PHOENIX - Arizona House lawmakers agreed Tuesday to allow school districts across Arizona to spend the money this academic year that they already have despite arguments by Scottsdale and Mesa legislators who said the dollars are being wasted.
Rep. Joseph Chaplik, R-Scottsdale, said he believes that schools aren't using the money they have with teacher pay and classroom funding as priorities.
“I watch K through 12 funding as a broken system,'' he said.
“And we're repeating that broken system,'' Chaplik said. “The districts are not budgeting responsibly.''
One change he wants is to alter the system of paying superintendents, saying their salaries are “guaranteed even if they fail.''
Rep. Alexander Kolodin, R-Scottsdale, said that Arizona spends “more per pupil than most other countries in the world, with vastly superior results,'' though he did not mention multiple studies that show Arizona is at or near the bottom in spending per student among all the states.
“Where does the money go?'' he asked. “Before we just keep throwing more money at this problem, we need systemic reforms in terms of transparency and accountability to make sure that the money that we are intending to put into the classroom and give to teachers and students to facilitate education ... actually gets there.''
Rep. Justin Heap, R-Mesa, said student funding has nearly doubled in the last decade. “So, the question needs to be asked: What has Arizona received for its investment in education? And what we've received is failing schools where less than a third of our students are proficient in math and reading.''
"This is not a funding issue for some districts,'' said Rep. Rachel Jones, R-Tucson. "It's a mismanagement issue.
"I wasn't part of the Legislature last year who promised that money,'' Jones said, adding she's "not comfortable'' with that decision.
Rep. David Cook, R-Globe, who has championed Tuesday's vote, took issue with those comments.
"We all took an oath at the beginning of this session to uphold the constitution,'' he said. And, Cook said, approving a budget is "the No. 1 constitutional duty'' of the legislature.
"This money was in that budget,'' he said.
Tuesday's 46-14 vote is not the last word.
The Senate now needs to approve the same language before a March 1 deadline.
But Sen. T.J. Shope, R-Coolidge, the Senate president pro-tem, said leadership is confident there are the necessary 20 votes – two-thirds of the chamber - for final approval. What delayed a final Senate vote on Tuesday was that one supporter was missing.
Even if they approve the measure, it only takes care of current spending. Schools could find themselves in the same position for the next academic year.
At the root of the issue is a 1980 voter-approved constitutional measure which capped K-12 spending at current levels, with annual adjustments based on student growth and inflation.
The measure does allow lawmakers to approve a one-year override with a two-thirds vote. And that has occurred without incident in prior years.
What happened this school year is a convergence of two factors.
First, state lawmakers made a massive investment of new dollars, including making up for years during the last recession when schools did not get all the funds to which they were entitled.
Second, the COVID outbreak resulted in a departure of some children from school in prior years.
The result is that schools were authorized to spend nearly $7.8 billion this current academic year. But the constitutional spending cap sits at $6.4 billion.
Complicating matters is that former Gov. Doug Ducey, to get Democrat votes for his budget last year, promised to call a special session to waive the cap.
That never materialized before Ducey left office at the end of the year. And the constitution says if the cap isn't waived by March 1, schools need to cut an estimated 17% of their annual budgets - and do it in just the four months remaining in this academic year.
State schools chief Tom Horne, a Republican, warned that would force many schools to close. And Rep. Matt Gress, R-Phoenix, called that unacceptable.
“This effort is aimed at making sure that schools stay open and that students are prioritized,'' he said. “We believe that kids need to be in the classroom, not locked out of it.''
Rep. Lydia Hernandez, D-Phoenix, who has served on the school board of the Cartwright Elementary School District, said she agrees with some of the Republicans that there needs to be “systemic reform'' of education funding.
“I, for one, am not supportive of continuing to throw millions of dollars at an issue without fixing it,'' she said. But Hernandez said simply denying needed funds to schools in the middle of the academic year, as the failure of this measure would do, is not the answer.
“Until we fully invest and do our due diligence - and I'm talking about real investment, critical analysis in fixing this problem - we're not going to find that solution,'' she said. “Closing schools is not the answer.''
And Rep. Consuelo Hernandez, D-Tucson, questioned why some lawmakers would try, in the middle of the academic year, to force schools to make cuts she said would harm students.
“At this point we're playing games with their lives as well as everyone in education across Arizona,'' said Hernandez who is a member of the Sunnyside school board.
“This is a no-brainer,'' she said. “If we don't have teachers, if we don't have bus drivers, if we're not able to pay our bills just like any of you in this room, guess what? The lights turn off.''
There is an alternative to lawmakers having to vote on waivers of the education expenditure limit every year: rescind or at least sharply alter the 1980 cap. But that would require voter approval, with the next general election not until November 2024.
We’d like to invite our readers to submit their civil comments, pro or con, on this issue. Email AZOpinions@iniusa.org.