More than half the state budget goes to education — both K-12 schools and universities.
So the stark differences between candidates in state Legislative District 6 could have a huge impact on the entire state in the next two years when it comes to education reform.
Republicans hold a narrow two-seat majority in the state House and District 6 is one of the most competitive in the state — with an open Senate and House seat and a one-term incumbent Republican in the second House seat. As a result, the six candidates have drawn $1.1 million in donations as well as $1.4 million in independent spending by special interest groups — shattering all previous spending records.
The three Republicans — incumbent Walt Blackman and former representative Brenda Barton as well as Senate candidate Wendy Rogers — support expansion of “school choice,” including private school vouchers and charter schools. They also oppose Proposition 208, which would add a 3.5% income tax levy to the tax bill for people making more than $250,000 per year. The measure would raise almost $1 billion annually, earmarked mostly for teacher salaries and support.
The two Democrats — Flagstaff Mayor Coral Evans and retired Army Col. Felicia French, have been critical of the state’s generous voucher system for private schools, rules that favor public charter schools and low state spending on traditional schools. They both strongly favor Proposition 208.
Independent Art Babbott, the Coconino County supervisor running for one of the two House seats, aligns with the Democrats when it comes to education. He opposes taxpayer vouchers for private school tuition and believes charter schools and traditional public schools should play by the same financial and transparency rules. He also favors passage of Proposition 208.
The differences featured prominently in two recent candidate debates. However, the debates were truncated. Rogers didn’t take part in either debate. Blackman, Barton and Babbott all participated in a radio debate. Evans, French and Babbott took part in a second debate, this one sponsored on public television as part of the Clean Elections series of candidate debates.
So here’s an attempt to weave together the positions of the candidates on education in the separate forums, with only Babbott appearing in both debates.
The Rogers campaign responded to a request for a comment on education policies by email. The retired Air Force colonel and pilot said she opposed Proposition 208 because it would make Arizona a high tax state, at least for upper-income taxpayers.
“Just when our small businesses are dealing with the economic fallout caused by COVID-19, the last thing they need is the prospect of a billion-dollar tax increase. I support continued investment in education, and certainly, the recent 20% pay increase for our hardworking teachers was a great place to start. Working together, we can ensure that all of Arizona’s children have access to a great education without devastating small business owners.”
Blackman and Barton made similar points in their radio debate in Flagstaff several weeks ago.
Barton said, “We need to expand educational options. Parents need the freedom to pick the right school for their children. The Legislature increased education funding to $6.4 billion — that’s billion with a B — which included the 20% teacher pay raises by 2020. This places teachers 16th in the nation for best teacher pay increases,” she said. “I’d like to continue that process.”
National figures suggest that even with the increases in the past three years, teacher salaries in Arizona remain well below the national average and the state still has the largest average class sizes in the nation.
Blackman, a retired Army sergeant first elected to the Legislature two years ago, said, “We hear the same old liberal Democrat talking points — not enough money for schools. We’ve invested $168 million in teacher pay over a five-year period. And an additional $160 million for the building fund. Educational dollars are allocated from the state — the school boards decide where that money goes. When we say we need to continue to fund education — and the Legislature is not doing its job — that’s why I am going to continue to help education.”
The other three candidates stressed the need to continue increasing school funding. Estimates suggest the state has not yet restored the cuts in K-12 funding made in the last recession on an inflation-adjusted, per-student basis. National assessments rank Arizona as one of the worst-funded public school systems in the nation, with large class sizes, low test scores, low teacher pay, high dropout rates and low college attendance rates.
Democrats French — running for Senate — and Evans — running for one of the two House seats — both strongly supported Proposition 208 and an overall increase in education funding. They also support restrictions on taxpayer money used for private school tuition.
“I don’t disagree with the original intent and design for the Empowerment Scholarship Accounts ... to help students with disabilities,” said French regarding ESA, which provided payments of about $110 million last year to cover private school tuition. The program isn’t audited and an investigation by The Arizona Republic recently revealed that dozens of families have accumulated unspent account balances of more than $50,000. About 7,000 students annually collect the payments. “But private schools are not required to admit students with disabilities so students with special needs are not guaranteed to benefit.”
Evans said, “My daughter went to public schools and she has a disability, so I understand this issue very well.” Evans is also a former teacher from a family of teachers, although her father was a lumberjack. “We have a constitutional mandate to provide a public school system that provides for all our kids. We are failing at that because we are 49th in this country. Having a failing public school system is bad for kids, bad for parents — and let me be clear — it’s bad for business. It’s paramount that we have a public school system where the kiddos can get to school without the bus breaking down. Schools where the roofs don’t leak. We need to address the issue of education in this state — and adequately fund it.”
Babbott mostly agreed, supporting Proposition 208 and increased school funding — along with better accountability measures. He would like to eliminate the vouchers, since private schools have no oversight in how they spend that taxpayer money. He would also ensure that charter schools operate with the same oversight as public schools. That would include preventing the private, for-profit businesses that operate many charters from awarding overpriced, non-competitive contracts to other businesses they own, imposing the same limits on carry-forward ending balances as those placed on traditional public schools and other measures designed to prevent the financial abuses documented at some charter schools in recent years.
“Arizonans have repeatedly said school choice and competition in the academic landscape is important. But that is a different question from ‘is the landscape fair? Are the rules similar?,’” said Babbott, who also operates a business in Flagstaff. “Is the Arizona Legislature picking winners and losers? Free and fair markets function well when one person doesn’t get an advantage over the other person. Let hard work, creativity and vision move the market. The Arizona Legislature deals the deck with 33 cards to traditional public schools and 52 cards to the charter schools.”