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Whether, when schools get extra $317 million an issue in governor’s race

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PHOENIX – State courts have ruled that Arizona owes public schools a first payment of more than $300 million for failing to make annual inflation adjustments to base funding as called for by a voter-approved law. Over five years, the bill could be $1.6 billion.

Whether and when schools get that money may depend in large part on who occupies the governor’s office come January.

Democrat Fred DuVal says the state should make the first payment. Republican Doug Ducey says he agrees with Gov. Jan Brewer’s decision to appeal the ruling, though he isn’t ruling out the possibility of a settlement.

“My most important priority is that we adequately fund our schools, and the Supreme Court has now ruled in this case,” DuVal told Cronkite News. “I believe we have cut K-12 education too deeply. This court order gives us the leverage that we need to get back into the business of our schools and better outcomes for our kids.”

While his campaign said he wasn’t available for an interview on the subject, emailing responses instead, Ducey said during a debate on Phoenix television station KSAZ/Fox 10 that he wants to appropriately fund schools but do so responsibly.

“And the reason I have spoken on this appeal is because the baseline on these dollars is important to the difference is between a manageable budget and what The Arizona Republic calls an unmanageable budget deficit,” he said.

In 2000, Arizona voters approved Proposition 301, which created an extra 0.6 percent sales tax earmarked for education and required the Legislature to match base level education funding with inflation.

In response to a lawsuit by school districts and advocates, the state Supreme Court found that the Legislature had failed to adjust base-level funding for schools since 2010. Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Katherine Cooper ordered that the base-level funding be reset to the level it would have been if it had been properly inflated over the last five years and set the first installment to make up that money at about $317 million.

Jonathan Butcher, education director at the Goldwater Institute, an independent group that advocates for limited government, said increased funding isn’t the path to more successful schools.

“There is no research that makes a compelling argument that spending more makes for better schools,” Butcher said. “If schools could spend their way to higher achievement, New York and D.C. would have done it.”

Lawrence Robinson, a member of the Roosevelt District Governing Board, disagrees.

“How can we succeed at standardized testing when those national tests are computerized and we can’t afford to put computers in the classrooms?” Robinson said. “We don’t have enough teachers because we can’t pay them.”

The Ducey campaign’s emailed response to questions from Cronkite News said, “When it comes to educating students, there shouldn’t be winners and losers. Every student deserves an excellent education that creates real opportunities. Our responsibility is to prepare them with the skills they need for life. It’s not about how much we spend; it’s whether we deliver results.”

DuVal said adequately funding schools would not only help students but benefit the state’s economy.

“The most important thing that we can do for our economy is to show people that we are serious about needing to invest in our children’s schools. Arizona needs to improve its education commitment in order to have that kind of growth,” he said.

In a debate on Phoenix television station KAET/Arizona PBS, Ducey said the current budget outlook would make paying $300 million-plus more difficult.

“We have scarce funds, and I want to make sure that we can be responsible going forward. I would like to settle this and put the appropriate amount of money into K-12 education, but any chief executive would ask, ‘Where are these dollars being spent and how can we best serve our teachers and our children?’” Ducey said.

DuVal told Cronkite News he recognizes the strain paying out on the court case could cause.

“We are going to have a year or two with some tough choices, but no more cuts to K-12 education,” DuVal said. “I’ll have to go into the legislative discussions and say we’ve got to mix it up – we are going to have to decide among other competing commitments.”

DuVal has proposed pulling money from the state’s rainy day fund, which he said was largely built on cuts to K-12 education. He said he believes that governmental reform including a new procurement process would bridge the gap and that Arizona also should look into the sale and disposition of state trust lands.

“I’ve got other ideas as we go forward. But we’ll have to grow the economy. We have to create economic health,” DuVal said.

In the emailed statement, Ducey outlined his plans for growing the economy but didn’t address a question about how he would make the first payment to schools if eventually required to do so.