03/08/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

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

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 2,000 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:

"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."

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:

"We're going to eliminate $258 million but going to sit here today and say we don't have $100 million for public education. It's B.S. And it boils down to where are your priorities. And I will say that public education has never been a priority for a majority of folks in the Legislature, even when times were good."

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 key findings:

• Arizonans rate "improving the affordability of universities" as second among nine issues presented, just behind "creating safe communities" and ahead of "making health care affordable."

• "Students who get degrees from universities" are believed to be the greatest beneficiaries of university education, followed by "employers" and "communities where universities are located."

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

• "High quality educational programs" and "accessible to students of all backgrounds" are the phrases that Arizonans say most closely describe the state's public universities.

• 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 is grim here in the desert right now -- scarce resources are literally drying up, and opportunistic politicians are using the financial crisis for ideologically-driven purposes. While the nation talks about stimulus, in Arizona we're looking at retrenchment instead. The way things are going, the state could slide from 49th to 50th in its educational outlays, leaving it at the bottom of the class in a critically-important category. One is left to wonder if future generations in the southwest 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. They are not important enough for schools to provide basic supplies like paper and pens anymore; and they are not important enough for their classrooms to be heated or cooled because their schools can't afford the utility bills. So what becomes of children who are told they don't matter, and how do those children contribute to their communities when they grow up?"

They say 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.