State Budget Neglects Kids

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We certainly don’t envy Gov. Brewer and the legislative leadership making like Solomon and cutting up the baby, with so many urgent needs competing for limited state revenues.

Certainly, balancing the state budget with a reasonable contingency fund required a lot of difficult decisions and hard choices. That said, the Legislature’s reluctance to protect children from abuse and neglect and restore funding to our crippled K-12 school system remains profoundly disappointing – and foolishly short-sighted.

The Legislature cut K-12 funding by more than $1 billion during the recession, locking up Arizona’s shameful position as the worst-funded school system in the nation.

Now with state revenues rising and a comfortable surplus, the Legislature proved more eager to enact additional business tax cuts than to help our faltering public school system. The Legislature continues to lavish tax breaks on private schools, give charter schools a $1,000 per-student bonus and heap abuse on public schools.

We cannot prosper and attract new jobs and businesses if we abuse and neglect our educational system.

The Brookings Institute did one study that concluded much of our national prosperity for the past 40 years has relied on an increase of labor productivity of 2.4 percent annually. As much as 30 percent of that gain in productivity stemmed from improvements in education, according to the study.

Another study by the Economic Policy Institute concluded high-wage states overwhelmingly have the best-educated workforce. The educational attainment of the work force correlates directly to median wages. The study found that good schools and universities do far more to boost wages, increase jobs and attract businesses than tax cuts and other incentives.

These studies make a painful commentary on the state’s decision to shower tax benefits on a wealthy, high-tech company like Apple while hollowing out the school system.

The budget Gov. Jan Brewer signed last week provides K-12 schools with a roughly 1.5 percent increase for inflation. Even here, the Legislature can’t claim much credit since voters required an inflation adjustment through a ballot measure years ago. Turns out, the Legislature flaunted the will of the voters during the recession by withholding that inflation adjustment.

Almost the only source of new funding for K-12 schools in this sad, hollow budget came in the form of $8 million to help school districts test students on compliance with the new state/federal academic standards. That’s half as much as the governor requested – although the governor’s budget didn’t come close to covering the costs of this massive increase in testing for 1 million students.

And please, don’t get us started on higher education. The Legislature has reduced state support for the state’s three universities from about $8,000 per student to about $4,300 per student — forcing the universities to basically double tuition rates. In the meantime, they’ve all but cut off community colleges from state funding.

Moreover, the Legislature effectively refused to provide money for capital improvements in K-12 schools – despite a court order making the state responsible. Lawmakers did pass rules that make it virtually impossible for districts to pass bond issues to make those improvements. So now schools like Payson have no money to fix leaky roofs, replace aging buses or provide for the needs of our children.

In the meantime, the Legislature also refused to protect children from abuse and neglect. The legislative budget fell $30 million short of what the governor requested to hire enough Child Protective Service caseworkers and investigators to avoid a repeat of last year’s revelation that the agency simply classed as “uninvestigated” 6,500 reports. Mind you, while the agency has scrambled to look into those dismissed reports — the backlog of new reports has grown inexorably to 12,000. At the same time, the number of children in out-of-home care had grown to 15,000.

Despite months of headlines, the Legislature has not solved the problem. We hope the Legislature will at least follow through on the vague promise to revisit the issue — perhaps in a special session once Gov. Brewer presents a more detailed plan for reform.

The Legislature has no more urgent task than protecting children from abuse and neglect, yet lawmakers have done almost nothing. Instead, the legislature spent months on sideshows — like railing against the federal government, making it harder for towns to keep guns out of council meetings, providing for surprise inspections of clinics that perform abortion and a host of odd little crusades.

We wouldn’t mind these sideshows nearly as much if the Governor and the Legislature had fulfilled their most important responsibility: Protecting children and providing them with the education they need if this state is to thrive.

Please note: We only consider Solomon wise because he didn’t actually cut the baby in two.

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