Legislative Wrap-up: Education

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We take a look at the impact of budget cuts and other legislation on public education with Senator Rich Crandall, Chair of the Senate Education Committee; Ann-Eve Pedersen, president of the Arizona Education Network; and Chuck Essigs of the Arizona Association of School Business Officials.

Ted Simons: The Arizona education network describes itself as a parent-founded, nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that advocates for public education. Yesterday the Tucson-based group was at the state capital to make sure that the public knows how lawmakers voted on three key education funding bills. David Majure has more.

Ann-Eve Pedersen: This is a voting record people need to see. They will go home, they'll tell their constituents they support public education.

David Majure: The Arizona education network highlighted in red the names of 59 lawmakers it says voted against three major education funding bills this session.

Ann-Eve Pederson: It is these 59 legislators who are voting to close our children's schools, to cram our children into super sized classrooms, to fire teachers, librarians and counselors, to deny children access to all-day kindergarten, to strip schools of basics like paper, pencils and books, and to make our Universities unaffordable to the middle class.

David Majure: The group says lawmakers have other options, like taxing exempt luxury services and equalizing state taxes on liquor.

Ann-Eve Pedersen: That would generate $438 million more dollars a year according to the state department of revenue. The cuts over the past three years to our schools, community colleges, and Universities now total $1.3 billion. With even more cuts guaranteed each year, because these legislators refuse to deal with the fact that our state not bringing in enough revenue to pay for basic needs. And to demonstrate that these cuts about antigovernment ideology rather than a temporary budget necessity, the legislature last week passed a bill called ‘TABOR' which will lock in these recession level cuts for good, making it impossible for education funding to be restored if the economy rebounds.

Ted Simons: Joining us now to talk about where public education stands after the recent legislative session is Senator Rich Crandall, chairman of the Senate Education Committee. Also joining us is Ann-Eve Pedersen, president of the Arizona Education Network, and Chuck Essigs, director of Government relations for the Arizona Association of School Business Officials. Good to see you all here. Anne, we just saw you up there with your presentation. Let's talk more. I'm guessing you think the impact of the legislature this session not good on education.

Ann-Eve Pedersen: No. I think it was devastating for education. And I think we're very concerned about what this means for the state's million school children, but we're also very concerned about what this means for the state's economy as well. And so even if you don't have children in school or grandchildren in school, this will affect you and we heard earlier before the legislature voted from Craig Barrett from Intel, and he warned everyone that if the state continues to disinvest in education, it's very bad for the state's business climate. But the legislature and the governor went ahead and passed these very deep cuts anyway.

Ted Simons: Devastating to education in Arizona.

Sen. Rich Crandall: Difficult to deal with, yes. Devastating, no. As we look to the future, there are several options available to us. As we start to look at where we're going with education, are with getting the results we need for the money we put into it? You compare dollar amounts for results across the country, even within Arizona, our highest paid teachers and the mean we see different academic results all the way across.

Ted Simons: We got devastation on one side, we've got, we need to do better with what we've got, and there's a lot of something else in between here. What are you seeing?
Chuck Essigs: First it's probably the most difficult time financially for schools that I remember in my tenure, and I've been around a long time. School districts had cuts before, but they were one year at a time, then the economy would recover. Now we're looking at two, three, four years in a row of cuts and that takes its toll.

Ted Simons: The idea of. Let's, let's talk about some of these in particular --

Sen. Rich Crandall: This budget was different in that in negotiations with the governor, they chose specific programs to cut rather than a lump sum cut. What that means is, you had some losers and then had you some big losers. If you're a small rural district that had, Safford, for example, career ladder, over 1100 kids, one of their components I am forgetting about -- ninth grade education, those were specific programs that were cut. Safford are all of those in large numbers. It's bordering on devastating for a rural district like that.

Ted Simons: What had been -- would it have been better to have a lump sum as opposed to targeting these particular programs?

Ann-Eve Pedersen: Well, I think what would be best is to not have had this level of cuts at all. And what we're seeing is the year after year as Chuck mentioned, a cumulative nature this time. Let's say in year one, you lost your librarian and your counselor. Year two you now lose a couple teachers, so your classes are larger. Year three, you're losing any remaining programs, your P.E. teacher, arts teacher. So what we're leaving our school children with is a building, if we even have a building, because we're having to close schools around the state as well, our school district has closed nine schools in Tucson. You're leaving them with a building, a principal, and a reduced number of teachers, and very little enrichment programs.

Ted Simons: Chuck, did the legislature go -- I think given coming from the legislature as we had to cut, we had to do something. Alright, if that is the given, would the lump sum method have been better?

Chuck Essigs: It did get better, because the cuts coming out of the senate originally were $100 million more than where we currently stand. It's always a hard call, because some districts are better off when they cut a program, because they don't have to fight with their community. But I think generally across the board cuts are better for school districts when they give them flexibility into where to make those reductions rather than eliminate any particular program.

Sen. Rich Crandall: For the first time since I've been down there we had balanced budget, a true balanced budget. No rollovers, no gimmicks, no borrowing. What does this mean for next session? I'm extremely encouraged about next year, next January our tax revenues are up, most economic indicators that we're looking at are up. There's still the unknown with houses underwater, but next year could be very encouraged for the first time in four or five years for education.

Ted Simons: But aren't there still rollovers?

Sen. Rich Crandall: We still have over a billion dollars of rollover, but we didn't add to that.

Ted Simons: Are you encouraged for next session?

Ann-Eve Pedersen: I would hope sales tax revenues are going up, but the problem S. the legislature just passed this bill called ‘tabler', and if the governor approves this, even if our sales tax revenue increases we have locked in these spending levels. So that money goes back to taxpayers. It does not go into the general fund to be able to provide so our schools can rebound as the economy rebounds.

Ted Simons: Why was it necessary to lock those in?

Sen. Rich Crandall: Hold, hold on. I'm laughing because I was one of the only no votes on it. I'm the only CPA down there. ‘Tabler' is a very bad idea. Colorado repealed it, it was that bad an idea. I'm not sure the governor will sign it there. Were several bills putting caps on spending, some were better than others as far as averaging and smoothing. It will be interesting to watch to see if the governor signs it, because it does lock you into things you may not want to be tied into.

Ted Simons: Especially if the economy does rebound.

Sen. Rich Crandall: One important point, anything passed in statute, it's easy to say notwithstanding in future years, you are not locked in. If the voters approve something, you cannot say notwithstanding. I'm not overly terrified about a statute that passes.

Ted Simons: What do you make of this?

Chuck Essigs: Take tabler, which kind of locks us in at the bottom of our spending patterns, take the sales tax that may go away if some initiative doesn't keep it there, there's about a billion dollars of rollover for schools, so we're going to need a very vigorous almost unbelievable recovery in the economy to work our way out of this in a short period of time.

Ted Simons: Senator, the idea that lawmakers voted to close schools, we're taking from what you said at the conference there the other day, voting to close schools, voting to fire teachers, voting to fire librarians, to fire counselors. Underneath all of that, folks who have jobs. What does that do to the economy?

Sen. Rich Crandall: Let's talk about closing schools first. We talk about districts that have had huge declines in enrollment, and they say we shouldn't be closing schools? Mesa has lost 6,000 students. Tucson, you look at the number of schools Tucson has versus the number of students, they have about 30 more schools than Mesa does with 10,000 fewer students. Would you rather put the money into the classroom or into brick and mortar and lawn care and utilities? We should be closing schools all over the state, but not because of the budget, but because of declining enrollment.

Ted Simons: We would come back to the jobs in a second. How do you respond to that?

Ann-Eve Pedersen: Well, I think that closing a school, especially an excelling school, is just a very sad, sad thing for the state of Arizona. I don't think that we should be closing schools if we don't have to, and I don't think some of these districts would choose to do that. Some of these are in areas where the population will rebound, they're in aging parts of the city and in the past they would not have been closed, but we're being forced to now. Small communities like Sierra Vista, the home of one of our state's primary military bases, is having to close schools. That's not ideal for that community as well. But I would go back, that's one piece of it, there is the jobs piece, and we know we have already fired thousands of educators with this budget we will be firing thousands more. And this makes it even more difficult to pull out much the recession. These are taxpaying Arizonans, they could lose their jobs, they won't be paying taxes while they're unemployed. And that's not good in terms of coming out of a recession.

Sen. Rich Crandall: Ok. Let's, let's correct some facts here. There were not thousands fired. There were thousands given notice they might potentially, but most were hired back. Tonight at the Mesa school board meeting there will be 20 riffs. Out of 9,000 employees, there will be 20 riffs. To say we're laying off thousands and thousands, that's not true. It's not true statewide. So we need to make sure we stick with the facts when we are having a conversation.

Ann-Eve Pedersen: We're not just talking about K-12 though, but our community colleges, and our Universities.

Sen. Rich Crandall: Every college and University has added to their payroll in the last four or five years. You talk to any of the presidents or the presidents of the universities --

Ann-Eve Pedersen: I don't think that's true. We had the U of A said they were going to cut at least 600 employees from the first budget round, not even including the additional cuts.

Sen. Rich Crandall: Remember they are cutting over here while they're adding over here. The net effect has been very, very minimal, because we've had record enrollment.

Ann-Eve Pedersen: You cannot cut $450 million and not expect to have job losses.

Ted Simons: Chuck, get in on this now. Can you expect to not have job losses with those kinds of cuts?

Chuck Essigs: There are job losses, but I want to get back on the closing of schools. If the reason a district is closing schools is because they have excess capacity and that school is no longer needed, that's a legitimate reason. If they're being forced to close schools because they don't have the resources to keep all the schools open that are needed in that community, that's not correct. But I agree with Rich, there are some districts that are closing schools directly because of enrollment declines. But some are closing they might not really need to close because the needs of the community are still there, but they just don't have the money to keep them open.

Ted Simons: This business of jobs, because we've got some very different viewpoints here as to whether or not job losses are occurring or will occur. What do you see there?

Chuck Essigs: I see teachers losing jobs across the state. The problem is, nobody is defined what that number is. We hear 50 here, 20 there. Also I believe in some districts like Mesa have you teachers that are retiring that they're not filling their positions.

Sen. Rich Crandall: And that is absolutely true. And that's the big -- the attrition is larger than it has ever been.

Ann-Eve Pedersen: What happens when these teachers are removed, whether fired or retired, is they are not being replaced and so we have much, much larger class sizes. And we're seeing that in schools across the state. And that is not good for learning, at all.

Ted Simons: You had a bill in this session regarding emergency repairs, and medical records. I mean sorry, not medical records, but electronic records as far as education records or concerns. Talk to us about that, and what else -- that's -- it sounds like innovation is happening, sounds like maybe something good is happening. Something good had to happen there as far as building and innovating. Is that one of the things?

Sen. Rich Crandall: We had a couple of big things that happened. The big one, we're waiting for the governor's signature, the education relief act. As you look at what schools are doing, there is so much they do is mere bureaucracy. That doesn't tie into academic achievement. We have a bill that has 24-25 little things in it on the governor's desk, praying she signs that, because it means it's protecting some fund can for schools, that's key. But probably the biggest thing Arizona -- we have no rules that get in the way of technology in the classroom like other states do. So Arizona is poised to take advantage, and you're starting to see incredible programs. Chandler, Madison, down to Yuma, some incredible programs that focus on how to make things work in this environment.

Ted Simons: That particular idea, just in general, anything good from your viewpoint happening down there at the legislature this session?

Ann-Eve Pedersen: I hate to think we have to call something the education relief act. We should not be in the position of trying to provide relief for education, we should be providing funding. And these types of measures, when I worry - what I am worrying about is it's allowing districts to move money around, shift burdens to local property owners, but what happens is legislators go back to their districts and they will tell someone, I voted for the education relief act, but what they don't mention is they voted for half a billion dollars in cuts to education. And that's what I can't -- I don't think we can lose sight of what really happened during this session with regard to funding, because this is what affects everything in our schools, in our classrooms, our schools are at the point now where I don't think they have enough money to function properly and we have cut down to the bare bones where we don't even have the basics that our kids need.
Ted Simons: What do you think?

Chuck Essigs: School districts are grateful for anything the legislature can do to help them get through these difficult times. The problem is the difficulty is so much greater than the relief. But the relief helps. It makes it somewhat easier, but the public should understand that the relief that is being given to schools may be helps with 10% of the problem, the other 90% of the laws of revenue is still impacting.

Ted Simons: last question, Chuck, the impact of cuts on attracting business on keeping business, I'm talking K-12 cuts, University cuts. Talk to us about that. How does that come into play?

Chuck Essigs: Craig Barrett always made a lot more money than I have, so would I rely on his statement better than mine. I thought it was very revealing. If he was looking at coming to Arizona today or Intel was -- they wouldn't come. And that's a pretty strong statement.

Sen. Rich Crandall: It is. Eight of us had lunch with Craig last Friday to talk about that specific issue. We just had the education innovation summit at ASU three weeks ago. The top education reformers in the entire U.S. came here to talk about what can we do. Part of the reason is, Arizona leads the nation in school choice and lack of red tape for blended learning, digital learn can.

Ted Simons: I guess we'll stop it there. Thank you so much. Great conversation, good to see you all.

Ann-Eve Pedersen: Thank you.

Ann-Eve Peterson:President, Arizona Education Network;Sen. Rich Crandall:Chair, Senate Education Committee;Chuck Essigs:Arizona Association of School Business Officials;

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