Arizona Awaits Judge’s Decision on Prop 301 Back Payments

Lawmakers, educators and charter school advocates in Arizona are awaiting the ruling of one judge to see how much the state government will owe school districts and charter schools after the state’s Supreme Court ruled that it had failed to adequately fund education under a bill passed 14 years ago.

Last September, the Supreme Court of Arizona ruled that the funding plan created in Proposition 301 in 2000 allowed the public to demand that the legislature increase the base level of school funding.

Lawyers for the plaintiffs - schools, school districts and individual charter school owners – are suing the state for $2.9 billion, a hefty chunk of that being interest on back payments they believe are due.

The fate of all rests now in the hands of Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Katherine Cooper, according to an article written by The Arizona Republic’s Alia Beard Rau.

Arizona Association of School Business Officials governmental-relations director Chuck Essigs described it as one of the most important legal decisions in the history of Arizona education.

“If the court doesn’t require the state to pay, schools will be penalized by having less money forever,” he said. “Kids who aren’t even born today will be penalized if this isn’t done correctly.”

Attorneys on both sides of the case appeared in front of Judge Cooper last Friday, spending two hours presenting arguments. Cooper said she needed time to review, and gave no potential time frame of when she would render a decision, according to a story filed for The Associated Press by Bob Christie and Astrid Galvan.

The Supreme Court decision said Arizona voters required annual inflation adjustments to school funding when they passed Proposition 301 in 2000. The proposition raised the state sales tax by 0.6% to fund schools.

The law said it would apply to base funding, transportation costs and other special funds.

The Legislature stopped adding to the base funding during the Great Recession and resumed the increases last year. But they started at the level that had been in place before the Legislature froze the increases.

There has been little good news for the state in terms of its education spending of late. A report released by the US Census Bureau labeled Arizona as the fourth-worst state in the US when it comes to spending money per pupil, according to a story published by Education News.

According to The Republic, Arizona Senate President Andy Biggs (R-Gilbert) says any heavy-handed ruling against the state will meet chaos for its already-tenuous finances.

The Joint Legislative Budget Committee predicts adding $320 million a year to education costs will help push Arizona $613 million in the red by fiscal 2016, and it’s been waving the warning flag for months. Mention of a possible decision on the amount owed was included in several public presentations and legislative budget discussions over the past year.

Biggs said schools made an informal settlement offer, suggesting the state pay $1 billion over four years. He said the state chose to stand by its position that it doesn’t owe nearly that much.

“We don’t have any money anyway,” he said.