An estimated 40,000-to 50,000 people marched at the Arizona State Capitol April 26 to demand better funding for public education. After the demonstration, the dismal state of education in Arizona became impossible to ignore.
“Arizona has never been good with public school support, but I’ve seen it get markedly worse as I’ve worked here,” said Arthur Almquist, a drama teacher at Tucson High Magnet School. “One of the things I’ve learned never to say is, ‘Well, it can’t get worse,’ because it can.”
Almquist has over 20 years of experience teaching in Arizona and was named one of People Magazine’s Teachers of the Year in 2013.
With education being a key issue in the state this November, nearly all candidates have promised to support education. However, that promise means different things to different people.
Red for Ed marches forward
After the April march on the capitol, supporters of Red for Ed focused their attention to legislative changes regarding education funding.
Their main strategy centered on an initiative for the November ballot called Invest in Ed.
Invest in Ed was a plan to increase taxes for Arizonans who earned more than $250,000 annually to create a dedicated revenue stream for public schools.
The initiative made it on the planned November ballot after proponents gathered 270,000 signatures to get it on.
However, on Aug. 29, the Arizona Supreme Court ordered the initiative be taken off the November ballot, citing unclear language. They said the petition misinformed signers into not knowing that the initiative would also get rid of indexing income tax brackets that help account for inflation.
“[It] is ironic, because if you’ve ever read some of the bills that do make it on [the ballot], you can’t make sense of them. So, for them to say ours was confusing or poorly worded … it’s just so frustrating to us and so disrespectful,” Almquist said.
The removal of Invest in Ed from the ballot was a major blow to Red for Ed supporters, as it was the most comprehensive response to education issues in the election. The movement needed to switch its focus.
“We ended up having to really go into plan B,” said James Bourland, a newspaper and yearbook teacher at Tucson High Magnet School, who is involved with Red for Ed and Arizona Educators United.
“We’ll turn our focus to [candidate] elections at this point,” he said. “I’ve basically been trying to get people ... invested in what we’re trying to do with the idea of the education wave, supporting pro-education candidates.”
Both candidates vying to become Arizona’s governor, Republican Doug Ducey and Democrat David Garcia, promised voters that they are committed to improving the quality of education in Arizona during their first gubernatorial debate.
Seeking a second term, Ducey argues his 20by20 plan shows his commitment to increasing education funding. The plan, which Ducey released this April, aims to increase Arizona teachers’ pay by 20 percent by the year 2020.
Ducey has promised Arizonans that he will not increase taxes to help fund his 20by20 plan. Instead, his office said projected state-revenue increases and strategic cuts to the government operating budgets will provide the necessary funding.
Some remain skeptical of Ducey’s ability to deliver on his promises. The Arizona Education Association endorsed his opponent, David Garcia, for governor.
“Governor Ducey is ignoring our state’s teacher-shortage crisis, leaving our students without teachers in crumbling buildings,” said Joe Thomas, president of the Arizona Education Association, in a May press release announcing his organization’s endorsement of Garcia.
Garcia has a background in education and served as the associate superintendent of public instruction for Standards and Accountability for the State of Arizona.
Garcia’s plan for Arizona education includes increasing teachers’ pay, addressing the needs of all students and shifting the focus of schools away from profits and back toward students. Yet, according to The Arizona Republic, Garcia has remained sparse on details.
While Arizona voters will not have the opportunity to increase funding for public education directly this November, they will have the choice to expand Arizona’s Empowerment Scholarship Account program.
Proposition 305 would expand student eligibility for the ESA program from students with disabilities or in poor performing school districts to almost all public school students, providing parents or guardians who apply for the program the financial resources to send children to private schools.
These scholarships are sometimes referred to as vouchers, though there is a legal difference between the two. Vouchers were deemed unconstitutional by the Arizona Supreme Court in 2009.
Ducey, a proponent of charter schools in the state, voiced his support of the proposition during a gubernatorial debate.
“I support the move to expand [ESAs] … We have 1.1 million children in the state of Arizona. I want them all to have access to an affordable, accessible and excellent education,” Ducey said.
Garcia and Angel Torres, the Green Party’s governor candidate, both voiced their opposition to Proposition 305. The Arizona Education Association and Save our Schools are also opposed to the proposition.
“Public money should not be pulled away from public schools to be used for private schools,” said Jo Holt, chair of the Pima County Democratic Party.
Holt also expressed concern that, if the proposition passed, voters would have less oversight and accountability of public education spending.
Voting this November
The Arizona Education Association puts out a voting guide, telling Arizonans which candidates they say best support public education. All candidates on the list are either Democratic or Independent.
AEA President Joe Thomas expressed his hope that young voters will make their voices heard in the November election, despite Invest in Ed no longer being on the ballot.
“If 20-year-olds understand how important their state government was … they would always vote like 60-year-olds. And the problem is a 60-year-old isn’t thinking about the same things a 20-year-old is thinking about ,” Thomas said. “Vote and elect the people that share your interests.”