It’s still summer vacation — the kids are out of school for a few more weeks — but we have some big news on the education front — billions of dollars big. A Maricopa County judge ruled that the legislature has to add about $300 million to its budget for Arizona’s K-12 schools right now and as much as $2.9 billion over the next five years.
The reason: the Republican-led legislature has been illegally short-changing our children since 2009. And they knew it. They knew they were violating the letter and the spirit of the law when it comes to funding education. Oh, they argue it’s a matter of interpretation; they point to words that clearly say one thing and swear they say the opposite, hoping no one will challenge them and they can get away with it. Even now, with the judge telling them they’re not fooling anyone, that they can’t get away with it any longer, they’re still trying to weasel out of paying what they owe.
Back in 2000, the voters approved a ballot measure saying the state had to increase its education budget to account for inflation. The voters weren’t asking for more money, though that would have been a good idea, seeing as how Arizona spends far less per student than all but three other states. No, they just wanted our schools to keep up with increasing costs as the price of everything went up. Until 2009, Republicans respected the voter mandate and education funding kept up with inflation, but then the cuts began. Four years later, the amount we spent on our children’s educations had dropped by 21 percent.
Have you wondered why class sizes are up, textbooks and computers are hopelessly out of date and our schools are in disrepair? That 21 percent cut is the reason.
The Republican legislators were offered a deal earlier this year that would have allowed them to pay $1.2 billion less than what they owed. I thought it was a lousy deal myself, like telling the neighborhood bully he only had to give back half the lunch money he stole from kids on their way to school. But hey, a bird in the hand and all that. Guaranteeing some money now is better than keeping the case in court for who-knows-how-long, I suppose. But the Republicans wouldn’t go along. They refused the offer.
Now with the full bill coming due, they’re crying poor. We don’t have the money, they whined to the judge. Where are we supposed to find it? The judge answered that it’s not her problem. “Cost does not defeat jurisdiction,” she wrote. “As a practical matter, if it did, the courts could never order anyone to do anything that costs money.”
What we have here is a perfect example of the gigantic lie behind the Republican promise that they can keep cutting taxes and still fund all our necessary services. They can’t. Every time we get in our cars, we’re reminded that we don’t have the money to fix our pothole-ridden roadways because they plowed the road repair money back into the general fund to balance the budget. And parents know their children are sitting in overcrowded classrooms where teachers are being asked to do more with less; that’s because the Republicans thought it was OK to balance the budget on the backs of children.
The state budget is guaranteed to get tighter in the next few years. Arizona’s temporary one cent sales tax went away recently, and a new tax cut for businesses is kicking in. That means it’s going to get even harder to honor our moral and legal obligations to our children. It’s time for the adults in the Republican party to step up and do what’s right. I just hope there are some adults left.