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Could a spending limit created over 40 years ago force schools to close this Spring?

Arizona’s schools may be forced to close as early as April 1 this spring.  

Not because of COVID this time, but because of a perfect storm of problems with our state’s school funding system.  (Funding that by the way, despite recent increases, still ranks as the lowest in the nation).  
The irony is that this spring, school districts are running into something called the Aggregate Expenditure Limit (AEL) that was created over 40 years ago.   
As a result, school districts cannot legally spend the money the legislature already approved months ago as part of the state budget.  So, districts already have the state-approved money in their bank accounts.  
They just can’t spend it.  

This technical roadblock means – without immediate bipartisan legislative action — districts across Arizona will have to eliminate 15% or more of their already-approved budgeted expenses this spring.  These cuts translate to $25 million for the Washington District, $43 million for Phoenix Union, and $58 Million for Tucson Unified, just to name a few examples 
Districts will be forced to lay off huge numbers of teachers resulting in enormous class sizes.  
Or, they will have to close schools altogether by April 1. We’re not talking about shifting to remote learning. We’re talking closing schools altogether.  
Whatever the case, it means even more stress on our already stressed-out students, parents, and teachers.
Let’s get this straight. For over a decade the legislature’s failure to invest properly in our schools has resulted in such a severe teacher shortage that over 20% of our students don’t have a permanent, qualified teacher in their classroom.  And students are still trying to recover from the impact of COVID-induced learning interruptions.  
Now, schools can’t even spend the still inadequate funds they were counting on to keep our schools open?  
It’s kind of like kicking our kids when they’re already down, isn’t it? 
However, this won’t just affect families with school-age children. It affects all of us. Think of the economic impact on our community that comes from laying off thousands of teachers and staff.  
There is a straightforward solution.   
The Legislature could – and should pass a concurrent resolution before March 1 that will allow districts to exceed the Aggregate Expenditure Limit (AEL). It requires a two-thirds majority in both chambers.   
Even so, that will only fix the problem for this spring.   
We also need to take the next step, to abolish this arbitrary, antiquated policy. A spending limit set 40 years ago doesn’t work today. We need to repeal it. 
Sadly, some legislators are already playing political games, trying to convince themselves and the public that the problem is because of district over-spending. This is a lie.   
Here’s the truth 
  1. Districts based their budgets on money the legislature already approved. They have not overspent.  
  1. We changed the rules on schools. In 2000, when voters approved Prop 301 to fund education for 20 years, they exempted that money from counting toward the expenditure limit.   
    But in 2018, the legislature extended Prop 301, without exempting it. That puts $638 million of funding a year at risk – money that didn’t used to count toward the limit but does now.  
  1. Huge things have changed since 1979 when the AEL was created. We should be spending more now because we have technology, and we should make sure kids know how to use it.  
  1. Arizona continues to rank dead last in the nation in per-student investment. That has a negative economic impact on all of us.  We already see it in the number of employers frustrated by the lack of qualified workers.   
Investing in education ensures we have a pipeline of qualified workers and innovators. It allows people to lift themselves out of poverty. It reduces the burden on taxpayers and improves the economy for all of us. 
What You Can Do 
Tell your senators and representatives to stop using this latest crisis as a political football to score points against each other. It’s time to work together for the good of our children, families, community, and the future of this great state.   
Please urge lawmakers to do two things. Work immediately to pass a clean concurrent resolution, without caveats, that allows school districts to exceed the Aggregate Expenditure Limit. Then work with us to abolish this arbitrary, antiquated policy. Here’s a district locator and list of lawmakers’ emails 
We have two choices: to allow schools to shut down on a technicality, or to usher them into the 21st century so our entire state can thrive.
It’s time to choose. 
Representative Judy Schwiebert
Arizona House of Representatives, District 20
“Working together for an Arizona where everyone can thrive.”

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