Arizona's education system is broken and Republicans are to blame, three Democrats vying to represent Legislative District 9 contend. All three believe they can fix it.
Two of them will emerge from the Aug. 28 primary to face Republican Ethan Orr for the north-side district's two seats in the Legislature.
"Cutting back on education is cutting at our throats," Victoria Steele, a counselor and college instructor, told the audience at an Arizona Clean Elections-sponsored debate.
"We need to value our teachers so we can give our kids the success they deserve," Steele said.
In a debate that touched on topics ranging from SB 1070 to how to kick-start a battered economy and improve the health-care system, education surfaced as the dominant issue.
Citing a decrease in state funding and a Republican-led Legislature that they say can't get its priorities straight, Dustin Cox, president of CM Concordia Consulting LLC and Mohur Sarah Sidhwa, a career and personal transitions coach, agreed when it comes to education - Arizona they believe is on a steep decline.
They began delving into the issue by discussing their opposition to publicly funding private and religious schools.
"It was public education that produced our finest thinkers," Sidhwa said. "We have a problem because most private schools tend to be religiously affiliated. Down comes the wall of separation between church and state."
Sidhwa said she liked the idea of charter schools, but not the way they're being implemented locally.
Steele said fixing the education system includes increasing state funding, shifting curriculum decisions from politicians to educators and focusing on STEM, an acronym for science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
Steele, who returned to school when she was 40 years old after a 20-year career in newscasting, wants to expand access to adult education as well.
Cox agreed with Steele's points while emphasizing the arts and sciences carry equal weight in the classroom.
"What happens if we have an entire society full of engineers who have never heard of Shakespeare?" Cox said.
"It's not (either) STEM or arts and humanities. I think it's both. And we have the resources to do that."
Cox said he'd like to serve on the Appropriations Committee to fix a broken budget, which is where he said most of the problems are rooted.
"The budget is our moral document. The budget is what we frame our priorities as, as Arizonans," he said. "So what are our priorities today? They're not education. They're not creating jobs. They're not stimulating the economy and supporting the industries that could be the future employers of our state."
Sidhwa added her top education-related priority is to instill a strong appreciation for the sciences among students early on in school.
"I know of too many labs in high schools and middle schools that have equipment that belongs to another century," she said. "This is not how we compete globally."
She noted the relationship between the University of Arizona's research institutions, the state's economy and how they boost one another.
All three agreed that the path to having their ideas implemented by the Legislature won't be easy due to partisan gridlock.
"Who in their right mind, Mohur and Victoria, would want to go into that?" Cox said, joking. All three put their hands in the air. "Me, too. You got to be a little crazy to do this."
On SB 1070, all three candidates said they would have preferred that the Supreme Court killed the entire bill, rather than just most of it.
They all also voiced support for the Affordable Care Act, and for boosting the economy by investing more in solar energy and biotech industries.
Amer Taleb is a University of Arizona student who is an apprentice at the Star. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 573-4117.