PHOENIX (3TV/CBS5) -- Massive rallies sparked by Arizona's education funding crisis might be a thing of the past, but the issue is still front and center in Arizona.
On the ballot next month, Proposition 208 presents yet another battle over the state's dire education funding and who should pay for it. "For the last decade, Arizona has cut more from its public education system than any other state in the country,” says former state lawmaker David Lujan, who is also a former school principal.
He is now the director of the Arizona Center for Economic Progress, one of five organizations behind Prop. 208, the "Invest in Education Act."
It proposes a tax on the highest income earners in Arizona to bring much-needed funds to K-12 schools. "One of the smartest investments that states can make in their future economy is to invest in their public education system,” says Lujan.
Estimates show that if it passes, Prop. 208 could generate around $900 million a year. The initiative would mean half of the funds would go to teachers, to raise their base pay and hire more. A quarter of the money would go to support personnel like school counselors, librarians and nurses. The rest would be divvied up for new teacher mentoring and retention programs, career training and workforce fund, and the Arizona Teachers Academy.
"There is very strict accountability in the language so that schools cannot use it for other purposes, and I think the most important thing is, it goes directly to the schools, and the politicians at the state capitol cannot touch these dollars," explains Lujan.
Proposition 208 is getting a lot of push back from all corners of the state, and not just the business community. "Business owners and organizations across the state have come out and said this would be devastating, especially coming out of a pandemic," explains Jaime Molera, chair of the "No on 208" campaign.
He says the proposition places an undue burden on small businesses, forcing them to pick up the tab for all Arizona students. "So companies will stop coming here, but also companies would look around the region, whether it’s New Mexico, Colorado, Nevada, where you have no income tax and say, 'Why would we want to continue to double our tax rate in the sense, when we have opportunities to go elsewhere?'" describes Molera.
If passed, Prop. 208 would impose a new, 3.5% tax surcharge on top of the state's 4.5% on individuals who net $250,000 or couples who net $500,000 as taxable income after all of their deductions. Lujan points out this tax does not target the small 'mom and pop' shops. "Most business owners in Arizona, their taxable income is nowhere near the threshholds to be impacted by Prop 208,” Lujan explains.
He says this increase would affect one percent of Arizona taxpayers. By Molera's estimates, the proposition will impact 40,000-50,000 taxpayers in Arizona. He says about half of them make their money from a business, where some years are better than others. "It's not like they're reporting this tax money and that's all their profit that they're making. They’re investing it back into their businesses, they’re buying better technology. It's gonna be a dis-incentive for Arizona small businesses to reinvest in themselves," says Molera.
Now a lobbyist for big corporations, Molera used to be Arizona's Superintendent of Public Instruction and President of the Board of Education. He says he's also troubled money generated in the proposition is not tied to student achievement. "It just says, we're going to spread this like manure on the field and hope something beautiful is going to grow," describes Molera.
Lujan says the first step for Arizona students is proper funding, and proponents hope voters pass what lawmakers have failed to do for decades. "It's not gonna get us back to the national average, but it would be a huge step forward, and in particular, addressing the teacher shortage and making the class sizes a little bit smaller will be a huge benefit for students," says Lujan.
If Prop. 208 passes, the money would remain in a separate fund. The legislature could not touch it and would be precluded from using it as part of the funding formula already in place for Arizona students.