What Ducey isn't saying about school funding

Arizona Republic

Props today go to Gov. Doug Ducey. The man can spin yet everybody else gets dizzy.


Maybe you saw his latest high five to himself over the weekend -- the one that started “Who says you can’t make government work?”


He went on to describe the school funding bill passed last week – the one that came as a result of him brokering a deal to end a five-year lawsuit.


Or as he called it, “the most far-reaching, high-impact education funding bill in our state’s history.”


Me? I’d call it a good start.


I guess it’s all in how you look at it.


Ducey says the bill “puts $3.5 billion into education to dramatically improve our schools.”


I’d say the bill restores $3.5 billion of the $3.8 billion the schools are owed under a Maricopa County Superior Court judge’s reading of the law – a reading that came after the Arizona Supreme Court ruled last year that the Legislature has been ignoring a voter mandate to fund inflation.


Ducey says the bill “increases per-student funding to $3,600 each year and gives educators the resources they’ve been asking for.”


I’d say the bill increases funding by about $300 per student, to $3,600 a year, moving Arizona up from dead last in the nation for state funding of public education to maybe 48th. Since 2008, Arizona has slashed per-student funding of K-12 schools by more than all but three other states, according to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities. And the schools weren't exactly flush to begin with.


Ducey says the deal “doesn’t raise taxes while maintaining our balanced budget.”


I’d agree. But I’d probably add that he could just as easily have funded this year’s $298 million boost from the current budget surplus ($278 million) and by postponing this year’s round of corporate tax cuts ($60 million). By 2018, we’ll have lost $457 million a year to mostly corporate tax cuts enacted over the last five years, according to the Joint Legislative Budget Committee. This deal allows Ducey more flexibility to continue to cutting taxes every year, as he pledged during the campaign. This on top of the billions already cut over the last two decades. One wonders about the long-term impact on the state.


Ducey says the deal “provides relief from lawsuit abuse so funds go into classrooms, not attorneys' pockets.”


I’d say I guess it all depends upon your idea of “lawsuit abuse”. The Cave Creek Unified School District sued the state five years ago because the Legislature wasn’t following the law and funding inflation, as voters said it must in 2000. The fact that the schools prevailed at the trial court level – and ultimately got 70 percent of what they would have won had they prevailed after all appeals were exhausted – suggests that the lawsuit was not only warranted but desperately needed.


Ducey says the deal “maximizes the State Land Trust by drawing a modest amount as a shrewd investment in our kids.”


I’d say, I hope he’s right because if he’s not, future generations of Arizona’s children will pay for it. State Treasurer Jeff DeWit has warned that the $2 billion raid on the state land trust over the next 10 years will actually cost the schools $8 billion in the long run. Both he and former state Treasurer Dean Martin have called the deal irresponsible. It’ll be up to voters to decide who's right.


Perhaps what’s most telling about Ducey’s email to constituents is what he doesn’t say.  He doesn’t say that he’ll continue fighting to boost funding for Arizona’s students -- maybe seek to boost us all the way to the 45th best-funded system in the country.


Last week, his press aide, Daniel Scarpinato, was asked if this proposal was a start – as so many parents and educators are hoping – or whether it’s the end of the debate on funding Arizona’s public schools.


Scarpinato responded by calling the proposal “a huge boost to K-12 funding.”


"It's a reason to celebrate," Scarpinato told a reporter. "It provides permanent certainties to schools and resources and is a huge addition to school resources, and these are the resources educators have said they need. There's always going to be discussions about education, but this is a significant increase for spending for our schools and is going to have a real impact on kids who are in schools now."


Reading between the lines…

Montini: Good job, guv and pals. But what about the kids who REALLY need help? (Arizona Republic) EJ Montini


I realize it can be difficult to lend a hand to those in need when you’re busy patting yourself on the back.


Still, now that Gov. Doug Ducey and the Legislature have kind of, sort of, almost (but not quite) resolved the financial crisis of Arizona’s schools, I’m hoping they might take a moment to deal with the thousands of Arizona kids who may be in physical danger right now inside their own homes.


Our elected officials might also keep in mind the thousands of other Arizona children who aren’t in danger today but could be in the future because of funding cuts made by the Legislature.


Working on school funding is important. But the best funded school in the world isn’t much good to a child being abused at home.


Lately, most of the state government and the media focused on the special session dealing with a settlement deal for the big education lawsuit facing the state. Not much attention was paid to a story that broke a little earlier in which the Department of Child Safety announced that it is looking to bring back a big bunch of retired and former staffers to deal with an ongoing backlog of 15,000 cases.


That’s right. The old Child Protective Services crisis has never really gone away.


It might even be worse. Creating the Department of Child Safety was meant to fix the enormous backlog of uninvestigated neglect and abuse reports. But new reports keep coming in. And the dangerous waiting game for those in need continues.


If anything the Department of Child Safety is to children in potential danger what the Veterans Administration is to vets seeking medical care.


The backlog is astronomical.


Both Republican and Democratic legislators expressed concern over who would be hired on a temporary basis to reduce the backlog and whether using temps in cases like this is a good idea. In other words, is this about saving children or erasing numbers from a spreadsheet?


And things could get worse.


In the last legislative session lawmakers and the governor made a $4 million budget cut that will cause the Arizona Department of Economic Security to drop roughly 1,600 families — including more than 2,700 children — from the state's federally funded welfare program in 2016.


Our poor will get poorer. And that’s not a good thing. The federal government’s Third National Incidence Study of Child Abuse and Neglect found that in families with incomes under $15,000 the children were 56 times more likely to be educationally neglected and 22 times more likely to be seriously injured than in families earning over $30,000.


Likewise, the National Bureau of Economic Research, a private, non-profit, non-partisan organization found that reductions in benefits like those passed by our legislature will put children “at heightened risk of neglect.” Researchers said the percentage of kids in harm’s way can increase significantly.


Is this a trade-off we’re willing to make?


Saving money while losing kids?