Arizona schools need more money and it’s time for the governor and lawmakers to provide it, state School Superintendent John Huppenthal said Thursday.
Huppenthal, in announcing annual grades for schools and AIMS test scores for student, said he was pleased that, despite funding cuts, overall performance improved. But he said the upward trend of the percentage of students passing could be better if there were more resources.
“We know that the stress from the finances of the last couple of years are a significant distraction from the educational mission, and that the Legislature needs to do something about it,” Huppenthal said.
“Our school system needs to be compensated at least for inflation,” he said. “And they need a little bit of catch-up ground from the cuts over the last couple of years.”
There is significant “catch-up” to be done in just inflation alone.
While voters mandated annual inflation adjustments in 2000, Gov. Jan Brewer and lawmakers stopped in 2010 when state revenues took a dive. Since then, schools have lost anywhere from $189 million to $240 million, depending on whose figures are used.
There is $82 million in inflation dollars in the current budget after the Court of Appeals said the cuts were illegal. But legislative leaders are hoping to get that ruling overturned by the state Supreme Court.
But the superintendent, a former Republican state legislator, also took a broad swipe at his former colleagues and the governor for approving “corporate give-a ways,” calling them “inappropriate.”
Huppenthal said he does not oppose broad-based tax relief, like the nearly 30 percent cut in corporate income tax rates approved by lawmakers two years ago.
“What I’m not comfortable with is buying growth, making these deals,” he said. “I think that’s corrupt.”
And Huppenthal said it’s also bad policy.
“The economic research is clear: That’s what loser states do,” he said.
The comments annoyed House Speaker Andy Tobin.
“I find it very disconcerting that the superintendent of public education does not understand the value of job creation so that we can put more money back into the education system and especially K-12”’ he said.
Tobin also took a slap of his own at Huppenthal.
He said the superintendent never lobbies lawmakers for more classroom funding, instead making his priority to get $32 million to replace his agency’s aging data system, a point Huppenthal did not dispute. And Tobin said that if Huppenthal, a former lawmaker, is unhappy with the state’s economic development policies he should run for the Legislature again.
The response from Brewer was more muted.
“Growing Arizona’s economy and getting people back to work is the best way to support education,” said Andrew Wilder, her press aide. “That’s exactly what the governor has done.”
Huppenthal stressed that he does not automatically equate money with academic achievement.
He cited Wyoming, a case he picked out because state Sen. Rich Crandall, R-Mesa, is set to take the job of school superintendent there. Huppenthal said that state provides about $16,000 per child, compared to less than $9,000 here.
“You would think that at $16,000 you would see a remarkable difference,” he said, saying it does not.
While legislators did agree to fund inflation this year, albeit after that court order, they also repealed a number of other school funding laws. One of those has required the state to provide dollars for “soft capital” expenses, things like books and computers.
Lawmakers had not fully funded that formula for five years. But there was always the expectation that the funding would be restored once the budget crisis passed.
Now the funding formula is gone. Instead lawmakers created a new fund for “additional district assistance” that is supposed to cover those costs.
Only thing is, that formula freezes the fund at the current level — the level it has pretty much been at for years — which the Arizona Education Association says is $239 million below what would be required had the prior formula been funded.