Focus On Education.

This week, Democratic Perspective hosted a legislator who makes decisions on education and a school board member who has to live with those decisions. The legislator is Representative Tom Chabin who is running for election to the Arizona Senate. He has been a crusader for education and tax reform. The school board member is Jim Lebetter, attorney and President of the Mingus Union High School Board of Directors.

We began by asking Chabin why the legislature has made such severe cuts to education. “This legislature has clearly forgotten that there’s a partnership between the local school board and the Arizona legislature,” he replied. “In the last four years, $3 billion has been cut from education in Arizona, and most of that is in the K-12 system. Those cuts have been profound and, as I put it, it has hurt every teacher and every child in every classroom throughout the state.”

Ledbetter added, “Where we are right now in funding, in terms of dollars spent per student and funded by the Arizona Legislature, we’re 51st in the nation, if you put the District of Columbia in the calculation. Now we have surpassed Mississippi in a race to the bottom.”

“This legislature recently said they’re not going to be cutting the per capita student funding,” he continued. “That’s a true statement. But they virtually cut 70 percent of what’s called soft capital funding. It means you can’t buy textbooks anymore for your students. Soft capital is desks. Soft capital is the white board that teachers use to write on. All of the state funding has been cut back such that it’s local taxing authority and property tax revenue that runs one hundred percent of the district.”

When asked what it’s like to try to hire teachers, Ledbetter responded, “As a teacher retires, or as a teacher leaves the district, we haven’t been replacing that position. So what does that mean in terms of students? It means that class sizes get too big. Teacher salaries are not enough. Our public sector employees in Arizona are not treated as they should be. A teacher who starts in a neighboring district with a family of four is eligible for food stamps.”

Asked what the legislature can do to help the situation, Chabin stated, “One is to accept responsibility and accept partnership the partnership we have with local school boards. I was at a meeting the other day with…community colleges in Prescott. And I asked a rhetorical question. Has the legislature been your partner? And when I asked that question there was dead silence.”

“The truth is the legislature has not been the partner it has been in the past,” he continued. “There’s a great deal of discussion all the time about accountability…holding the teachers and holding the school boards accountable…and I’m all for that. But what about holding the legislature accountable?”

“The backbone of my public service is centered on tax reform and applying new revenue that could be realized for education to achieve attainable goals,” said Chabin. “We have $11 billion in exemptions and loopholes in our sales tax code alone. I want to achieve three goals: The first is to lower the overall tax rate, so as an example when you buy a car you pay a sales tax, but when you buy a golf cart you don’t. Now that’s silly. So we eliminate the loophole on golf carts, but it goes to lower the overall rate. The second goal is to reduce classroom sizes to no more than 25. Anytime the classroom reaches 25 kids, it shall be split. That’s a tool Mingus school district needs. And it relieves the local property tax burden. Part of our challenge in Arizona is higher education. Four years ago, our kids were paying $1,500 a semester to go to NAU. Now it is over $4,000 and they are carrying debt that they will not be able to repay.”

Chabin added, “Per capita spending every man, woman and child in Arizona pay $371 a year for our corrections system. We’re number one in the nation. So here, on per capita spending for prisons, we’re number one. But when it comes to per pupil spending in Arizona, we’re dead last.”

As for solutions, Chabin said, “The opportunity for voters is this. If I’m elected and two other Democrats are elected, we will split the Senate. The opportunity is to bring moderation to the legislature; to bring bipartisanship and to get the focus back on the real business of the legislature, including our partnership with public schools.”

“Folks have thought for a long period of time that additional money could be cut out of districts. That’s just not true,” said Ledbetter. “We obsess over the budget. We look for every dime to make sure that we’re operating as narrowly as possible. There’s nothing left to cut. This legislature just cut all day kindergarten. The truth is we are losing our foothold in the world marketplace. We’re asking teachers every day to do more and more with less.”

“I agree with everything Tom has said today,” continued Ledbetter. “We have decided in Arizona that education in the public sector is a local issue. The legislature has put us in that position. So people are paying more for their property tax for education. We filled in the gaps with the penny tax. That tax is on the ballot again. Ironically, its opponents have raised $750,000 to oppose that initiative. It has to pass again. At the end of the day, it’s time to fund education with our future in mind.”

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