Friday, May 31, 2019

Arizona's Education Budget Increase: Too Little And Ten Years Too Late

Posted By on Fri, May 31, 2019 at 3:34 PM

If you look at the numbers in next year's state budget, you might think education made out pretty well. There's all this new money: $136 million in additional assistance for schools; $130 million for teacher raises; $20 million to hire counselors or security officers; $30 million for results based funding.

You might also think I made out pretty well if I told you my boss said I'm doing a great job and handed me a crisp new hundred dollar bill. Until I told you the boss cut my salary by five hundred dollars.

Same thing with the state budget. All that brand spanking new education money sounds good until you realize, the decade-long cuts to education have been so deep, even with the new money, schools are a billion dollars behind where they were in 2008. And back then, Arizona had the lowest per student spending in the country.

To see how we dug ourselves in a hole so deep that adding $300 million to the education budget still leaves the schools a billion dollars behind, we need to start back in 2008 with the Great Recession.

Like most other states, Arizona was hit hard when the economy sank like a stone. The state was desperately short of funds. The budget had to be cut, and education took a big hit. The Republicans in charge told us, shaking their heads sadly, we have no choice. There just isn't enough money to go around.

A few years later in 2010, after more cuts to education, Governor Jan Brewer decided we did have a choice. She defied the standard Republican "No new taxes" mantra and supported a ballot measure for a one cent sales tax increase for education. The voters agreed with Brewer. The measure passed with 64 percent of the vote.

The problem was, it only lasted three years.

In 2012 a new measure was on the ballot which would have kept the one cent sales tax going. Early polling gave it a good chance of passing, but the opposition put together a heavily funded campaign led by then-state treasurer Doug Ducey and paid for with millions of dollars from the Koch brothers' donor network. The barrage of negative advertising worked. The sales tax went down to defeat. Once again, the bottom fell out of the education budget.

In 2015, studies compared national education funding to pre-recession levels. They found Arizona had cut more than any other state in the nation, a whopping 36 percent. No other state came close. Florida was next in line with a 22 percent cut.

Once you account for inflation and the increased student population, Arizona's 2015 education budget was down $1.5 billion a year compared to 2008. That's in a state that was already at national rock bottom in per student funding before the recession hit.

Over the past few years and including the 2018-19 budget, the state has replaced some of the money it had taken from our children's educations, but with a $1.5 billion deficit to make up, it still had a long way to go.

Children don't get a second chance at a their K-12 education. First graders in 2008 are this year's graduating class. Kindergarteners who began public school at the beginning of the Great Recession will be next year's class of 2020. All of them have been cheated out of part of their education because funding education hasn't been a state priority.

This legislative session, the state had a surplus on its hands. The economic upturn brought in more tax dollars than expected. On top of that, changes created by Trump's tax cut added almost $400 million to the state's coffers.

Remember back in 2008 when the Republicans said, shaking their heads sadly, they had no choice but to cut funding for education? This year they had an opportunity to hold their heads high and proclaim, "We have only one moral choice, and that's to use every dollar at our disposal to raise funding for our children's educations to pre-recession levels."

That's not what they did. Instead, they turned the windfall from the new national tax laws into a tax cut. They added to the rainy day fund, topping it off at a billion dollars. Then, almost as an afterthought, they put an extra $300 million into education.

Education got a little more money. Too little to make up for what it lost.

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