By Gloria Gomez/UA Don Bolles Fellow, AZ Mirror
PHOENIX — Democrats and public school advocates said Gov. Doug Ducey had two glaring holes in his final State of the State speech on Monday: funding for public schools and COVID-19.
“If we truly want Arizona to be unstoppable, our priority should be increasing education attainment,” said Education Forward Arizona spokeswoman Shannon Sowby, referencing Ducey’s slogan for the speech, #AZUnstoppable. “Increasing our attainment rate to the national average would generate over $7B for Arizona’s economy.”
School funding should be a priority issue, said Senate Minority Leader Rebecca Rios, given that schools will face up to $1.2 billion in budget cuts on March 1 without legislative action. That means a drastic reduction in per pupil expenditures — an average of $1,300 per student.
Ducey committed to keeping schools open and increasing school choice. For many, this ignored key issues facing a struggling education system.
Ducey declared schools would not be closed, despite the ongoing and worsening COVID-19 pandemic which has risen to record levels as the omicron variant has swept the state.
The governor lauded Arizona’s status as the number one state for school choice and promised to continue providing alternatives for poor and minority students stuck in “failing” schools.
David Lujan, President of the Children’s Alliance Association, tweeted that the title of No. 1 in school choice hasn’t been earned when public schools continue to be among the worst funded in the nation — especially when public schools remain the top choice for parents.
Despite Ducey’s claims that his administration has increased education spending and “looks good on a spreadsheet”, those on the ground remain skeptical.
The Invest in Arizona Coalition, which is advocating for a ballot initiative that would allow voters to reject one of the tax cut laws passed in 2021 that Ducey touted in his speech, said in a press release the two-term governor shouldn’t brag about his record on education funding.
“That is very fuzzy math,” said Rebecca Gau, executive director of Stand for Children Arizona. “Much of the new money that’s come to education is because of enrollment growth not because of funding true needs in the state.”
Stand of For Children is one of the organizations part of the coalition. They also noted that Arizona has ranked last in teacher pay in a 2021 report, has crowded classrooms and “a school counselor to student ratio of 848 to 1.”
While Ducey emphasized his accomplishments, progressive advocacy group Progress Arizona noted the state is facing crisis after crisis due to the pandemic. As an omicron-fueled spike in COVID-19 cases takes hold of Arizona, Ducey should have offered a plan of action, said Jenny Guzman, deputy executive director of Progress Arizona.
“He had every opportunity to address the biggest issue in Arizona and he chose not to. This was done deliberately by Ducey and his team to avoid highlighting one of his biggest failures as governor as he wraps up his final address,” Guzman said in a press release. “It is disappointing that in his final address, his biggest concern was not about what Arizonans across the state are concerned about, but rather it was centered around cleaning up his image as he prepares for his next political endeavor.”
Rios said she was disappointed that Ducey glossed over the effects of the pandemic in favor of partisan talking points.
“We’ve lost 20,000 Arizonans,” said Rios “[Ducey] did not express sorrow or concern or put forward a plan.”
AZ Mirror reporter Laura Gomez contributed to this article.