for textbooks, furniture things like that,” Kotterman said.

“If we can get an agreement on that between this Governor, this Legislature, and this Attorney General to say index that to inflation so that we don’t have to have these fights all the time, and maybe throw an increase there to get to a level where it’s sustainable over time, maybe we could resolve that and that would be immensely helpful to districts and state lawmakers,” Kotterman said.

Investing in post high school opportunities for students

Another priority is investing in career training opportunities for students after high school.

“They need to be able to use digital tools. They need to be able to interact with each other. They need to develop critical thinking skills. All these things will be able to help them progress post K-12,” Garcia said.

“It may not be going to university. It may be going to CTE (Career and Technical Education) programs. We need to invest in these programs so families and students have options,” Garcia said.

What’s next

When asked how a Democratic Governor and Republican-led Legislature will impact education issues, Kotterman said, “I think it’s good for us.”

“I think it will force the Legislature to come together on a budget proposal that a Governor like Katie Hobbs will sign, and I think that is good for education writ large, because it will force a movement to the middle, which will help us to address the state’s priorities long-term,” Kotterman said.