Talks aimed at settling a dispute over funding to cover inflation for K-12 schools in Arizona have fallen apart, with the case headed back to court. Arizona Education Association vice president Joe Thomas will discuss the issue.
TED SIMONS: Talks fell apart yesterday on a possible settlement over inflation-adjusted funds for education. That means the four-year-old case involving nearly $2 billion heads back to the courts. Joining us now is Joe Thomas, vice president of the Arizona education association. Good to have you here. Thanks for joining us. Were these things ever -- was it ever close? What went on here as far as these negotiations?
JOE THOMAS: We're under court order to not really talk about what happened in the negotiations. There is not a lot that I can talk about that. We can talk about what's on the table now.
TED SIMONS: What is on the table now?
JOE THOMAS: We saw that after impasse was announced where the side said we were not going to be able to constructively go further in the arbitration. The speaker and Senate president announced their plan, which takes money from first things first and a couple other funding areas and tries to cobble together a solution.
TED SIMONS: I do want to talk about that. I want to go back to the original suit. What was the suit all about?
JOE THOMAS: Well, in about the turn of the century, the voters decided that they would mandate that the school funding would keep up with inflation until they passed what was known as proposition 301 back then. It said many things, but one of the most important things was every year we would have inflationary increase to make sure that the schools didn't fall behind the base level of inflation of what it cost for paper clips, computers, and paper from year to year. Everything worked very, very well until the last four years when the legislature decided they didn't want to fund that piece. It ended up being a significant amount of money withheld, illegally we said, and the courts agreed with us from our schools. That is where the suit originated from.
TED SIMONS: I think it is $1.3 billion that was held back. Correct?
JOE THOMAS: Yes.
TED SIMONS: Courts agree you are supposed to pay it so go ahead and pay it -- why were there even talks? Why was this mediated? Court says pay it -- explain.
JOE THOMAS: What everybody wants in the situation is a solution. The idea was perhaps get the sides to talk together, which is very common in all sorts of court cases and let's see if we can have the stakeholders come to some kind of resolution. And what's difficult for me as a U.S. government teacher, I teach high school, to wrap my head around this idea that we have two branches of government, the executive branch and legislative branch ignoring the power of the third branch the court with their court order. It is as if we don't have checks and balances anymore. It is difficult moving forward but we still think we can get to a resolution.
TED SIMONS: Mediate, talk, let's work this out. Work what out? The court basically said pay it. You underfunded pay it.
JOE THOMAS: Students and schools won and we are looking to get that money. And we need it in now.
TED SIMONS: Basically this now goes back to the courts, correct?
JOE THOMAS: You will have to talk to the courts about that. We will see what orders they mandate. There's two different pieces to the court case. First the inflationary funding, the one that we won. The second one is going through right now is what would be considered the back pay, the one you talked about earlier, over $1 billion. And we'll get a ruling on that at the court level and probably appealed all of the way to the supreme court like the last one was. We are very confident we are going to win again. The point is we need to get this money into schools. It was held back from schools intentionally and unconstitutionally and illegally as it turns out. And we want to get it back in. Our students and our schools and our teachers need these funds to do the work they were hired to do.
TED SIMONS: When the legislature comes out and legislative leaders comes out with this idea, $5 billion over the 10 next years. Taking money from state trust land taking money from first things first -- it is another idea. Does that idea even matter when the original idea is to live up to your obligations?
JOE THOMAS: Well, I think that the legislative leadership is trying again to find a way to meet the interests of the courts, court case, which is fund education. And they are looking for ways to fund it. The governor said to reporters today that he did not support any tax increase going ahead, but he also said that he supports fully funding education before. And we are hoping that our governor will be a champion for our schools to get the resources that we need. Legislature, one plan was to sweep funding from first things first. Teachers see that as taking money away and resources away from preschoolers and giving it to high schoolers and that doesn't make anybody very happy. The funds were set up by the voters as well to go to early childhood programs, and I think it has -- the courts have weighed in and said you can't use that for something else.
TED SIMONS: The Idea of taking additional money from state trust land, I don't know if this -- that needs to be approved by the voters as well. A little irony there, isn't there? Your plan is to have something approved by the voters to pay for something that the voters approved that you are not living up to.
JOE THOMAS: The voters in Arizona have a real good independent streak and are protective of things like, state trust lands. They know that a trust is something you should put money in and keep money in and it pays out over the long hall -- so the idea of going into it, I think is one that people are looking at, are we using enough of that money right now to fund education? The problem is if you use too much of it, you deplete the reserves and you don't have any trust land to use. And that cheats future generations out of this wise thing that our founders put into the constitution.
TED SIMONS: The new idea continues with what already has been approved, $74 million a year. Adds 1.6% inflation, and another $100 million in funding. There is a bit of a surplus. They don't want to call it a surplus, but there's extra money or additional money floating around. Did those ideas make sense to you?
JOE THOMAS: Well, getting money into schools makes sense to me. We need to do it right now. The court case was about withholding funds from education for four years. I have a fifth grader at home so he had a fully funded education in Kindergarten and first grade year, and he has not had it since. That is impacting his ability to have a small class size, to have after-school program, P.E., and arts in his schools because those are the things that get cut when we underfund the system. The idea of going to voters in a November or different election, that will help us in another year or two years. We need to get money into schools now. We have the money sitting with the surplus, $300 million, we could give a piece of that and get some schools relief. Let's get class sizes down, let's let teachers work in better conditions where they will not want to leave at the end of the year. Let's let student learn in better conditions so that they'll advance the way we want them to. And see student growth -- we have an unsustainable system right now. And it is unsustainable because of the lack of resources. We have to properly fund our schools and the courts agreed with us and we want to move ahead on it.
TED SIMONS: Last question before you go. Do you understand the legislature's position in not funding for the four years because the state was in such a fiscal crisis?
JOE THOMAS: I understand that for about 20 years we have steadily cut taxes and when you cut revenue, that impacts the general fund where all of education funding comes from. That is where we are a little nervous about moving ahead, if we don't fund our schools now, if we don't use this surplus money from this last year's budget to fund schools. What are we going to use it for? Are we going to see more tax cut keeping us in a vicious cycle of underfunding everything in government which impacts our children? We don't want to see that. We'd like to get the money in there. Certainly there was no money, but that was the legislature's doing as well.
TED SIMONS: It's good to having you here, thanks for joining us.
JOE THOMAS: Good to be here. Thank you Ted.
Arizona Education Association vice president Joe Thomas