Academic journal article Journal of Law and Education

Building on Judicial Intervention: The Redesign of School Facilities Funding in Arizona

Academic journal article Journal of Law and Education

Building on Judicial Intervention: The Redesign of School Facilities Funding in Arizona

Article excerpt


In 1991, property-poor Arizona school districts along with parents and students in those districts filed a lawsuit which claimed that the state's method of funding capital expenditures for schools violated the education clause of the state constitution. In 1994, the Arizona Supreme Court agreed and held that the state's capital funding for public education did not provide a "general and uniform" system of common schools, as required by the Arizona constitution.1 Over the next four years, an iterative process of decision making, in which the legislature and governor enacted new laws and the state Supreme Court analyzed those laws in light of constitutional requirements, led to agreement on a new capital funding system for the schools. The court interpreted the state constitution to require a funding system that would provide "adequate" school facilities and defined adequate facilities as those that would enable students to meet the state's student competency standards.

In the course of developing a constitutional capital funding system, the legislature and governor shifted primary responsibility for funding school construction and renovation away from local districts, with their heavy reliance on local property taxes, to the state. Plaintiff districts applauded this rare de-emphasis on property taxes, but property-rich districts feared the implications of a potential loss of local control. By now, however, skepticism has evaporated as the state, through its innovative School Facilities Board, has funded many construction and renewal projects, as well as thousands of "deficiency correction" projects, in all types of school districts.

The Arizona Supreme Court's capital funding decision triggered an unusual and potentially highly significant form of public engagement. The State Department of Education, in 1995, convened a three-day Education Finance Summit, which included a broad representation of both legislators and other stakeholders and helped propel the change to come. This Summit is the only instance in the nation to date of a state-initiated public dialogue focused specifically on how to re-design a State's education finance system. However, public engagement since the Summit has been minimal. Nonetheless, with strong support from the governor and business groups, the State's voters approved an increase in the sales tax-from 5% to 5.6%-targeted to education in the November 2000 election.

Since then, the legislature has reduced funding for the School Facilities Board, which has led to compliance proceedings and additional court decisions against the State. Meanwhile, new plaintiffs have filed separate lawsuits on behalf of English language learners (ELL) and "at-risk" students, seeking to extend the courts' adequacy approach for capital funding to programs for these students.


For over a decade, Arizona's population has been expanding dramatically, and that growth is likely to continue for the foreseeable future. Arizona ranks second in the nation in the rate of its population growth, which increased 40% from 3.7 million to 5.1 million residents between 1990 and 2000. In the Phoenix area alone, the general population is increasing by about 100,000 each year; one suburban school district had 13,000 residents in 1990 and nearly 140,000 by 2000. Statewide, public school enrollment increased 44%.2

Although school construction increased significantly in the 1990s in response to these population pressures, it could not keep pace. Growth in the student enrollment was highest in suburban school districts, but some urban and rural districts with low assessed property values also experienced growth that outstripped the capacity of their school facilities. Some districts were overwhelmed by the combination of explosive growth and up to a three-year lag in bringing new property onto the tax roles, due to certain property tax regulations. …

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