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12:38 PM Tue, Nov. 20th

Lobbyist: Arizona education is better than you think

A new commercial being run by the Arizona Education Project is intended to counter negative press reports about the state’s school system and its funding.

Photo by Howard Fischer, For the Courier.

A new commercial being run by the Arizona Education Project is intended to counter negative press reports about the state’s school system and its funding.

PHOENIX — Some Arizona businesses and their lobbying groups are spending money this week in a bid to convince voters that the state’s education situation is not as bad as some would say.

Matthew Benson, spokesman for the newly formed Arizona Education Project, said it has made a “six-figure’’ buy of TV ads in the Phoenix area this week to counter what he called the “negative voices’’ in education. He would not identify who they are.

“I think you know who we’re talking about,’’ he said.

And this is just the beginning.

Benson said future ads — featuring upbeat descriptions of the state’s K-12 education system — are planned, including an expansion into the Tucson TV market. However, he refused to provide a budget for the ads.

The campaign comes as Gov. Doug Ducey and Republican legislators are under increased pressure to address the fact that Arizona is close to the bottom of per-student funding. The commercial is designed to emphasize successes since Ducey took office.

Yet even the staff of the Joint Legislative Budget Committee acknowledges that, on an inflation-adjusted basis, Arizona is putting fewer dollars into public schools on a per student basis than it did a decade ago.

Benson is not disputing those numbers.

“It’s more about making sure the other side of the story is told because there is a positive story when it comes to Arizona education,’’ he said. For example, there’s the National Assessment of Education Progress, a standardized test of what students know.

“Arizona students are leading the nation when it comes to improvement in math, English and science,’’ Benson said.

What he does not say is that the scores, while improving, for the most part remain below the national average.

For example, just 30 percent of Arizona fourth graders are at least proficient in reading, versus 36 percent nationally. And 25 percent of Arizona eighth graders are proficient in science compared with 34 percent nationally.

Benson said that the Arizona Education Project’s media campaign chose to emphasize different “data points.’’

He also said that the commercial is not designed to secure Ducey’s reelection or push for or against specific legislation, pointing out the Arizona Education Network is a 501(c)(3) charity.

But the funding is coming from various groups who have been supportive of the governor — and who also have benefited from corporate tax breaks that have been phased in and that have deprived the state of more than $300 million in revenues, compared to state revenue if the tax rates had remained unaltered.

The list of funders provided by Benson include the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry and the Hispanic chambers from Tucson, Douglas, Sierra Vista and Nogales. Money also is coming from the Arizona Lodging and Tourism Association and Services Group of America, a private firm involved in food distribution. Also donating is Pinnacle West Capital Corp., which owns Arizona Public Service Co., the state’s largest electric utility.

“Too often, all we hear is a drumbeat of the negative and cherry-picked figures to paint a downbeat picture, which is simply not accurate,’’ Benson said.

There has been extensive news coverage of Arizona’s low ranking in nationwide comparisons of per-student funding and the fact that teachers in Arizona are paid less than pretty much anywhere else. That point was repeated Monday by Diane Douglas, the state superintendent of public instruction, in her annual ‘State of Education’ report to the Legislature.

At the same time, there is pressure on lawmakers to extend the current 0.6-cent sales tax for education — a tax that, otherwise, will end in 2021 – and to expand the tax to bring in more dollars for teacher salaries and other needs.

Several education groups are asking a judge to rule that the state is not living up to its constitutional obligation to provide adequate funding for school buildings and repairs.

Finally, enough signatures have been gathered to force a public vote in November on a plan approved by lawmakers and signed by the governor, to expand a program that provides public dollars for students to attend private and parochial schools.

Benson said the other side of the story needs to be told.

“For too long, the debate in this state on education has been dominated by negative voices and by organizations and entities that see some kind of political advantage in tearing down our teachers and our schools,’’ he said. “We’re just not going to stand for that anymore.’’

Joe Thomas, president of the Arizona Education Association, said, as far as he’s concerned, his organization is not one of those groups that are “tearing down teachers.’’ And he said the commercial is not entirely wrong.

“There are wonderful things going on in Arizona,’’ he said.

“The problem is, it’s not sustainable,’’ said Thomas, who said the ad would have been more credible had it included statements from teachers. “We’re losing those teachers to other states and they’re getting burned out.’’

But it isn’t just the Arizona Education Association that has been beating the drum for more education funding. The Arizona School Boards Association, made up of board members who are elected by voters in their local school districts, also want better state funding for education.

“I wouldn’t consider us a negative voice,’’ said Tim Ogle, the group’s executive director. “I think we’re always kind of advocating for children and advocating for what’s right and fair.’’

And Ogle said there’s nothing wrong with pointing out that, even with the new dollars in the past few years, schools are still not back at pre-recession funding levels.

“You take away with the left hand, but give back with the right hand,’’ he said. “But that’s not new money.’’

“The business community that is behind this effort wants to make sure the other side of Arizona schools is told,’’ Benson said. “And it’s a positive story.’’

For example, one of the points in the commercial is that education funding has increased by nearly $1.5 billion in the past three years.

That funding includes what the state is required by law to fund, due to growth in the number of students enrolled in Arizona schools, plus a legally mandated inflation adjustment, as well as more than $300 million a year going into K-12 education as a result of Proposition 123.

That measure, approved by voters in 2016, settled a long-running lawsuit accusing the state of failing to live up to its legal obligations. Some plaintiffs in the case said they agreed to settle to avoid protracted litigation even though they believe the measure reimburses the schools for only about 70 percent of what they were owed.

The commercial also mentions a program which forgives the debt of some students who agree to teach in state schools. The cost of that, however, is being picked up by the universities.