Republicans like to say "education is not about the money," and that may be true to a point; but when you get down to the marrow, it is about the frickin' money, and the results here are predictable. For K-12 Arizona consistently ranks 40th or lower in nearly every performance category—graduation rates, teacher training, classroom spending, test results, and college and job preparation. The poor performance numbers ripple out into society at large, since we're not attracting high-value industries that demand an educated workforce.
In addition to reduced state funding, some K-12 schools find themselves in districts that include retirement havens, where residents historically turn out in droves to vote down budget overrides, the argument being, "I put my child through school in Michigan, why should I pay here?" Twelve of 36 school bond elections failed in November, so a district like Dysart, which has the misfortune of being near Sun City, had to lay off 143 teachers. Mind-boggingly, the dunderheads who voted against the override because they have no children here don't see why it benefits them to have good schools in the community—and don't get the meaning of "citizen."
For public education, the one-two punch of less state funding and failed budget overrides, in the face of increasing student populations, means districts are barely hanging on. Combine that with the legislature's giveaways to charter schools, and the GOP's goal is all too clear: privatized education. Also, the constant and very deep cuts to higher ed, including Arizona State, the largest university in the nation, have resulted in higher tuitions and increased corporate funding—making college less affordable to all but the wealthy and giving private industry more leverage in curriculum design.
More people are speaking out, many of them educators. I mean, really, what are they supposed to say when their profession is attacked and their budgets are dismantled year after year? "Thank you sir, stick it to us again!" Are responsible university presidents and district superintendents not supposed to inform the community about the effects of the legislature's dick moves? But now any such criticism or perhaps even discussion is about to be outlawed.
Head below the fold for more on this story.
When Republican Doug Ducey ran for governor last year, he didn't say he would continue and maybe even increase the massive cuts to schools and universities. Actually, he never said much about anything—a campaign full of balloons, lapel pins and puppy-dog rhetoric that sounded appealing to many but lacked substance. Shortly after Ducey was elected and announced his education plan, however, the universities braced for another $75 million cut, which is what he suggested (while increasing prison funding). Well, he eventually went further, cutting the universities $99 million and eliminating almost all community college funding!
Public schools did somewhat better ... somewhat. Gov. Ducey and his GOP cronies have been patting themselves on the back because they didn't cut K-12 even more this year. However, they're only able to say that because they redefined "classroom spending," because they don't factor in inflation and because they ended two revenue streams to schools and moved the money into the general appropriation: Rob Peter to pay Paul. Also, last year a judge ruled that the legislature had shortchanged school districts $317 million during the recession, money they are owed. Gov. Ducey and the GOP-dominated legislature have refused to comply with the ruling and the case is stuck in court. The result is that most district funding is flat, when Arizona is already far behind and some schools are struggling just to keep the doors open—great people asked to do more and more with less and less, every year.
The public response has been encouraging. When the GOP budget was first proposed, nearly 1,000 parents, teachers and children protested at the Capitol in Phoenix. MSM editorials, even in conservative papers, have been near unanimous in slamming the education cuts. Even members of Gov. Ducey's party believe the gooberheaded legislature has gone too far—a former GOP Speaker of the House saying, "We can't cut our way to excellence." Nearly every school board meeting these days is packed, filled with parents and students wondering what's happening to their schools. Last night's meeting in Peoria, where the district is considering a four-day week, drew an angry standing-room-only crowd, and was covered by every local newspaper and TV station.
Some of the most vocal critics of Ducey's education policy have been school board members, district superintendents and teachers, which does not please the governor. Early on, when his budget was being debated, 233 superintendents signed and sent a letter to the legislature asking them to stop their boneheaded budget slashing. After Ducey's draconian budget passed, Dr. Michael Cowan, superintendent of Mesa School District, the largest in the state, sent an email to teachers and parents that was critical of the governor's plan. Ducey's response was swift: his "dark money" backers (Koch of course), with the governor's knowledge, organized a robocall campaign to smear Dr. Cowan. The message to school employees was clear: shut up or we'll shut you up.
Well, they did not shut up. Superintendents and education associations, caught in a budget bind, have to explain to their teachers, parents and students why people are fired, why programs are axed, why school facilities can't be repaired let alone improved. For their part, teachers write letters to the editor, protest publicly and continue to speak out about increasing class sizes, stagnant pay and buying supplies with their own money.
Finally, the legislature acted this week! But not in a good way. See, when a problem presents itself here, our elected officials don't address the problem, they shut down criticism of the problem. Problem solved! Heh, when an annual study of incarceration that was required by the state showed that private prisons are more costly and less effective than the public variety, the legislature didn't try to fix the prisons—no, they voted to terminate the study! Similarly, this time they're not addressing our long list of education woes, they're silencing the voices that mention the woes.
SB 1172, which passed the House this week, doesn't do a damn thing to help schools, but it does make it illegal for education officials, including superintendents, principals and teachers, to speak for or against bills, plans or citizen referenda that affect their funding, that affect their ability to do their job. Will politicians put the same limits on police and firefighters? No, but:
The House gave initial approval Thursday to a bill with a provision blocking school or charter school employees from speaking or distributing information in an official capacity to influence an election. It now awaits a formal vote.
"This bill is basically putting a gag order on school officials when it comes to providing any kind of information that is factual to stakeholders." ... The provision would prevent school officials from speaking about issues even when they directly affect school funding, [school board representative] Vega said. "We wouldn't be able to provide information on what programs would be cut."
But Arizonans should take heart, because at school board meetings, in editorials, and in communications to parents you'll hear the same tune: We can change the makeup of the legislature—VOTE! Indeed, the assault on schools has provoked and engaged the general public as much as anything lately.
So it should come as no surprise that voter suppression bills are next up.
UPDATE: SB 1172 did not pass the legislature this session! As a result of pressure from many groups, the bill did not have enough support for a full Senate vote.