Guest Commentary

Tucson's mayor believes a healthy education system is a key to the city's economic future

Recently, I set forth my work plan for the next two years. In it, I talk about the Five T's of Tucson's economy: technology, trade, transportation, tourism and teaching. If the word "teaching" seems out-of-place in a discussion about our local economy, it shouldn't. Businesses want to locate in communities where the quality of education is high. They want a good education for their children and they want a well-educated workforce. The question I hear most often from executives considering relocating their companies to Tucson is, "How good is your education system?"

Mayors in Arizona don't govern their cities' schools, but that doesn't mean education shouldn't be a priority for city leaders. If a city is going to attract young families, it must have a good education system. Fortunately, Tucson's school district superintendents are committed to providing children with a quality education.

Still, many Tucsonans struggle with basic reading and math skills, and many more lack high school diplomas. These are circumstances that lead to poverty and—too often— result from poverty. Many of our schools lack the resources they need. But coming together to address these challenging, complex problems is what successful communities do. We must improve educational outcomes across the board, for all Tucsonans, not just a lucky few.

Literacy is a way out of poverty. Making sure all kids can read should be society's priority. Children who read at grade level by 3rd grade are far more likely to obtain high school diplomas—an employment necessity. We can help kids learn to read by expanding programs like Reading Seed, which pairs trained volunteers with struggling readers in kindergarten through 3rd grade. We can help parents teach their kids to read by expanding programs like Teach the Parent, Reach the Child. To encourage more kids to read, I created the Mayor's Reading Challenge, a web-based program that helps kids, their parents and teachers track and reward time spent reading.

Getting more students to graduate high school or go back and get a GED, through dropout prevention and recovery programs, will also improve our community's economic outlook. High school graduates are far less likely to be unemployed, underemployed, or go to prison. Key to dropout prevention is school attendance—tracking absences and intervening when necessary. Kids who miss school fall behind, and many drop out. For those who do drop out, alternative programs like GradLink 2, available throughout Pima County for those ages 17 to 21, allow students to earn a high school diploma in a flexible, customized environment. We can also work to reduce barriers to getting a GED. Tests are expensive, and not everyone can afford to take them without financial help. I'm working with the Pima Community College Foundation and the Catholic Foundation for the Diocese of Tucson to set up funds to do just that—help low-income Tucsonans pay for GED testing.

Most critical to a strong education system is adequate funding. Money doesn't guarantee good education, but if used correctly, it sure can help. There is wide consensus among business and community leaders that money invested in teaching is money well-spent. But Arizona continues to rank near the bottom in per-student spending. This means larger classes, lower-paid teachers and fewer resources to help our kids succeed. A recent survey showed K-12 teachers spending nearly $500 out-of-pocket on supplies for their classrooms. This must change.

One of the lessons of SB 1070 was that a mobilized business community can help steer our legislature away from dangerous political extremes. Businesses in Arizona—and those considering moving here—have everything to gain by lifting Arizona from the bottom in state funding for schools. If our state lawmakers are to change course on this critically important issue, it will likely take an organized effort of business leaders—one I'd gladly do what I can to support.

The quality of Tucson's schools and teaching is reflected in the opportunities offered our graduates—many of whom go on to fill demanding jobs in the public and private sector, in Tucson and around the world. Teaching may be the Fifth T on my list of Tucson's economic drivers, but it's the one that supports all the rest. Employers want a skilled workforce. They want good schools for their kids and their employees' kids. In short, they want what we want. Let's make sure we give it to them.

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