Ariz. Senate votes to waive school spending cap that would result in massive cuts; here's what you should know

Arizona’s public schools have successfully averted massive budget cuts, as lawmakers voted to waive a constitutional spending cap that has been in place for decades.

On Feb. 21, lawmakers in the Arizona State Senate voted, on a 23-6 vote, to waive a constitutional spending cap for K-12 school spending. Members of the house already voted on the measure a week ago. The measure does not need to be signed by Gov. Doug Ducey.

Had lawmakers fail to waive the cap, districts across the state would have been forced to cut back by more than $1 billion.

Here's what you need to know on why the state came so close to cut school spending.

Why was there a possibility for budget cuts?

Back in 1980, a cap on school funding was added to the Arizona Constitution.

The school spending cap was enacted as part of a wave of proposed laws the Legislature asked voters to approve to limit taxes and government spending. It is adjusted each year to take into account inflation and the number of students who are enrolled.

For this school year, spending is above the limit for a few reasons. The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic pushed decline in students, and sales tax dollars are now included in the equation.

"If it’s not addressed in a permanent manner, we are going to be pretty much sealing our feet from now on be at the bottom of the nation in funding," said David Lujan, a former state lawmaker who is currently CEO of the Children's Action Alliance.

In what ways would the budget cut impact schools?

Public schools statewide ware staring at 16% across-the-board cuts, and looking at layoffs and school closings, according to the Children’s Action Alliance.

"This has nothing to do with the pandemic. This is a totally avoidable situation, and that’s why lawmakers need to act right away," said Lujan.

The deadline for a decision was March 1, and cuts would have begun on April 1, thus leaving the last two months of the school year in limbo.

The spending cap does not affect public charter schools, which educate about 240,000 K-12 students.

"It should be no political games. This should be a very simple straightforward vote, and it should’ve already been done," said Lujan.

Why was there such a delay in waiving the limit?

The State Legislature, under the Arizona State Constitution, has the power to authorize expenditures in excess of the limitation for a single fiscal year. Two thirds of each houses of the legislature would need to vote on a concurrent resolution to approve the excess spending.

This time, however, politics stood in the way, as some Republican state lawmakers are refusing to budge until Proposition 208 is banished, even though schools are not getting money this year from the voter-approved tax on high wage earners.

Others say it is simple: schools need to do better.

"This is new money. We hit a limit set by the taxpayers. Schools should not be closing for any reason," said State Sen. Vince Leach (R). Leach represents the state's 11th Legislative District, which covers portions of Pinal and Pima Counties.

"Please listen, because the schools will not be moving to remote learning. They’re not going to distance-learning. They are closing and will simply shut their doors," said State Sen. Raquel Terán (D). Terán represents the state's 30th Legislative District, which covers a portion of the Phoenix area.

Who voted against the waiving the limit?

Of the 30 state senators who voted on the funding cap waiver, six of them, all of them Republicans, voted no.

Republican Sen. Vince Leach of Tucson was one GOP member who opposed the measure, railing against public school supporters giving his party no credit for the big boost in school funding they have received in recent years and school boards requiring students to wear masks to limit COVID-19 exposure. He pushed to provide school vouchers to all students in the state.

"My parents, my constituents, want to fund kids, not buildings, not institutions," State Sen. Leach said. "They want to fund kids to make sure that they have a good education."

Leach noted the 20% raise teachers were awarded between 2018 and 2020, noting it was a Republican proposal, but Democratic Minority Leader Sen. Rebecca Rios pushed back on that narrative, noting that GOP lawmakers and Ducey had offered just a 2% raise in 2018 and did not willingly offer their "20 by 2020 plan." Instead, it was the result of a statewide teacher strike that closed schools and flooded the Capitol with teachers demanding livable wages.

"I feel compelled to correct the record -- 20 by 2020 was not the brainchild of public-school-supporting Republicans," State Sen. Rios said. "20 by 2020 occurred because of the dissension of 70,000 red T-shirted parents and teachers and allies that came and fought for public education funding."

Another Republican opponent of the increase lashed out at local schools boards.

"So here we are, feeding the beast, more money, more money, in my opinion capitulating to the educational terrorists who have held our kids hostage," State Sen. Michelle Ugenti-Rita said, blaming local schools for their COVID restrictions.

What are people saying about the latest development?

Education officials, as well as parents, are speaking out about the waiver's approval on Feb. 21.

"The Senate made the right choice today by joining the House in suspending the school budget cap this year," wrote Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman, in a tweet. "While it shouldn't have taken this long to fix this issue, I'm grateful disaster was averted."

"I feel like senators, like [State Sen. J.D. Mesnard], listened to us, and that’s appreciated," said Kelley Fisher, whose child attends a school in the Derry Valley Unified School District. "I felt like it was a victory. I feel like we were able to stand together and use our power as educators and as parents and community members to let our legislators know how important school funding is. Our public schools are the backbone of our communities."

Are there calls to reexamine the spending cap?

Yes.

Arizona Senate President Karen Fann said the 1980 law needs to be reexamined, and she wants it done this year.

"When this was set in 1980 we didn't have Chrome tablets or whiteboards or any of the stuff that we have now that teaches our kids," State Sen. Fann said. "Back then in '80 we had schoolbooks and chalkboards and all kinds of things that didn't cost near as much."

The Associated Press (AP) contributed to this report.

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