There is still so much to do for Arizona’s students, despite 2019 gains

When six Arizona moms formed Save Our Schools Arizona in 2017, no one believed our statewide network of volunteers would succeed at collecting enough valid signatures to refer universal voucher expansion to the ballot.

We did.

Then in 2018 when we ran a statewide campaign to defeat Proposition 305 fueled by nothing but volunteer campaigners and small-dollar donations, everyone called it a David and Goliath battle with an uncertain outcome.

We won.

In 2019, we’ve stayed true to our mission of protecting public schools and Arizona taxpayers from ever more irresponsible and unnecessary private school voucher expansion. But with no signatures to gather or campaigns to win, we decided to evolve. So, we turned our attention to the statehouse.

Since January, SOSAZ scored many defensive wins for our public schools due to an unprecedented level of civic engagement. Because of our statewide network’s relentless calls, emails, community engagement and meetings with lawmakers, we prevented national and local dark money groups from pushing five harmful Empowerment Scholarship Account voucher expansion bills through the legislature.

Because bad ESA voucher policy is the issue we formed SOSAZ to counteract, we’re particularly proud of this historic feat, but we did so much more thanks to our indefatigable network of parents, teachers, retirees, concerned citizens and business leaders.

In addition to working with legislative allies and other education advocates to stop bad policy, we actively worked toward a few of the budget’s bright spots: fulfilling the second installment of the 20×2020 pay raise, doubling what was originally proposed in District Additional Assistance to $136 million, and securing $20 million per year for three years toward schools’ choice of counselors, social workers or school resource officers.

For the third year in a row, SOSAZ has kept lawmakers from gouging more holes in the education funding bucket, but the truth is, that’s not enough. To make up for two decades of defunding and underfunding our public schools, we need to exponentially increase the water in the pail.

In terms of the big task of setting an annual state budget, the Legislature had a huge opportunity to truly move the needle for education this session. While some high-need areas got a significant bump, the overall education budget gains are modest in comparison to schools’ needs, and will do little to move Arizona forward in national education rankings

There is still so much more to do.

While Arizona’s spending on education is growing faster than the national average, we’ve been too far behind for too long, and this year’s reinvestment doesn’t do much to make up the gap. Arizona still ranks 49th in the nation ($13,000 behind the national median) for elementary teacher pay and 46th in the nation ($4,200 behind the national median) for per-pupil spending.

Teachers continue to leave the profession in droves.

Despite the need for more funding, lawmakers continue to actively reduce state revenues. This year’s budget included a $680 million tax cut package designed to offset changes to the federal tax code from 2017, several large tax exemptions (including for fertilizer and solar batteries) and a $185 million phase-out of last year’s $32 vehicle registration fee.

Arizona’s many tax exemptions, deductions, allowances, exclusions and credits affect how much money the state has to spend on its priorities, including education. These carve-outs (known in state law as “tax expenditures”) easily dwarf the state budget: In FY 2018, tax expenditures totaled more than $14.7 billion, compared to a budget of $9.8 billion.

While the 2020 budget is a step forward, long-term problems still exist and new financial challenges are on the horizon. Many of the provisions of the 2017 federal tax changes that lead to increased state revenues expire after 2025. Proposition 123 also expires in 2025, at a cost of $251 million in annual funding. The need for a permanent, dedicated revenue stream for public education is greater now than ever.

We’re a scrappy bunch. To the chagrin of education-defunding apologists who want to pretend that returning slashed funding qualifies as “new money” or who won’t admit that a dollar in 2008 is not equivalent to a dollar in 2019, the SOSAZ network is only getting smarter, bigger and stronger. As always, we’re in this for one simple reason: to build a bright future for our kids, our communities, and our state’s economy. For that reason, we are open and eager to work with any groups or individuals who share our goal of stopping irresponsible education policy while better supporting the public schools that 95 percent of Arizona families choose.

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Dawn Penich-Thacker

Dawn Penich-Thacker is one of the cofounders of Save Our Schools Arizona and volunteers as the organization’s Communications Director and spokesperson. Save Our Schools Arizona is an all-volunteer, community-based nonpartisan advocacy and outreach group dedicated to supporting public education and tax dollar accountability in education.

Melinda Iyer

Melinda Iyer is one of the cofounders of Save Our Schools Arizona. Save Our Schools Arizona is an all-volunteer, community-based nonpartisan advocacy and outreach group dedicated to supporting public education and tax dollar accountability in education.