By Daniel Stefanski |
Republicans led a bipartisan effort in the Arizona Legislature to raise the aggregate expenditure limit (AEL) for school districts in Fiscal Year 2023, easily avoiding a March 1 deadline to authorize the excess funds.
The action in the legislature took place this week, with the House passing its authorization on Tuesday and the Senate on Wednesday. Representative David Cook sponsored the legislation in the House and Senate Education Committee Chairman Ken Bennett led the charge in the Senate. Both the House and Senate cleared the legislation by the required two-thirds majority vote.
According to the release sent out by Arizona Senate Republicans, the legislation “authorizes school districts to spend the approximately $1.4 billion that exceeds the AEL due to last year’s historic investment made in public education. The AEL is a constitutional amendment passed by Arizona voters in 1980 as a way to limit rapid increases in government spending that are out of proportion to population growth and inflation.” The Arizona Senate’s fact sheet stated that “there is no anticipated fiscal impact to the state General Fund associated with this legislation.”
Many Arizona Republicans cheered this bipartisan achievement this week. Senate Education Committee Chairman Ken Bennett said, “Senate Republicans have an uninterrupted history of always allowing our K-12 public schools to spend the money appropriated to them by the Legislature, and this year is no different.”
Senate President Pro Tempore T.J. Shope wrote, “A big reason school districts hit the AEL cap is because Republicans have infused so much money into K-12 education.” Senate Majority Leader Sonny Borrelli stated, “We’ve also increased per pupil spending by more than 40% since 2015.”
House Sponsor David Cook was also appreciative after the Tuesday action by his chamber, tweeting, “The Arizona House of Representatives today approved my legislation to raise the AEL this year, so our schools can fully access the funds that the Legislature already appropriated for them.”
Republican Representative Matt Gress tweeted, “I’m proud to vote with my colleagues on a bipartisan basis to keep our schools open. This vote allows for the largest investment in K-12 education history.”
Arizona Democrats were very happy about the AEL’s authorization this week. Senate Democrats tweeted a picture of a group of members smiling in the Senate chamber because “we passed the AEL!” Senate Education Committee Ranking Member Christine Marsh said, “This is a strong show of bipartisanship and one I hope can continue as we identify a more permanent solution for our public schools.”
The path to arrive at passage of the AEL wasn’t without its challenges. Last year, some Democrats claimed that then-Governor Doug Ducey had promised to call a special session of the Arizona Legislature to authorize the AEL once the budget was signed into law. Governor Ducey’s office denied that this stipulation had been part of the bipartisan negotiations. There were also weeks of speculation that perhaps a special session would be called at the end of Ducey’s term, but nothing materialized.
Members of the Arizona Freedom Caucus also made their voices known about their preferences for systematic reforms being instituted “to benefit students, families, and teachers.” According to a press release from Senator Jake Hoffman, and shared by the @AZFreedomCaucus Twitter account, the reforms include “classroom 1st funding,” “back to the basics instruction,” “empowering parents through academic transparency,” “parent trust & empowerment,” “transparency in district finances,” and “protecting children from political ideologies.”
Senate President Warren Petersen seemed to echo some of these concerns in his statement for the State Senate Republican Caucus release touting the legislative victory: “In the coming weeks, we will be working with the Joint Legislative Audit Committee Chairman to investigate how these (education spending) dollars are being spent. With extra funding comes a greater responsibility from our K-12 public school districts to provide a better education for all students.” Senate Majority Whip Sine Kerr also added a statement of caution and future investigation, saying, “We have some of the best schools in the country found in Arizona, but at the same time, we have some of the worst underperforming schools, and we need to figure out why.”
Daniel Stefanski is a reporter for AZ Free News. You can send him news tips using this link.