Education Machinations

Phoenix Magazine – February 2017

Mike O’Neil

Governor Ducey’s principal stated policy objective has been annual tax cuts, especially for business. This has required widespread cuts in state spending. In most areas, such cuts impact limited constituencies. In public education, however, the cuts have been so draconian and so sustained that public support for increased education funding skyrocketed.

Last year’s Proposition 123 was an attempt to mollify this festering and inconvenient public concern. In order not to interfere with the pledge of annual tax cuts, the measure was funded by increasing the rate at which funds were pulled from the state Land Trust, a fund already constitutionally earmarked for education, rather than by an increase in legislative appropriations. The Governor and Legislature clearly had hoped that passage of Proposition 123 would have mollified public concern over education funding. It has not.

While proponents pledged that “123” was only a “first step”, there has been no sign of the promised “456” follow-up.  Since public concern about education funding has not abated, the stage had been set for the Governor to propose a very modest increase in funding, just enough that he could proclaim that he had responded to public concerns.  In making such a claim, he could rely on the fact that the public finds it difficult to discern the differences between “millions”, “tens of millions” and “hundreds of millions” of dollars.

Ducey was expected to aim for some number that “sounded” to the average person like a lot, but which, when spread across a half million Arizona students would amount to a drop in the bucket—and small enough to not jeopardize his promise of annual tax cuts.

The Governor’s “Classrooms First Initiative Council” was to provide a blueprint for funding, but, instead just recommend that the governor, Legislature and public work together to “develop a simplified and single school finance formula for all public schools.”  In other words, they punted.  The Governor is on his own.

Enter Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction Diane Douglas. She is the highest elected education official in the state.  Although she has been willing to take on the Governor in the past and is clearly not part of his “team,” it is significant that she is a Republican and a conservative.  Nominally invested with little formal power, she can, however, command public attention.  She has proposed a new funding proposal that would give the state’s public schools $680 million to pay for teacher raises, school repairs and new school buses. The funding proposal includes $200 million to schools to use as they see fit, $140 million to boost all teacher salaries by 5%, $60 million for rural transportation and teacher recruitment and $280 million for capital funding.

$680 million is real money, unlike the token proposal that was likely to come out of the Governor’s office.  And, by citing a specific figure, she has set a standard against which the Governor’s proposal can be measured.  If he were to, for example, propose a $70 million increase in school funding, it would be simple to note that this is “approximately 10%” of what Superintendent Douglas, a conservative Republican, has said is needed.  By citing a precise figure, she has established a benchmark against which legislative and gubernatorial proposals can be measured.

This is a game-changer. In order for the governor or the legislature to be able to credibly claim their “support for education” they will have to come up with numbers somewhere in the ballpark of Douglas’ proposal.  And that, by every prior action, is more than they were willing to offer.  Douglas’ bold move has precluded their ability to claim to be genuine supporters of public education without ponying up real money.

 

Mike O’Neil is a sociologist and pollster who has analyzed public attitudes in Arizona and the nation for over 35 years. He is host of the public affairs program, The Think Tank, on KTAR-FM 92.3. Most of his recent articles are available at www.mikeoneil.org.