Arizona Ordered to Pay Up for Under-Funding Public Schools

A Maricopa County judge has ordered the state to fund public school districts to the levels mandated by voters, meaning Arizona has to pay up about $300 million this year.

The courts have sided with school districts that argued the Legislature was under-funding schools, based on a 2000 voter-approved law that required certain increases in education funding, reflecting increases in inflation.

"This follows up on the heels of the court's decision on July 11, in which [Maricopa County] Judge [Katherine] Cooper held that the Legislature had to fund the correct inflation amount going forward -- for this year and years subsequent," Arizona Center for the Public Interest attorney Timothy Hogan tells New Times.

See also: -Huppenthal Asks Feds to Pay for Education of Unaccompanied Minors

Since the courts have decided that lawmakers incorrectly set the "base level" of per-pupil funding for school districts, that means education funding must be higher than planned for the next several years -- about $1.6 billion higher, over five years.

The Legislature goofed on this issue starting in 2009, and since each year's funding increase relied on the previous year's, the funding hasn't been correct since then. That left the base level at about $3,373 for the 2013-14 budget, although it should have been at about $3,559.

On top of that, there's still the issue of whether the state owes the school districts for the previous five years that it bungled the funding. That's not settled yet, but it could cost the state $1.3 billion.

If you're keeping a running tab, that's nearly $3 billion the state could be on the hook for, and that's not a sum the state keeps lying around.

Hogan says the issue of back-funding goes to trial in October, and in the meantime, Governor Jan Brewer has said the state is appealing the ruling.

Interestingly, although this law was passed by voters as Proposition 301 back in 2000, it actually was drafted by the Legislature that year, so the body ended up disregarding the law it wrote.

That proposition stated:

If approved by the qualified electors voting at a statewide general election, for fiscal years 2001-2002 through 2005-2006, the legislature shall increase the base level or other components of the revenue control limit by two per cent. For fiscal year 2006-2007 and each fiscal year thereafter, the legislature shall increase the base level or other components of the revenue control limit by a minimum growth rate of either two per cent or the change in the GDP price deflator, as defined in § 41-563, from the second preceding calendar year to the calendar year immediately preceding the budget year, whichever is less, except that the base level shall never be reduced below the base level established for fiscal year 2001- 2002.

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Matthew Hendley
Contact: Matthew Hendley