Sarah Garrecht Gassen: Schools have been way short of money, but how were lawmakers to know?

2013-08-08T00:00:00Z Sarah Garrecht Gassen: Schools have been way short of money, but how were lawmakers to know?Sarah Garrecht Gassen Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
August 08, 2013 12:00 am  • 

It's safe to say that no public school in Arizona has ever suffered from the Legislature's too-bountiful largesse. Quite the opposite.

So after years of the state Legislature cutting - no, slashing - money from public schools, the state's top education official has come to a groundbreaking conclusion: Taking money away from schools is bad.

"We know that the stress from the finances of the last couple of years are a significant distraction from the educational mission, and that the Legislature needs to do something about it," said John Huppenthal, Arizona's superintendent of public instruction. It's an elected position.

"Our school system needs to be compensated at least for inflation," he said. "And they need a little bit of catch-up ground from the cuts over the last couple of years," he said last week while announcing the yearly letter grades for public schools.

Huppenthal was quick to say that more money doesn't necessarily mean better academic achievement - which, at least as measured by standardized tests, has improved a bit. (The pitfalls of standardized testing will have to wait for another day.)

Anyone who pays attention to the news, specifically to the Legislature, should know that Arizona school kids are and have been directly affected by lawmakers' priorities.

Here's a quick recap: Children have lost $189 million to $240 million since 2010, according to Howard Fischer of Capitol Media Services. That's the year the state went against what voters had approved in 2000 and stopped covering inflation in school funding. (The Arizona Court of Appeals ruled recently that these cuts were illegal and the money must be restored, but legislative majority leaders are trying to get that decision overturned.)

Money in those sums seems theoretical, like the Powerball (fingers crossed!), so let's put it in real terms: Districts and schools decide on their own how to manage the cuts, so this is more of a general example. But it's apt nonetheless:

Let's say you're 9.

You show up on the first day of school - along with the 32 other kids in your class. It's just the 33 of you and your teacher, no aides. Your textbooks are worn, maybe missing some pages or scribbled on, and you can't take them home because there aren't enough to go around.

The school counselor's office and librarian's desk are empty most of the time, if not always.

Your classroom has a high-tech whiteboard that your teacher can write on and use for showing the whole class lessons from her computer, but it's hard to see from the back row because projector bulbs are expensive and they're used pretty much until they burn out.

None of this is new. Conditions don't deteriorate overnight.

What is new is that a Republican - Huppenthal - is saying it, and in public. He also criticized the Republican majority's penchant for what he called "corporate giveaways."

The response from House Speaker Andy Tobin, also a Republican, as reported by Capitol Media Services: "I find it very disconcerting that the superintendent of public education does not understand the value of job creation so that we can put more money back into the education system and especially K-12."

Tobin blamed Huppenthal for not lobbying legislators for more classroom funding.

So that's the problem? One guy didn't pipe up, and that's why lawmakers didn't know that cutting money for schools negatively affected students in those schools today (not to mention letting anyone who is thinking of moving a business to Arizona know that education isn't important here)?

Really, how were these sheltered lawmakers supposed to know? It's not like parents, teachers, school board members, neighbors, grandparents, business owners or even the kids themselves have thought to mention the $189 million to $240 million that vanished from schools over the past three years.

Oh, wait. They did? They sent a lot of calls, emails, messages on Facebook and Twitter? Rallies? Visits in person?

Hmmmmm. Well, that's a puzzlement. They must have been shouting into the wind.

All I can figure is, the hole in the sand into which Republican lawmakers have buried their heads must be pretty darned crowded.

Sarah Garrecht Gassen writes opinion for the Arizona Daily Star. Email her at sgassen@azstarnet.com

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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