Column: School disruption impacts Arizona’s prospects

A report from scientists at the University of Copenhagen last week found that the Greenland Shark is the oldest known living vertebrate, with several identified as more than 200 years old. At least one of the dead-eyed creatures has lived more than 400 years. By that standard, human life is quite fleeting.

The shark has a simple life: eat, swim, mate and survive until it dies—usually of old age, because it has no natural enemies. Human life is short, but far more complex.

When we’re young, we may think that fun is the most important aspect of life. As we age, it might be career and money. If we pair off, love may seem most important. When we have children, family takes priority. If we live long enough, we may become philosophical or spiritual, concerned with future generations or community. Those who live above the standards of a shark’s survival drive tend to want to leave a legacy behind and make a difference by helping others.

Our country is younger than the oldest Greenland shark. It was a democratic experiment that showed the world what a free country can be. The founders recognized that the Constitution created a legacy that could inspire people in other nations to strive for a better life.

Arizona was one of the last states to join the union, and it was a rough part of the West that still has issues related to its start as a hardscrabble agricultural, ranching and mining state. While it has grown beyond those humble beginnings, times are changing more rapidly that the state’s leaders recognize.

Water is becoming scarcer, the cost of ranching is becoming dearer and coal mines will eventually become a thing of the past, just as most copper mines are today. Real estate has been a major industry, but no place can build its way out of a decline, especially if it is already living on borrowed time by using up its water supplies faster than they can be replenished. Tourism has become an important industry, along with call centers, health and insurance.

Some think attracting more retirees is the answer to the future, but Millennials have already surpassed Baby Boomers in numbers. Young people will not stay without jobs that pay a living wage. Some are forced to leave to earn enough to pay back costly student loans, especially since state tuition is no longer affordable for the average family.

I believe the most important issue for Arizona now and far into the future is restoring public school and state college funding. Nothing will have a greater impact on the state’s ability to adapt to changing times. Poverty will remain a problem, but the disinvestment of state funds in education at all levels threatens to make it a much greater one.

The facts are grim. Last week Arizona was ranked the fourth worst state for public school education by WalletHub. The Grand Canyon Institute found that Arizona spends 40 percent more on private prisons than state universities each year. Gov. Ducey convinced voters to buy the educational snake oil of Proposition 123, which will sell off state lands to pay public schools what they were already owed in withheld funds over a 10-year period. Nothing additional has been pledged.

“We want to relocate to a state that’s has the fourth worst public schools in the country and a poorly educated populace!” said no CEO of a major or minor corporation ever. The many golf courses and lovely winter climate can’t make up for the education deficit.

Last week I attended a forum co-sponsored by the Northern AZ Interfaith Council and Prescott College Social Justice Human Rights Program. In it, teachers, parents and administrators talked about the strains of too little school funding. The moderators then asked Legislative District 1 candidates for House and Senate a series of questions.

According to an Aug. 4 story in The Washington Post, several national studies cite the best way to improve school quality is by hiring and retaining good teachers, not classroom “disruption.” Every speaker at the forum cited low salaries, not “school choice” or “vouchers” as the key problem. They are a result of laws that redirect funds to charter schools and Empowerment Scholarship Accounts (tax money for private schools) and funding cuts to give corporations big tax breaks.

Tammy Turner, a teacher and parent in the Humboldt school district, told the crowd she was one of the 85 percent of parents with children in district public schools. Lack of respect and inadequate pay causes its teachers to leave every semester, many to other states, she said. An average of 58 teachers have left annually for the past three years.

All of the candidates pledged to support education. The truth, though, is that as long as most are members of the American Legislative Exchange Council, which has made privatizing education a priority, public schools will get short shrift.

Anyone who wants to see how the incumbents voted on educational issues can go to azchildren.org and see AZ Schools Now ratings—13 percent for both incumbents, Noel Campbell running for the House and Karen Fann for the Senate.

Sharks have to keep swimming, or they will die. Public schools have to keep teaching students, even though they are hemorrhaging teachers. They’re surviving, but the disruption to funding ultimately has been damaging to the state. That’s the legislature’s legacy.

Toni Denis is a freelance journalist, a Prescott resident and chairwoman of the Democratic Women of the Prescott Area. Her views are her own and she does not represent any group.