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Worst in Class: How Education in Arizona Became an Economic Casualty

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It’s difficult to explain to people outside the region just how “old school” things can still be here in Arizona. In addition to being home to a sheriff known for stunts like bringing back the chain gang, self-styled conservatives dominate the state legislature and have in recent years proposed measures including allowing concealed weapons in bars, eliminating state-funded programs focusing on race, and prohibiting any activities “deemed contradictory to the values of American democracy or Western civilization.” Some in the legislature reject mainstream and widely accepted concepts such as evolution, climate change, and multiculturalism, with at least one prominent figure being described as overtly racist in his associations and anti-immigrant ruminations.

In particular, there’s a leadership cadre at the Capitol who’ve had it in for the state’s educational system for some time now. Spearheaded by Republicans Russell Pearce (Senate Appropriations Committee Chair) and John Kavanagh (House Appropriations Committee Chair), the most recent attempt to manage the state’s massive 2009 budget shortfall of $1.6 billion includes slashing state university budgets by $142 million and K-12 budgets by $133 million this academic year alone, and nearly $1 billion total over the next 17 months. Attempting to reach these figures will likely necessitate furloughs, firings, and hiring freezes at all three state universities, plus potentially dramatic reductions in primary education programs. And next year’s situation may be even worse.

Coming into 2008, Arizona ranked 49th among states in expenditures per pupil. Also at the outset of ’08, there were already attempts to slash educational budgets drastically, including a proposal by Kavanagh (endorsed by Pearce) that “would require universities to charge students at least 40 percent of what it costs to attend the schools,” thus shifting financial aid burdens at the state’s public institutions to the students:

“Kavanagh said if students actually have to put up their own cash, they will ‘respect the courses more.’ But Kavanagh's plan has a more immediate goal. Requiring students to pay more of the cost of their education would decrease the amount of money universities use to provide scholarships. And that, in turn, could reduce the cash they need from the state. ‘I think, all around, it’s good for the students and good for the taxpayers,’ he said.”

The present cuts, signed by new Governor Jan Brewer following Janet Napolitano’s departure to become the head of Homeland Security, need to be viewed in a context whereby the state legislature consistently has manifested hostility toward public infrastructure in general and education in particular. Efforts to restrict access to schools by immigrants, impose English-only instruction, require American Flags in every state-funded classroom, eliminate programs emphasizing race, and curtail activities deemed ideologically un-American have been pervasive in Arizona in recent years. And now we arrive at a juncture where the budget crisis ostensibly is being used as cover to “cannibalize” the state’s education system, quite possibly in an irreparable manner.

One can almost hear the backroom chatter about the state’s universities being “hotbeds of liberalism” and teaching “anti-American ideas.” They’re not that way, of course, yet nearly 2000 students recently did turn out to protest the legislature’s budget plans:

“I’ve got one question: WTF?’ said Tommy Bruce, University of Arizona’s student-body president. ‘Where’s the funding?’ Students reacted loudly to a legislative budget report released earlier this month that laid out $243 million in optional cuts to university funding…. With protest music blaring and chants filling the air, students said the proposed cuts would damage the university system for years to come. Speakers told the crowd that preserving the education system was essential to ensuring that Arizona recovers from the current recession. ‘Education is the solution, not the problem,’ Bruce told a cheering crowd…. Rep. David Schapira, D-Tempe, said damage from deep cuts to education could cripple the state's economic future. ‘We can’t afford to turn a fiscal problem into a generational one,’ he said.”

These views were echoed by John Wright, Arizona Education Association president, who has decried the budget-slashing measure as intentional and malicious:

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“Arizona’s leaders are willing to shoulder the burden of their own financial mismanagement over the years on the backs of our students. This kind of false solution is worse than shortsightedness; it borders on malice. The decision to keep Arizona at the bottom of education funding continues to be a deliberate one.”

The Tucson Citizen editorialized that the cuts would “threaten kids and education,” specifically amounting to “something that probably would wipe out all-day kindergarten, libraries, school nurses, counselors, and much more.” In addition to entire K-12 programs potentially disappearing, the cuts could also lead to the “elimination of most special programs, certainly a great number of activities, and increased class sizes.” Despite the full implications of these cuts, and the voices united in protest against them, alternatives have scarcely even been given consideration, as recent articles indicate:

“Representative Kyrsten Sinema (D-15) led a bipartisan effort last week within the House Appropriations Committee to develop $850 million in options to decrease the budget shortfall. Sinema also sponsored a bipartisan substitute motion that the Committee remain open to alternatives, which passed the Committee 7-4 with both Democratic and Republican support. Committee Chairman Kavanagh voted against the motion -- just days after telling reporters, ‘We’re keeping an open mind.’”

“Kavanagh said that he and most Republicans are unwilling to consider tax hikes, even temporarily, instead of further spending cuts. ‘I’m not going down the tax road until the situation is so dire that there’s no other alternative,’ he said. ‘And I’m not prepared to concede that at this point.’”

“Tough times call for tough measures, and the two principal authors of the budget ‘options plan’ said they welcome alternative cuts if lawmakers find certain ones unacceptable. ‘There’s not much left to cut unless we really want to get draconian,’ said Rep. John Kavanagh, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.”

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Despite Kavanagh’s pretense to having an open mind, his assessment of the lack of urgency to the situation, and the notion that the deep slashes mandated by the 2009 approved budget bill are not draconian enough to thoughtfully consider alternatives, Arizona State University President Michael Crow described just how “dire” the impending cuts really are:

“Our Legislature has failed to live up to its constitutionally mandated responsibility to fund education. Borrowing funds, running a budget deficit (which Arizona is constitutionally allowed to do for one year), and raising taxes are not politically popular. But the alternative will be even less popular -- creating for Arizona a Third World education and economic infrastructure.”

As Crow observes, it’s clear that there are alternatives to slashing funding for education, such as those proposed by former governor Napolitano, including “borrowing, temporary spending cuts, delays in paying some bills, and using money from the state’s reserves.” Ignoring these options, the legislature is now moving to permanently repeal the state’s property tax, which was suspended for three years in 2006 when the state had a surplus but scheduled to return later this year. As Democratic State Senator Rebecca Rios noted:

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Randall Amster, J.D., Ph.D., teaches Peace Studies at Prescott College, and serves as the Executive Director of the Peace & Justice Studies Association. His most recent books include the co-edited volume Building Cultures of Peace: Transdisciplinary (more...)

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Arizona stories.  None of them bad in any way... by shadow dancer on Friday, Feb 6, 2009 at 1:26:32 PM
I graduated from Alhambra HS in 1965. When I got t... by William Whitten on Sunday, Feb 8, 2009 at 7:24:33 AM


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