Robb: Does anyone really believe AZ schools need desegregation funding?

Arizona Republic
Sunday, February 5, 2017
Bob Robb

I favor a consumption tax increase to substantially increase K-12 education funding.

However, the progress, or lack thereof, on that front shouldn’t paralyze debate and action on the school finance formula as it is, fixing things that don’t make sense.

Nothing in the existing school finance formula makes less sense than the so-called desegregation funding provision.

Only 19 school districts can take advantage of this provision. And it is a humongous advantage.

Does anyone believe these districts are racist?

School districts that are subject to an anti-discrimination court order or consent agreement can levy a property tax without voter approval of any amount for expenses attributed to complying with the order or agreement.

In the first place, does anyone really believe that the administrators in these 19 school districts are racists engaged in systemic discrimination against students? Of course not.

There is a reason that only two of the districts are actually under court order. The consent agreements are a sweet deal. Entering into one gives the district unlimited and unchecked taxing authority. There’s no reason to fight the feds on a discrimination claim or try to get out from under an agreement. In fact, the incentives are all in the opposite direction.

Senate Bill 1174, sponsored by Sen. Debbie Lesko and passed out of her Appropriations Committee last week, wouldn’t really get rid of the extraordinarily advantaged access to the property tax enjoyed by these districts, which is what should happen.

Instead, beginning in 2020, they would have to get voter approval for the additional property tax levy involved. These districts would still have significantly greater taxing capacity than other school districts around the state.

Give it accountability - or even better, the ax

This is not a $211 million cut to education, as critics are trying to spin it. There might be no reduction in funding, depending on what local voters do.

But there would be an end to taxation without taxpayer accountability. What’s the argument against that?

It is true that most of the school districts with desegregation funding serve poor and minority students. But so do many schools that haven’t won the discrimination-accusation lottery.

There are those who believe that low-income students should get more in state aid than other students. I disagree, but that’s an honest approach. And it would get additional aid to low-income students irrespective of what school they attend.

The current desegregation funding provision is grounded in a lie, that these school districts engage in systemic discrimination that requires court or federal oversight to remedy. It abuses taxpayers by denying them any recourse or accountability. And it treats other schools unfairly.

If anything, SB 1174 doesn’t go far enough.