GOP Majority Stymies Schools In Two Ways

October 2, 2016

Any breakthroughs for public schools in the Arizona Legislature will take more than on-again, off-again support from a moderate Republican or two.

The first hurdle, no surprise, is the voting pattern of legislators. The likelihood, or unlikelihood, that legislators go along with the wishes of public schools correlates strongly with the income, race/ethnicity, and political makeup of the districts they represent.

In short, this means Democrats vote in accord with the interests of public schools. Republicans, as a general rule, vote against them. The details are presented later in this article.

The outcomes on the most hotly contested legislation hinge to a degree on judgments made by individual legislators. Public-school advocates pin their hopes on a small subset of Republicans voting their conscience rather than party allegiance on bills that most threaten public education.

Indeed, a few courageous legislators — particularly in the House — have been instrumental in turning back the worst of the legislation.

For this other purpose, it matters not a whit whether the Republicans are moderates or hard-liners.

Unfortunately, their ad hoc support does not diminish the second hurdle. For this other purpose, it matters not a whit whether the Republicans are moderates or hard-liners. The only thing that matters is whether there is an “R” or “D” after his or her name.

This second hurdle, much more hidden to the public than the first, is the extensive power of legislative committees and their chairmen.

As the majority party in each chamber, Republicans claim the chairmanship and majority membership on all committees, including the all-important Rules committees, and thereby gain an absolute stranglehold on which legislation comes to the floor for a vote.

The final notation on virtually all bills introduced by Democrats on behalf of public schools or to level the playing field in some other way says either “Held in Rules” or “Held in Rules and [some other committee].”

Minority Democratic members of both the Senate and House Rules committees say that bills introduced by Democrats don’t even make it to a vote by the Rules committees, much less be forwarded to the floor.  They say the only bills that make it to the Rules Committee agendas are those that Republicans intend to see passed.

The cohesion is best seen in the Senate, where outgoing Senate President Andy Biggs also chaired the Rules Committee.

. . . the sum total of one education bill introduced by a Democrat made it out of committee onto the floor.

In the last two legislative sessions (2015 and 2016), by Bringing Up Arizona’s count, the sum total of one education bill introduced by a Democrat made it out of committee onto the floor. Even that one bill, a weighty matter dealing with physical education in the schools, died when unrelated amendments were piled on.

Here is Bringing Up Arizona’s scorecard of education bills introduced in the last two sessions:

Senate Bills Republican Sponsored Democrat Sponsored Bipartisan
Bills Introduced 21 22 4
Held in Committee 6 21 0
Sent to the Floor 15 1 4
House Bills Republican Sponsored Democrat Sponsored Bipartisan
Bills Introduced 36 27 6
Held in Committee 14 27 5
Sent to the Floor 22 0 1
Total Education Bills Republican Sponsored Democrat Sponsored Bipartisan
Bills Introduced 57 49 10
Held in Committee 20 48 5
Sent to the Floor 37 1 5
% Sent to the Floor 65% 2% 50%

In a state that spends less than virtually anywhere else on K-12 education while too many of our schoolchildren struggle, the significance of this cannot be ignored. Our Legislature is only voting on a subset of potential education legislation, that being bills sponsored by and of interest to Republicans and their constituents.

There is one and only one way around this second hurdle.  Voters would have to elect enough Democrats to flip the majority from one party to another, as much as a reach as that might be.  Going into the 2016 general election, Republicans have a 36-24 advantage in the House and an 18-12 advantage in the Senate.

Until such a day comes, Democrats are reduced to fending off the more questionable Republican initiatives, first in committee and then on the floor of the House or Senate.

The Friends of Arizona School Boards Association (ASBA) recently released a list of 10 important school bills that it either lobbied for or against in 2015. Perhaps not surprising given that the sponsors were always Republican, the ASBA almost always opposed the legislation (8 out of the 10 bills) as being harmful to the interests of public schools. The Friends report can be found here.

The report lists how each legislator voted on the 10 pieces of legislation in the House and of the 10, the nine that were voted on in the Senate. It stopped short, however, from compiling the results into a “friendliness to public schools” index or something similar. After all, ASBA must continue to court these politicians as best it can.

Bringing Up Arizona, however, has no reason to hold back. See how each legislator ranked.

The record shows Democratic legislators routinely supported the ASBA. A few Democratic legislators fell into line on 100 percent of its recommendations. Many others were in accord on all but one.

By stark comparison, the record shows all but a few Republicans were equally and routinely opposed. Many differed with the ASBA on all but one or two of its recommendations. The usual exceptions were the two bills that ASBA supported.

There’s a disconnect in this relationship that . . . should be of concern to the entire state.

The chairpersons of the House and Senate education committees, Paul Boyer and Sylvia Allen, voted in accord with the Arizona School Boards Association on only 20 percent of the bills. There’s a disconnect in this relationship that – one way or another – should be of concern to the entire state.

The differences among legislators in their support or lack thereof for ASBA correspond to differences in the legislative districts they represent.

The lower the income, the higher the percentage of minority residents and students, the higher the percentage of registered Democrats, the more likely its representatives are to support ASBA and its constituent school districts.

The higher the income, the higher the percentage of white residents and students, the higher the percentage of registered Republicans, the more likely its representatives are to oppose ASBA and its constituent school districts.

Let’s not mince words about the legislative divide on public education. The record clearly shows a vote for Democrats becomes a vote for public schools. A vote for Republicans turns into, in one or both of the ways described above, a vote against them.

Other recent election coverage from Bringing Up Arizona:

School-Choice Group Seeks To Impact Election

10 Primary Races Will Bear on Public Education

Schools Win Some, Lose Some