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A school funding trial years in the making gets underway

A monthlong trial will get underway Tuesday, in which Arizona schools will try to convince a judge that the state is not adequately funding them. Specifically, the schools will argue Arizona has failed to establish minimum adequate facility standards, and then make sure districts stay above those standards.

The language comes from state Supreme Court rulings from the mid-1990s, when justices declared the then-system of financing school construction unconstitutional.

Howard Fischer of Capitol Media Services joins The Show to talk more about what to expect from the case.

What are minimum adequate facility standards?

HOWARD FISCHER: Arizona is supposed to have what they call a general and uniform school system. Now, they're not saying everything has to be equal, but they're saying you have to have the kinds of things necessary to ensure that students can learn. Now, some of that is textbooks, some of that is school buses, you know, some of that is having bathrooms at work so that kids, you know, are in an environment that, that, that works.

The court, that was from the court's ruling in 1994. They told the Legislature, OK, the system we had, which is every school district was responsible for its own, led to a lot of disparities. You had rich districts, in Springerville, they have a dome stadium, they have a dome stadium because they have a power plant. Then you have poor districts in Globe or, or even in south Phoenix where you just don't have the property values. So they left it to the Legislature. The Legislature came up with a couple of funding formulas and then finally came up with this idea of, we will set minimum standards and we will make sure that everyone is, is up to that.

The problem has been, according to the lawsuit that was refiled in 2017, is they haven't funded it and they haven't even set standards that are adequate. So we go back to court ... to find out: What did they do wrong? Did they do something wrong? Does this current school system meet adequacy standards? Does it take more money? Does it take equalization? What does it take?

What are the defendants in the case — state Senate President Warren Petersen and House Speaker Ben Toma — arguing?

FISCHER: A couple of arguments they have. Number one, they'd say it's up to the Legislature to determine what is a minimum adequacy standard, that will fly up to a certain point. I think to the extent that schools are going to come in with evidence of roofs that leak, with bathrooms that don't work with, with, the, the lack of computers in certain circumstances which, you know, this is different than it was 30 years ago. They're also going to say, look, there's plenty of money going in and the schools are just, they didn't quite say wasting it, but that's pretty much what they suggest is they're spending it on other things. And so it's, it's not up to the Legislature to keep filling in to make every school equal. And it's up to the judge now to decide, OK, where is the line when the Supreme Court said you will have a general and uniform school system and the state will be responsible, not the individual districts? What exactly does that mean?

It seems like part of the question is what does general and uniform actually look like in the real world?

FISCHER: Oh, that's always a problem. And when you've got constitutional issues, for example, let's talk about the university system. This constitution says universities shall be as nearly free as practicable. Well, what does that mean? The court wrestled with that years ago and said, well, it's to a certain extent what the Legislature says they can afford. And so it's not like it has the have to be free or in this case that schools have to be absolutely uniform. You're always gonna have differences, you know, what they can afford. You know, one place is different than the other.

The Madison School District, for example, has an arts center. Is that something that every school district has to have? Probably not, but you have to have something that says students can learn.

And that's why we've got this trial is gonna take a month of the schools coming in and saying, here's what we've got, here's the system we have, here's why it doesn't work. And the state saying, oh, it's fine.

And the other thing, the state is pointing out and the, and the lawyer for the legislative leadership is, show me a student who's education has failed because of the lack of these standards. And if you can't show us a student, then no problem. No foul.

What are the possible outcomes here?

FISCHER: Well, what we know from the president said in 1994 is nobody is going to say, here's the system, you have to have courts are very reticent to tell legislatures how to do it. What they can say is this is not constitutional.

Now, as you know, we've mentioned, the Legislature had three or four tries before they finally got it right with the, the current system and that was fine. Until, you know, they stopped funding the current system and they said, well, we need the money for something else. So, from the school's perspective, they'll get a ruling. This is not general and uniform and go back and do it again. From the perspective of the lawmakers who say we're just fine. They'll say no, it doesn't violate the constitutional standards. It may not be equal. Some districts may not like what they've got, but we're not going to force you to do anything.

Is it safe to say that whoever loses this round will appeal and this will ultimately, as previous cases have been, be decided by the state Supreme Court?

FISCHER: Oh, definitely, we, we, we, we are just the beginning of this again, remembering it took us 30 years to get here, you figure, OK, so we get a ruling, let's say later this year from the judge, and then it goes to the Court of Appeals and we'll get some ruling and then we'll go to the Supreme Court because it ultimately has to be up to the justices who are setting precedent for the entire state. You know, this ruling that whatever the judge issues here is binding on the districts that specifically filed suit versus on the entire state. And so you can say, OK, well, but this district didn't sue. So we don't have to do that. So it's going to take a state Supreme Court ruling to say, OK, you, you are meeting the standards or you're not meeting the standards.

So we're, we're in for a year, maybe more of, of, of lots of motion practice, lots of litigation, lots of witnesses each saying something different and it's up to the courts to decide, OK, does what the constitution say? Does it mean that?

KJZZ's The Show transcripts are created on deadline. This text may not be in its final form. The authoritative record of KJZZ's programming is the audio record.

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Mark Brodie is a co-host of The Show, KJZZ’s locally produced news magazine. Since starting at KJZZ in 2002, Brodie has been a host, reporter and producer, including several years covering the Arizona Legislature, based at the Capitol.