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6:26 AM Sat, Sept. 22nd

Legislative candidates: Support education, do ‘whatever works’

All of the Legislative District 1 candidates said at the education forum Tuesday, Oct. 18, at Prescott High School, that they support life-long learning and education – or “whatever works,” as incumbent candidate for state representative Noel Campbell said.

“Whatever works” includes public, charter or private schools. Fiscal accountability, or lack thereof, and how they are funded was one of three questions for the candidates at the forum, which attracted about 200 people.

At the forum were Campbell, a Republican, who is running against Haryaksha Knauer of the Green Party, Peter Pierson, a Democrat, and David Stringer, a Republican. They are seeking two seats. Republican State Rep. Karen Fann, who is vacating her House seat this year and is running unopposed for the District 1 seat in the state senate, also took part.

Two speakers previewed the issues with short presentations on the state of education in Arizona. Mike Vogel of Chino Valley talked about taxpayers’ inability to look into charter school finances. He called it “private enterprise that is unregulated.”

“There’s no transparency, no accountability. Public money goes into private pockets,” Vogel said. “There are no school boards and no audits of spending.”

He was concerned that wealthier families use the Empowerment Scholarship Accounts (ESA), or voucher system, to pay for private schools, and said the legislature wants to expand the program. Voucher systems utilize taxpayer money to pay parents for homeschooling, or for private or religious school tuition. Currently in Arizona, ESAs are available on a limited basis to students with special needs, those living on reservations, and students attending schools rated D or F by the state, for example.

Vogel also talked about outside money in the form of the American Federation for Children (AFC) that has poured money into political campaigns. The Courier previously reported on the AFC’s contribution of $38,000 to David Stringer’s campaign in the primary election.

Stringer said homeschools, charters, private, church, online, and public schools are available to meet the needs of students. A school in Tucson lost its charter because it wasn’t doing its job. “What about public schools? They just go on and on,” he said, adding that only a small percentage of parents will take advantage of ESA.

Stringer said the forum’s assertion that 85 percent of students attend public schools might be correct statewide, but one-third of students in the Prescott area attend charter or other kinds of schools.

“I don’t think charters have destroyed public schools. Our public schools are thriving,” he said.

Pierson held up a flyer he received in the mail from one of his opponents, paid for by AFC. “This is not about school choice. It’s about imposing political agendas at all costs,” he said.

Campbell asked how much of a threat could ESAs be since parents who use ESA funds are required to give quarterly reports and show receipts of where they spend the money. He felt public schools have nothing to fear from the voucher system.

Knauer compared for-profit charter schools to for-profit prisons. “We neglect to set standards and monitor contracts,” he said, adding that ESAs provide good use of funds for students with disabilities.

“Privatization is piracy. It is plundering public education,” Knauer said. He would like to see vouchers provided for the high cost of day care, however.

Meanwhile, Fann said she supports all educational settings, but not at the expense of public schools.

The candidates also were asked if they would oppose future tax cuts, and how they could generate more funding for Arizona’s public schools. Most of the candidates said they would not support tax cuts, but Fann said she would not make any judgment.

“I’m leaving my options open,” she said, adding that she currently is leading efforts to bring back funding for all-day kindergarten.

Stringer, who supported Prop. 123 to help fund schools with Land Trust money and settle a lawsuit between schools and the state concerning inflation funding, said the measure was a flawed approach. Finding substantial savings in the correctional system is possible, he said, and that money could go toward education.

Campbell said he’s looking for good ideas on how to raise revenue for education at all levels.

On the question of how to restore funding to higher education, Knauer mentioned a proposal to place a surcharge on utilities.

“I’d like to tax all non-profits, and yes, that includes churches,” he said, adding that funding from prison reform and expenses is part of the solution.

Stringer supports higher funding for JTED programs that lead to jobs. Students can “get a certificate, get a job, and can go back and get a degree later on.”