Thu, April 02

My Turn: How education became an economic casualty

Recent events suggest that there is a leadership cadre at the State Capitol who have great disdain for our educational system. Spearheaded by Republicans Russell Pearce (Senate Appropriations Committee Chair) and John Kavanagh (House Appropriations Committee Chair), the current plan to manage the state's 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. The present cuts, signed by Gov. Jan Brewer, need to be viewed in a context within which 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 arisen in recent years. And now we arrive at a juncture where the state's budget crisis ostensibly is being used as cover to "cannibalize" the education system, quite possibly in an irreparable manner.

John Wright, Arizona Education Association president, has decried this budget-slashing measure as intentional and malicious: "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." Notwithstanding these concerns, Kavanagh said that the Republican-controlled legislature is unwilling to consider tax hikes, even temporarily. "I'm not going down the tax road until the situation is so dire that there's no other alternative," he said.

In response to Kavanagh's assessment of the lack of urgency to the situation, 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."

A 2007 survey commissioned by the Arizona Board of Regents and implemented by Dr. Fred Solop, professor of Political Science and Director of the Social Research Laboratory at Northern Arizona University, indicates that residents grasp the full dimensions of the issue and would even support a tax increase for education -- a point upon which all three state university presidents have called for a public vote. Among the survey's findings:

• When Arizonans are asked who should be responsible for keeping university education affordable, "state government" is the most popular answer.

• Sixty-one percent of Arizonans think the state should guarantee all qualified students an opportunity for a university education, and 71 percent of these respondents would pay more taxes to support such a guarantee.

• Seventy-four percent of Arizonans think that a state public university education is a good value for the money. Two-thirds support spending increases to improve the three state universities.

• Eighty-three percent of Arizonans think the state legislature should allocate more money to Arizona's public universities.

• Fifty-seven percent of state residents support raising taxes to provide more need-based financial aid to students, and 55 percent support a tax increase to fund new construction at state universities.

Despite strong public support, the education situation here looks bleak as scarce resources are literally drying up and opportunistic politicians are using the financial crisis for ideologically driven purposes. While the nation talks about economic stimulus, in Arizona we're looking at educational retrenchment instead, and the state will likely slide from 49th to 50th in per-pupil funding. One is left to wonder if future generations here will stand any chance of succeeding, financially or otherwise, with the supportive foundations of learning removed from beneath their feet.

As Prescott College Education Professor Dr. Anita Fernandez recently observed, the psychological and perceptual impacts can be as critical as the loss of infrastructure: "The impact on kids is what gets lost in these budget debates -- the disturbingly clear message that is being sent to the children of Arizona is that they are not important. What becomes of children who are told they don't matter, and how do those children contribute to their communities when they grow up?"

We always hear the cliché that it's a dry heat out here, but at the end of the day, the Arizona legislature's shortsighted budget fix is fundamentally all wet.

Randall Amster, J.D., Ph.D., teaches Peace Studies at Prescott College, and is the executive director of the Peace & Justice Studies Association. His most recent book is "Lost in Space: The Criminalization, Globalization, and Urban Ecology of Homelessness" (LFB Scholarly 2008).

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