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Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey’s education plan makes small mark in big shortfall

(AP Photos)

PHOENIX — The Arizona Legislature’s 2017 session put the spotlight on education spending and policies in a big way and provided a glimpse of expected election battles next year over how the state pays for schools and teacher salaries.

The budget package that increased school funding and a major expansion of the state’s public school voucher program are likely to be used as campaign fodder by Republican Gov. Doug Ducey as he seeks re-election in 2018.

But the small boost in teacher pay and the potential for private school vouchers to siphon money from K-12 public schools are a double-edged sword, giving ammunition to Democrats who will try to hammer the governor on his policies.

Ducey outmaneuvered Democrats who were pushing for a much bigger teacher pay raise than the 2 percent over two years that the Republican-controlled Legislature adopted.

They complained that the governor shut them out of talks and instead turned to fiscal hardliners to enact his K-12 plan and a $1 billion university loan construction program to prevent them from notching a win.

“We actually set up the governor and the Republican caucuses to actually work on things together this year,” Democratic Sen. Martin Quezada said shortly after the Legislature adjourned Wednesday night.

“And we had opportunities to do that, with the (university) bonding proposal, with (welfare), with the teacher pay raise, there were opportunities for all of that to happen — for the governor to get a win with all of those issues, for us to get a win so we voted on things that we support.

“But they made a conscious decision to take a partisan route rather than a bipartisan, working-together type of approach this year,” he said.

Republican House Speaker J.D. Mesnard countered that Democrats did have a seat at the table, a change from previous sessions, even if they felt their proposals weren’t adopted.

“I look forward to doing that more in the future, sometimes it’s going to be left or rights, and I don’t just mean that politically, I mean you have to pick your course and go for it,” Mesnard said. “And so at least hearing each other out and keeping the lines of communication open is critical and I thought we did that pretty well.”

In media interviews and press releases, Ducey touted the budget and other moves on his agenda.

He’s called the bill he signed extending vouchers to all Arizona schoolchildren, with a cap of 30,000 by 2022, a “reform” that gives more choice and involves just 3 percent of the state’s 1.2 million school-aged children.

The voucher expansion, however, is the object of a repeal effort by public school advocates.

The group Save Our Schools Arizona planned to formally take out referendum petitions to seek a voter repeal on Thursday. If the groups collect about 76,000 signatures within 90 days, the law will be placed on hold until voters weigh in in November 2018 — with Ducey likely on the same ballot.

The governor also touts increased K-12 school funding in the budget package he’s said he will sign.

The budget includes required inflation adjustments, plus $34 million in cash for teacher raises, $37 million to high-performing schools, $8 million for expanding all-day kindergarten or literacy programs in low-income schools and $63 million to build new schools.

“Arizona has passed a budget that prioritizes education, boosts teacher pay, and invests in our universities — all without raising taxes on hardworking Arizonans,” Ducey said in a statement after the budget passed last week.

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