Since I write about education, I try to see everything written about schools and schooling that pertains to Arizona. (You can too. It's easy! Just create a Google alert: Arizona + Education. You'll have dozens of links emailed to you every day.) So I might be overstating things when I say the major focus of Arizona's 2018 elections will be education, but not by much. Unless Arizona Republicans can distract the white electorate by making them fear everyone who doesn't look like them—Trump figured out how to do it, and I'd say he's just following Arizona's lead—schools are going to play big in the minds of voters. And that gives Democrats an opportunity to close the numbers gap between Democratic and Republican voters and pull out a few narrow wins in close races. Education is a Democrat-friendly issue, especially in a state like Arizona where Republicans have starved the schools for years.
Doug Ducey may talk about education even more than he talks about the economy. He knows he has to get in front of a losing political issue so it doesn't spin out of control. Voters put K-12 education at the top of their list of priorities A majority have said they're willing to spend a few extra bucks to raise the amount we spend on students and teacher salaries. And they know Republicans are responsible for our bottom-of-the-barrel per-student funding.
So what does Ducey do in response? He dubs himself the "education governor" and demonstrates his commitment to our children by sprinkling a little budget money over a few high-profile education programs, then acts like he's Santa Claus. Every time he visits a school, he makes sure the story, accompanied by a picture of him surrounded by children, makes it into the local media. And he's full of promises about all the money schools are going to get in the next budget. He tends to be short on the details of his intended largesse, like how much he plans to spend and where he plans to spend it, but he wants everyone to know he cares. Especially when facts give the lie to his promises.
Ducey was furious recently when a report showed the state's spending on education is down
since the recession. Taking a page out of the Trump playbook, Ducey complained it was "a false report by a left-wing public interest group." Except that it's true. Even the governor's press aide Daniel Scarpinato had to admit we're spending less per student than in 2008. Then he quickly added, “We think we’ll be back at 2008 at some point." At some point. No idea when.
A few days later, out comes a new way to fund education. Ducey’s new chief operating officer says he's going to cut the budgets of state agencies
without harming their effectiveness. Scarpinato says, optimistically, the savings could be in the "tens of millions," and some of that can be used for education.
A little basic math reveals how little "tens of millions" is when it comes to schools. Arizona has a million school-aged children. That means "tens of millions" works out to tens of dollars per student—a nickel or a dime spent on each student every day of the school year. Right now, we're spending nearly $200 less per student than we spent in 2008, accounting for inflation. That comes to $200 million. "Tens of millions" is less than ten percent of what we need just to catch up to where we were in 2008, when we were already among the bottom three states in education spending.
The Democratic gubernatorial candidates know all this. David Garcia is a college prof specializing in education research and policy. He's worked on education issues with the state Department of Education and the legislature. Steve Farley has been in the state legislature since 2006 as a representative and senator and has advocated regularly for adequate school funding. Both candidates are harsh, constant critics of Ducey's education policies.
Farley and Garcia should keep their focus on education, and other Democratic candidates should echo the message. Repetition, repetition, repetition. Unfortunately for Democrats, they're easily distracted. Ask them questions requiring long-winded answers, and they're likely to turn into college debaters rather than politicians. Accuse them of making unrealistic campaign promises, and they're likely to blush, stammer and equivocate.
If they're smart, they'll all write a four word cheat sheet on their palms in indelible ink that reads, "It's the schools, stupid." It's not the only issue they have, but it may be the only one they can ride to victory.