When Republican Doug Ducey ran for governor last year, he didn't say he would continue and maybe even increase the massive cuts to schools and universities. Actually, he never said much about anything—a campaign full of balloons, lapel pins and puppy-dog rhetoric that sounded appealing to many but lacked substance. Shortly after Ducey was elected and announced his education plan, however, the universities braced for another $75 million cut, which is what he suggested (while increasing prison funding). Well, he eventually went further, cutting the universities $99 million and eliminating almost all community college funding!
Public schools did somewhat better ... somewhat. Gov. Ducey and his GOP cronies have been patting themselves on the back because they didn't cut K-12 even more this year. However, they're only able to say that because they redefined "classroom spending," because they don't factor in inflation and because they ended two revenue streams to schools and moved the money into the general appropriation: Rob Peter to pay Paul. Also, last year a judge ruled that the legislature had shortchanged school districts $317 million during the recession, money they are owed. Gov. Ducey and the GOP-dominated legislature have refused to comply with the ruling and the case is stuck in court. The result is that most district funding is flat, when Arizona is already far behind and some schools are struggling just to keep the doors open—great people asked to do more and more with less and less, every year.
The public response has been encouraging. When the GOP budget was first proposed, nearly 1,000 parents, teachers and children protested at the Capitol in Phoenix. MSM editorials, even in conservative papers, have been near unanimous in slamming the education cuts. Even members of Gov. Ducey's party believe the gooberheaded legislature has gone too far—a former GOP Speaker of the House saying, "We can't cut our way to excellence." Nearly every school board meeting these days is packed, filled with parents and students wondering what's happening to their schools. Last night's meeting in Peoria, where the district is considering a four-day week, drew an angry standing-room-only crowd, and was covered by every local newspaper and TV station.
Some of the most vocal critics of Ducey's education policy have been school board members, district superintendents and teachers, which does not please the governor. Early on, when his budget was being debated, 233 superintendents signed and sent a letter to the legislature asking them to stop their boneheaded budget slashing. After Ducey's draconian budget passed, Dr. Michael Cowan, superintendent of Mesa School District, the largest in the state, sent an email to teachers and parents that was critical of the governor's plan. Ducey's response was swift: his "dark money" backers (Koch of course), with the governor's knowledge, organized a robocall campaign to smear Dr. Cowan. The message to school employees was clear: shut up or we'll shut you up.
Well, they did not shut up. Superintendents and education associations, caught in a budget bind, have to explain to their teachers, parents and students why people are fired, why programs are axed, why school facilities can't be repaired let alone improved. For their part, teachers write letters to the editor, protest publicly and continue to speak out about increasing class sizes, stagnant pay and buying supplies with their own money.
Finally, the legislature acted this week! But not in a good way. See, when a problem presents itself here, our elected officials don't address the problem, they shut down criticism of the problem. Problem solved! Heh, when an annual study of incarceration that was required by the state showed that private prisons are more costly and less effective than the public variety, the legislature didn't try to fix the prisons—no, they voted to terminate the study! Similarly, this time they're not addressing our long list of education woes, they're silencing the voices that mention the woes.
SB 1172, which passed the House this week, doesn't do a damn thing to help schools, but it does make it illegal for education officials, including superintendents, principals and teachers, to speak for or against bills, plans or citizen referenda that affect their funding, that affect their ability to do their job. Will politicians put the same limits on police and firefighters? No, but:
The House gave initial approval Thursday to a bill with a provision blocking school or charter school employees from speaking or distributing information in an official capacity to influence an election. It now awaits a formal vote.
Proponents of the bill say they don't want school employees, on the taxpayer's dime, trying to influence elections and other funding decisions. The letter that 233 superintendents sent to the legislature would be illegal if the bill passes, since they wrote it in their "official capacity." Hmm, last time I checked legislators are not prohibited from lobbying for their
pet programs, also on the taxpayer's dime. Beyond direct advocacy, education officials point out
that the bill is written so broadly that it would even prevent a superintendent from distributing "factual information" to parents about topics that affect their children's education.
"This bill is basically putting a gag order on school officials when it comes to providing any kind of information that is factual to stakeholders." ... The provision would prevent school officials from speaking about issues even when they directly affect school funding, [school board representative] Vega said. "We wouldn't be able to provide information on what programs would be cut."
One of education's goals is to nurture engaged citizens, and to model citizenship, so here goes Arizona's tea party nitwits, stifling the rights of our schools' leaders and supporters. Nice example there. Sure, you can have all the rights and responsibilities of a citizen, just not on the job
! The threat might already be having its intended effect. A few weeks ago the Paradise Valley website included "An Important Message from the Superintendent" that was critical of the governor's budget: today it says
"This page is unavailable."
But Arizonans should take heart, because at school board meetings, in editorials, and in communications to parents you'll hear the same tune: We can change the makeup of the legislature—VOTE! Indeed, the assault on schools has provoked and engaged the general public as much as anything lately.
So it should come as no surprise that voter suppression bills are next up.
UPDATE: SB 1172 did not pass the legislature this session! As a result of pressure from many groups, the bill did not have enough support for a full Senate vote.