Gov. Jan Brewer will propose a major revamp of how the state funds schools, a move that could make more cash available for private and parochial schools.
In a speech Friday, Brewer boasted of Arizona being a leader in "school choice," with parents given options beyond traditional public schools. That includes not only a large system of privately run charter schools, which also are public schools, but also state tax credits to help students attend private and parochial schools.
But, Brewer told the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the current funding system has not kept pace, with public schools getting a fixed amount of money for each student enrolled. A similar system exists for state aid to universities and community colleges.
"Whether it's K-12, community college or university classrooms, we can no longer afford to reward institutions for merely finding students to occupy desks for part of the day or part of the year," she said. "Instead, we must invest our resources to fund the schools and support the teachers who deliver the results for our children, no matter the educational setting."
And Brewer stressed that her commitment to fund education is linked to "a setting of parents' choosing."
But Brewer did not promise to seek any more cash for either K-12 schools or higher education - or to restore the cuts that she helped to make during the last two years - even with the state having its first surplus since 2006.
Just last year state lawmakers cut aid to public schools by $183 million. Brewer put the figure at closer to $134 million, with at least part of the difference due to increased federal aid.
But the governor, in a separate interview with Capitol Media Services, said she wants to earmark some of that extra money to paying down the debt Arizona incurred to balance its books during the past few years. And in her speech Friday, she said now that the state has a balanced budget, there will be "no restorations."
In fact, there actually could be less money available for public schools if lawmakers approve an expansion of existing programs that allow individuals to divert some of what they would otherwise pay in income taxes to instead help students attend private and parochial schools.
Current law gives individuals a dollar-for-dollar credit against state income tax for money donated to organizations that provide scholarships for tuition to these schools, up to $500 for individuals and $1,000 for couples. Proponents contend this not only increases school choice options for parents but can save money for the state by taking children out of public schools.
That program, however, has generated debate amid concern beyond the loss of tax dollars. One issue is the question of how much of that money is going to children who would attend private schools anyway and families well capable of affording the tuition.
Sen. Rick Murphy, R-Glendale, is trying to expand those credits, creating yet another program with those same dollar-for-dollar credits. He said increasing what people can give will eliminate waiting lists of parents who cannot afford to send their children to private schools.
But to combat claims that the moves undermine the budget, the program is largely designed only for students who move from public schools. Murphy said that makes the new credits "budget positive," meaning the state will lose less in tax revenues than what it would have to pay if these students attended public schools.
Murphy said the proposal was crafted in conjunction with the governor's office. "It's my understanding that pretty much everyone is on board," he said.
Brewer has a long record of supporting the tuition tax credit system. And she already has taken other steps to revamp education.
One of those occurred when the governor chose Craig Barrett, a charter-school executive, to chair her Arizona Ready Education Council.
In an interview with Capitol Media Services, Barrett, a former chief executive of Intel, said he intends to push for a system where teachers are paid based on their performance, scrapping the current method which is based on both tenure and post-graduate credits. He also wants to eliminate existing requirements for individuals to have a teaching degree and be certified by the state before being allowed in a classroom.
Charter schools, like the chain Barrett runs, already are exempt from those mandates. And Barrett said the fact they are able to survive on less money than traditional public schools proves that the answer is not more cash but instead focusing on what works.
Brewer on Friday said she shares that goal.
‘"We must think about how to fund the results we want, from state government and from our schools and universities," she said, even specifically mentioning the council that Barrett heads.
Brewer's comments come as a group of educators and others are crafting a new sales tax designed to help fund education.
That is an issue because one of the reasons the state has a balanced budget - and more was not cut from education funding - is that Brewer successfully pushed for voters in 2010 to enact a temporary one-cent hike in the state's 5.6 percent levy. That bump and the close to $1 billion a year it generates disappears when the tax self-destructs on May 31, 2013.
Any new tax likely would need voter approval. With an eye on getting that, proponents have promised to link the levy to "accountability" measures designed to show that the funds are actually going to increase student performance and not simply just provide more cash for schools.