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February 2, 2009

Phoenix, AZ – Having agreed on 1.6 billion dollars in budget cuts for the current year, Arizona lawmakers are setting their sights on next fiscal year's expected three billion shortfall, and public schools face another big reduction.

K-12 schools were cut by more than 100-million dollars just last week for this fiscal year, but could be slashed another 800-million for the year starting July 1st. Proponents of budget-cutting say the state is simply spending too much, but Arizona Education Association president John Wright says the problem is an unstable tax system.

"We rely so heavily on a sales tax that Arizona is much more vulnerable to an economic downturn than other states that have a better balance of income and property taxes. People stop spending at a much faster rate than they stop earning or than the value of their property drops."

A Tax Foundation study last August put Arizona 41st among the 50 states in relative tax burden, while the state ranks dead last in per-pupil spending. In the past four years, lawmakers have cut income taxes and eliminated statewide property taxes.

Some Arizona lawmakers justify cutting education by contending there's no link between education spending and student achievement. But Wright disagrees, citing his former home state as an example.

"Connecticut is consistently in the top five states for per-pupil spending, Connecticut consistently is in the top five states for teacher salaries, and Connecticut is consistently in the top five states for student achievement."

Wright says Arizona teachers and staff are doing heroic work with minimal resources, as students score at or slightly above average in national testing.

He says the state anticipates receiving at least a half-billion dollars from the federal stimulus bill moving through Congress, which will help.

"There should be money available for infrastructure, for school renewal and construction. There should be additional money available through some of the title programs that especially help at-risk students and students in poverty, as well as some support for teacher quality."

But Wright cautions that the federal dollars should be viewed as supplemental, and not a replacement for adequate state financial support for schools.

Doug Ramsey, Public News Service - AZ