Prescott offers much in the way of a pleasant climate, clean air, miles of open countryside for hiking and biking and a friendly population. Ironically, none of these attractive assets alone are likely to persuade businesses to move here. A retirement population yes, along with a thriving residential drug rehabilitation industry. These are already here and are likely to grow as our population ages and the opioid epidemic grows.
There is, however, something absent in the existing mix of assets that has eluded the notice of our state legislators, and that is a well-funded education system. To address the state’s severely underfunded education budget, The Arizona Center for Law in the Public Interest recently filed a lawsuit to address Gov. Doug Ducey’s continued underfunding of Arizona’s public schools to an estimated tune of a whopping $2 billion over the past several years. There is concerted effort by our legislators to defund, undermine and replace traditional public schools through a voucher system that siphons the taxpayers’ dollars from the general education fund to benefit private and charter schools, further weakening our already severely underfunded public schools.
Why would any business with its employees’ family interests at heart move to Arizona when they discover the circumstances of inadequate school funding, school buildings in need of repair and add in the lowest teacher salaries in the nation, beating out our old rival Mississippi for last place? A teacher in our own school district would most likely have insufficient income to qualify for a home mortgage where the median house price in Prescott is around $300,000.
An alarming concern to parents who send their children to public schools is that 43 percent of our teachers leave after the first three years in the classroom, either looking for a job with a livable wage or moving to another state where teachers are better rewarded for their work.
From all we know about a student’s later success in life, so much depends on a long-term supportive relationship with their teacher who gave them confidence to reach beyond average expectations. It’s hard to imagine how a student whose achievements had been based on enjoying their teacher’s support, returns to school after the summer break to discover their teacher had left.
The teacher shortage in Arizona has hit “crisis levels” as the number of educators leaving the profession each year has outpaced the number of education degrees produced by the state’s public universities. ASU noted that quality education in Arizona is primarily hindered by poor salaries. The governor’s remedy to this crisis is to hire unqualified teachers and bring back retired teachers at a reduced salary.
Some of our state legislators, who are affecting the future of our schools and the state’s ability to attract investment have an aversion to much of current scientific thinking, including climate change and evolution to name just two. How can these legislators lend support for public education when so many of their decisions are guided more by ideological considerations than science? In some respects we are retreating into the pre-enlightenment dark ages.
Roy Smith is a Prescott resident and associate professor at Prescott College.