Vote for it or money goes away: Deseg in crosshairs

Arizona Republic
Thursday, February 2, 2017
Ricardo Cano

Redeem Robinson approached the podium and urged state lawmakers to stop legislation he said jeopardized the $211 million some schools get each year.

"Arizona already has a bad name for not funding our schools," Robinson told the Arizona Senate Appropriations Committee this week. "Let’s not make it worse. Please, I urge you."

Nearly two hours of fiery testimony later, Robinson, a father in the Washington Elementary School District, and the more than 100 people testifying on Senate Bill 1174, cleared the packed hearing room. Most of them were visibly disappointed.

The state Senate committee voted narrowly, 6-4, to move the bill to a floor vote.

As Robinson left the room, he said, "Thanks for screwing the schools."

Such is the emotion from affected parents, teachers and school leaders surrounding the latest legislation on so-called "desegregation funding."

This funding source has been a mainstay for some Arizona schools for more than 30 years. Eighteen school districts across the state — including the Washington Elementary, Phoenix Union and Tempe Elementary districts — get this money via local property taxes.

For that reason, the funding is arguably the most scrutinized, controversial and endangered pot of public-school money at the state Capitol each year.

The local property taxes that fuel desegregation funding are levied without the approval of their voters.

A select number of districts (out of more than 200 in the state) have access to it mainly because the federal government — decades ago — found they had violated the civil rights of students by denying them access to an equal education.

The state Legislature in 1985 allowed these districts to levy local tax money outside their normal budgets to help remedy their wrongdoings. They didn't establish a sunset for the funding. Until 2009, the annual money these schools received had no hard cap.

The latest bill would not be a straight repeal of the money, as previous ones have proposed. Rather, this bill is structured as an ultimatum: Either districts have to get their voters to approve it — like an override — or the money will start to go away.

Tuesday's Senate hearing was the latest chapter in the battle. The arguments for and against haven't changed.

Those who have supported legislation to repeal or reform the funding practice say that it's not fair these schools continue to bypass voters to get hundreds of millions of dollars unavailable to the rest of the state's public schools.

The money, supporters of the legislation say, was never intended to last this long. The deliberate practices of discrimination that led to desegregation funding no longer exist, these lawmakers said, and schools are not segregated in the way they were back then.