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Trusted local news leader for Prescott area communities since 1882
5:55 AM Sat, Nov. 17th

Column: Poor education triggers downward spiral

Many Prescott residents moved here to seek a low-cost haven for a comfortable retirement. Some raised kids and are no longer interested in schools, since they think educating Arizona's youth doesn't affect them personally. But that couldn't be further from the truth.

Maybe it would matter more to these voters if they realize it's an issue that could make or break the future of this state.

On its current course, Arizona is speeding toward permanently having the lowest national educational standards - like Mississippi and Alabama, places where poverty is ingrained, crime is high and many are on permanent government assistance because of high unemployment. A lack of an educated populace creates a vicious cycle that's historically almost impossible to break.

It's not too late to bring Arizona back from the brink, but in another 10 years, I doubt that will be true.

The complicated school funding system is set up so that School Tuition Organizations take tax donations that support private and charter schools with what would otherwise be public money - more than $1 billion has been siphoned so far from tax credits and through "scholarships." That and severe ongoing budget cuts have weakened schools. Arizona ranked third in the nation for the most cuts to education spending per student since the recession began, according to a 2013 report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

Yavapai County schools are in a rural district that suffers from inequitable state funding, too - its school districts are called "B" districts, where the average household income ranges from $58,000 to $65,000, compared to "A" districts where income averages $94,000. In Chino Valley, there's a 40 percent poverty rate among students. Child hunger and struggling families - paired with a substandard education-are impediments to educational success.

If children here don't finish high school or go to college, expect an eroding tax base that could cause our Arizona paradise to become far less appealing as the stream of retiring Baby Boomers with hefty savings dries up.

That's the Arizona we don't want, and the one we are driving toward.

Schools have always been the key to a healthy economy. An educated workforce attracts companies and brings jobs; good schools attract well-paid workers and create a higher standard of living. Low college graduation rates are already having an impact on the state's economy according to a study from the Economic and Business Research Center at University of Arizona's Eller College of Management. Arizona has been behind the national rate since 1990. It ranks 29th nationwide for college attainment.

Does this concern our current GOP state leaders or would-be leaders? Not so much.

In a legislative forum for the State House in LD1 last week, sponsored by Yavapai College, Yavapai County Education Service Agency and the League

of Women Voters, all Republican primary candidates professed absolute opposition to Common Core standards.

Common Core standards are basic standards that schools across the United States are expected to comply with to prepare students for college. The Republican candidates all repeated the same line about being opposed to having the federal government tell the state what to do. Ironically, Arizona could be the poster child for the need for these standards, since it's below par in most learning categories. In a comprehensive study by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, called Kids Count (kidscount.org), 46 percent of Arizona eighth-graders in 2012 ranked "below basic" in science; 78 percent were "below proficient." And that's just one example.

Also, according to the U.S. Department of Education this year, Arizona's dropout rate is the highest in the nation at a time when rates are falling everywhere else.

If you don't think that matters, here's a number to cogitate: $7.6 billion. According to a report from the Phoenix Chamber of Commerce, that's just the lost wages from all of those Arizona high school students who didn't get diplomas. Here's another number: $127 billion. That's the added cost of social programs to support those dropouts as adults, ranging from incarceration to welfare and lost tax revenue.

Arizona can't afford to keep treating education as a private matter.

Ironically, right now Gov. Brewer is fighting against paying the schools the $1.6 billion they're due over the next five years from a court case ruling. The state has been ordered to pay inflation adjustments for per-student school funding, part of a directive from the citizens of Arizona in a 2000 ballot measure. Another $1.3 billion of inflation costs that weren't funded during the Great Recession are also owed.

The state should put up and shut up, instead of launching a costly court battle, yet again at the taxpayer expense. Then they will have restored what they cut in the past 14 years, plus a bonus $1 billion to begin to help raise standards.

Schools were never meant to be a money-making scheme for corporations and individuals to run publicly funded private and charter schools. Nor should they be a pawn for politicians taking campaign money to privatize education from those who have no real concern for Arizona children.

Anyone who understands the implications of opposing "education for all" should check their candidates' stand on this issue before voting. It's that important.

Toni Denis is a freelance journalist, a five-year Prescott resident and chairwoman of the Democratic Women of the Prescott Area.