Democrat gubernatorial hopeful Fred DuVal warned Sunday that businesses will not come to Arizona if the state scraps the Common Core academic standards.
During a debate on education issues, DuVal told an audience at Camelback High School that Arizona has done a good job of cutting taxes and trimming regulation to make the state more competitive. He said that leaves the question of the quality of education.
On one level that means the ability to hire people who are qualified. But he said business owners have other questions, too,
“Will my children have good schools to go to? Will my employees’ children have good schools to go to?” DuVal said. “Business relocation decisions are talent-driven decisions.”
He said the national standards enable businesses to compare what’s happening in Arizona with other states where they may otherwise locate.
Republican Doug Ducey agreed that some standards are needed. Just not these.
“It ties us to Washington, D.C. for funding,” he said
“It purchases obedience from the states for certain waivers that are needed for K-12 education,” Ducey continued. “I just think of 50 years of increasing Washington, D.C. involvement in American K-12 education has resulted in mediocrity.”
Ducey said he instead wants Arizona-specific standards, bringing together educators, business leaders and others to decide “what our expectation is here in Arizona.”
DuVal, however, said Arizona-only standards won’t wash with business leaders who want to be able to compare academic progress across the nation.
Closely tied to the issue of standards is money and funding for education. But the candidates see the numbers from a different perspective.
DuVal points to Census Bureau data showing Arizona at No. 47 in per-student funding. The result, he said, is 500 classrooms without permanent teachers, high turnover and books that are years out of date.
But Ducey said total funding from all sources — state, federal and local — is about $9,000 per student. Given a typical class size of 30 kids, that computes out to $270,000.
“Yet we’ve got classrooms where they’re saying we can’t afford a teacher, we can’t afford a teacher’s aide,” Ducey said.
“Somewhere there must be some overhead,” he said. “Somewhere, something must be broken.”
Ducey said his solution is to get more of that $9,000 into the classroom.
He cited figures from the state Auditor General’s Office which showed the share of dollars winding up in the classroom has continued to decline in the last decade. It is now below 58 percent.
But DuVal countered the same study also shows Arizona schools, on average, have lower administrative costs than the national average.
What else can be done remains unclear. Both John Huppenthal and Tom Horne, the last two state school superintendents, both have told Capitol Media Services during their tenure that the difference may be in some fixed costs over which schools may have little control, ranging from gasoline for buses to nurses, counselor and utility bills.
On that subject of funding, the pair disagree on whether the state should accept an offer by schools to settle a 4-year-old lawsuit.
The Arizona Supreme Court has ruled legislators for years during the recession ignored a voter-approved mandate to boost funding for schools to account for inflation.
A trial judge already has said that should translate out to an immediate $317 million boost in state aid. She will decide next month whether the schools are entitled to the money they missed for years, a figure estimated at $1.3 billion.
DuVal said he would accept the offer to provide that $317 million in exchange for the schools dropping the “back pay” demand. He said the funds could go a long way to restoring various cuts, including the decision by lawmakers several years ago to stop funding full-day kindergarten.
“I’m open-minded to a settlement,” Ducey said. “I’d rather pay teachers than pay lawyers.”
But for the time being, Ducey wants to continue the legal fight.
“I want to appropriately fund our schools,” he said. “But I want to do it responsibly.”
And he said the additional time available while the court fight goes on, perhaps for months, will give him more time to come up with a different way of financing education to achieve his goal of more dollars into the classroom.
DuVal chided that as a reason to delay.
“Of course that’s where the money’s going to go,” he said of any settlement or court-ordered increase in state aid, saying that $317 million would make “a huge difference” to schools which he said have seen per-student funding cut by $1,000. “Doug knows that, too.”
The state has about $450 million in a “rainy day fund” that would cover the first year costs. But neither candidate provided specifics of exactly where Arizona would get the money for the additional $320 million for the year after that and the year after that and beyond above what the state would otherwise fund. And that doesn’t even consider the possible $1.3 billion that might be owed without a deal.
DuVal cited his “two red lines,” one being no new taxes and the other being no more cuts toeducation.
“Everything else can be on the table,” he said, including funding of other state priorities. “It means we’re going to have to have tough conversations about choices.”
Ducey said he, too, is not going to raise taxes.
“I’m going to come at the budget like a businessman, line by line and dollar by dollar,” he said. “And there are places where you can have efficiencies.”
Pressed for details, Ducey said 27 percent of the state workforce, outside of education, will be eligible to retire in the next four years. He said that means savings through attrition, though Ducey didn’t spell out who would do the work they’re now doing.
DuVal chided Ducey for not having something more concrete, saying he has been state treasurer for the last four years and should be intimately familiar with the details of the budget.
Ducey and DuVal are set to debate for the fourth time Monday, and they’ll be joined by the Libertarian and Americans Elect party candidates.
Monday’s debate sponsored by the Citizens Clean Elections Commission and the O’Connor House will be broadcast at 5 p.m. on KAET Channel 8 in Phoenix and KUAT Channel 6 in Tucson. Arizona Horizon host Ted Simons moderates the one-hour debate, which is closed to the public.
A final governor’s candidate debate is set for Oct. 14.
– The Associated Press contributed to this report