Originally Published: April 10, 2016 6 a.m.
PHOENIX — Saying the current education funding crisis was “manufactured’’ by the governor and Legislature, the League of Women Voters is urging Arizonans to reject Proposition 123 at the May 17 special election.
In what could be the biggest threat ever to the plan, the organization said schools would be better off long term if the $3.5 billion ballot measure is defeated. Shirley Sandelands, the organization’s Arizona chair, said her group believes the schools deserve — and can get more.
That conclusion was disputed by Christian Palmer, spokesman for the coalition that is pushing for voter approval.
He acknowledged that the Arizona Supreme Court ruled that lawmakers and the governor illegally ignored a 2000 voter-approved mandate to boost aid to schools annually to compensate for inflation.
But Palmer said courts are still considering the exact amount schools are owed. More to the point, he said the education groups that sued have agreed to drop their lawsuit and settle for what Proposition 123 will provide.
Sandelands, however, said the plan should be rejected.
The ballot measure is the direct outgrowth of the 2010 lawsuit filed against the state by the Arizona School Boards Association, the Arizona Education Association and others. That came after lawmakers and then-Gov. Jan Brewer decided to ignore the 2000 law in an effort to balance the state budget.
After the high court ruling, a superior court judge calculated that the state immediately owed schools more than $300 million. But the state, rather than pay up, filed an appeal.
Still pending is a separate request by schools to get the more than $1 billion they contend they should have been paid in missed aid.
Under the terms of the deal negotiated by Gov. Doug Ducey, the state will provide $3.5 billion over the next decade above what else it would normally pay.
Much of that, though, comes from a trust fund already set aside for state aid to education. That has led state Treasurer Jeff DeWit to oppose the measure because more money taken out now to settle the lawsuit will mean less available for future years.
But AEA President Andrew Morrill said his organization and others see the deal as providing something that continuing with the lawsuit does not: Certainty.
If Proposition 123 is defeated, the case goes back to court where it could drag on for years. Potentially more significant, the courts could end up giving the schools less money than the proposition offers.
“The terms of Prop 123 represent a good settlement,’’ Morrill said.
Sandelands, however, said voters should make the decision that educators so far will not.
“We realize educators in Arizona have been placed in the unenviable position of being willing to accept almost anything at this point,’’ she said.
“The numbers being touted by supporters of Prop 123 sound good,’’ Sandelands continued. “But it’s not a long-term solution.’’
Among the longer-term problems that foes have pointed out is what can happen after the extra funds expire at the end of the 10 years.
Of note is that Proposition 123 would amend that 2000 voter-approved measure which mandates annual inflation funding increases.
It would allow lawmakers to refuse to provide inflation increases any time K-12 funding exceeds 49 percent of the state budget; at 50 percent the Legislature actually could reduce state aid.
Schools currently make up about 42 percent of state spending.
Sandelands said the better alternative is keep the 2000 inflation mandate in place forever, as it is now — and require lawmakers to obey the law.
“Voters in 2000 provided that long-term solution and our political leaders decided to ignore them,’’ she said, creating the crisis that Proposition 123 now seeks to fix.
Morrill, however, said he does not see the measure as the end of the discussion.
“It’s a critical first step,’’ he said. And Morrill said he is counting on continued public pressure on lawmakers to ensure that schools are getting what they need.
Sandelands said there’s something else missing from the deal.
She said that 2000 ballot measure included something else: an extra six-tenths of a cent on state sales taxes, with the money earmarked for education. But that surcharge — and the approximately $600 million it raises for schools — expires at the end of the decade and there is nothing in Proposition 123 to replace those dollars.
Ducey did not respond to requests to comment on the LWV position.
The group’s position comes against what has been a well-funded pro-123 campaign.
Prescott voices speak out
Honestly, this topic is more difficult for me to answer. I see the point of the League of Woman Voters statement. They are actually sticking up for schools to ensure schools receive the total amount of funding they should have received in the 2000 voter approved mandate to aid schools annually to compensate for inflation. However, because of the current drastic under-funding for AZ schools, educators and administrators need some sort of monetary relief right now. We're pretty much being backed into a corner right now. - Stan Goligoski
Although Prop 123 is not the solution to Arizona's public education crisis, it is necessary for Prescott schools to survive. People want to vote against it to teach a lesson to the government but the only ones who will be hurt are our schools. Prop 123 is the first step of many to remedy the crisis of Arizona's education. - Krista Carman/Community member and PUSD Parent
Saying the current education funding crisis was "manufactured'' by the governor and legislature is absolutely true. This has happened through years of tax cuts and disinvestment in our schools. What is critical is that Prop 123 has to be a first step. My fear is that the gov. and legislature believe that this is sufficient for the funding discussion. The fact that education organizations took the deal of Prop 123, shows how desperate things are with district public schools. - Bob Haas/A concerned grandfather
This decision by the League of Women Voters is shortsighted because funds are needed immediately within our schools. To vote yes for Prop 123 is a vote for survival; it offers much needed funds for this coming year for a district like PUSD. The proposition is only a first step and must be a first step. - Dan Kenley/A concerned community member
Proposition 123 is like an employer saying, 'I've shorted your pay check and I'm going to pay you back by using funds from your 401K.' That is lousy! However, it is the only game in town for school funding. In one sense, we are between a rock and a hard place. We can't risk having the funding issue taken back to the courts especially since the governor is trying to stack the AZ Supreme Court. We have to vote yes. - Mike Ellegood / A concerned community member