Governor’S Plan: At Least Stop Digging

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First step to getting out of real, deep hole: Stop digging. Gov. Jan Brewer’s proposed budget seems to meet this first, common sense bit of advice when it comes to recovering from a four-year financial catastrophe.

We’ve already applauded her recommendation to invest $154 million in state money to bring in $1.6 billion in federal funding for the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System. Not only will that decision create jobs and boost the economy, it will provide health coverage for 300,000 citizens and save many lives.

She also wants to stop excavating the pit into which the Legislature has cast our schools by proposing modest increases in funding after three years of decline.

Now, we wish she’d gone much further. We’d rather pay higher taxes than let schools languish any longer. Per-student funding remains perhaps the lowest in the nation and the Legislature cut schools more deeply than in any other state during the recession. That’s not a formula for attracting new businesses to this state and creating the 21st century workforce on which our future depends.

However, the governor’s budget does provide some vital increases for schools — including $40 million to help districts implement the common core standards on which so much of the national school reform movement depends. The budget includes another $20 million in technology that will help school districts track student progress. Those represent sensible investments in the future that we hope the Legislature will embrace.

We’ve got more doubts about a second creative, but untested, proposal in the governor’s budget — an effort to link school funding to student achievement.

Certainly, the idea of funding success and penalizing failure makes a lot of sense. It works in private industry — and should work in government as well. Finding ways to reward successful teachers and administrators makes sense.

Of course, the devil’s in the details. Gov. Brewer wants to provide an extra $500 per student for schools that do well on the state’s school grading system, which is based almost entirely on student performance on the AIMS test. She would provide another $500 per student for schools that significantly improve their rating from one year to the next.

The idea has promise — but feels premature. The school grading system unveiled last year doesn’t really capture school quality. We suspect the schools with a high percentage of students from college-educated families will get the lion’s share of the extra money — not because they’re doing a great job, but because of the nature of the students’ background. If that happens, the incentive system will exaggerate the wide disparities in the system rather than reward effective schools.

Finally, the governor’s budget includes a welcome increase in the number of Child Protective Service workers and more incentives for desperately needed foster families. Since the onset of the recession, the number of child abuse reports has jumped a dismaying 32 percent and the number of children in out-of-home, court-ordered care has risen a staggering 40 percent. This represents a desperate crisis, which will exact an enormous, long-term toll on our society. Studies have demonstrated repeatedly that most serious problems in this culture — from crime to alcoholism to unemployment — all put down taproots into the dark soil of child abuse and neglect.

The governor wants to add 50 CPS workers this year and 150 next year, with significant increases in support for foster families as well. This comes after years of morally indefensible declines in help for battered and abused children. Gov. Brewer’s proposal doesn’t go nearly far enough — but it establishes a welcome priority and offers urgently needed moral leadership on this most crucial of all issues.

Of course, the governor must now convince her Republican colleagues in the Legislature to accept her proposals. In the past few years, Republicans have given little deference to the governor’s proposals. The early, negative reaction to the proposed expansion of AHCCCS does not bode well for her plans this year. However, voters reduced the overwhelming Republican majority in both houses — and gave the Democrats enough seats to perhaps play a role in the budget debates. Hopefully, the Republicans will join ranks and support the governor’s common sense proposals now that three years of suffering has put the budget on sounder footing.

At the very least, we hope they’ll stop digging.

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