The Arizona Center for Law in the Public Interest (ACLPI) and its executive director, Tim Hogan, plan to file a school funding lawsuit against the State of Arizona on behalf of school districts and taxpayers.
The lawsuit will claim that the state’s current school finance system is unconstitutional because it fails to provide adequate capital funding for public schools. The Arizona Constitution requires the legislature to establish and maintain a “general and uniform” public school system. Capital funding is used for things like facility construction, maintenance, computers and textbooks.
Hogan says the ACLPI intends to file the lawsuit as soon as four or five school districts and two or three individual property taxpayers have agreed to join as plaintiffs.
School districts will contend that the state has failed to provide the funding needed to maintain facilities at the minimum standards. They will also claim that the minimum standards are out of date and need revising. Individual taxpayers will argue that they are paying higher taxes because the state is failing to meet its duty to provide capital funding.
Currently, school districts may go to voters for approval of bonds to get funding. This method of school funding creates a disparity between high- and low-property-tax districts and subjects approval of court-mandated funding to the will of the voters.
Glendale Elementary School District joins school funding lawsuit
In December, Glendale Elementary School District (GESD) became the first district to join the impending lawsuit as a plaintiff.
“The district voted to become a plaintiff in the lawsuit because the legislature eliminated all capital funding and GESD can’t raise enough through bonds to meet its capital needs,” says Jim Cummings, director of communications and community and parent engagement for GESD.
GESD has 17 schools with more than 14,000 students, 91 percent of whom qualify for free or reduced lunch. Because the state legislature has eliminated capital funding, GESD has lost $18.7 million since 2009, while enrollment has increased. Funding for computers is at 1999 levels, where one computer is available for every eight students.
The new AzMERIT standardized test is designed for computer-based application, though currently there is a paper-based option for schools unable to meet the technological requirements. It is a valid question, however, to wonder how student results in capital-poor districts will compare to those in capital-rich districts with adequate computer access.
“It’s a race to the bottom if you’re a capital-poor district,” says Cummings. “Adults aren’t getting hurt; kids are. We owe our kids a decent place to come to school. GESD kids deserve as much as a kid in Scottsdale or Chandler. The state requires a fair and equitable education for every student.”
School funding background
ACLPI and Tim Hogan have been through this before. In 1991, ACLPI filed the original school funding case, Roosevelt v. Bishop, in which the court held that the state’s school finance system produced gross disparities and was not “general and uniform” as required by the Constitution. After several failed attempts, the legislature responded in 1998 by enacting Students FIRST, which established minimum standards and provided capital funding for school districts to meet them. It also established capital funding for new schools.
Over time, the legislature has reduced or eliminated the funding required by Students FIRST and replaced it with a small appropriation to the School Facilities Board. “In each of the last two years, the amount appropriated has been about $16 million, far short of the $500 million needed by Arizona school districts,” says Hogan.
Some districts with an adequate property tax base receive capital funding from voter-approved bonds. Other districts have an adequate tax base, but their voters reject the issuance of bonds. Still more districts lack a sufficient property tax base to ask voters to approve the bonds necessary to receive capital funding.
State legislature is not above the law
“The state has totally reneged on the commitment that it made to the Supreme Court at the time Students FIRST was presented for approval,” stresses Hogan. “It has eliminated basically all the funding [for] Students FIRST. School districts are quickly developing into the haves and the have-nots.”
“Why is the state legislature above the law?” asks Cummings. “Students FIRST was never fully funded and now capital funding has been eliminated. We are just asking the state legislature to keep its promise and do what is required by the Constitution.”