By Rich Nickel and Ron Butler

Rich Nickel
Ron Butler

Rather than staying laser-focused on academics, superintendents, principals and teachers across Arizona – including Maricopa Unified School District – are distracted by the potential scenario of financial doom and having to prepare cuts of about 16% to their budgets, or more than $1 billion.

These cuts could mean teacher layoffs, reduced instructional time and reduced services. Some small rural districts are contemplating whether they will shut down altogether.

All of this is occurring while the money sits available, but unable to be used.

That’s right. And here’s why.


Lawmakers can avoid this budget catastrophe

Last year, the Legislature passed a budget that included the $1 billion in education funding that Gov. Doug Ducey said will make “major improvements to Arizona’s K-12 education system.” All that’s needed is for both chambers to approve a change to the Aggregate Expenditure Limit, a constitutional amendment that caps education spending at a level below what legislators voted for last year.

At a time when Arizonans say that education is their number one concern, school districts face a financial catastrophe that could be avoided by action in the Legislature.

Leaders in the Legislature have had three weeks to explain how they would lift the spending limit. Their failure so far to do so is now forcing school districts to think about how they cut the budgets that were developed last year based on legislative agreements. That includes considering whether they will have to fire teachers in March, take sports teams off the field in April or shut down schools before the academic year ends.

It’s important that voters understand that this is not new money. Lawmakers’ inaction, in fact, would be yanking away money they have already pledged and promised.

It’d be like the “Peanuts” cartoon theme where Lucy pulls the football away just as Charlie Brown tries to kick a field goal.


Won’t explain why they haven’t acted

This shouldn’t be happening. Lifting the spending limit, which would align school funding to legislatively approved budgets, has bipartisan support. It’s seen as essential to education progress by the governor, a Democrat, as well as the state superintendent of public instruction, a Republican, and business leaders, voters and educators across the state.

So why hasn’t the Legislature acted? It’s unclear. There was talk of a special session last year to address it, but that never happened. Lawmakers have been in session for nearly four weeks, and it still hasn’t happened.

Republicans and Democrats alike have filed requests for a procedural vote that would keep education from falling backward over a previous financial cliff.  Yet, the Republican leadership is holding school districts’ budgets hostage. They haven’t even told us why or what they’re asking for this year in exchange for funding they voted for last year.

Word is that some resolutions have been proposed, and some bills are being drafted, which doesn’t mean much until legislation is heard in committee.


Coming at worst time for schools

The brewing funding crisis is distracting educators from their primary jobs: educating children.

This couldn’t be happening at a worse time. Arizona already has an extreme teacher shortage. Potential cuts in teaching positions threaten job security. Today’s teachers might well re-evaluate their career choice and the next generation of teachers might look for other options.

After all, who wants to be in a profession where your job is in jeopardy because state lawmakers won’t keep their promises?

Like all states, Arizona faces the Herculean task of getting our students back on track from missed learning time because of COVID-19. Students’ test scores have declined, and we’ve seen significant increases in student absences from school.

Education researchers estimate it will take years for students to recover.


Arizona’s economy will suffer, which hurts us all

Devaluing and deprioritizing education will have long-term repercussions for Arizona, with cascading effects.

If our schools aren’t focused on improving student outcomes, the next generation will not be prepared to attend community colleges, universities and technical training programs. Without a degree or credential, job prospects for these individuals will be limited, threatening their earning potential.

Ultimately, Arizona’s economy will suffer, hurting us all.

Instead of manufacturing a budget crisis to gain political leverage, our legislative leaders should act on the current budget to support our teachers, help our students and build a foundation for a strong economy.

It’s time for the Legislature to ratify the bipartisan actions they agreed to in last year’s session.

Rich Nickel is president and CEO of Education Forward Arizona, which advocates for education improvements. Ron Butler is Arizona managing partner for Ernst & Young.