Some expect school-funding setbacks if governor leaves
Arizona Republic
Nov. 24, 2008

by Pat Kossan

About a million Arizona children have a book at home that they received from Gov. Janet Napolitano.

Beginning in 2003, Napolitano gave every first-grade student in Arizona a free storybook and later extended her program to fourth-graders. For many children, it was the first book to call their own.

These small symbols, plus her strident use of the bully pulpit and grand visions, were part of the Democrat's six-year drive to become the "Education Governor."

Despite her efforts, if Napolitano heads to Washington, D.C., she will leave the state still nearly last in the country for K-12 funding, with a high-school graduation rate of 70 percent and state universities burdened with students unprepared for college work. Napolitano is widely expected to become secretary of Homeland Security in President-elect Barack Obama's administration.

Educators agree that Napolitano's most substantial contributions were providing free full-day kindergarten, allocating new money to rebuild dilapidated buildings on state university campuses and preventing cuts to existing education budgets.

Those accomplishments proved the value of her pragmatic give-and-take politics with a Republican Legislature.

"She is a rare politician who is driven by obtaining an objective rather than some ideological agenda, which made her easy to work with," said Michael Crow, Arizona State University president.

With Napolitano's expected departure, some education leaders worry about keeping the gains made under her leadership, but many expect a similar, practical politician to take her place. Secretary of State Jan Brewer, a former Republican lawmaker, would assume the governor's job should Napolitano depart. Brewer is not willing to talk about her role as governor or her education agenda.

"I'm sure Miss Brewer will have the best interests of the state at heart and a good agenda at all levels," said Fred Boice, president of the Arizona State Board of Regents, which oversees the state's three universities.

Napolitano enhanced her reputation as the "Education Governor" not only by what she did, but from the money she prevented lawmakers from taking away from schools.

For the past two years, for example, business leaders have made the repeal of a decades-old property tax, which puts about $300 million into K-12 schools, one of their top priorities. Napolitano kept the cash going to schools through negotiation, compromise and a veto of Republican legislation.

Some worry that kind of political support for education might be lost if Napolitano goes.

"All of a sudden, the armament we had to fight the battle is drastically reduced, assuming the governor leaves," said Chuck Essigs of the Arizona Association of School Business Officials.

"There is the partisan angle, and you'll have the Republican Party in control of both chambers and the Governor's Office," said John Wright, president of the Arizona Education Association, the state's teachers union. "I'm looking forward to finding out what her (Brewer's) priorities are and where we will have common ground."

Napolitano also created a new coalition of educators, from preschools through the universities, as well as business leaders and philanthropists. She insisted they sit down and talk regularly and often joined them. And talk is what they did most often. But this coalition made friends out of rivals and is credited with one outcome: high-school students now must complete more math and science courses to earn a diploma.

The goal is to push elementary and middle schools to better prepare students for the new demands they face in high school and to better prepare high school graduates for college work or to succeed in a good job.

Napolitano's work caught the attention of educators outside the state. Despite its under-funded schools and poor showing on national tests, Arizona found itself being invited to national education forums. She often was mentioned as a leading contender for secretary of Education in Obama's Cabinet.

"It's important to understand, even though we struggle, how much Arizona is now seen as a leader among these education issues," said Karen Nicodemus, Cochise College president and a member of the Arizona State Board of Education.

Not everything Napolitano did drew cheers from educators. In particular, the governor signed a law that allowed some parents to receive state education money to pay tuition at private schools. A group of education associations challenged the law in court as unconstitutional. The state Supreme Court is scheduled to hear the case in December.

Arizona's Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne would not be unhappy to see Napolitano move to Washington. Republican Horne and Democrat Napolitano worked well together during the first few years of her administration. On the larger issues, such as getting more money into Arizona schools, they often agreed.

But communication between the two became strained in recent years. Mostly, it was small power struggles over who got credit for improvements in Arizona education. Horne said he is looking forward to Brewer taking over Napolitano's office.

"I had lunch with her last Friday, and we talked about working together," Horne said. "I'm expecting to have a very cooperative relationship."