Coming soon to Arizona schools: 'massive layoffs' and 'disaster,' unless our leaders act

Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne has laid out what happens if lawmakers don't raise the spending cap on schools. Will they listen?
Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne has laid out what happens if lawmakers don't raise the spending cap on schools. Will they listen?

We are now at T-minus 33 days until nearly a million Arizona school children are faced with an early, disastrous end to their school year.

Unless, that is, the Arizona Legislature takes action to protect the public schools.

So, well, you can see why I’m worried.

I’m not the only one.

State Superintendent Tom Horne on Thursday painted a dire picture of what will happen to Arizona’s public schools if our leaders don’t waive this year’s constitutional cap on spending. If they don’t allow the schools to spend $1.4 billion that’s already in their bank account.

“We would be talking about massive layoffs of teachers and the one-third of teachers left … it would be an incredible disaster and it would make it impossible to raise academics,” he told a House Appropriations subcommittee on Thursday.

Republicans say they'll act. But will they?

Republican legislative leaders tell us not to worry, that they’ll get it done by the March 1 deadline. But there is good reason to question that.

Last year, the Legislature waited until Feb. 21 to waive the spending limit. Even then, 20 Republicans – 14 in the House and six in the Senate – voted to stiff the schools and to heck with the impact on the children who attend them.

What's next for spending cap?GOP says don't worry, be patient

In July, then-Gov. Doug Ducey promised to call a special legislative session before year’s end to waive this year’s limit, so the schools wouldn’t have to make plans to slam the doors shut on our children.

Then, he didn’t.

Now we have a Legislature that’s even more conservative than last year, with just 34 days until two-thirds of the House and Senate must vote to waive the spending limit.

That is, unless enough legislators just want to stick it to the public schools … and the children who attend them.

And it appears that a good many do. The House Freedom Caucus on Thursday afternoon announced that it's members will unanimously oppose waiving the limit unless they win unspecified "systemic reforms".

It could be more like a 70% cut for schools

The aggregate spending limit was set by voters in 1980 and is adjusted every year to account for inflation and enrollment. But declines in enrollment and major expenses never contemplated 43 years ago have pushed school budgets to that ceiling in recent years.

Add in a decision by legislators to move revenue from the education sales tax under the spending limit when they extended Proposition 301 – money that voters previously had excluded from the cap …

... And it brings you to today, when parents have to worry what will happen on April 1. That’s the day $1.4 billion is set to disappear from Arizona’s public schools.

Oh, the money will still be there. They just wouldn’t able to spend it.

To avoid disaster, the Legislature must waive the spending limit by March 1 or every school district will be forced to cut its annual budgets by 17.5% on April 1.

Only it’s more like a 70% cut, Horne says, because there will be fewer than two months left in the school year.

Only traditional schools would be penalized

Charter schools would be exempt from the cuts. They didn’t exist in 1980 and so they aren’t subject to the spending cap. Ditto for the state’s universal voucher program. The kids who are getting public money to attend private schools would see no decline in state support.

Only the children who attend traditional public schools would be penalized.

Horne told legislators that would be a “travesty,” but some of the Legislature’s most conservative members aren’t likely to see it that way.

“Eliminating and/or lifting the Aggregate Expenditure Limit (AEL) is a betrayal of our duty to every taxpayer in the state,” Rep. Jacque Parker, R-Mesa, tweeted last month. “Lifting taxpayer protections so government schools can spend endlessly without transparency is unacceptable.”

Sure, penalize the children.

Some Republican leaders say not to worry. (It’s worth noting that Senate President Warren Petersen, R-Gilbert, was among the 20 Republicans who opposed waiving the spending cap last year.)

“Hear us now: Schools will not lose out on the money we have allocated for them,” House Majority Leader Leo Biasiucci, R-Lake Havasu City, said on Jan. 11. “We will address this. But we will not rush the process.”

Parents will be purple, all right - with rage

Rush the process? That sounds like code for we’re-going-to-see-what-we-can-get in exchange for keeping the schools open.

Sure enough, on Thursday afternoon, the House Freedom Caucus, comprised of far-right legislators, announced its members want “systemic reforms” before they will supporting waiving the spending limit.

“As every parent knows, there comes a time when you have to say enough is enough,” the group’s chairman, Rep. Jake Hoffman, R-Queen Creek, said. “Until systemic reforms to fix these harmful conditions for Arizona students are enacted, we must say enough.”

Enough, as in you’re willing to shut down the schools, Rep. Hoffman? Genius plan.

You want to see purple parents? Purple with rage, that is. Go ahead and play a game of political chicken with their children.

Horne gets it.

“If the expenditure limit is not raised this year and two-thirds of the teachers are laid off, the parents of all ideologies are gonna go crazy,” he warned legislators.

Paradise Valley school board member Sandra Christensen warned her district would be forced to close early if the spending limit isn’t waived.

“We will not have enough funds to continue to keep the doors open through April,” she said.

Remember how the GOP hated closed schools?

Clearly, Rep. Matt Gress, R-Phoenix, is concerned. HCR 2002, his bill to waive the spending cap, will be heard Tuesday in the House Education Committee. He convened Thursday’s subcommittee hearing, making it clear to the public and the Legislature what’s at stake.

The schools can’t legally use unspent federal COVID-19 funding to offset the cuts, and they can’t cut their way out of a $1.4 billion loss unless they lay off two-thirds of the state’s teachers.

And as for that $1.4 billion? It won’t come back to the state treasury. Instead, it’ll just sit there, unspent, in school budgets.

This, as our kids are either crammed into the classrooms of the few teachers who remain, or the schools close up and return to online learning for rest of the year.

Funny, I remember a time – just two years ago – when Republicans were screaming about closed schools and the disastrous impact on children. They were right.

And now?

I guess we’ll know in 33 days.

Reach Roberts at Follow her on Twitter at @LaurieRoberts.

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This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Arizona Legislature is playing political chicken with schools