- Associated Press - Friday, October 30, 2015

PHOENIX (AP) - Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey signed a package of bills Friday that will pump $3.5 billion into K-12 education over the next decade to settle a long-running lawsuit stemming from the state’s decision to raid school spending during the Great Recession.

Calling it a victory for Arizona schoolchildren, the Republican governor approved the legislation after it was passed earlier in the day during a special legislative session that featured several emotionally charged exchanges over how to properly pay for public schools.

Arizona is one of the most striking examples around the country of states still dealing with the fallout of their decisions to slash education spending when the recession ravaged budgets during the last decade.

A voter-approved referendum in Arizona has long required lawmakers to provide annual inflation-based increases to K-12 education, but the state Legislature quit making the payments when the recession hit and decimated the housing and construction industries that had been the lynchpin of the state economy.

Lawmakers also made other major cuts - and the spending plan signed by Ducey doesn’t come close to restoring them.

Schools sued over the inflation funding and the five-year legal case wound its way through the courts.

Schools say they are satisfied with the agreement in which they receive about 70 percent of the cash they would have gotten if they had ultimately prevailed in the state Supreme Court.

The settlement cash comes from $1.4 billion in general fund money and $2 billion from a state land trust.

“Together we’re sending a strong message about the value of public education in our state,” Ducey said before signing the bill as lawmakers, educators and other supporters looked on. “To our teachers - we know your worth. … With this plan you’ll have the resources you’ve been asking for.”

The proposal requires voter approval in a May 17 special election. Ducey said he will campaign to build public support.

Schools will receive $3.9 billion in the current budget year from the state general fund, including $3.4 billion in basic school aid. The bills approved Friday would add about $300 million a year to that total.

Democratic efforts to amend the bills in the Senate and House, including removing language that will cap future school spending and changing how the plan was funded, were rejected by majority Republicans.

The House approval came without any Democratic votes on two of the bills. The third that actually appropriates the money won unanimous support in the Republican-controlled House.

The Senate also was unanimous on the funding bill. Three Democrats joined 17 Republicans to back the others.

Ducey’s first-year budget left K-12 funding flat, and he and fellow Republicans faced vocal pressure in recent months from parents and voters around the state who are becoming increasingly frustrated over education spending.

A 2014 study by the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities found that Arizona per-student spending fell more than 47 other states since 2008 and funding remains 17 percent below pre-recession levels. The state is ranked 50th in per-student state funding for K-12 schools, according to U.S. Census bureau figures from 2013.

Other states are dealing with similar situations.

In Washington, the state’s highest court ruled in 2012 that state funding for education was not adequate, and lawmakers there have been scrambling to come up with a solution ever since.

In August justices began fining the Washington state Legislature $100,000 a day. They said even though lawmakers had increased K-12 spending, they still weren’t setting aside enough money to educate the state’s one million school children - something they are required to do under Washington’s state Constitution.

Lawmakers have pledged to address the issue when the Legislature convenes in January.

In Arizona, the deal will increase withdrawals from the state’s $5 billion permanent land trust from 2.5 percent a year to nearly 7 percent. Democrats warned that puts the fund principal at risk.

The land trust component that was proposed by Ducey in June as a separate way to get new money to schools became a key funding source for the settlement, providing 60 percent of the cash. The remaining $1.4 billion comes from the state general fund.

Republican Senate President Andy Biggs chided those who criticized the funding plan as insufficient.

“There are Eyors in our state who see nothing but rain falling upon them and a tail stapled to their bottom with a tack,” Biggs said, referring to a character in Winnie the Pooh. “But the reality is this is a sunny day, a day to be grateful to be an Arizonan.”

School officials and Democratic lawmakers said the money marks a good start but much more needs to be done. They noted elections next month in which many school districts will ask voters to approve new bonds and budget limit overrides.

“This is a settlement of one question in a state with a lot of questions that we still face about public education,” said Andrew Morrill, president of the Arizona Education Association teachers union.

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