Originally Published: June 11, 2014 6 a.m.
It's a word that gets bandied about a lot in conversations I've had lately. Maybe it's because things have gotten so out of whack in this state from a lack of vision.
People worry that suddenly they'll wake up to find a new law alienating friends, neighbors and their families. Or the solar panels on their property are going to cost them, rather than pay them for generating power to the grid. Or their kids are losing more teachers because the pay is so low at their schools (55 percent turnover in Prescott in 2012).
It's unsettling when politicians do things to please extreme ideologues to solve nonexistent problems - and protect those who would profit at the taxpayer's expense. It hurts the state in ways that are hard to fully quantify. But here's one such example.
In the year after the anti-immigrant SB-1070 passed, my husband had a call from a venture capitalist who'd heard he moved west. The VC wanted him to start up a high-tech company, which my husband has done in the past. However, once the VC learned we were in Arizona and not California, he said, "Forget it." Investors don't want to support a state profiling Latinos with a "show us your papers" law. It's bad business. An article on the Immigration Policy Center website explains the economic ripple effect better than I could.
Arizona has lost at least a couple of billion dollars in tourism and convention business since, but lost opportunities aren't so easy to measure.
Schools, however, are where the impact of bad laws and dire budget cuts have been well-documented. Coincidently, $2 billion has been cut from state funding to public schools in the past 10 years - the highest percentage of education cuts in any state.
Last year Arizona also became the state with the highest high school dropout rate in the country - 7.8 percent - at a time when rates are lower than ever in most states. Arizona is ranked 48th for education spending, according to the Census Bureau. Even though the state's residents voted several times on measures to support schools, the Republican majority continues to cut education funding.
Public education used to be a way of leveling the playing field for Americans of all incomes. At a League of Women Voters of Central Yavapai County forum, the question was posed to a three-expert panel, "Is Education Still the Ticket Out of Poverty?" The consensus seemed to be "no," not in Arizona.
Here are a few facts from the event. Arizona rewards rich school districts with more money and punishes poor school districts with less money, like Chino Valley, which suffers from a 40 percent poverty rate. It's possible for families to provide as much as a $1,000 tax credit ($500 from each parent) to a Student Tuition Organization, but they can only donate $200 each to a public school-or $400 total. STOs can take out 20 percent of the donation for administrative fees, then pay private and parochial schools. Total public schools tax credits have averaged $1,105 per student across the state, but in the Prescott, the average is $255; in Chino Valley, $158; in Humboldt, only $115.
The wealthiest 25 percent of all public schools in Arizona received five times as much as the poorest 25 percent. Thirteen school districts received $30 million, or 57 percent of all tax credit donations - and all of them were in Phoenix and Scottsdale suburban areas. In Arizona, charter schools have drained $1.2 billion of public funds.
If you can't understand why this is a problem, take a look at Mississippi. Or as Carolyn Warner, former Arizona Superintendent of Public Schools and education consultant, says, "Thank God for Mississippi," because it keeps Arizona from placing dead last in several education categories. Mississippi remains at the bottom of standings partly because of the legacy of a racially divided society and generational poverty going back to the slave era. Its lack of efforts to raise people out of poverty continues the cycle. Arizona doesn't have that history, but by abandoning its inner-city and rural poor schools, it is creating it.
Charter schools are not required to accept any students, and are more likely only to take those who reach certain academic standards. If you are poor, have little parental support, or are from a disadvantaged Latino neighborhood, you are far less likely to be a charter school student. Effectively, public school students in low-income areas are being given a substandard education in the name of providing false choices.
The national average in annual per student spending is $11,300. In Arizona, it's $7,000. When teachers have to buy their own classroom supplies to do their jobs, are teaching with 30-year-old books and clean their own classrooms because the schools can't afford janitors, it matters. (Real examples in Prescott, by the way).
The results are likely already being felt in Phoenix, which is lagging far behind the rest of major U.S. cities in its economic recovery. The lack of an educated workforce makes it hard to attract jobs, let alone high-paying ones. Relocating companies look at educational quality for their employees' children, too.
Unless Arizona wants to stay scraping the bottom of the educational barrel, it needs to elect people who care about the educational success of all of its children, not just those from wealthy neighborhoods and families.
Toni Denis is a freelance journalist, a five-year Prescott resident and chairwoman of the Democratic Women of the Prescott Area.