Arizona Supreme Court Blocks Ballot Initiative to Fund Public Education

Paying taxes for the common good.  What a novel idea these days—and something blocked last week by the Arizona Supreme Court.  Failing to connect the taxes we pay with what the money buys, many of us find it easy to object to more taxes, but the case of Arizona makes the arithmetic clear.  After slashing taxes for years, Arizona doesn’t have enough money to pay for public schools and universities.  Not enough for the barest essentials.

New York Magazine‘s Ed Kilgore describes last week’s decision by the Arizona Supreme Court to kill Invest in Ed, a ballot initiative intended to shore up public school funding in revenue-poor Arizona: “In a stunning development that short-circuited a debate that was shaping the midterm elections in a competitive state, the Arizona Supreme Court struck down a November ballot initiative designed to increase taxes on the wealthiest citizens and devote the proceeds ($690 million annually) to public education. The initiative, killed on highly technical grounds, was the product of the teacher protests and strikes in the spring, and basically offered a specific revenue source for funding promises that were made by Republican governor Doug Ducey and state legislators to end the teachers’ strike.”

In May, after Arizona teachers walked out of school and flooded the capitol, the legislature passed a budget to give the teachers the first installment in what Governor Doug Ducey promises will be a 20 percent pay raise by 2020. Wanting to ensure there will be a second installment of that promised raise, however, and worrying about catastrophic cuts in state expenditures on other necessities at their schools, organized teachers gathered thousands more signatures than were required to put an Invest in Ed initiative on the November ballot to raise taxes on families making over $250,000 annually, with the money designated for public education.

The teachers secured the signatures before the deadline, but the Chamber of Commerce filed a lawsuit to block the referendum—alleging that the ballot language was not clear enough.  A trial court okayed the ballot language, and on August 16, an appeals court affirmed that the initiative could go forward. However, last week, siding with the Chamber of Commerce, the Arizona Supreme Court  yanked the referendum off the ballot.

Here are some facts to explain why the tax increase was so desperately needed in Arizona, and why the Arizona Supreme Court’s decision to block the initiative is such a serious matter.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities’ Michael Leachman describes Arizona’s desperate revenue shortage, the product of years of tax cuts: “At least 12 states have cut ‘general’ or ‘formula’ (school) funding—the primary form of state support for elementary and secondary schools—by 7 percent or more per student since 2008…. Seven of these states have also cut income taxes over the decade, making it particularly hard for them to raise revenue needed for their schools.” Arizona is one of the seven.

In a recent report, A Decade of Neglect,: the American Federation of Teachers describes what the tax cuts have meant for Arizona’s schools: “In the years following the Great Recession, the Arizona Legislature cut funding for K-12 schools by $4.6 billion…. For 2015-16, Arizona ranked 49th among the states and the District of Columbia for per-pupil funding.  Spending was down 12.7 percent compared with 2007-2008, and only two other states saw a larger decline in per-pupil spending between 2008 and 2016. The state ranks 46th for teacher salaries… After a 15 percent decline in the student-teacher ratio, Arizona ranks 50th among the states… Arizona also ranks near the bottom for support for higher education. For FY 2017, spending was 55 percent below pre-recession levels, and the state ranked last for spending on higher education. No other state showed a larger decline in post-recession support for higher education. Arizona’s failure to fund education is the result of what has been described as an ‘ideological aversion to taxes.'”

In May, NY Times reporter Dana Goldstein profiled Donato Soberano, a guest worker from the Philippines, working as a seventh-grade science teacher in the greater-Phoenix area. Due to salaries that lag the national average by $10,000, Arizona has struggled with an acute shortage of certified teachers: “The latest wave of foreign workers sweeping into American jobs brought Donato Soberano from the Philippines to Arizona two years ago… But Mr. Soberano is not a hospitality worker or a home health aide. He is in another line of work that increasingly pays too little to attract enough Americans: Mr. Soberano is a public school teacher… Much like other foreign workers he went into debt to find a job in the United States.  He said he used savings and a bank loan to pay $12,500, about three years’ worth of his salary in the Philippines, to Petro-Fil Manpower Services.  That is a Filipino company of Ligaya Avenida, a California-based consultant who recruits and screens teachers for the J-1 (temporary visa). The payment covered Mr. Soberano’s airfare and rent for his first few months in Arizona, as well as a $2,400 fee for Ms. Avenida and a $3,500 fee to Alliance Abroad Group, a Texas-based company that is an official State Department sponsor for J-1 visa holders.  The J-1 lasts three years, with the option for two one-year extensions… The school districts that recruit teachers like Mr. Soberano say that they have few other options because they can’t find enough American educators willing to work for the pay on offer.”

Arizona is also experiencing a shortage of other essential school support staff.  In mid-August, the Arizona Republic reported: “Arizona’s student-to-school-counselor ratio is the highest in the nation, averaging 903 students to every one counselor in public schools in the 2015-16 school year…  Arizona held a 743-1 ratio a decade ago, but climbed as high as 941-1 in the post-recession years before slowly improving… The improved ratio—still more than three times the recommended number—has been a sticking point for Arizona’s March for Our Lives student and #RedForEd teacher movements… The American School Counselor Association recommends a student-to-counselor ratio of 250-1…. Michigan comes closest to Arizona with a 744-1 ratio. The national average is 464-to-1.”

Institutions like public schools and public universities can thrive only when citizens grasp the necessity of paying taxes for essential services and the well-being of the wider community. Paying taxes for government services is a civic responsibility of individuals and businesses. Historically our society has also supported the idea that taxes ought to be progressive, with the greatest obligation carried by those with ample financial means. The Invest in Ed initiative, designed and promoted by Arizona’s public school teachers, embodied these principles. Sadly, Arizona’s citizens are being denied the opportunity to vote on this matter.

Tax Reform, the Common Good, and Public Education

Nikolai Vitti became Detroit’s public school superintendent last April. Last week in the Detroit News, Superintendent Vitti published what sounds radically counter cultural: a school district vision statement that leaves out charter schools, school choice, blaming and firing teachers, and any mention of test scores (though the Every Student Succeeds Act will require that Detroit keep on testing its students). Here is some of what Superintendent Vitti says:

“We now have an empowered and elected school board for the first time in years….” “Detroit will not reach its full potential without a stronger traditional public education system. Children need to feel safe, empowered and supported when attending school. Students will make mistakes but learn from them through a more progressive code of conduct focused on positive behavior support, restorative practices, not exclusionary strategies.” “(P)riorities are rooted in developing a child-centric organization that ensures college-and career/technical-ready programing exists across the district in every school; retaining, developing and recruiting the strongest teachers and leaders, and being more strategic and aligned with our resources. Our other priority to focus on the whole child will expand access to enrichment activities such as art, music, athletics, chess, cultural field trips and electives… This spring we will launch a Parent Academy to empower our parents to play a more active role in their child’s education. Teachers will visit students’ home to create stronger relationships with parents… While our schools must own the challenge and opportunity poverty presents, we must recognize that public schools cannot lift children out of poverty alone. We must face the truth that although poverty affects all people, historical and institutional racism exacerbates poverty based on race.”  Vitti also describes schools as centers with wraparound services like health, mental health and dental services for students and families.

Vitti’s vision cannot be realized without nurturing collaboration, building trust, and honoring the professionals who will work with children every day.  It is also grounded in Vitti’s belief in public responsibility.

Which is where he may run into trouble in our era when politicians are focused instead on tax reform—defined as tax cuts for corporations and the very wealthy.

In a brief last week for the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, Sharon Parrot describes the Senate tax bill that, “has the same basic flaws as the House bill.”  “The core of the bill is a large corporate tax cut that would overwhelmingly benefit wealthy households, along with a tax cut for ‘pass-through’ businesses that’s also heavily tilted to high-income households and an estate tax cut worth $4.4 million (for estates from couples) for the nation’s very largest estates. These tax cuts are so costly that they require offsets like removing the tax deduction for state and local taxes to comply with the limitation that the tax cuts only increase deficits by $1.5 trillion over a decade. They leave little room for meaningful help to low- and moderate-income families.”

An earlier brief from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities explains what the Center is calling, “the Republican Two-Step Fiscal Agenda.” “When deficits rise, those who supported the tax cuts will likely label these deficits as unacceptable and point to spending as the culprit. When that happens, they presumably will call for the kinds of deep cuts they’ve already proposed in their long-range budget plans, which would hit education, basic assistance for struggling families, health care, and other key investments. Those cuts could happen as soon as next year.”

The brief continues: “President Trump and Republican House and Senate leaders have been very clear on the areas they want to cut.  The Trump, House, and Senate budget plans for the next decade all would cut basic assistance and health care for millions of low- and moderate-income families with children, along with investments and services in areas such as education, job training, infrastructure, and environmental protection… The federal government provides modest but important support for K-12 education, about three-quarters of it through two large formula grant programs aimed at helping low-income and disadvantaged students and students with disabilities. Education aid is part of the non-defense discretionary budget category, which the Trump, House, and Senate budget plans would cut deeply, on top of cuts already imposed since 2010… Cuts of this magnitude would almost certainly affect aid to local schools. Although the budget plans are vague about what they intend to cut in future years, education seems an especially likely target because it has already been a target of congressional Republicans and the Trump Administration…”

As one watches the tax reform debate in Congress, it is easy to become overwhelmed by the technicality of much of the discussion or confused about which of the specific proposals would help or hurt whom. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities is trying to keep us all focused on the big picture: if corporations and the very rich get huge tax cuts, the money has to come from somewhere. And past cuts to non-defense domestic discretionary spending have already been so deep that further cuts to what are already meager programs will inevitably limit what Superintendent Vitti is able to accomplish in already-distressed Detroit.

Societies are judged by the way they care for their most vulnerable citizens. Because government policy and services are central to serving the common good, paying taxes for government services is a civic responsibility of individuals and businesses—with the heaviest responsibility on those with the greatest financial means.