Posted in: Arizona
AZ courts deliver two major funding victories for students, schools
by Félix Pérez
Arizona students and public schools, which have endured cuts of nearly $1 billion in the last five years, scored two major court victories against the state legislature in the last two weeks.
Take Action ›
Stay informed on the issues and people who affect students and public education at the state and federal levels. Click here! ›
In the most recent, handed down yesterday, the state Court of Appeals ruled that lawmakers must abide by a ballot proposition approved by voters requiring that school funding be adjusted yearly to keep pace with inflation. In the second, the state Supreme Court ruled that the legislature violated the state constitution when it diverted nearly $20 million the last two years from a state trust fund designated to support public schools.
The Arizona Education Association, other statewide education groups and several school districts sued the state of Arizona in 2010 because the legislature failed to fulfill the funding obligation to public education mandated by Proposition 301, a voter referendum passed in 2000.
“It’s a victory for schools, for education and a victory for the voters,” Andrew Morrill, high school English teacher and president of the Arizona Education Association, told AzCentral.com.
According to attorneys for AEA and the other plaintiffs, schools lost about $250 million in inflation adjustments in the last three years. The appeals court did not order the state to pay schools the money they would have received.
“After five years of cuts to education totaling close to $1 billion, this affirmation that basic legal funding requirements must be met should be seen as a critical victory for public education. It’s a message to the legislature that when the voters pass something, they are bound to uphold it,” said the Arizona School Boards Association in a statement.
The court, in its 28-page opinion, wrote:
Without question, the legislature faces substantial challenges in preparing the state’s budget, particularly during difficult economic circumstances. But our constitution does not permit the legislature to change the meaning of voter-approved statutes by shifting [education] funds to meet other budgeting priorities.
Separately, the Arizona Supreme Court, in its unanimous January 9 ruling, held that the legislature violated the state constitution when it diverted $20 million from the Arizona Land Trust Fund, which was set up to benefit public schools. AEA filed an amicus brief with the court.
When Arizona became a state in 1912, it received 10 million acres from the federal government. That land grant specified the proceeds from the sale or lease of the land must go to public schools. But, because of a law passed in 2009, the legislature used about $20 million of that money to deal with its general fund shortfalls.
An attorney for the Arizona Center for Law in the Public Interest, which filed the lawsuit in 2010 on behalf of two teachers and a school district, said the organization will seek reimbursement of the $20 million in funds that were diverted. The Supreme Court did not address repayment.