The following opinion piece, entitled “Slippery slope: State’s education reputation at risk“ was published in the Arizona Daily Star on May 14, 2009.
Arizona lawmakers must resist the temptation to continue slicing away at the public-education system if our state is to make the strongest argument possible for retaining its military installations, such as Davis-Monthan Air Force Base.
Leaders of organizations dedicated to supporting the state’s bases sent a letter to Gov. Jan Brewer urging her to fight off cuts to education. We urge Brewer and legislators to heed their warning.
The letter was signed by the president of the DM-50, Glen Kerslake; the president of the Fort Huachuca 50, Lawrence J. Portouw; and executive director/CEO of the Fighter Country Partnership, Steve Yamamori. They argue that a strong education system across Arizona is necessary to survive the Department of Defense Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) process.
“Quality of education for family members continues to be a significant measure in the Pentagon’s calculus of the value of a military installation,” they write. “Education is also a major factor in attracting the talent needed by the many high-tech contracting firms that support Arizona’s military installations. Rest assured that education will be one of the key factors in determining the continued viability of Arizona’s military installations.”
Arizona needs these supporters to speak loudly and powerfully for public schools. While individual districts handing out pink slips to teachers for next year and cutting back on educational programs, such as fine arts, will degrade education at specific schools and affect thousands of students, the deterioration of the public-education system will affect the entire state.
The strength of a region’s educational system has a direct relationship to its economic health. It affects whether employers put down roots, whether the work force is highly skilled, whether the skilled work force creates jobs and if it’s a community where parents want to raise their families.
Supporters of public education have reiterated these reasons countless times: Harm the schools, and you harm yourself.
The message appears to be resonating with business leaders and community members, but the connection hasn’t penetrated the ideology of some lawmakers who are still trying to cut their way out of Arizona’s more than $3 billion budget deficit for the fiscal year that begins July 1.
Once Arizona gets a national reputation as an educational backwater, it will be almost insurmountable to turn around. Good reputations are difficult to build, but easy to squander. Think about what you’ve heard about the school systems in Detroit, St. Louis or Washington, D.C. — chances are that even if you’ve never set foot in those cities, you have a sense that their public schools are terrible. Arizona cannot afford to join that club.
“I’m concerned about the branding our state is acquiring,” Calvin Baker, superintendent of the Vail Unified School District, told the Star’s editorial board Tuesday.
While lawmakers and educators in other states are working together to overcome their own budget shortfalls, in Arizona “We’re sliding in the opposite direction on a very steep slope,” he said.
The refusal of the majority Republican leadership in the Legislature to even consider increasing taxes temporarily is harmful not only to kids in schools today, but to the entire state economy into the future.
“If the will was there for a first-class education system, the Legislature would figure out a way to do that,” Baker said.
There is a silver lining. The intransigence of some lawmakers has created pushback from constituents who care deeply about schools and educational quality. The force being unleashed by the undercutting of public schools during this budget crisis has the potential to shape education for years to come in Arizona. Parents, community members, educators, business people and students have been galvanized and this momentum must be harnessed.
Politicians react to pressure, and supporters of public education need to remember that an elected official’s desire for self-preservation in office will usually eventually outweigh ideology.
We encourage everyone who cares about public education in Arizona and the well-being of our state to contact their lawmakers and make their voices heard.