While many good-hearted people have encouraged supporting Prop 123 because they claim it is a good start and injects badly needed money immediately into the classroom, unfortunately, they are wrong. First, there will be a lawsuit regarding whether the enabling act requires congressional approval to implement the proposition. During the lawsuit, which could take several years, no monies will be sent to classrooms.
Even if the Legislature paid everything ordered and agreed to, it will not change Arizona’s ranking on education, it will not fix the education problem in Arizona, and it will not provide sustainable funding for our schools. For 20 years, our pupil-teacher ratio has steadily worsened and is now 40 percent greater than the national average. In 1992, Arizona funded our students at 80 percent of the national average for state-sourced funding; today it is 55 percent, the worst in the country. Our state-sourced funding per teacher has dropped from 70 percent to 40 percent of the national average.
A separate piece of legislation that would go into effect if Prop 123 passes would increase the base-level funding per student from $3,426.74 to $3,600. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the national average is $12,401 per public school student enrolled in the fall. Arizona’s base level is at a third of the national average and remains in the bottom third of the 50 states. The minimal funding of Prop 123 is not a solution.
Yet on Feb. 22, 2016, the Senate passed SB 1279 on empowerment scholarships. As Sen. Steve Farley, D-LD9, said in debate, “This is the end of public education in Arizona.” From 2000 to 2012, private school tuition credits claimed by taxpayers increased 287 percent. During the same time, state appropriations per public school student decreased 10 percent.
Given these serious structural problems of long standing and the Legislature’s track record of underfunding education, it is clear that the Legislature’s idea of solving the problem of funding public schools is to eliminate public schools.
The language of the proposition makes it clear that the Legislature will not pay even the amount outlined in the proposition. The proposition has many “triggers” that allow the Legislature to reduce or even stop the distributions from the land trust.
If the trust fund is negatively affected (by a complicated comparison with prior years), they can go back to 2.5 percent; if sales tax and employment rate see less than 2 percent growth, they can suspend payments; if the percentage of education funding in the general fund is at 49 percent or more, they can suspend payments and lower base levels.
The proposition specifically says that the lost money does not have to be repaid in any subsequent year or distributed from any other public monies. No provision in the Constitution requires that the Legislature give money to for-profit prisons, dole out welfare to large corporations, or give tax breaks to the richest citizens. In fact, there are provisions saying they shouldn’t. The Arizona Constitution Article XI, Section 10 does say that the Legislature has a duty to tax in order to fund constitutionally mandated education.
Yet the proposition includes in it a permanent change to the Constitution to reduce voters’ power. The Voter Protection Act says that a referendum passed by the voters cannot be repealed and can only be amended if the amendment furthers the purpose of the law and has 75 of the legislators’ approval.
The intent of the Legislature is nakedly visible with four bills introduced this session: HCR2023, HCR2024, HCR2043, HCR2047. These bills would make it easier to repeal voters’ intent and put several hurdles in the way of passing a voter initiative. By refusing to fund the mandatory 2 percent inflation increase (which was a voter passed initiative) and not funding the base level, the Legislature redirected (stole) the money specifically earmarked for education by the voters and used it for tax breaks to corporations. They got caught and sued. Now, they want to make sure that doesn’t happen again by changing the Constitution to reduce voter power.
It’s hard to say no to our struggling schools, but in reality they won’t get money immediately anyhow. The money they eventually will get is minuscule compared to what is needed to bring Arizona up to par.
The Legislature has clearly signaled they have no intention of coming up with a plan for permanent, sustainable and sufficient funding for public schools and they want to decrease voter power to make sure we can’t force them.
Vote no on Prop 123 and let’s elect legislators who truly care about Arizona’s kids and Arizona’s future.
Dianne Post is an international human rights attorney based in Phoenix.