Pandemic Exposes Initiative Hassles
Courts Don't Help
Perspective by Abby Brill
This is not another article about Covid-19. It’s about an existing problem that will be made worse because of Covid-19.
We can all agree that yes, we value a good education for our local kids. They are more likely to be healthy contributors to society if they get the tools to grow their minds and skill sets. On the surface we all agree. But when it comes to our purse strings, we pause.
Arizona is a prime retirement destination, due in part to the relative lack of snow, but also because of our low taxes. Our fair state has seen three decades of tax cuts. As a result, the general fund, which among other things funds public education, is perpetually strained. Here are some facts that might get your attention:
More than $800 million is still missing from public schools compared to fiscal 2007.
Almost 25% of AZ teacher positions remain vacant a few months into the school year.
52% of teacher positions are filled by individuals not meeting standard teacher requirements.
Arizona ranked 48th in school funding in 2019, coming in behind the national average for per-pupil spending by about $4000.
Teachers walking off the job. Classrooms with 40 students. Textbooks ragged and grossly out-of-date.
Good schools are the basis for a thriving economy. Good public schools lift children from low-income families into greater opportunities for employment and support of their communities. Many states adjacent to AZ have seen that raising revenues to invest more in public education attracts better jobs. Companies looking to build or relocate look for areas with good schools for employee families.
But these companies are also looking for the best deals they can find with any given state. Arizona courts business by offering very favorable tax rates. Projections show that our corporate income-tax revenues will soon fall below half what they were in 2007. This is money that companies save and which will not be going into our general fund.
Our governor and current state legislature are all for tax cuts, and have made it really hard to raise taxes in our state. They have cleverly configured the law so that to create a new tax it takes either a two-thirds majority in the legislature, or the legislature can refer an initiative to the ballot, or voters can get a citizens initiative on the ballot, if they can get enough signatures to qualify.
Recently in these pages I wrote about four initiative groups bringing suit before the AZ Supreme Court arguing that the Governor’s shelter-in-place policy impedes citizens from exercising their legal right to gather and sign petitions, and that the court should therefore allow online petition-signing for voter initiatives, which is currently not allowed. The Secretary of State already offers a secure online site called E-Qual, where voters can sign petitions for candidates, but not initiatives.
These and all other initiative organizations worry that they won't be able to gather enough signatures to qualify for the November ballot due to safety issues involved in collecting them during the pandemic.
On May 13 the high court ruled against these groups, and now anyone who wishes to either go out and gather signatures or sign a petition must risk their health to do so. It seems that those in power don’t want to make exercising our civic right to use our voices any easier.
Until this decision there were two ballot initiatives working to protect and increase public-school funding. Save Our Schools sought to limit the growing amount of public funding going toward vouchers, and Invest In Education (InvestInEd) proposes a surcharge for individuals with annual income over $250k that would funnel funds into K-12 public education. Save Our Schools has decided to drop its initiative, while InvestInEd is still working to collect signatures safely in drive-through events. To find a drive-through event near you, visit InvestInEd.com.
With state coffers straining under massive unemployment claims and the needs of communities hit hard by the pandemic, we will soon be hearing much wailing and gnashing of teeth about deficit spending. This, mind you, from the very actors who continue doling out tax cuts that only further weaken our state’s economy. The state of public education in Arizona is about to get worse than it already is.
We should all give a damn about public education, even if we’re comfortably retired and our kids are grown. A strong education system is the basis for all good things: a strong local economy, good jobs that let young people stay and thrive where they grew up, steady property values and a rich cultural life. If you care about these things, please stay awake to how our state legislature treats public-education funding, and support those legislators who are working to pull us up from 48th.
Stay awake. Use your voice. Vote.
Abby Brill is associate editor of 5enses.