A drop in the bucket.

A short-term fix for a long-term problem.

A huge investment in our children.

Gov. Doug Ducey’s budget proposal for education has drawn sharply differing reactions from the candidates running for Legislative District 6, with a contested primary in August and the election in November. The budget plan continues to cut taxes and add to the reserves, but also includes new money for teacher raises, school counselors and capital needs.

Flagstaff Mayor Carol Evans — running for an open House seat — called the increases “a drop in the bucket,” that doesn’t come close to restoring years of cuts.

Coconino County Supervisor Art Babbott — running for a House seat as an independent — welcomed the “short term” increase, but stressed the long-term needs.

Retired Army Col. Felicia French, seeking to unseat incumbent Republican Sylvia Allen, said most of the increase stems from inflation and enrollment growth, while leaving Arizona near the bottom nationally in teacher salaries, per-student spending and class sizes.

Wendy Rogers, seeking to Republican nomination for the seat now held by Sen. Sylvia Allen, commented, 

 
"The governor is spending most of the budget on education and I think that is a great step in the right direction. I really like that there are teacher raises. I like that we are proposing cutting taxes and I like the smaller deposit into the rainy day fund as it is already over $1 billion. I would have preferred to have seen the Tonto Basin Bridge funding in there. If the Federal Government is willing to pay for it, then I would hope that the funding comes ASAP," she said in an email response.
 
Incumbent Republicans Sen. Sylvia Allen and Rep. Walt Blackman didn’t respond to a request for comments. Neither did former Rep. Brenda Barton, who is now seeking to regain her House seat or retired Col. Wendy Rogers, challenging Allen in the primary.

In a newsletter to voters prior to the release of the governor’s state budget, Allen said Republicans have added billions to school budgets since the recession, but still suffer a “perception” problem with the voters. Polls show education funding is the top priority for voters, with a majority saying they’re willing to pay higher taxes.

Education accounts for about half of the $12.3 billion state budget, including some $600 million in new spending. The extra money in the governor’s proposed budget includes $175 million for a 5% teacher pay raise, more money for long-deferred capital needs, extra money for both struggling and top-performing schools and more money for school counselors.

However, even with the proposed increases in the governor’s budget, Arizona would remain near the bottom in per-student funding, high school graduation rates, college attendance rates, class sizes and teacher salaries, according to various national surveys.

So here are some of the positions on education taken by candidates for Legislative District 6, which stretches from Flagstaff, through Payson and on east to Snowflake.

Dist. 6 House (2 seats):

Incumbent Republican Walt Blackman did not respond to the request for comment. Elected two years ago, the retired Army sergeant served for 21 years and won a Bronze Star working as a diversity counselor and victim advocate.

Former Rep. Brenda Barton also did not respond. She’s seeking the seat she relinquished two years ago because of term limits. Her campaign website vows to defend constitutional rights, including gun rights and state sovereignty. Her section on education on her campaign website says she helped improve the state’s technical and vocational training programs. She said education needs improvement “at all levels.”

Incumbent Rep. Bob Thorpe, a Republican, is not seeking reelection because of term limits.

The lone Democrat in the House race so far is Carol Evans, a former teacher and mayor of Flagstaff.

Evans said “the entire ecosystem of education is underfunded, only a third of Arizona’s youngest students attend preschool, the state has not restored funding for all-day kindergarten, in Flagstaff teachers accepted less than 20% by 2020 raise so that aides, counselor and special education teachers could get a raise.”

She noted that state budget cuts also led to the highest university tuition increase in the country.

“Any help for a system that’s been on life-support for a decade is appreciated, but it’s just a drop in the bucket. Arizona should reexamine corporate tax giveaways and have a serious conversation about contributions to the rainy day fund before passing a budget that fails to adequately fund education at every single level.”

She noted that while the state dramatically increased taxpayer money going to private schools, she worked with community partners in Flagstaff to provide quality preschool programs as well as reading support for third graders.

Babbott struck more of a middle ground, mixing praise for Ducey’s proposed increases with a call for addressing the long-term needs of schools.

“Gov. Ducey’s budget addresses some of the key educational priorities in the state,” he said. “The unanswered question is how long-term sustainable educational investments play out ... The achievement gap disproportionately impacts rural Arizona and will require both the executive and legislative branch to think beyond short-term funding strategies.

Babbott praised the additional money for counselors to help deal with the “unacceptably high” suicide rates in Gila, Navajo and Coconino counties as well as other problems affecting children. Arizona has among the lowest counselor-to-student ratios in the nation.

However, Babbott also said the state should boost spending on early childhood education, including preschool. He questioned the plan to give an extra $200 per student to the top preforming schools, since they’re mostly in wealthy districts and neighborhoods. He praised the additional money for teacher raises, but said school support staff also needs higher pay.

“I hope the Arizona Legislature complements the investments in the governor’s budget with initiatives which create a level playing field between public, charter and online institutions. A level educational playing field — where state government isn’t picking the winners and losers is important for accountability and transparency of taxpayers funds. The state should enact common sense fiscal reforms which sunset corporate tax giveaways which are ineffective and serving no purpose and use that capacity to continue teacher pay and per student funding investments.”

District 6 Senate (1 seat)

Democrat Felicia French came close to winning a House seat in the district two years ago and is now seeking to unseat Allen. French, who lives in Pine, served in the Army and the Arizona National Guard, including tours in Afghanistan. She suspended her campaign for several months to hike the 800-mile-long Arizona Trail, but has now returned.

She noted that despite the extra $108 million proposed for capital repairs on “crumbling” campuses, the total still represents about two-thirds of what the state spent on school maintenance 20 years ago.

“Ducey’s budget neither fully restores education funding to pre-2008 recession levels, nor does it address overcrowded, understaffed classrooms. Today, Arizona still has the worst teacher turnover rate in the nation, with a quarter of the positions languishing vacant.”

“Budgets speak to our state’s priorities: what this one tells everyone who lives, works, and goes to school in Arizona is that — for the governor and Republican-controlled state Legislature — it’s more important to hoard budget surpluses and selectively shield high-incomes from paying their fair share, rather than pull Arizona from its dead-bottom rankings as 49th in the nation for teacher pay and 46th for student funding. Our kids deserve, and Arizona’s future demands, better,” she said.

Allen did not respond to an email seeking comment.

However, in an email newsletter to constituents last year she noted that a poll in her district and elsewhere by “Stand for Children” concluded 93% of Democrats, 79% of independents and 64% of Republicans said they would vote to raise taxes for education.

“Education was the primary issue that the Democrats used in the 2018 election. They have successfully convinced the public that Republicans do not fund education. Yet, I can testify that, in the last four years, we have increased funding by billions of dollars with Republican votes. Not one Democrat voted for these increases.”

Retired Col. Wendy Rogers is running against Allen in the Republican primary. Two years ago, she mounted an campaign against Democrat Tom O'Halleran, who won a seat in Congress. Rogers expressed satisfaction with the governor's budget and priorities.

Contact the writer at

Contact the writer at paleshire@payson.com

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