July 14, 2024 6:10 am

Local News

Advocates, Teachers Call on Lawmakers To Fix School Spending Limit

Credit: iStock

by Gloria Rebecca Gomez, Arizona Mirror

Herlinda Calderon ferried her two kids to the Arizona Capitol on a school day to ask lawmakers for their help ensuring they have a classroom in the future. 

“We’re asking for the AEL to be lifted, permanently, so that we don’t have to keep fighting the same fight every year,” she said. 

Just last week, the Republican majority reluctantly approved a one-year exemption from a spending cap, called the aggregate expenditure limit and known informally as the AEL, placed in the state constitution by voters in 1980. Without that waiver, schools would have been forced to cut $1.4 billion from their budgets in the last few months of the academic year, resulting in mass layoffs and closures. Now that the crisis has been temporarily averted, public school advocates are turning their attention to a more lasting fix as the issue is likely to resurface next year. 

Calderon, a member of Stand for Children Arizona, added her voice to that effort on Tuesday and guided her children through creating Valentines Day cards for legislators. Inside, they read: “Roses are red, violets are blue. The AEL is forever, that’s why we need you!” 

The organization’s executive director, Rebecca Gau, called on lawmakers to move forward bills that offer long-term solutions. Multiple resolutions have been introduced that would give voters in 2024 the option to repeal the cap entirely or recalculate it to current spending levels. (Changes to the Arizona Constitution can only be enacted by voters.) But none of them have been put up for a vote. 

Gau warned that refusing to act would only worsen the strain on public schools. They face enough difficulties, she said, without adding a recurring annual threat onto the pile. 

“If we don’t fix it, this policy will continue to burden schools that are already struggling, due to the teacher retention crisis and a long and difficult journey to recover from the funding cuts of the Recession, and overcome the academic setbacks of the pandemic,” she said. 

Gau touted the results of a public opinion survey conducted by Stand for Children Arizona, which found that as much as 62% of voters in the state would say yes to a ballot measure to permanently raise the AEL. Along with the student-signed Valentines Day cards, she delivered a petition signed by more than 2,000 Arizonans urging legislators to act. 

“We’re asking legislators, on this day of love, to put kids before politics,” she said. 

High school teacher Jacquelyn Larios said the ongoing uncertainty presented by the spending limit has prompted her to reconsider teaching in Arizona. Her school district warned that faculty would be facing a 26% salary cut if lawmakers weren’t able to lift the cap by March. 

While Republicans have repeatedly dismissed concerns over the AEL by pointing to their track record of overrides, that doesn’t help teachers like Larios who are left waiting for delayed pay raises or worse. The limit has been legislatively overridden four times: in 2002, 2008, 2022 and this year.

“I explained to my daughters that, even though I love teaching so much, I just don’t know if I can continue,” Larios said. “We can’t afford this.”

And in a state grappling with a teacher shortage, the willingness of candidates to leave isn’t a welcome development. A survey from the Arizona School Personnel Administrators Association found that as much as 27% of teacher vacancies remained unfilled in the 2022-2023 school year. 

For Yazmin Castro, a senior at Apollo High School, that means her classes are overcrowded — despite being a part of advanced courses that are meant to include more one-on-one interactions. The continued unwillingness from Republican lawmakers to resolve the AEL sends a message to students like her, Castro said, that they’d rather hold onto outdated policies than support reforms that could improve education. 

“It tells us that we are not valued,” she said. “That our education is not a priority and that our future does not matter.” 

Republican lawmakers, who hold a one-vote majority in each legislative chamber, have repeatedly called for accountability and transparency measures in exchange for school funding. This year, that resulted in several GOP members voting against lifting the cap, citing concerns about what’s being taught in schools. Gau said while that argument might appeal to an extreme and vocal minority of constituents, the majority of voters support and trust their public schools. 

“Voters are watching,” she warned. “And organizations like mine will be here to make sure that voters in 2024 know who had the backs of kids, and who didn’t.”

This story was written by Gloria Gomez, a reporter at the Arizona Mirror, where this story first appeared.

Arizona Mirror is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Arizona Mirror maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Jim Small for questions: info@azmirror.com. Follow Arizona Mirror on Facebook and Twitter.