At war with education
Arizona Republic
Jan. 29, 2006

The English-learner duel is just the latest in the Legislature's vendetta

Jon Talton

Last week, the planet's leading decision-makers were gathered in Davos, Switzerland, for the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum. In Arizona, legislators were trying to weasel out of complying with a court order that, at its heart, is about quality education for all children.

The juxtaposition was telling. While the Legislature was looking to the future through a rearview mirror, people who preside over wealth creation in the global economy were doing business without Arizona.

It's not unusual to find leaders from American states, even governors, in Davos seeking capital and jobs. Our governor had more urgent business:
preventing the Legislature from setting Arizona even further behind in the global race. It's impossible to know all the grudges, hidden agendas and prejudices involved in last week's battle. The fetish to provide tax credits for somebody's private schools should only raise suspicions.

In the end, the Legislature came off as mean and deeply unserious. Its bills were nothing short of shameful. Now, I finally understand the values of these "values-based" politicians.

A federal judge ordered Arizona to substantially improve its funding for the 150,000 children here who are struggling to learn English. Whatever the complicated issues of the immigration debate, their parents are as critical to the Arizona economy as sun and house builders. If we leave these children to sink, Arizona will see the rise of a dangerous underclass and lose the human capital of these young souls.

The lawsuit, Flores vs. Arizona, came about because of the same kind of malpractice by the Legislature that we saw on display last week.

The real issue is a sustained war by extremist lawmakers on public education. Bogus "school choice" and other questionable experiments have been no substitute for quality.

While dismissing advocates of public schools as "liberals" or "socialists,"
extremist legislators wrecked Arizona education. It's all the more shocking considering that most baby-boomer voters were the beneficiaries of quality public schools (as I was at Kenilworth School in central Phoenix).

It doesn't matter if a few White suburban schools do OK now. Somebody is going to attend our worst performing public schools, so they had better be pretty good, too. Alas, poor districts have borne the brunt of this vendetta.

If all the shortchanged Arizona students, including Anglos, had the same standing as the Flores plaintiffs, the state would face a reckoning that would make this suit look like a parking ticket.

Their grievances are real. Poor schools are a major reason behind the state's low incomes, mediocre jobs, limited economy, and the rising gap between haves and have-nots. New research by the Economic Policy Institute and Center on Budget and Policy Priorities puts Arizona worst in the nation for income inequality.

As Davos exemplifies, we live in a rapidly globalizing world where education is the ticket to individual and national prosperity, especially for the older, industrialized nations.

Real wealth is being built by knowledge and discovery, not cheap and docile workers. It's a lesson borne out from Ireland and Singapore to China's feverish push to improve education and build universities.

There's nothing complicated about improving Arizona education. Quality costs money, and we're getting nowhere being second-from-last in student funding.
Businesses making decisions about where their top talent and capital go certainly notice this. So there's no way out of making the investments we should have been making all along.

But investments pay off. For Arizona, it would mean the workforce and innovators to leapfrog beyond our unsustainable dependence on call centers, housing construction, tourism and retirement.

Instead of an absurd tragedy at the Capitol, imagine an Arizona that becomes a leader in 21st-century education. Bill Gates, among others, argues that high schools should be completely revamped.

Meanwhile, countries around the world are struggling with how to give low-skilled immigrants access to the mainstream. Why can't Arizona provide the breakthroughs?

The only impediments are those who control the Legislature. That can change, when voters wake up and elect sensible centrists of both parties.

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