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Time to get serious—end the school funding crisis

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Listening to Governor Doug Ducey describe his ideas to improve our schools, I thought of Ben Franklin’s wise words: Well-done is better than well-said. Lasting salary increases for teachers? Yes. Signing bonuses for teachers at low-income schools? Yes, please. Covering tuition for those who go to college to become educators and take a job in our schools? Good idea. Like much of what we hear from our governor, it’s well-said.

But how do we travel Ben Franklin’s steep road from well-said to well-done?

Sen. Rebecca Rios

Rep. Rebecca Rios

Because right now, our schools are in crisis.

Education Week grades our schools D+. My parents weren’t satisfied with me if I brought home a grade like that, and I certainly don’t accept those grades from my children.

Almost half the teachers in our schools leave their job in the first two years—a turnover rate that hurts our children, and holds back their progress. Teachers resign in the middle of the year, and get replaced with uncertified teachers.

Take a moment and read that again—we put uncertified teachers at the front of our children’s classrooms.

That’s not well-done.

And that doesn’t take into account school safety. Last year, 3 out of 10 school buses failed safety inspection.

Not well-done at all.

These problems are the result of a simple fact: our government is 48th in the nation when it comes to funding our schools. We can’t solve the crisis without making a serious and sustained investment; and a fiscally responsible one at that.

The question is, how will we pay for it?

Under Governor Brewer, Arizona already looked under the couch cushions and found the spare change. Checking the couch cushions again is not an education plan, no matter how pretty the governor’s speech is.

Arizona is 48th in education funding in the country. After years of tax cuts to the rich and to corporations, we don’t have the revenue to properly fund our schools. ASU economists Dennis Hoffman and Tom Rex told the newspaper last year that, “More than 90 percent of the decline in revenue resulted from tax reductions.”

When it comes time to fund schools, our government has traditionally turned to sales taxes, which draw heavily from those people with the least money: the working poor, and families living paycheck-to-paycheck. Middle-class and working families pay enough in taxes already.

It is the richest people and companies in our state who gain the most when our economy prospers. We should cancel the sweet-heart tax loophole that Governor Jan Brewer gave to big corporations, and earmark those dollars to school funding. This is the correct formula in these times of economic expansion and high inequality.

We should also recognize that Governor Brewer followed this very formula when she worked hard—and successfully—to expand our state’s Medicaid program, AHCCCS (“Access”), to hundreds of thousands of working people. The money for this came from a federal tax on the wealthiest individuals and corporations; the beneficiaries of this expansion of it are people who work at jobs that don’t pay enough for them to afford health insurance. Forty-four percent of AHCCCS members are Arizona children. Democrats supported Governor Brewer in her effort—not one Democrat voted against her plan.

That’s why Governor Ducey was right when he said that he wanted Congress to continue to fund Medicaid expansion. When the governor is right, Democrats will stand with him, just as we stood with his predecessor on Medicaid expansion. If Governor Ducey is serious about ending the school funding crisis, we will work with him on behalf of the common good.

Growing up in Pinal County, I had certified teachers in my elementary school, and they forced me to pay attention. So, I know that Arizona is the 48th state admitted into the union, but that doesn’t mean that we need to be 48th in education funding. It’s time to get serious and end this crisis.

Rebecca Rios, D-Phoenix, is the House Minority Leader

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The views expressed in guest commentaries are those of the author and are not the views of the Arizona Capitol Times.

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