The Arizona Supreme Court’s decision to throw the education income tax measure off the Nov. 6 ballot has reignited the anger that spurred the #RedForEd teacher walkout this spring.
Supporters of the measure are vowing to vote out lawmakers they feel aren’t committed enough to public education.
They’re focusing much of their efforts on ousting incumbent Republican Gov. Doug Ducey and putting a teacher into the up-for-grabs state superintendent seat. But the Wednesday ruling has intensified scrutiny of candidates’ education plans all the way down the ballot.
Backers of the #InvestInEd measure, also known as Proposition 207, billed the effort as the fastest way to fully restore more than $1 billion in cuts made to education funding since the recession.
It was introduced during the six-day Arizona teacher walkout that closed schools across Arizona in late April. Teachers, parents and supporters canvassed in triple-digit heat for 10 weeks to secure the measure’s spot on the ballot.
“Teachers are still reeling. We’re in shock right now,” Alexis Aguirre, a teacher in the Osborn School District, said Thursday as a group of Prop. 207 supporters protested outside the Arizona Supreme Court.
“All of those days and hours getting signatures and walking to houses with my toddler and my son knocking on doors, and they’re not letting the will of the people decide,” Aguirre said. “They robbed us of that.”
Prop. 207 had the backing of progressive groups — including the Arizona Education Association, the state’s teachers’ union — and many education advocates, but it also produced polarizing discussions over how it proposed to restore education funding.
Supporters cast much of the blame for the court ruling on Ducey, who appointed three of the seven Arizona Supreme Court justices and has strong connections with the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry, which led the Prop. 207 opposition.
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The state’s highest court ruled that a description of Prop. 207 crafted by the measure’s campaign “did not accurately represent the increased tax burden on the affected classes of taxpayers.”
The five-paragraph order also stated that the description “failed to reference the elimination of bracket inflation indexing,” an argument Prop. 207 opponents said would lead to tax increases beyond what the measure’s campaign had touted.
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 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.
Currently, both incomes are taxed at the highest state bracket of 4.54 percent. So, under Arizona’s graduated tax, an individual who makes $750,000 now pays about $33,000 in state income taxes. Under the #InvestInEd proposal, the individual would have paid about $53,000.
The complaint that led to the court’s order alleged the petitions were misleading because they referred to the proposed tax-rate increase as a “percent” increase versus the more accurate “percentage point” increase.
According to that complaint — filed by the Arizonans for Great Schools and Strong Economy group aligned with the Arizona Chamber of Commerce — the tax rate would have seen a 76 and 98 percent increase and not a 3.46 and 4.46 percent increase.
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‘So, so sad’
Supporters of Prop. 207 described the Arizona Supreme Court decision as unprecedented and unfair.
“The courts nitpicked something, (and) that has never happened before,” said Joshua Buckley, chair of the Invest In Education campaign. “We believe the language was clear.”
After the ruling, shock and frustration spread swiftly through social media, including on the Arizona Educators United Facebook group that advanced the #RedForEd movement.
Thursday afternoon, about 100 teachers and supporters wearing red shirts gathered outside the Arizona Supreme Court building near the Capitol to protest the court’s order.
Educators and other supporters had different assessments of how the court’s decision would affect the state’s broader teacher-activism movement. Not all teachers who backed the teacher walkout were in favor of the Invest In Education measure.
“(Teachers) are either depressed and just so, so sad at the way that our politicians and our lawmakers are treating us,” Aguirre, the Osborn teacher, said. “And we have other folks who are enraged and are ready to walk out tomorrow.”
Dylan Wegela, a teacher in the Cartwright School District who helped organize the #RedForEd walkout, said he felt the court’s ruling was “a concerted action to undermine the (#RedForEd) movement and to undermine our kids.”
“I think it’s going to have some repercussions with how teachers respond,” Wegela said. “I personally wouldn’t be surprised if teachers have to walk out again to get the funding that students need.”
Wegela added that whatever activism comes as a result of the court’s ruling is “really up to what teachers want.”
Buckley, the campaign chair for the ballot measure and a Mesa high school teacher, said teachers’ activism should be focused on the November election. The upcoming Legislative session, he said, is likely the next immediate opportunity for restoring some education funding.
“I don’t know that that’s a solution to what’s going on right now,” Buckley said of another teacher walkout.
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‘The case is closed’
Even before the Wednesday ruling, some political analysts believed Democratic gubernatorial candidate David Garcia would have a better-than-usual chance in the general election against Ducey thanks to the #RedForEd teacher walkout.
A poll released in June by NBC News/Marist showed that 26 percent of registered voters in Arizona thought Ducey deserved re-election, with 59 percent of those surveyed saying a person other than Ducey should be governor.
The #RedForEd demonstration followed years of frustration over a perceived lack of urgency on the part of Republican governors and the Republican-led Legislature to address the state’s education funding crisis.
Before the walkout, Ducey had spent two months telling the teachers the state could afford to give them only a 1 percent pay raise.
Days before teachers walked out, he introduced a revised teacher-pay plan based on different economic projections — promising a 20 percent raise without tax increases. The proposal was met with suspicion.
The first installment of Ducey’s #20by2020 plan, which the Legislature passed in May, resulted in $306 million intended for teacher raises and the most significant pay increases for teachers in more than a decade.
Arizona teachers have been among the lowest paid in the nation, according to state and national data.
School finance data obtained from the Arizona Department of Education showed some schools gave their teachers pay bumps averaging as high as $9,000, though the raises varied wildly among the state’s district and charter schools.
In the months since the walkout, voters have called Ducey’s professed dedication to funding public schools disingenuous. Garcia, the other choice, is a longtime educator and education policy expert.
But there are different opinions as to how that will play out at the ballot box on Nov. 6.
“I think most people right now think, ‘Oh, it’s going to be great for Democrats because they can use this anger and they’ll have this narrative about the court and about Ducey and the politics of that,'” longtime Republican strategist Chuck Coughlin said.
“But the age-old rule in politics is, ‘If you’re explaining, you’re losing,’ ” he said. “When you have a ballot issue, all you have to say is, ‘I support it. My opponent doesn’t.’ They don’t have that anymore, so in my view, they’re explaining, not selling.”
Coughlin said he expected the governor to stay on-message in the coming weeks, emphasizing the raise he already provided and committing to increasing education funding if the economy improves.
“My instinct is he’s so conservative he’ll say, ‘I’m not going to do destabilizing tax increases that will destroy our future economic growth,’ ” Coughlin said. “So I think it’s a net loss for the Democrats, and it’s a big help to the governor and his team not to have this on the ballot.”
Ducey was unavailable for comment due to funeral events for the late Sen. John McCain in Phoenix and Washington, D.C. Both he and Garcia halted campaign activity until after McCain’s burial.
But a campaign spokesman for the governor said the language of Prop. 207 “deliberately misled Arizonans” and that education funding would remain a priority for Ducey if he wins re-election.
“The case is closed on this measure — the Supreme Court found the language to be deceptive,” J.P. Twist, the spokesman, said in a statement. “For Governor Ducey, his commitment to education funding will continue in a second term after having already made historic investments totaling $2.7 billion.”
The $2.7 billion figure Twist cited includes more than $1.5 billion in inflation and growth funding the state is legally required to pay. Those required increases account for just under 60 percent of Ducey’s calculation.
‘Ready to have that conversation’
Garcia said that “like a lot of Arizonans and a lot of educators,” he felt “angry and cheated not to have the opportunity to have my voice and vote heard on Invest in Ed.”
He called the measure’s removal from the ballot “really disappointing and “really problematic,” saying Arizonans who support increased funding must now “turn our attention to changing leadership and putting people in office who are ready to invest in public schools.”
Garcia believes he should be one of them. A product of Arizona public schools, he has built his campaign around improving the education system, repeatedly questioning Ducey’s commitment to public-school teachers and students.
A national surge in progressive activism spurred by contentious Trump administration decisions also could help Garcia, strategists say.
“Although there have been some distractions and Republicans would like to talk about other issues, Arizonans want to talk about education,” Garcia said. “We’re ready to have that conversation.”
Asked about the public backlash to the Supreme Court’s decision, he said he didn’t expect it to give him an additional edge in the race because many voters who are passionate about public education already support him.
He instead described the verdict as a “new wrinkle” that will force him to lean on the other funding sources outlined in his education plan, such as rolling back universal school vouchers and closing corporate tax loopholes.
“We’re going to work with the educators to restore funding one way or another,” he said – assuming he makes it to the Governor’s Office.
“We are not going to be in a position to influence any policy until we win,” he said. “We’ve got to turn our attention to electoral energy now.”
Republic reporter Philip Athey contributed to this article.
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