For the last three years, the Arizona legislature has ignored a voter mandate and seriously underfunded public schools. The state Court of Appeals just put an end to the practice, ordering an $80 million increase in this year’s education budget.
In 2000, voters approved Proposition 301 to require the state legislature to increase education funding every year by either 2% or by the rate of inflation, whichever is less. The increase was for the base support level of education and other components of the school funding formula used by the legislature. Voters passed the measure because the funding for Arizona’s public schools lost ground dramatically over the previous 20 years. In 1980, Arizona was 34th in the nation–not exactly earning bragging rights even then–but by 2000 it had fallen to 50th!
The legislature thought they had a clever solution to further defund the schools when, three years ago, it began picking and choosing the elements for which it would approve the increase. Finally, when they raised only the funding for ‘student transportation route miles’ in the 2011 budget, a coalition of education groups, school districts, and Arizona voters filed a lawsuit to force them to obey the will of the voters. The gap between the lawmakers’ calculations, which produced a figure of $7.2 million, and the intent of the law, which would require an increase of $81.6 million, was $74.4 million!
The position of the legislature was that, since the language originally publicizing the measure was inconsistent, sometimes inserting ‘and’ and sometimes inserting ‘or’ between ‘base support’ and ‘other components’, they could pick and choose what to approve. They failed to realize, however, that they had already tripped themselves up in two ways. First of all, as the Court of Appeals pointed out, when the legislature mounted a campaign in 2000 to tell voters how much the proposition would cost, they used figures for full funding. Secondly, full funding is the standard they utilized until three years ago, establishing a precedent that they then abandoned.
The education groups involved in the lawsuit aren’t seeking the shortfall from the past three years, which would amount to $250 million, but they expect future funding to adhere to the will of the voters. The grumbling among conservatives includes a threat to appeal to the state Supreme Court, but Senator Rich Crandell, a moderate Republican from Mesa and a member of the Senate Education Committee, said the court’s ruling is “probably the right thing” because it recognizes voter intent.
An analyst at Arizona State University’s Morrison Institute for Public Policy, David Berman, said of the ruling:
“The Legislature has got to start paying attention to what the voters want. I know that sounds revolutionary, but the law is quite clear.”
Jeez! It’s revolutionary to obey the law? Where but in Arizona?