Deficit or surplus, Republicans will always have an excuse to stiff students

January 27, 2021 12:56 pm

Photo via Getty Images/iStock

Arizona’s claim to fame during the Great Recession was leading the nation in funding cuts to public education.

Back then, our Republican leaders claimed this embarrassing distinction was not their fault: The state was broke, so lawmakers had no choice but to implement an austerity budget and slash billions from education.

Health care, parks, universities, public safety. Everything — with the exception of tax increases or the elimination of corporate handouts — was on the table.

Fast forward a decade, and revenues had finally stabilized. Education leaders started demanding funding restorations because teachers were fleeing the profession. They had tired of years of pay cuts and/or stagnant wages combined with ballooning class sizes, fewer wraparound supports for struggling students, decrepit buildings, and outdated technology.

It only made sense that lawmakers should prioritize a full restoration of education funding before any additional tax cuts or revenue-reducing schemes were implemented.

But common sense be damned. Gov. Ducey and Republican lawmakers had other ideas. They expanded vouchers and tax credits for religious and private schools as well as tax cuts for special interest groups.

When teachers started organizing around pay raises, Ducey claimed the state was still broke and could not afford more than a two-percent raise over two years. This, while handing out massive raises to his own staffers.

More than 50,000 teachers marched on the Capitol, and suddenly, as if by magic, the governor found enough money in the state’s reserves for double-digit raises for teachers.

Today, our coffers are overflowing.

Instead of fixing structural problems, we’ve stashed a billion dollars in the state’s Rainy Day fund. Ducey also chose to use a chunk of the federal CARES Act funding — money that was supposed to help victims of the pandemic — to pad state revenues, resulting in a projected budget surplus of hundreds of millions of dollars.

Considering the state’s current revenues, surely now is the time to make good on those outstanding education bills — to restore funding for things like all-day Kindergarten, universities and community colleges, and school facilities. 

Now is the time to reverse those steepest in the nation tuition increases that have penalized our young adults and to make special education funding whole. (It is estimated the state underfunds special education by hundreds of millions of dollars each year.)

Now is the time to have serious conversations about funding pre-K, something lawmakers have sworn they care about but just cannot afford. And to fix those leaky roofs and hire school counselors.

There are no more justifications to kick the can down the road or claim poverty. Right?

If only…

Alas, Ducey and Republican leaders have found a new excuse to ignore the state’s education woes.

We now have too much money.

And instead of spending this money to stabilize shaky budgets or address decades-long crises that have put Arizonans at a disadvantage, we must cut taxes. Permanently.

The governor claims this massive tax cut — $600 million over three years — will be good for our state because, eventually, it will result in more revenues. 

But what good is additional revenue when it isn’t spent on the state’s most pressing needs? When cuts are never fully restored?   

Already, the governor’s bootlickers — namely, the chambers of commerce and other business groups that have written op-eds and made grand proclamations about the necessity of investing in public schools — are praising Ducey’s budget.

It seems they were never serious about making Arizona’s public schools competitive. Never serious about addressing the achievement gap or the root causes of educational inequity.

For these business “leaders” (a term I use generously), short-term gains such as tax cuts for themselves and their buddies will always win out over long-term advancements such as a world-class education system.

They will continue to claim they really, really, really do care about education, while they quietly promote the very policies that undermine public school students and educational equity.  

You see, it doesn’t really matter whether we’re in the middle of a recession or an economic upswing. For Republicans, there is never a “right time” to invest in public education. But it’s always the “right time” for tax cuts.

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Julie Erfle
Julie Erfle

Julie Erfle hails from North Dakota, but has called Arizona home for more than twenty years. She began her career in Phoenix as a creative services producer at KPHO-TV5 and 3TV. Blending her background in communications with her passion for community activism, Julie launched the political blog Politics Uncuffed in 2011, and began working as a communications director and consultant on candidate and initiative campaigns. She is the former executive director of Progress Now Arizona, a progressive communications and advocacy non-profit, and a fellow with the Flinn-Brown Arizona Center for Civic Leadership and Leading for Change.