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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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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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