There’s a reason it’s called “Invest in Ed”

Invest in Education
The Invest in Education campaign placed 1,800 campaign signs in Wesley Bolin Plaza to represent the teacher shortage in the state, which has left roughly 1,800 classrooms without a permanent certified teacher. Photo by Jerod MacDonald-Evoy | Arizona Mirror

It’s as if the people trying to defeat Proposition 208 think Arizona’s voters are suffering from a nasty bout of mass amnesia. 

Not a chance. It’s been a long time, but plenty of us remember the days when the state’s leaders did more than pay lip service to the idea that Arizona’s children deserve a quality education.

Backers of Proposition 208, which is on the ballot November 3, say it will provide an estimated $940 million dollars a year to the state’s woefully underfunded public education system.

Just how underfunded are Arizona’s public schools? By most estimates, Arizona’s public education system is receiving about $1 billion less in annual state funding today than it did before the 2008 recession. Yes, there have been half-measure attempts to restore some of the funding lost during the recession, but none of those efforts have gone nearly far enough.

In the meantime, Gov. Jan Brewer and now Gov. Doug Ducey spent the past 10 years doling out corporate tax cuts like jelly beans. In 2011, the Legislature passed and Brewer signed into law the largest corporate tax cut in Arizona history, even as the state made “the largest funding cuts in the nation to public education and our universities.”

Yet, in 2017, Brewer told the Arizona Capitol Times, “Of course, it was a little bit too aggressive. … Sooner or later, you have to pay the fiddler.”  You think?

Is it any wonder that Arizona now ranks 48th in the nation in annual teacher pay and 48th in annual per-pupil spending.

Invest In Ed, as Proposition 208 is better known, is no magic bullet but it is hands down the most ambitious effort in decades to rebuild the state’s public education system.

Here’s how it’ll be funded. If you’re an individual taxpayer who earns more than $250,000 a year or a married couple who earn more than $500,000 a year, Proposition 208 will boost your income tax rate by 3.5 percent. If your annual income is below those amounts, which includes 99 percent of Arizona taxpayers, your tax rate will stay the same.

Here’s how the money is slated to be spent:

  • 50 percent goes to hire and boost the pay of Arizona’s teachers and other certified staff, such as school nurses and counselors.
  • 25 percent goes to hire and boost the pay of school support staff, such as teacher aides and bus drivers.
  • 12 percent goes to fund and expand vocational training programs. 
  • 10 percent goes to mentor and retain teachers.
  • 3 percent goes to boost scholarships for college students who commit to work in Arizona schools.

Why Proposition 208? The truth is Arizona has failed our children. Making matters worse, by starving the state’s public education system we’ve almost certainly damaged Arizona’s long term economic prospects.

The initiative is called Invest In Ed for good reason. If we don’t invest in Arizona’s public schools, which educate 90 percent of the K-12 students statewide, our economy will inevitably pay the price.

Weirdly, Proposition 208’s major opponent is a coalition led by the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and backed by 60 other business groups. 

I called it weird because who should know better what it takes to build and sustain a healthy economy than the business community? Then again, these are the same folks who predicted Arizonans would face an economic apocalypse if voters approved  Proposition 206, a 2016 initiative that eventually boosted the state’s minimum wage to $12 an hour.

Proposition 206 passed. And the world did not end. But hundreds of thousands of Arizonans did start getting paid something more akin to livable wage. In fact, until the pandemic arrived our state’s economy was booming.

“It takes money to make money” is one of the golden rules of entrepreneurship. In other words, you can’t build, sustain or grow a business unless you’re willing to invest your time and money. 

The same goes for our public school system. In fact, the fundamental responsibility of our schools, public or private, is to equip our children with the educational tools they need to enter adulthood, whether that means going directly into the workforce or pursuing higher education. But that can’t happen, certainly not very successfully, if we keep nickel-and-diming our schools to the point where teachers and other school staff and administrators decide they have to switch careers to earn a reasonable salary.

Underpaying teachers has predictable results. The state’s long-running teacher shortage is now a full-blown crisis. At the start of the current school year, Arizona had about 1,700 unfilled teaching positions, according to a report by the Arizona School Personnel Administrators Association

Ultimately, underfunding public schools deprives our children, especially in low-income communities, of the educational experience and academic training they will need to live full and productive lives. It’s a form of child neglect.

We should stop treating Arizona’s children as if they’re expendable. It’s not their fault the so-called grown ups in the legislature and governor’s office can’t muster the political backbone to restore all or even most of the funding cuts made over the years.

Invest In Ed is not a magic bullet. But it’s a start. And it’s the first serious attempt in decades to deliver the message to our children and the thousands of Arizona teachers who educate them that they deserve our respect and investment, instead of our neglect.

James E. Garcia
James E. Garcia is a Phoenix-based journalist, playwright and communications consultant. He is the editor and publisher of Vanguardia Arizona, which covers Latino news statewide, and the weekly newsletter Vanguardia America. As a journalist, he has worked as a reporter, columnist, editor and foreign correspondent. He was the first Latino Affairs correspondent for KJZZ, and the first Latino editor of major progressive news weekly in the U.S., The San Antonio Current. James has taught writing, ethnic studies, theater and Latino politics at ASU. He is the producing artistic director of New Carpa Theater Co. and the author of more than 30 plays.