Commentary

The pandemic has been a godsend for Ducey and his anti-public education friends

January 12, 2022 11:01 am

Kentucky public school teachers rally for a “day of action” at the Kentucky State Capitol on April 13, 2018. Photo by Bill Pugliano | Getty Images

For those who doubted whether Gov. Doug Ducey was silently working to undermine public education, doubt no more.

As a lame duck governor, his war on district schools is no longer being waged in the shadows. He put his disdain for public education on full display during his State of the State speech on Monday.

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Arizonans know the past two years have been a nightmare for students, teachers and parents. Conflicting guidelines from health and government leaders, coupled with remote learning and children and teens dealing with isolation and family illnesses and death have created a tsunami of loss in our schools.

Test scores have plummeted, and the surgeon general has reported huge upticks in anxiety and depression as well as suicide attempts, creating an unprecedented crisis among our youth.

But you wouldn’t know that from listening to the governor’s State of the State.

Democrats diss Ducey for ignoring school funding needs, COVID-19 challenges

Ducey said absolutely nothing about the mental health crisis facing our kids. He said little about the academic crisis, claiming we’d “lead the way on fighting learning loss,” but offered no innovative, long-term solutions — just a plan to use federal relief dollars to create a one-time “summer camp” for students who have fallen behind.

But his most alarming omission was the financial crisis that threatens to make all of this loss even worse.

Because of an antiquated constitutional provision that our legislators have never taken the time to fix, district schools have strict expenditure caps. Basically, schools can’t spend much beyond 1980-level funding, before the advent of the internet. (The spending cap increases annually, but only to account for inflation and student population growth.)

As voters continue to support additional education dollars through initiatives and referendums, schools have bumped up against the cap, and this year, are set to exceed it.

If legislators do not vote to override the cap, districts will be forced to cut more than $1 billion in funding, which could result in massive layoffs this spring or an early end to the school year.

Losing more teachers and support staff or closing school doors altogether would be the most foolish and reckless decision a governor could make during this crisis. And because he didn’t mention it in his speech, it seems possible that may be the route Ducey takes.

It’s important to note that the spending cap was created prior to the development of charter schools, which means they don’t face spending limits. And if the Legislature overrides it (something they’ve done in the past), it will negate the argument that Proposition 208 dollars cannot flow to schools because new monies will exceed the cap.

Considering the biggest applause Ducey received during his State of the State was a line about Arizona being No. 1 in school choice in the nation, I don’t believe the governor gives a damn if district students — who happen to be the vast majority of our students — lose even more than they already have.

Ducey has positioned himself as a follower of Milton Friedman’s school privatization ideology, which seeks to abolish the entire public education system and replace it with private schools.

For Friedman die-hards, education is not a public good but rather a service that should compete for market share.

Of course, the problem with that theory is that competition naturally creates winners and losers. And in this case, the losers are students, and those students are those already fighting other disadvantages, such as poverty or learning disabilities.

As the No. 1 state for choice, we’ve seen the real-world results of privatization — and it hasn’t been cause for celebration.

Arizona is also No. 1 in the highest student-to-teacher ratios in the country, which is a symptom of being No. 50 in teacher pay and not being able to attract or retain enough teachers or support staff willing to work for peanuts.

We also fare the worst in our student-to-counselor ratio, and we’re moving backwards, not forwards on most of the goals outlined in the Arizona Education Progress Meter, such as third-grade reading and eighth-grade math and graduation and college attainment rates.

Does that sound like a recipe for success to you?

And yet our governor isn’t looking to change these outcomes.

Last legislative session, when our state had enough money to raise teacher pay to the national average and better our student-to-counselor ratio and close the funding gap for special education services, Ducey punted.

Instead, he double-downed on policies that do not work and plans to do so again.

To hell with the voters who already said they don’t want more private school vouchers. Ducey has used the pandemic to expand vouchers via executive fiat and encouraged legislators to send him even more voucher expansion bills.

And to hell with the Arizonans who voted for more money in classrooms and higher taxes on the wealthy. Ducey and Republican legislators instead gave wealthy Arizonans the largest tax cut in history.

But don’t look for Ducey & Co. to take any responsibility for the damage they’ve caused in our students’ lives.

They’ll continue to place the blame on under-resourced teachers and administrators and volunteer school board members and the parents of district-school kids.

The pandemic may have taken the lives of more than 24,000 Arizonans and left a sea of chaos for our students, but it’s been a godsend for school privatizers and those seeking to hasten the destruction of public education.

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Julie Erfle
Julie Erfle

Julie Erfle hails from North Dakota, but has called Arizona home for more than twenty years. She began her career in Phoenix as a creative services producer at KPHO-TV5 and 3TV. Blending her background in communications with her passion for community activism, Julie launched the political blog Politics Uncuffed in 2011, and began working as a communications director and consultant on candidate and initiative campaigns. She is the former executive director of Progress Now Arizona, a progressive communications and advocacy non-profit, and a fellow with the Flinn-Brown Arizona Center for Civic Leadership and Leading for Change.

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