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To feed Arizona’s starved public school system takes money, leadership

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Arizona’s schools are starving, and the leadership within our business community is telling them, “Go eat cake.”  Starvation won’t kill our schools all at once, but Arizona’s schools are gradually wasting away for want of less than one added penny.

Weakness is felt in the extremities first. Rural communities have been forced to subsist on the low cost “school choice” approach, pretending that our “high value” schools provide a “high quality” opportunity for kids. In small towns this approach isn’t serving students, and in urban areas it leaves thousands of children in poor schools labeled by the State Board of Education with D’s and F’s. Arizona needs to turn the corner on the demise of quality education. Only one in every six schools receives an A label, and we must address the threat.

Sean Rickert

Sean Rickert

The schools serving the children of Arizona require permanent additional revenue to stop the wasting away of our education system. Finding this money will require leadership, but who will lead?  Our elected officials were chosen because they promised to protect us from wasteful government spending. Can we now ask them to put promises aside and propose the added permanent revenue our schools require? No, their integrity must be maintained if they are to continue in their offices. Who else can lead?

In June, a group of CEOs issued a challenge to the leadership of Arizona’s business community – Greater Phoenix Leadership, Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Northern Arizona Leadership Association and Southern Arizona Leadership Coalition, encouraging them to campaign for a permanent 1.5-cent education sales tax. They have the resources to pursue a solution. In July, Jim Swanson, co-chair of Governor Ducey’s effort to understand the problem through Classrooms First, echoed their plea. In September, Arizona Rural Schools Association, on behalf of more than 100 rural districts in 13 legislative districts serving more than 100,000 students begged the leaders of the business community to show that they care. The response has been — crickets.

Many are asking, “When will the governor act on the problem facing Arizona schools?” The question ignores reality. Governor Ducey has taken action. He has demonstrated a consistent commitment to addressing the crisis our schools face, but he must operate within the constraints of a balanced budget. He can’t spend money on schools that hasn’t been raised because those who should won’t lead.

Ducey has tackled Arizona’s education crisis through a three pronged effort. He has dedicated most of available discretionary spending to programs aimed at improving our schools. Also, he brokered a settlement that used funds squirreled away in the State Lands Trust to help us heal from the cuts required during the Great Recession. These efforts to provide available funding to improve our schools are helpful, but more is needed.

Our governor has not only demonstrated his commitment to public education by how he has deployed available money but through his vision as well. In his State of the State address last January, Ducey identified seven priorities to be met if our schools and their students are to thrive. Each priority comes with a price tag.  We need to:

  • Increase teacher pay ($340 million).
  • Fund full-day kindergarten ($240 million).
  • Provide for facility maintenance and construction ($300 million).
  • Offer training for teachers ($20 million).
  • Support construction trade and workforce development grants ($20 million).
  • Fund Arizona’s universities to keep tuition affordable ($190 million).
  • Make permanent the current education program funded by the six-tenths of a cent sales tax ($600 million).

Achieving this vision will stop the decline of our school system. Accomplishing it will require just shy of an additional penny in the state sales tax.

There are many reasons to come to Arizona. For many it is seen as a land of opportunity. The education system shouldn’t become a tool for siphoning resources out of the economy, but steps must be taken to address the structural threats to our state’s future. A declining school system is a threat to the ability of future generations to achieve the opportunities that Arizona embodies. So we have to ask, “Why not the best public education, in Arizona?”

A permanent 1.5 cent education sales tax will make a transformational difference. But it takes leadership. Leadership isn’t about setting targets or planning events to talk about the problem. We’ve identified the problem. Now we can wait and watch it get worse, or we can do something. Schools require effective leaders.  The old image of the new principal walking down the hall jingling his keys so everybody would know he was in charge stands in stark contrast to the leader who puts in the effort and makes the difference.

Effective leadership doesn’t look like overpriced lunches and carefully worded expectations. We know what leadership looks like, but where can we find it? Who will campaign for Arizona’s schools and make the difference?

— Sean Rickert is the superintendent of Pima Unified School District in Graham County. He sits on the Executive Board of the Arizona Rural Schools Association and on the Board of Directors of Why Not The Best Public Education in Arizona, a 501(c)(4) dedicated to pursuing a better tomorrow for public schools in Arizona.  His Twitter handle is @SERickert and responses can be emailed to seanrickert01@gmail.com

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