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Education Will Be Key Issue At Arizona Capitol — Again

The first session of the 54th Arizona Legislature begins Monday with Gov. Doug Ducey giving his State of the State address. Education is again expected to take center stage at the Capitol.

Funding

After last year’s #RedForEd teacher strike, lawmakers approved Ducey's plan to boost average teacher pay by 20 percent by 2020 over 2016 levels.

But that law did not provide additional dollars specifically for salary hikes for non-teaching staff. And questions — and a lawsuit — remain about whether the state is meeting its legal obligations to provide full funding, not only for classroom activities, but also the capital needs for things like building construction and repairs.

Lawmakers did agree last year to renew the current 0.6 cent sales tax for education beyond its current 2020 expiration date. But, last year, voters approved a ban on new sales taxes on services — and the renewal is, in fact, a new tax. It's also unclear whether currently taxed services, like restaurants, will be exempt, further cutting into revenues.

Sen. Sylvia Allen, R-Snowflake, who chairs the Senate Education Committee, is looking at a new ballot measure that would not just clarify that issue but add another 0.4 cents, boosting funding for education by an additional $400 million a year.

School Safety

Ducey attempted to get lawmakers to approve a comprehensive plan last year that he said would prevent mass shootings, centering on a proposal to let judges take guns from certain people considered "dangerous.''

That plan, dubbed Severe Threat Order of Protection, would set up procedures to allow not just police, but family members and others to seek a court order to have law enforcement take an individual's weapons while they are locked up for up to 21 days for mental evaluation. Ducey contends that kind of law could have prevented some of the mass shootings that have occurred elsewhere.

But lawmakers watered down the plan before finally killing it outright, with objections to not just to taking away weapons, but locking up people against their will for a psychological evaluation.

Ducey is expected to make another run at the issue. Some lawmakers have considered going in the opposite direction, following Florida's lead where legislators voted to allow school boards to let teachers, with proper training, be armed.

Other Issues

One bill by Rep. Kelly Townsend, R-Mesa, would require the attorney general to investigate and punish teachers who violate the laws on political activities. Townsend also wants to make it illegal for school administrators to close a school in the event of a strike, regardless of whether they believe there will be sufficient staff on hand.

Rep. Mark Finchem, R-Oro Valley, wants the state Board of Education to craft a code of ethics for teachers, prohibiting them from not just endorsing candidates or commenting on legislation, but from introducing controversial issues that are not germane to the current course or topic.

There is also some pressure on lawmakers to revisit the statutes that allow for-profit entities to operate charter schools amid questions of whether there needs to be better financial and academic oversight for these operations, which are technically public schools receiving state aid.

It also remains to be seen whether supporters for the voucher program — which provides state tax dollars for students to attend private and parochial schools — will be back this session, with a new plan following the defeat at the November elections, where a proposal to remove eligibility restrictions was defeated.

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Claire Caulfield first joined KJZZ as an intern in 2015 and now wakes up before the sun to produce and report for Morning Edition. She graduated from the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication in 2017 and covered education policy in the nation's capital, election night in New York City and Native American issues for Cronkite News/ Arizona PBS. Before joining the Morning Edition team, she also worked on a documentary about rap music in the deep South and directed a film on drinking-water quality in the United States.On the weekends, you can find Claire flying her photography drone or working her way through the Pulitzer Prize book list.