Possible desegregation fund cuts could cost schools millions

SB 1174 passed in a vote six to four in the Senate Appropriations Committee on Jan. 31, bringing the bill a step closer to being reviewed by the state Senate and finally the Arizona House of Representatives. (Nicole Neri/DD)

Eighteen school districts in Arizona, including Phoenix Union High School, may lose over $200 million in funding if legislation stripping desegregation funding comes into full effect in the near future.

On Jan. 31, Arizona Senate Bill 1174, sponsored by Sen. Debbie Lesko, R-Peoria, passed in a vote of six to four in the Senate Appropriations Committee. The bill would require desegregation funds levied by the districts to be voter-approved starting in the fiscal year 2019-2020.

Voters have not had the option to weigh in on desegregation funding in the past. Now the desegregation funding bill 1174 has passed the committee, the next step is evaluation on constitutionality by the Rules Committee. The bill would then have to pass the state Senate and ultimately the Arizona House of Representatives for the voting amendments to officially take effect.

The potential monetary loss for school districts and gain for taxpayers would be a result of the complex and controversial debate surrounding desegregation funding, a reverberation of the milestone decision of Brown v. Board of Education. The implementation of mandated tax levying for desegregation funding in Arizona, not unlike other states, was a result of complaints of inequity directed at various school districts in the late 20th century.

Today’s desegregation supporters affirm its main purpose is still bolstering success among underprivileged students. In Arizona, this target demographic is comprised of minority students and beginning English learners.

The Arizona districts use taxpayers’ money for developments such as affirmative action hiring processes, acquisition programs for English learners, magnet programs and dynamic extracurriculars.

Phoenix Union could see cuts

The programs funded have seen success. For example, Phoenix Union District’s Carl Hayden Community High School 2004 robotics team, which was comprised of four Mexican immigrants, won a competition despite being up against prestigious universities such as Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The victory put a spotlight on the Phoenix high school, spawning a major motion picture starring George Lopez.

Dr. Chad Gestson, superintendent of Phoenix Union High School District, which receives $55.8 million in desegregation funds, said the funds are integral to student success.

“Funds are not obsolete,” Gestson said. “The programs and schools were established as a result of the court order are still relevant. Equity issues in education still exist today.”

The call to interfere with funding has been fraught with concerns from many school communities who foresee thousands of teacher job losses, school closings and a dead-end for sustained opportunity equity for struggling students. The Arizona School Boards Association advocated in the days leading up to the recent committee vote for community members to contact legislators to ensure civil rights are not at the discretion of the ballot.

Gestson said if the funding was phased out the effects would result in numerous cuts, and Phoenix Union would have to close multiple schools.

“We would be forced to cancel numerous programs. Hundreds of teachers and staff would lose their jobs,” Gestson said. “Counseling and social services would be cut drastically. Club and sports offerings would be reduced significantly. Ultimately, dropout rates would increase, graduation rates would decrease, and college-going rates would be impacted.”

Effects beyond Phoenix

Proponents of the bill say the funding has a significant effect on graduation rates. Jacob Boyle, the Holbrook Unified School District business manager, whose district receives $2.5 million in desegregation funds annually, said the district’s graduation rate exceeds the state average by 20 percent. The funding is used in various programs in the district, including professional teacher development, ensuring smaller class sizes and assistance to language minorities, mostly comprised of Native American and Hispanic students, to close the achievement gap.

“The programs implemented have an on-going cost to the district of more than $2,000,000 annually,” Boyle said. “Without the spending authority under the desegregation program, these programs would necessarily discontinue and the issues that resulted in the initial complaint would likely resurface.”

Some say funding is unfair

Although the provision of desegregation funding was well-intentioned, some argue it has grown archaic and is unfair to the 215 districts do not receive the funding. Opponents argue districts able to levy local property taxes without voters’ approval are relics of civil-rights mandates in some cases are decades old.

“The school districts next to Phoenix Union High School District, they’re at a disadvantage because Phoenix Union is getting an extra $2,100 per student. This means they can pay their teachers more. This just isn’t fair,” Sen. Lesko said in a hearing last year, according to the Arizona Republic.

Concerns on distribution of funds

Controversy also surrounds how desegregation dollars are being spent in the districts that receive them, and the validity of their effectiveness.

Travis Zander, the executive director of finance for the Agua Fria Union High School District rejected statements funds are no longer necessary for the districts. The district receives the least amount of desegregation funds out of the 18 districts at $900,000.

“They need to come out to the schools and see what the funding is actually being used for,” he said. “I think it’s being used for valid purposes and it is helping schools maintain compliance with the Office of Civil Rights.” He argued that schools should be evaluated on a case by case basis.

Clarification: February 8, 2017

An earlier version of the story stated the bill was to go through the Arizona House of Representatives and then through the state Senate. The bill will actually go to the Senate first and then to the Arizona House of Representatives.

Contact the reporter Brielle.Ashford@asu.edu.