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Lawmakers should heed voters, education is important

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Behind closed doors, Arizona legislators are currently hammering out details of a budget proposal for the next fiscal year. Legislators lobby for the items they say their constituents care most about. Concessions are made and deals are brokered and, unfortunately, the process is often partisan and contentious. 

So, this seems like a good time to remind legislators that a majority of Arizona voters have made it clear they care most about education. And, in particular, they still have concerns about education funding and teacher pay. Voters recognize that investing in education at every level is the path to prosperity for individuals and for our state as a whole. 

Rich Nickel

Rich Nickel

This shouldn’t surprise our elected leaders. Education has been the top priority among voters for six consecutive years. Voters want a budget that demonstrates a commitment to a high-quality education in Arizona for every student, regardless of where they live, the color of their skin or their family’s financial situation.  

Need to think long-term 

Arizona, like other states, has received a major influx of federal Covid relief funding since March 2020. A significant portion of those dollars are earmarked for schools and, crucially, at least 20% of the funding must be used to address learning loss as a result of the pandemic. Importantly, states that receive the grants cannot reduce their spending levels on education, as a proportion of their overall budgets, during the next two fiscal years.  

These funds will not solve the chronic education funding challenge in our state. In fact, they may exacerbate the problem. Each wave of federal relief funding has its own “use-by” date. The first round must be drawn down by September 2022; the final round must be drawn down by September 2024. It’s also important to remember that Proposition 123, the ballot measure passed in 2016 to provide $3.5 billion to Arizona’s school over 10 years, expires in 2025. And, if that fiscal cliff doesn’t scare you, consider that the governor is calling for $600 million in permanent income tax cuts to be phased in over the next three years.  

Here’s why this matters: while Covid has made it impossible to ignore the opportunity gaps that disproportionately impact low-income students and other marginalized populations, these gaps existed before this pandemic and won’t disappear when the pandemic subsides. A successful state budget will acknowledge this fact. 

Sustained investment needed in all of education   

Reaching the ambitious goals outlined in the Arizona Education Progress Meter, including the Achieve60AZ attainment goal, won’t happen by chance. This year’s budget, and all future state budgets, should provide predictability, consistency and flexibility for the long-term. The budget must address issues of access and affordability at every level, beginning with quality early learning funded through the Preschool Development Grant program, and continuing through postsecondary education with support for the Arizona Promise Program and for our colleges and universities. 

The budget should support strategies and interventions to increase reading proficiency rates among Arizona’s third graders by funding literacy coaches, dyslexia and early literacy specialists, and literacy education training for Arizona educators. The budget should demonstrate that we can do even more as a state to support our hard-working educators. This could start with ongoing investments to support their social-emotional needs, as well as mentoring, induction and professional development. The budget must acknowledge that schools simply cannot ignore the needs of the whole child and the critical importance of wrap-around services, especially as we recover from the pandemic. And the budget must recognize that Arizona’s poor students and our students of color are equally capable of learning and thriving if we invest in their success and address systemic inequities. 

Our individual quality of life, the strength of our workforce and our state’s long-term prosperity are all at stake. The return on Arizona’s investments in education could be astounding if we make the right decisions today. 

Rich Nickel is president and CEO of College Success Arizona. Recently, Achieve60AZ, College Success Arizona and Expect More Arizona joined forces to become one organization. The enhanced organization will advance a cohesive education agenda to reach the goals outlined in the Arizona Education Progress Meter. 

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