Monday, September 14, 2015

Is Diane Douglas' School Funding Push Her Brewer-for-Medicaid Moment?

Posted By on Mon, Sep 14, 2015 at 10:19 AM

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We have a moment here. In a Media Release, Diane Douglas has declared that Arizona needs to add $400 million to its K-12 funding right away, during a special session, and she wants the extra funding to continue in perpetuity. Douglas has ideas about where the money can come from, but she's not making her proposal contingent on a specific funding stream. She says do it, beginning now and with a guarantee the funding will continue.

There are details to her proposal that I'll look at soon, but first, this is an important proposal, especially coming from the conservative Republican Superintendent of Public Instruction. It's as surprising and as encouraging as Jan Brewer's support of Medicaid expansion. Brewer, of course, had a hell of a lot more power than Douglas, who only has the superintendent's bully pulpit on the funding issue. But remember, Brewer didn't convince many Republican legislators to support her. She managed to get her Medicaid expansion passed with support from the health community, some of the business community, Democrats and a minority of Republicans. For Douglas' proposal to go anywhere, it needs full-throated support from the education community and Democrats. If some of the business community joins in, along with a number of her strong supporters during her campaign and some Republican legislators, it's possible, just possible, something good might happen to boost K-12 funding.

Now, let's take a closer look at what Douglas is proposing. First, here's an important point that's not spelled out in the Media Release but which Howie Fischer got from her spokesman Charles Tack. According to Fischer, Tack said that the $400 million Douglas is proposing has no connection to the court ruling about the yearly $330 million the state owes the schools or the $1 billion it owes from past years. It's in addition to whatever comes from the court ruling. So Douglas isn't proposing just another way to come up with the court-ordered money. She's talking about $400 million on top of that. That's a strong affirmation that the schools need far more than the legislature already owes them.

Next, Douglas wants the money to go "specifically to teachers in classrooms."
"The $400 million in general fund monies could be spent on teacher salaries, hiring more teachers to reduce classroom sizes, or a combination of the two based on local needs."
For anyone who's surprised to see Douglas supporting teachers — aren't all right wingers supposed to be public-school-teacher bashers? — remember what she said in her State of Education message back in January.
"Arizona’s average teacher salary is ranked 42nd in the nation and salaries are a major obstacle when recruiting outside Arizona."

[snip]

"I know first-hand just how hard our teachers work and how much they care about their students."
I was pleasantly surprised, to say the least, when I first read those words, and I'm even more pleased to see Douglas has backed up those statements with a concrete proposal to increase teacher numbers and salaries, not by robbing money from some other school source but by adding $400 million.

Douglas has some ideas about where the new money should come from. First, she wants to tap into the current surplus, but she knows that can't be guaranteed in future years. She says we shouldn't take money from First Things First funds. She's OK with the money coming from state land trust funds as Ducey suggests, if the voters approve it and "so long as the State Treasurer verifies the expenditure would not deplete the corpus of the land trust." She also wants Arizona's federal lands turned over to the state, something conservatives have been pushing for which isn't likely to happen. But she's not hanging the funding on any of those specifics.
"However, the core of the proposal is that under any circumstances, the entire $400 million must be made available every year with no drop off in the future. Schools cannot hire teachers and make plans if they cannot count on having the money available."
Douglas calls this her AZ Kids Can't Afford to Wait! Plan. And—I say this with a combination of anticipation and trepidation—it's part of a larger group of policy initiatives she plans to release Oct. 1. I have no idea what those initiatives will be. I'm sure I'll dislike some of them. I'm hoping there are items I can support. We'll have to wait for that shoe to drop. Meanwhile, we need to actively, vocally support our Ed Supe's plan to increase school funding.

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