- Associated Press - Friday, February 12, 2016

PHOENIX (AP) - Arizona school districts could lose more than $200 million a year if the Legislature passes a measure to phase out funding used to provide an equal opportunity education to minority students.

The proposal by Sen. Debbie Lesko, R-Peoria, would dismantle desegregation funding for 18 school districts over five to 10 years.

Lesko said the funding is outdated and creates an unfair system that favors some school districts over others.

“It’s not an equitable system. We need to phase it out,” she said.

Opponents say that Arizona’s education system is already underfunded and a further reduction would devastate districts by closing schools, laying off teachers and cutting off access to programs that help integrate the state’s poorest and most disenfranchised students.

In the decades following the civil rights movement, the federal government ordered 19 Arizona school districts to end racial discrimination practices and allowed them to levy higher local property taxes to pay for the changes.

Today, Arizona school districts have budgeted about $210 million in desegregation funding every year for the last three years, said Charles Tack a spokesman for the Arizona Department of Education.

Nearly 250,000 students receive the benefits from small elementary schools on the Navajo nation to large urban districts like Phoenix Union High School District.

Tucson Unified and Phoenix Union school districts would phase out their desegregation funding over 10 years, but Tucson which is currently under a court order to provide the funding, won’t be affected until the order is lifted.

Craig Pletenik, Phoenix Union High School District spokesman, said his district receives about $55 million per year through desegregation funding to pay for programs, teacher salaries and schools in a district that is 95 percent minority with 83 percent of its students on the free or reduced-price lunch program.

Three schools in the district are entirely funded with desegregation monies, but losing the funding would also affect its ability to provide equal opportunity educations to all students, Pletenik said.

“This is a $200 million tax cut to education in an era where Arizona is trying to recover and provide proper funding for school districts,” he said. “It is simply a huge tax cut on the backs of our poorest students.”

Cutting desegregation funding would also affect rural districts such as Flagstaff Unified School District, which spans more than 4500 square miles to include parts of the Navajo Nation.

Assistant Superintendent for the district Bob Kuhn said Puente De Hozho, a trilingual elementary school on the reservation, is one example of a school that receives desegregation funding.

Kuhn said his school district uses the more than $2 million they receive every year to help maintain a fair balance of education across an expansive district that has large minority populations.

“It would be a significant impact for us,” he said. “We’re short funded as it is now. We have to keep what is available.”

The Senate Finance Committee passed Senate Bill 1125 on a 3-2 vote this week. It now undergoes a standard review before going to a floor vote.

Rep. Vince Leach, R-Tucson, is sponsoring a similar measure the House Ways and Means Committee plans to debate Monday afternoon.

Lesko and other advocates for the measure say schools should not have built the desegregation funding into their budgets in the first place.

She said some of the complaint letters that allowed school districts to get funding date back 30 and 40 years. As a result, districts are still receiving funding for a problem they solved years ago.

“The reason I have sponsored this legislation is because I think it’s very unfair that one school district can get over $2,000 per student more than a neighboring school district that cannot for some old letter, civil rights complaint or court order that no longer even applies,” she said.

Kevin McCarthy, Arizona Tax Research Association president, said desegregation funding was always meant to be a temporary surplus to fix the problem, not a permanent way for school districts to bolster funding.

“They view this as a permanent budget bonus,” he said. “We think the responsible thing to do is to phase it out and give districts a fair warning.”

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