'Classrooms First' Report. What It Means For Arizona Education

Ducey proposes billions in new taxes to pay teachers! Oops, sorry, my bad. Wrong governor. That should read, [Washington State Governor Jay] Inslee proposes billions in new taxes to pay teachers. The Washington State governor wants to add $4 billion in taxes so starting teacher salaries can increase from the current $35,700 to $54,578. Meanwhile, our governor Ducey has been toying with us for the 215 days since Prop 123 passed, putting out teasers about raising education funding, but he hasn't proposed a penny, and it's unlikely he'll call for a significant increase in the upcoming state budget. He could surprise us, of course. But don't hold your breath.

One more thing. Before the $4 billion Gov. Inslee is proposing, Washington is already spending $2,500 more per student than Arizona.

Which brings us to the recently published final report from Ducey's Classrooms First Initiative Council. The main thrust of the document is to change the way we distribute money to K-12 schools. If we don't see a significant budget increase, the recommendations, if implemented, will create financial winners and losers. The amount each school receives will increase or decrease. If it stayed the same, why bother changing things? Inevitably, some schools will get a bigger slice of the pie, and others will have their slices cut a little thinner.

If the recommended redistribution becomes law, it will be the most significant change in the way money is given out to schools in decades. And if I read the report's recommendations correctly, and combine them with what I know Arizona conservatives have been advocating for years, school districts with lots of low income students will be the losers, while charters and districts with high income students will be the winners.

The Classrooms First final report has 12 recommendations. The first five, if they become law, will have the largest impact on how money is distributed. They recommend simplifying the school finance formula, changing the methods of taxation and wiping out spending regulations by using lump sum funding.

The best way to understand the proposed changes in the school finance formula is to compare them to flat tax proposals. Income taxes are much too complicated, right? Of course they are. So, the flat taxers say, let's make them simpler by creating one tax rate for everyone. Problem solved! Except that the people pushing the flat tax think the rich pay too much and the poor pay too little, so their flat tax plan reduces taxes for the rich and raises them for everyone else.

There's no question that Arizona's school funding system is unnecessarily complex. So, the Classrooms First report says, let's create a simpler funding system. Problem solved! Except that the Republicans in charge don't like "government schools" and they're not very fond of poor people, so their new funding scheme will do everything it can to shift money in the direction of semi-private, often-for-profit charter schools, and what stays in "government schools" will favor wealthier districts.

Recommendation 1 in the report is the biggie: "Develop a simplified and single school finance formula for all public schools." The current, complex finance formula goes something like this: Everyone starts out with the same per-student funding. Then, students whose circumstances demand more attention, and therefore more money, than the average student get extra funding tacked on. For instance, extra money flows to special education students for the obvious reason that they need more personal attention. More also goes to educate English Second Language students for similar reasons. All kinds of other categories of students and situations boost the amount of money going to a district, with the goal of distributing the education funding equitably. Not equally, equitably, so, in theory, all students are given an equal chance to have their physical and educational needs attended to.

Complicated, right? All those categories are hard to follow, hard to understand. In some cases, they're wrong-headed. So let's make things simpler with a "single school finance formula for all public schools." Except that students and situations fitting the list of categories aren't equally distributed. You're going to find more students who fit the extra funding requirements in poorer populations. So if you create a more simplified, single finance formula, the likely financial losers will be urban school districts as well as districts in poor rural areas. That will mean more dollars for high rent districts with fewer children needing extra attention, and more for charter schools, which have fewer special education, English Second Language and other students needing extra attention than their neighboring districts.

The next few recommendations call for "consolidated tax rates across school district taxing jurisdictions" and a reduction of "reliance on local property tax funding generated outside of the revenue control limit." These suggestions are a bit above my pay grade, but I think I understand where they're going. They recommend we get rid of school districts' abilities to vote for bond and override measures which increase funding beyond what the state supplies. No question, districts that manage to pass bonds and overrides end up with more funding than other districts, and that's a problem. It could be lessened considerably by bringing the state out of the per-student cellar and giving schools more funding so they have enough to educate their children, but that fix isn't on the table. However, I don't think that's the real issue here. Charter schools complain bitterly that they get less money than districts, and one reason they give is, unlike districts, they don't have the ability to vote in extra funding. It's a weak argument if you look closely at the way money is allotted for charters, but regardless, they've been fighting against districts' ability to vote in bonds and overrides for years. If these recommendations become law and districts are restricted in their ability to vote for "property tax funding generated outside of the revenue control limit," the redistribution of funding will very likely benefit charter schools.

Recommendation 5 gives away its conservative underpinnings by including the adjective "onerous": "Allocate resources to public schools in lump sum funding and provide all public schools with the ability to operate without the constraints of onerous regulations." Conservatives love lump sum funding and they've never seen a regulation they don't find onerous, so for them, the fewer regulations the better. The idea of getting rid of some regulations has merit. Districts are overburdened with regulations and the paperwork that goes along with them. But regulations are there for a reason, to require districts to use their funding to meet certain basic physical and educational requirements which they might not attend to if they weren't mandated. The needs of certain groups of students can easily slip through the cracks if districts aren't required to fund them. It makes sense to take a look at regulations and trim those which are duplicative or unnecessary, but it doesn't make sense to replace the overall regulatory system with lump sum funding. The report suggests districts should live in a regulation-free environment like the current Wild West of charter schools. That's not a good model for school districts to follow.

The last few recommendations include some feel-good suggestions about raising teacher salaries and closing the achievement gap by giving low income schools special attention. Unless I miss my bet, those are sops to committee members from the education community so they think they're going to get something for all the hard work they put in, and so they won't complain about other, potentially destructive funding recommendations. The educators need to realize, there's a reason their ideas are sitting in the back of the bus. They're second class recommendations which won't get the same attention as those sitting up front.

What happens to these recommendations depends on Ducey and the legislature. If they ignore the Classrooms First report, it'll become another worthless document sitting in a file cabinet somewhere. But if the governor and his Republican-led legislature decide to use the document as a way to promote their anti-"government school," pro-"school choice" agenda, things could get a whole lot worse for public education than they already are.