Democrats running in a Republican-leaning West Valley district zeroed in on the majority party’s decision to slash education funding during the fiscal crisis and keep it relatively flat even when the economy began to turn around.
The strategy was apparent during a Clean Elections-sponsored debate on Sept. 25, when Democratic candidates for the Senate and House in new Legislative District 20 attacked early and often.
In her opening statement, Tonya Norwood, a Phoenix Democrat who is running for a House seat, said education was “devalued” as funding was cut and teachers were mandated to do more with fewer resources with Republicans in charge.
But what really rubbed her wrong was a proposal to allow schools to opt out of the federal lunch program.
“This shook me,” she said, adding that for some children, the school lunch is their only meal for the day.
The measure ultimately went nowhere, but only after stirring considerable controversy at the state Capitol.
Meanwhile, Phoenix resident Michael Powell, the Democratic nominee to the Senate, complained that after 40 years of dominance at the Legislature, Republicans failed to produce an economy that’s better than Colorado’s, a state with a smaller population.
“Finally, the Legislature wouldn’t fund KidsCare at a cost of less than 2 percent of the Rainy Day fund,” he said, referring to failed attempts by Democrats to restore funding of the insurance program for children of low-income families.
Former Rep. Jackie Thrasher, a Democrat from Glendale, cited a study by Washington, D.C.-based Center on Budget and Policy priorities, which said Arizona holds the worst record for cutting the K-12 budget between fiscal years 2008 and 2013.
Rep. Kimberly Yee, R-Phoenix, the GOP nominee to the Senate, and Phoenix Republican Paul Boyer, who is running for the House, pushed back against the criticism.
Yee said she fought hard for education funding behind the scenes, suggesting the cuts could have been more severe without advocates like her.
But while Yee and Boyer highlighted their support for education, fellow Republican Rep. Carl Seel, of Phoenix, took a different route.
Seel talked about seeing improvements in his children once they moved to a charter school from a public school, which he said employed “a dilapidated system.”
He also boasted about discovering billions of dollars that school districts are supposedly sitting on. Seel is referring to the 2010-2011 annual report by the superintendent of public instruction, which showed that districts had a cash balance of $2.5 billion by June 30, 2011.
But Seel’s claims have always been controversial, and school officials refute the characterization that they’re sitting on a pile of cash.
Seel promised that if voters re-elect him, he’ll work to return the money to taxpayers.
But the Democrats largely succeeded in setting the tone of the debate, and in bringing the fight to the Republicans’ court.
When asked about Proposition 204, Democrats expressed their unequivocal support for the 1-cent sales tax initiative while Republicans said they opposed it.
The Republican candidates pointed out that not all of the revenues from the tax will go to education. Portions of the tax are earmarked for infrastructure projects and social welfare programs.
They said the current 1-cent tax increase is meant to be temporary, and they’d like to keep that promise to voters.
Yee said she hunkered down, away from the spotlight, to save education dollars, and that an additional
$150 million was set aside in the last budget for education.
Actually, lawmakers appropriated $75 million in new funding for education, including $40 million to improve reading by third grade.
When pressed about her ultimate support for budgets that cut education, kept school funding flat when the economy began to rebound and gave tax cuts to corporations, Yee replied, “There was a lot that we had to look at and protect and I believe that… we do need more in our education system.”
“It doesn’t matter who you’re voting for, if that’s an issue that is very important to you as it is to me, we have to look at the backgrounds of the people that we are selecting to represent us at the state Capitol,” she added.
In short, Yee is saying the voters should elect more centrist and pragmatic lawmakers like her.
Powell, the Democrat running against Yee, didn’t buy her explanation.
“She can say that, but publicly, if you don’t question the leadership, that means you’re lock step involved with them, and that’s the perception that she has,” Powell said, adding, “She does what the leadership tells her to do.”