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The Verde Independent | Cottonwood, Arizona

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11/10/2012 3:47:00 PM
Governor looking for other ways to fund education

Howard Fischer
Capitol Media Services


PHOENIX -- Gov. Jan Brewer is meeting with financial aides Monday to see how much more the state can put into public education.

Brewer told Capitol Media Services she recognizes the deep cuts that have been made in the past. Now, she said, the state is on a much more secure financial footing, complete with cash in the bank.

But the governor made it clear she's not willing to simply boost funding for schools in hopes that will lead to smarter students. She said there have to be strings attached.

"If we're going to do things, we need accountability,' Brewer said. "That's what it all comes down to.'

The governor's action comes less than a week after voters sharply rejected a ballot measure that would have created a permanent 1-cent surcharge on the state sales tax. About three-fourths of the money would have gone to K-12 education.

Brewer opposed the measure, at least in part because only $90 million of that was directly linked to performance measures ranging from how quickly students advance to parental satisfaction. And she had promised even before the election to look at ways to restore some of the cuts made to education during the recession.

Backers of Proposition 204 will be watching.

Ann-Eve Pedersen, who coordinated the initiative, said the Arizona Parent Education Network she heads will be adopting a wait-and-see attitude before deciding whether to try again in 2014. Pedersen, who would respond only to written questions, said lawmakers need to restore $1 billion they have cut from public education; a legislative report says the changes since 2008 are closer to $600 million, including elimination of state funding for full-day kindergarten.

A lot will depend on the state's financial health.

"We're not afloat with a lot of money,' Brewer said.

"But we certainly have a balanced budget, a cash carry-forward and a rainy day fund,' the governor continued. "So we can do things as we need to.'

Legislative budget staffers are predicting Arizona will end this current fiscal year on June 30 with $676 million left over. That is on top of $450 million lawmakers put into a "rainy day' fund.

And estimates are that surplus will continue through the next budget year, even with some built-in increases in spending like more students in public schools, leaving room to add or restore previously cut funding or programs.

But legislators are clearly worried about what will happen in January 2014 when the federal Affordable Care Act kicks in and Arizona is suddenly required to expand eligibility for the state Medicaid program.

One scenario suggests a $411 million deficit in the 2014-15 fiscal year, increasing to close to $1 billion the year after that. And that could put the brakes on any additional dollars.

It was with the idea of providing a dedicated funding source for education, insulated from legislative cuts, that led in part to Proposition 204.

Pedersen billed Proposition 204 as simply a permanent extension of the one-cent temporary tax voters approved in 2010, noting it would not have kicked in until June 1. That would have kept the state sales tax at the same 6.6 percent; with the defeat by a 2-1 margin, it returns to 5.6 percent that day.

But the measure was more than just an extension. It was actually a new tax, complete with a formula of how to divide up the estimated $1 billion it would raise initially each year.

K-12 education would have received about 75 percent of that, with other dollars earmarked for universities, road construction and a new "family stability and self-sufficiency fund.' And even of the money for public education, only $90 million of that was tied directly to performance measures like test scores and parental satisfaction.

Brewer said money needs to be tied to accountability, though she has no specific plan for how to measure that.

"I leave that up to the experts,' she said. But the governor made it clear that student testing has to be a key component of that.

"I think that's the only way we can get accountability,' Brewer said.

The governor acknowledged that pure test scores, by themselves, are not always a good measure, as students in different schools and different districts start from different points. Brewer said she wants to ensure that students are improving, "that they just don't pass the test but that they grow from where they were at the beginning.'

"That doesn't mean that they're all going to be rocket scientists, but that they've grown, somebody's teaching, somebody's learning,' she said.

Pedersen and the governor appear to be on the same page at least on the issue of providing more dollars when the state expects more from its schools. The problem has been at the Republican-controlled Legislature.

For example, Brewer sought $50 million to help fund a new mandate that students be able to read at a third grade level before being promoted to fourth grade.

Lawmakers cut that back by 20 percent. And they refused to fund any part of the governor's request for $100 million for "soft capital' for things like books and computers.

Accountability aside, Brewer said the success of the new Common Core Standards is also contingent on more money for education.

The idea behind those standards is to align what Arizona requires students to learn in English and math with what is being taught across the country. Potentially more significant, it is designed to provide some of the accountability lawmakers have been demanding because it will mean that the achievement of Arizona students can be directly compared with what is happening in other states.

Brewer said just implementing those standards, though, will require more money for the data systems, as all students are supposed to be taking those tests online.



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Reader Comments

Posted: Monday, November 12, 2012
Article comment by: Slater Slater

$650 million surplus? Why don't you just say were Broke.



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