Arizona schools could be forced to close as early as April 1 this spring.
Not because of COVID-19 this time around, but because of a perfect storm of issues with our state’s school funding system. (The funding for Arizona public schools, by the way, is already ranks lowest in the country).
The irony is that this spring school districts are hitting what is known as the aggregate spending limit (AEL) which was created over 40 years ago.
As a result, school districts cannot legally spend the money that the legislature already approved months ago as part of the state budget.
Thus, the districts already have the state approved money in their bank accounts.
They just can’t spend it.
Without action, some schools will close
This technical roadblock means – without immediate bipartisan legislative action – Arizona districts will have to eliminate 15% or more of their budgeted spending already approved this spring.
These cuts translate to $ 25 million for the Washington Elementary District, $ 43 million for Phoenix Union and $ 58 million for Tucson Unified, to name just a few examples.
Districts will be forced to lay off large numbers of teachers, resulting in huge classes.
Or, they will have to close schools completely by April 1. We are not talking about moving to distance learning. We are talking about shutting down schools completely.
Either way, it means even more stress for already stressed students, parents and teachers.
It’s like kicking kids when they’re down
Let’s get it straight. For more than a decade, the failure of the legislature to invest properly in our schools has resulted in a teacher shortage so severe that more than 20% of our students do not have a permanent qualified teacher in their class.
And students are still trying to recover from the impact of COVID-induced learning disruptions.
Now schools can’t even spend the still insufficient funds they were counting on to keep our schools open?
It’s a bit like kicking our kids when they’re already on the ground, isn’t it?
However, this will not only affect families with school-aged children. It concerns us all. Think about the economic impact on our community of the layoff of thousands of teachers and staff.
Arizona should remove obsolete limit
There is a simple solution.
The legislature could – and should – pass a concurrent resolution before March 1 that will allow districts to exceed the aggregate spending limit (AEL). It requires a two-thirds majority in both houses.
Even so, it will only solve the problem for this spring.
We must also take the next step, to abolish this arbitrary and archaic policy. A spending limit set 40 years ago no longer works today. We must repeal it.
Unfortunately, some lawmakers are already playing political games, trying to convince themselves and the public that the problem is due to overspending by districts. This is a lie.
The problem isn’t that schools are spending too much
Here is the truth:
Districts based their budgets on money already approved by the legislature. They haven’t spent too much.
We have changed the rules on schools. In 2000, when voters approved Proposition 301 to fund education for 20 years, they exempted that money from the spending limit calculation. But in 2018, the legislator extended proposal 301, without exempting it. This puts at risk $ 638 million in funding per year – money that was not counted against the limit but is now doing.
Huge things have changed since 1979, when the AEL was founded. We should be spending more now because we have the technology, and we need to make sure the kids know how to use it.
Arizona continues to rank last in the country in terms of investment per student, according to the Education Law Center’s Classroom 2021 report.
It has a negative economic impact on all of us. We can already see this in the number of employers frustrated by the lack of skilled labor.
Investing in education ensures that we have a pipeline of skilled workers and innovators. It helps people lift themselves out of poverty. It reduces the burden on taxpayers and improves the economy for all of us.
Here’s how you can take action
Tell your Senators and Representatives to stop using this latest crisis as political football to score points against each other. It is time to work together for the good of our children, our families, our community and the future of this great state.
Please urge lawmakers to do two things.
Work immediately to pass a clear competing resolution, without caveats, that allows school districts to exceed the overall spending limit.
We have two choices: allow schools to close on a technicality, or bring them into the 21st century so our whole state can thrive. It’s time to choose.
Judy Schwiebert is a member of Arizona House, representing District 20 of the West Valley.
This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Arizona public schools face funding cliff that could force closure