The Skinny: Ducey stumbles into another fight with public school advocates

click to enlarge GAGE SKIDMORE FILE PHOTO
Gage Skidmore file photo

Gov. Doug Ducey launched his State of the State address with a condemnation of the storming of the U.S. Capitol earlier this month and a call for collaboration between the political parties.

Quoting Abraham Lincoln, Ducey said: "With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in."

But it didn't take long for Ducey to slip into the malice lane as he went after school districts that haven't resumed classes.

"With every public-health professional, from Dr. Fauci and the CDC on down, saying that the safest place for kids to be is in school, we will not be funding empty seats or allowing schools to remain in a perpetual state of closure," Ducey said. "Children still need to learn, even in a pandemic."

There's no doubt this has been a terrible year for kids, and Ducey isn't wrong to say that they are missing out on vital experiences that go along with being in the classroom.

But at the same time, Ducey himself had to deliver his State of the State via livestream because he didn't think it was safe to be in the House of Representatives chamber with a big group of lawmakers.

So it was no surprise when education leaders started hammering him for his call to get kids back into classrooms. Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman issued a statement that made the obvious point that getting control of the COVID outbreak was key to reopening schools—and right now, under Ducey's leadership, Arizona is one of the worst hotspots in the world.

"In the face of enormous hardship and loss, teachers and schools have gone above and beyond to ensure students' learning continues amid school facility closures," Hoffman said. "To say otherwise—without a commitment to fund distance learning—contributes to the toxic environment where teachers, board members and superintendents are harassed for making data-driven decisions."

Ducey was backtracking by the end of the week, saying his comments had been misinterpreted. (We checked with Ducey's new communications honcho, C.J. Karamargin, to clarify what Ducey meant, but never heard back.) Ducey and his underlings told other media that he really meant that if students left traditional schools to attend charters or private schools, districts would lose out on funding.

But why was Ducey laying into districts that are struggling to keep teachers, staff and students healthy while providing an education under these miserable circumstances? Did he just want to find some way of getting back into the good graces of the Mean Girls and Boys in the Arizona Legislature who have turned on him over his (relatively minor) efforts to contain the COVID outbreak?

Later in the week, Team Ducey sent out a press release filled with praise for his proposed budget, with the headline "Gov. Ducey's Recovery-Focused Budget Praised Across the Board by Arizonans."

Sure, if by "across the board," you mean right-leaning groups such as the Arizona Chamber of Commerce, Greater Phoenix Chamber, National Federation of Independent Business Arizona and a handful of education groups dedicated to supporting charter and private schools.

But other education advocates were less excited about Ducey's plans, including his proposal to once again cut income taxes by $200 million a year—especially since Arizona voters just passed a ballot prop to increase income taxes on Arizona's highest earners to fund education program. Ducey can't reverse that, but he can push lawmakers to trim back income taxes in general in order to reduce its impact on his rich pals. Ducey's budget blueprint doesn't get into details of who would benefit from his proposal, so we'll just have to wait to see who the winners and losers are.

Expect More Arizona President and CEO Christine M. Thompson, who advocates for public schools, was diplomatic in her response to the governor's proposed budget, saying that while there were "some incredibly impactful initiatives in the Governor's budget proposal—like funding for early literacy and investments to accelerate student learning for those most impacted by the pandemic—there are persistent, systemic education issues that remain unaddressed."

"We still lack general fund support for early education; the formula to fund our community colleges continues to be suspended; and new investments in our universities pale in comparison to the massive cuts they took over a decade ago," Thompson said. "If Arizona leaders are truly committed to reaching the Arizona Education Progress Meter goals the state must adequately fund the investment priorities outlined in the Roadmap for P-20 Education Funding. Supporting our education infrastructure is critical to Arizona's long-term success."

Dawn Penich-Thacker of Save Our Schools Arizona, noted that Ducey "is consistent about two things: patting himself on the back and cheating Arizona families when it comes to our public schools. Arizona still lags the national average by nearly $4 billion a year. Arizona still has the worst counselor-to-student ratio in the nation, the worst teacher-retention crisis and, relatedly, remains 49th in teacher pay."

Penich said she supported some of Ducey's proposals, such as spending on school repair and improving broadband infrastructure, but she noted that Arizona's public schools were projected to lose $389 million, primarily because distance learning is only being funded at 95% even though the shift to virtual schooling has increased expenses.

"While cutting funding for over 1 million school children, Ducey's budget siphons those tax dollars away from public education and into piecemeal privatization schemes like microschool grants, for-profit charter schools, ESA vouchers and funding formulas long-proven to be discriminatory, such as results-based funding."

Ducey can crap all over public schools as much as he wants, but it probably won't help him if he decides to pursue a rumored challenge to Sen. Mark Kelly next year. Expect More Arizona recently released a December survey of Arizona voters that shows that education remains the top issue in the minds of a plurality of Arizona voters, despite the pandemic.

Education issues were the top concern of 28% of voters, while healthcare came in at 18% and jobs/economy came in at 16%. We'll dig into those numbers more next week, because we're all out of room for this edition.