In a stunning development that short-circuited a debate that was shaping the midterm elections in a competitive state, the Arizona Supreme Court struck down a November ballot initiative designed to increase taxes on the wealthiest citizens and devote the proceeds ($690 million annually) to public education. The initiative, killed on highly technical grounds, was the product of the teacher protests and strikes in the spring, and basically offered a specific revenue source for funding promises that were made by Republican governor Doug Ducey and state legislators to end the teachers’ strike.
As the Arizona Republic describes it, Proposition 207 (better known as the Invest in Education Act) was reasonably simple:
Prop. 207 would have raised income-tax rates by 3.46 percentage points to 8 percent on individuals who earn more than $250,000 or households that earn more than $500,000. It also would have raised individual rates by 4.46 percentage points to 9 percent for individuals who earn more than $500,000 and households that earn more than $1 million.
The rationale for the initiative was even clearer, as the New York Times observed:
Proponents of the tax initiative said it would have secured the funds necessary to raise teacher salaries 20 percent by 2020 — a promise the governor has made — and would have provided more money for school support staff raises, full-day kindergarten and other needs.
But the details of the initiative spelled out future tax rates in a way that seemed to ignore a recent move by the state to index tax rates for inflation, and a majority of the Court (the exact vote is not yet known) seized on that to suggest that it was misleading — along with the use of the word percent rather than percentage point to describe the boost in tax rates.
Considering the rare, massive attention the initiative was already receiving and would continue to receive until Election Day, the odds of a significant number of voters misunderstanding it was limited, to say the least. And supporters of Proposition 207 concluded a partisan fix was in:
David Lujan, treasurer for the Prop. 207 campaign, told The Arizona Republic that the measure’s disqualification is “completely unprecedented” and is “reversing the work of thousands of people in Arizona who collected signatures to put it on the ballot.”
Most Republicans and business groups are hailing the decision as keeping Arizona voters from doing something that would have alienated business investments in the state. Much of the discussion seemed to assume that Proposition 207 was headed for victory. A June poll showed that 65 percent of Arizonans, including 43 percent of Republicans, favored the idea.
An added factor in the reaction to the decision is that GOP-controlled legislature recently gave Ducey the power to expand the size of the Supreme Court from five to seven judges, giving him two additional appointments. His general-election opponent, education professor David Garcia (who registered a solid primary win earlier this week), said “Ducey had ‘stacked’ the state’s highest court, leading it to shoot down Prop. 207.” State election campaigns were already going to focus heavily on education policy and spending. The Court’s action will make that focus even more intense.
There remains a second high-profile education initiative on the Arizona ballot, Proposition 305, aimed at stopping enactment of a bill expanding eligibility for the state’s Empowerment Scholarship Accounts (basically school vouchers going directly to parents) from students with disabilities to everyone. As I explained recently, this is a big deal nationally:
The new law caps the number of ESA beneficiaries, but firmly plants the idea that parents can and should directly receive education funding and make a largely unconditional decision about where to spend it, at the expense of public schools. It’s the most aggressive step any state has taken to extend the national GOP’s efforts (strongly supported by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos) to bypass schools with “backpack” funding that can follow kids wherever their parents choose to send them. The virtually complete lack of accountability for the educational results these private school (and homeschool) subsidies produce is another crucial feature of Arizona’s system.
The silver lining for education advocates in the Supreme Court’s action on Proposition 207 is that the voucher initiative may now get the attention it deserves. And in general, education will be on the ballot in this pivotal state from top to bottom.