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Arizona leads steepest education cuts in nation

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PHOENIX – A new report showing Arizona had the steepest education spending decreases nationwide in recent years strengthens the argument for a 1-cent per dollar sales tax benefiting schools, proponents of the initiative said Tuesday.

The report by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a nonpartisan institute based in Washington, D.C., found that Arizona had the biggest decrease in per-student spending since fiscal 2008 among the 48 states that publish education budget data. Since then, per-student spending dropped 21.8 percent, with the state spending about $783 less per student.

“The cuts that Arizona and other states have made have very serious consequences both for students’ future opportunities and for the broader economy,” said Phil Oliff, a policy analyst with the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

In November, Arizonans will vote on Proposition 204, also known as the Quality Education and Jobs Act, which would enact a permanent 1-cent per dollar sales tax to replace a temporary tax set to expire May 31, 2013. The money raised would be specifically earmarked for educational programs, human services and transportation.

Ann-Eve Pedersen, president of the Arizona Education Network, which is backing Proposition 204, called the sales tax a solution to the state’s education funding woes.

“Prop. 204 is a game changer for education in Arizona,” she said. “If we do this, we will set ourselves on the path to prosperity. We do not, ever again, want to be on the top of a list like this.”

While advocates say the measure is necessary to ensure permanent funding for education, some Republican legislators say it places overly narrow restrictions on lawmaker budgeting.

Rep. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills, said that if passed the measure would tie the hands of the Legislature in determining where funds would best be spent.

“It removes budgeting flexibility from the Legislature and it does budgeting in a vacuum, not taking into account other needs and wants,” he said.

In contrast, initiative supporters say this would prevent lawmakers from spending the funds inappropriately, assuring that 80 percent of the money would go to education.

Kavanagh added that funding studies often underestimate the amount spent on education and don’t accurately depict the quality of schools.

“Many of those funding studies miss a lot of Arizona education spending, like school construction,” Kavanagh said. “The true measure of educational performance is not how much you spend but how you do in testing.”

Dana Wolfe Naimark, president and CEO of Children’s Action Alliance, said that educational reforms pushing for better quality education in the state must be coupled with reliable funding.

“Many legislators have been pretending that education and accountability can be improved while resources are being slashed at the same time,” she said. “Parents and voters know that just isn’t true. Our leaders have been setting Arizona up for failure.”