By Howard Fischer, Capitol Media Services
PHOENIX — A referendum to kill expansion of the voucher program survived its first hurdle despite efforts of the lawyers who don’t want it going to the ballot.
State Elections Director Eric Spencer concluded there are more than enough signatures on petitions calling for a 2018 vote, even after he disqualified some of them. That sets the stage for county recorders to do their own verification.
But Spencer rejected efforts by attorneys for those who want universal vouchers to strike even more names from the more than 110,000 submitted to call for an election.
In some cases he said that there is no legal basis for the objections. And in others he told the lawyers that if they want to pursue their claims they need to make their claims to a judge — something voucher supporters already have started with a lawsuit in Maricopa County Superior Court.
They have their work cut out for them.
Spencer concluded petitions with more than 108,000 signatures survived the first test, far more than the 75,321 that ultimately need to be found valid.
The next step is for county recorders to do a name-by-name check of a random sample that Spencer has prepared for each. But given how many above the minimum he said cleared the first hurdle, the recorders need to find that only 69.6 percent of their samples are valid.
Hanging in the balance is whether voters will get the last word on legislation to make vouchers of state money to attend private and parochial schools available to any public school student.
The vouchers, formally known as Empowerment Scholarship Accounts, were first approved in 2011 to help parents of students with disabilities who said their children cannot get the help they need in public schools.
Since then, however, supporters have nibbled away at the restrictions. Among those now eligible for vouchers are foster children, children living on reservations and those attending schools rated D or F.
SB1431, approved with only Republican votes, eliminates any requirements.
About the only limit is that total vouchers cannot exceed about 30,000 by 2023, a provision inserted solely to get the necessary votes. But that can be removed at any time by a future legislature.
If sufficient signatures on referendum petitions are determined to be valid, SB1431 cannot take effect unless and until voters give their approval at the 2018 general election.
In doing the initial screening, Spencer’s office discarded 216 petition sheets because the required sworn affidavit of the circulator was unsigned or otherwise incomplete. Others were disqualified over problems like not having the required notary seal or the failure to have attached a copy of the measure being referred.
And more than 1,900 individual signatures were disqualified for things like missing information.
But Spencer said some of the complaints by those who want an expanded voucher program have no basis.
For example, Kory Langhofer argued that Spencer should not count anyone whose signature looks like their printed name. Langhofer, who represents Americans For Prosperity, a group funded by the Koch Brothers who support vouchers, argued that a signature must be significantly distinguishable from a printed name to be considered a true “signature.’’
Spencer rejected that argument.
“Many Arizonans use a signature that substantially mirrors their printed name,’’ he wrote to Langhofer in response. “As long as the petition signature matches the elector’s voter registration record, it is irrelevant how much that signature varies from the signer’s printed name for purposes of our review.’’
Spencer also rebuffed Langhofer’s contention that signers must include both a city or town as well as a zip code. He said one or the other is sufficient to check the signer’s identity.
And he said there’s nothing wrong with someone using “ditto marks’’ to show that information about an address or date is the same as the person who signed above.
But in some cases, Spencer told Langhofer that his complaints need to be resolved by a judge.
For example, Langhofer contends that some people who were gathering signatures were doing so for money. But he charged that they had not first registered with the Secretary of State’s Office as required by law.
To buttress his arguments, Langhofer said some of those who did not register had been paid circulators for prior petition drives. Spencer said that hardly qualifies as proof.
“The Secretary of State disagrees with your premise that simply because an individual acted as a paid circulator during a past election cycle, that individual must necessarily be acting as a paid circulator during this election cycle and therefore misrepresented his or her status as a ‘volunteer,’” Spencer wrote. And he told Langhofer if he has actual substantiation to the contrary it is “better presented to a court of law after consideration of testimonial evidence.’’
In a prepared statement, Dawn Penich-Thacker, spokeswoman for the Save Our Schools group that circulated the referendum petitions, said the organization is already anticipating a court fight. She said voucher supporters, including Americans for Prosperity and the American Federation for Children, have “a scorched earth policy to silence the voice of Arizona voters through pricey, frivolous lawsuits and baseless legal challenges.”
Robert Putnam book talk on "Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis"
By Howard Fischer Capitol Media Services Sep 3, 2017 Updated Sep 3, 2017
PHOENIX -- The leader of a committee charged by Gov. Doug Ducey with studying school finance said the recommendations to redivide and revamp the dollars available won't improve schools unless taxes are hiked to produce significantly more resources -- and soon.
And that places him at odds with the governor.
Jim Swanson, who Ducey named to run the Classrooms First Initiative Council, said the two-year study that wrapped up at the end of last year certainly found formulas in need of overhaul. He said these range from disparities in state dollars between charter schools and traditional public schools to the fact that the amount of additional dollars available for students with special needs hasn't been altered in a decade.
But in an extensive interview with Capitol Media Services, Swanson, CEO of construction firm Kitchell Corp., said he sees more than doubling a special 0.6-cent education sales tax surcharge as the only way for the state to make truly significant improvements in producing students ready to take 21st century jobs. Swanson figures Arizona needs to increase that a full penny, something he said would generate about $1 billion a year.
Ducey, by contrast, is dead-set against any tax increase, whether for education or anything else.
The governor told Capitol Media Services that schools will be getting about $300 million more a year from the deal he cut with education groups to end a lawsuit charging the state illegally failed to keep education funding at least even with inflation.
But the total settlement, ratified by voters last year in Proposition 123, is less than the schools contend they would have been paid had lawmakers obeyed the law in the first place. And the additional dollars evaporate in less than a decade.
Ducey also mentions the additional $163 million in this year's budget going to education, above inflation. That includes $34 million for a 1.06 percent teacher pay hike, with a like amount promised for next year too, and $37 million for "performance-based funding,'' awarding additional dollars to high-performing schools.
But only half of that $163 million is ongoing funding, with the rest being a one-time infusion, mostly for new school construction.
Anyway, Ducey said, the state doesn't need to raise new taxes, pointing out that Maricopa County's population is growing faster than anywhere else in the country.
"So our tax base is expanding,'' he said.
"I want to see those dollars go to K-12 education,'' the governor continued. "I want to see them do that without raising taxes.''
Swanson said he and other business leaders with whom he is working are not convinced.
"I'm not sure that there's a short-term way to grow our way out of it,'' he said.
And longer term?
"I don't think we have time to do that,'' Swanson said. "I think the clock is ticking in a way that is going to make those situations worse before it gets better.''
Swanson said lawmakers and voters will need to be convinced that passing higher taxes for education isn't throwing money at the problem but simply restoring what probably should have been there already.
"We've cut taxes for over 25 years in Arizona,'' he said.
He cited a study by Tom Rex of the W.P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State University released last year that said that if Arizona had not enacted the multiple tax cuts it has since 1992 state revenues would be more than $4 billion higher than they are now. That's a significant amount as the state's ongoing general fund budget is less than $9.7 billion.
At the same time, Swanson said, lawmakers have eliminated state funding for full-day kindergarten and sliced -- or ignored -- various education funding formulas.
And the staff of the Joint Legislative Budget Committee reports that state funding per student, on an inflation-adjusted basis, is currently $266 less than it was in 2009.
Swanson said that Ducey, in listening to his concerns, "always is respectful and he listens.'' But he said he runs up against Ducey's pledge to cut taxes every year he's governor.
"In some regard I give him credit for keeping his word on that,'' he said. "But I think that we have an extraordinary need in this state.''
Much of that need, he said, is in teacher salaries, which are ranked at or near the bottom depending on which data is analyzed.
Swanson said that 25 years ago Arizona teacher salaries were about at the median nationally.
He has no illusions about getting back there, figuring it would take $200 million just to raise Arizona one notch on the 50-state national scale. But Swanson, who is on the board of both the State Board for Charter Schools and Teach for America, said that convinces him the key is "great teachers for our classrooms.''
"And for us to be able to get great teachers in our classrooms we have to make it attractive for people to want to take those jobs,'' he said.
"Teachers don't teach just for the money,'' Swanson said.
"But they also need to be able to have a living wage and be able to raise a family,'' he continued. "And we have to be able to honor that profession.''
That, he said, is where Arizona's salaries matter.
"If we can't recruit great teachers, and if our teachers can go across any one of our borders or go to Texas and earn considerably more, we're going to have a hard time achieving higher goals,'' he said.
Swanson also has an answer for those who argue that additional dollars don't make sense unless there is a way of determining if they're actually making a difference. He said there already are mechanisms out there to measure that.
One is Achieve 60 Arizona, a program actually started with help from Ducey with the 2030 goal of having at least 60 percent of high school graduates pursue some sort of post-secondary education, whether college or some type of certificate or technical training. Arizona was at just 42 percent when the program was rolled out last year.
Swanson also cited the Arizona Progress Meter created by business and civic groups, which monitors multiple indicators, like the percent of third graders who are proficient at reading, eighth-grade math achievement and the high school graduation rate.
"If we invest in those and look at how can we focus dollars onto achieving those goals, I think that's your accountability measure,'' he said.
From Swanson's perspective, the issue should go to voters next year.
House Speaker J.D. Mesnard said there's likely no problem getting lawmakers to approve referring to the ballot a simple extension of the 0.6 cent levy. Beyond that, he said, is a different question.
Just adding a 0.4 cent tax to make the levy "an even penny will face a certain level of difficulty,'' he said.
"A whole additional penny would be extremely difficult,'' Mesnard said.
That could leave Swanson and others who think that's the amount needed having to bypass lawmakers and gather sufficient signatures to get that public vote.
Then there's the timing question.
Ducey, up for reelection in 2018, is in no rush to have an education tax measure on the ballot, even just the simple extension of the levy he's willing to support.
The governor said he wants a "policy package'' of changes to the education system, something he said is still in the works. Those policy changes could provide the buy-in by some who have balked at more state education funding, even with the state near the bottom of the national list.
"We also want to make sure we're bringing the right people to the table so we can build a broad coalition that can win at the ballot box,'' he said.
That's also Mesnard's conclusion, saying that anything beyond the current levy likely would require some other changes that would take time to negotiate, whether it's related to education or even a "tax reform'' package of cuts elsewhere.
The problem of waiting until 2020, Swanson said, is that the existing levy self-destructs in 2021. And if whatever is going on politically in 2020 upends any tax increase -- or even a simple extension -- that means schools would suddenly find themselves with $600 million less than the amount they have now.
But Mesnard said the other side of the coin is that 2020 is a presidential election. And he said the higher turnout might actually help get public approval of what's on the ballot.
Ducey said there's a risk of a public vote, no matter what year that occurs.
"These are crazy political times,'' the governor said.
"They're toxic times,'' he continued. "And we want to make sure we've got something that will be a winner.''
Swanson said one drawback of using the sales tax to fund education is its regressive nature: In general, people at the low end of the income scale pay a greater percentage of their earnings in such taxes than those who are far more affluent, even with groceries exempt from the levy.
But there are some ways around that.
When voters approved the original 0.6 percent sales tax in 2001 they included a rebate of sorts: a $25 a person income tax credit, up to $100 for a family, for individuals earning up to $12,500 a year and families earning up to $25,000. And this is a refundable credit, available even to people who have no state income tax liability.
Swanson said other taxes might be more preferable. But he said the complexity of any such move means it likely would have to be crafted by the Legislature, which brings him back to his belief that won't happen for political reasons.
Arizona schools hired 1,035 underqualified teachers this school year
IT IS TIME TO WIN ELECTIONS
& FIX OUR SCHOOLS
More than 1,000 teachers in more than 120 Arizona school districts and charter schools have been certified to teach tens of thousands of students through a certificate that requires no formal education training.
The number of these certificates — called Emergency Teaching Certificates — eclipsed the 789 certificates issued for all of last school year, according to Arizona Department of Education data obtained by The Arizona Republic.
By mid-November, 1,035 certificates had been issued for this school year.
The certificates require at least a bachelor’s degree but allow the applicant to bypass nearly every other state certification requirement put in place to ensure teachers are qualified to lead a classroom.
Educators say the rate of Emergency Teaching Certificates issued this year is symptomatic of the state's worsening teacher crisis.
By Nico Santos, KPNX 5:37 PM. MST February 01, 2017
PHOENIX – Arizona is rock bottom when it comes to average teacher salaries.
But there is hope for the next school year after Gov. Doug Ducey promised to prioritize teachers and education in 2017 budget.
Arizona teachers make an average salary of just over $40,000. That's 75 cents for every dollar the average teacher makes in the US.
"If you're going to be a teacher, you never do it for the money,” said Maricela Coble, a kindergarten teacher at Friendly House’s Academia del Pueblo in South Phoenix. "Have it in your heart, because teaching will burn you out."
Mrs. Coble spends a lot of energy to keep her young students engaged and learning. Then add the personal stress of low pay -- the worst in the nation.
"A little pay increase gives you that freedom to be a little but more creative with the kids,” said Coble. “So they have those more enriching experiences where they're here."
Notice she doesn't mention her own finances when asked about getting a raise.
Here's some perspective: Food service managers ($55,010); retail supervisors ($40,870); mail clerks ($42,510); post office clerks ($53,010); and utility meter readers ($44,760) in Arizona have higher average salaries than teachers, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. And these jobs do not require college degrees.
State Representative Jesus Rubalcava (D-Dist. 4) is a teacher himself. He says there is one way teachers can get a raise: Continuing their own education.
But it still falls short for many teachers.
"I was getting a [pay] increase, but, at the same time, I was actually going more into debt,” said Rubalcava.
The freshman state representative has a master's degree. He makes just more than $40,000 a year.
"Teachers are doing their part professionally to become better at what they do, yet our salaries never reflect that,” he said.
Overall, Arizona spends 17 percent less on public education than the national average, according to the Morrison Institute for Public Policy.
Rubalcava is hopeful both sides of the aisle can come together on education for our state.
He said the challenge will be deciding where the money will come from.
"Where do you cut, and what do you cut?” he said. “It's all about priorities. If we really want to address the issue, we've got to be serious about how much we invest in that particular area.
Ricardo Cano, The Republic | azcentral.comPublished 11:30 a.m. MT Dec. 13, 2017 | Updated 5:28 p.m. MT Dec. 13, 2017
Volunteers collect petitions they had signed by Arizona voters to the Secretary of State’s office earlier this month. They claim to have collected enough to force a vote that would overturn the expansion of school vouchers if it passes. (Howard Fischer/Capitol Media Services)