A supporter holds a sign at the announcement of the Invest in Education Act. Photo by Jerod MacDonal-Evoy | Arizona Mirror
The Arizona Supreme Court seems determined to find ways to undermine voter initiatives, particularly ones focused on education funding.
In 2018, they kicked the Invest in Education initiative off of the ballot because the 100-word statement, which is supposed to be a simple summary of the main provisions of the bill, wasn’t specific enough and used the word “percent” instead of “percentage-point.”
As someone who signed that petition and passed it around to others, I know those minor details wouldn’t have meant squat to the folks who signed on. What they wanted to know was how much money the initiative would raise and where the money would be spent.
Those questions were answered.
And if signers had additional, more specific questions, they could have easily read the full text of the initiative, which was, by law, attached to every petition.
But the Supreme Court — a branch that was expanded by the governor and packed with his appointees — created an unprecedented hurdle for grassroots organizations, one that makes every single initiative’s 100-word description subject to litigation and the subjective whims of a court.
Last week, the Supreme Court made another curious argument. They claimed the voter-approved Invest in Education law might be unconstitutional because total monies raised from the tax increase cannot be categorized as grants and, as such, are all but certain to exceed the state’s constitutional expenditure limit.
The court reasoned that, if the spending cap was exceeded, excess money would pile up, unable to be spent or returned. But that’s not how the law currently works.
History on the expenditure limit
Voters passed the expenditure limit in 1980. Back then, schools looked much different from today. There were no personal computers or technology labs. No Wi-Fi or charter schools. Our state ranked near the national average in per pupil funding, unlike now when we hover between 49th and 50th and cannot fill more than a quarter of our teacher vacancies.
The law is a relic that legislators should refer back to the ballot. I’m convinced voters would be happy to overturn it, especially since most don’t even realize it exists. But even if they do not, lawmakers have within their power the ability to override the cap and have already done so on two different occasions.
David Lujan, the CEO and president of Children’s Action Alliance — one of the organizations responsible for crafting the Invest in Education initiative — remembers the last time the cap was lifted.
Lujan was a legislator in 2007, when the state had a Democratic governor and public education was a priority. The expenditure limit was already a problem in the early 2000’s, but then the Great Recession hit and schools lost billions in funding. The issue didn’t resurface until recently, when legislators slowly backfilled funding gaps.
According to Lujan, the law dictates any funds in excess of the spending cap be distributed to districts. It’s up to local school boards — not the Treasurer’s office or the Legislature — to determine which excess funds they wish to use and which they plan to hold onto for future budgets.
School boards might decide they want to use all of the Invest in Ed monies so they can address teacher pay and student supports while deciding to hold funds from other sources, such as district additional assistance or “results-based” (more accurately known as test-based) funding.
It should also be noted that charter schools are exempt from the spending cap (likely because they didn’t exist in 1980), so these schools could use all of the education tax dollars without worry.
Lujan stressed that the Legislature should address this antiquated law soon, since we are regularly bumping up against the cap, and do we really want a law that mandates a last-in-nation ceiling on expenditures?
So long as the law remains as is, we’ll be unable to fully fund all-day kindergarten and special education services or bring teacher salaries up to the national average.
Unfortunately, the court’s justices didn’t do their homework. But all is not lost.
The case has been sent back to trial court. There’s an opportunity now for school finance experts to testify about existing law and how expenditures limits are currently handled.
Let’s hope this court gets it right, and our students aren’t sentenced to another decade of overcrowded and poorly funded classrooms.
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