- Associated Press - Thursday, September 3, 2015

PHOENIX (AP) - Education advocates on Thursday urged Republican Gov. Doug Ducey to call the Legislature into a special session to settle a school funding lawsuit.

The action came amid growing signs that majority Republicans in the House and Senate may be inclined to come back to address growing public anger over the state of Arizona’s schools.

The advocates and Republican leaders remain at odds over how to boost school funding, which is among the lowest per pupil in the nation. Ducey has proposed tapping the state’s permanent land trust to add $1.8 billion in new school funding over five years and smaller amounts in the following five years. Legislative leaders are proposing a mix of trust land funding, general fund spending and a raid on the state’s early childhood education fund known as First Things First to add $5 billion over 10 years.

Advocates who rallied at the Capitol on Thursday mistrust those efforts, which they say fail to fund schools quickly. They note that both plans require voter approval - which they say the Legislature has ignored already. Instead, they want a settlement first and then are willing to talk about additional funding.

“You’ll forgive us if there’s some skepticism about putting an initiative on the ballot that requires funding for education, because that’s where we are right now,” said Jonathan Parker, a teacher at Thunderbird High School in Phoenix who has school-age children. “When I’m told that the answer is a voter-approved initiative will handle the funding crisis, I would put an asterisk next to that and say until a ‘future legislature and governor decide that there aren’t sufficient funds to do so.’”

Months of settlement negotiations between Arizona public school districts and the Legislature failed last week. A court has ordered the Legislature to immediately pay at least an additional $330 million a year to schools, but House and Senate Republicans are appealing.

A judge ordered the payments in July 2014 after years of litigation over the Legislature’s failure to provide annual inflation adjustments for schools as required by a 2000 voter-approved law that boosted the sales tax to pay for the adjustments. Lawmakers quit providing the annual boosts in 2009 as state revenues were decimated by the recession. They began making them again two years ago.

Republican lawmakers have been facing criticism in their districts for this year’s state budget, which essentially left school funding flat and did not settle the lawsuit.

“I think a number of people are concerned about what’s happened - they want to see more money for public education,” said Sen. Steve Pierce, a Prescott Republican who was opposed this year’s state budget.

In additional to K-12 funding, there are concerns about cuts to community colleges, universities and technical education high schools called JTEDs.

The Legislature is sitting on a large amount of cash - $450 million in its rainy day fund and a $325 million ending balance in the budget year that ended June 30. Democrats say that money should be tapped to pay for the inflation adjustments for schools.

“We have $785 million dollars sitting there right now,” said Sen. Steve Farley, D-Tucson. “We’ve got to put that in there, and we have to find the sources to keep it ongoing.”

Senate Republicans have been on conference calls with Senate President Andy Biggs to discuss his plan. House Speaker David Gowan plans small group meetings with Republicans in his chamber next week. Both are signs that leaders may be counting votes to see if they can push through a school funding plan.

“I really think what’s going on is their members are literally being physically chased out of education town halls, and they’re going to their leadership and saying we’ve got to have some cover on this,” Farley said.

Biggs, the senate president, said he believes funding isn’t the end-all be-all for schools, pointing to top performing schools doing well today. But he acknowledges that new funding is needed - if only because school backers have convinced the public it is needed.

“The narrative is out there, and I’m going to say that the other side has won the narrative war. And that is, there’s a significant group of people that say hey, we just don’t have enough money,” Biggs said. “I say to them, how much is enough? We’ve put out a proposal that I think is a winning proposal.”

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