The political power match between the State Legislature and Arizona State Superintendent Kathy Hoffman has just one victim: students.
Earlier this week Rep. Michelle Udall (R-Maricopa) dispatched a letter to Hoffman calling on her agency to utilize federal funding allocated to help school districts mitigate the financial impact of COVID-19. Udall, who chairs the House education committee, criticized Hoffman’s department for “…holding onto nearly $85 million of discretionary money from the initial $1.5 billion allotment that should be put to use to help stabilize Arizona schools so that they don't have to make premature reductions in staffing when many of those students may be returning in the coming school year.”
Hoffman has argued that Udall has her numbers wrong — it’s $57 million — and that the intended use of the federal funds is not to prop up school district budgets, that’s the job of the Legislature.
The superintendent is calling on lawmakers to keep a promise made last summer that they would help districts weather the pandemic. Schools are suffering in part due to a state funding formula that determines how much shared revenue districts will receive based on full-time student attendance. When schools moved to remote learning many — including those in Cochise County — lost significant state funding.
The most prominent example of the dilemma was announced last month when the Gilbert school district said it will lay off 152 teachers due to a budget shortfall.
Hoffman appears to be playing a public pressure game, betting lawmakers will be forced to increase school funding as more districts around the state tell parents that drastic budget cuts will be necessary to avoid funding shortfalls.
We’re not so sure that will work.
Udall’s letter makes it clear that Hoffman’s agency has received lots of money from the federal relief program and the department is choosing not to allocate the funds. A spokesman for the state education agency said the financial aid is intended for “systemwide needs,” and is not intended to help local school districts.
Holding the line — with funds in hand — to squeeze more money out of lawmakers is a bad bet. Legislators are in the first year of their elected term and won’t have to face voters until the fall of 2022. Meanwhile the Republican majority in the Legislature is in no mood to throw money at schools after Arizona voters approved Prop. 208 in November, adding a tax for wealthy income earners that is projected to generate almost a billion dollars in additional school funding.
Most unfortunate in this political power play is the consequence that school districts — and specifically students — will suffer as a result of local district budget cuts.
When historians in the future theorize on the reasons Arizona abandoned public schools and shifted to private education, we expect a primary reason will be the failure of political parties to come together on how to fund local districts.