Education is top priority
Arizona Daily Star
 Tucson, Arizona | Published:


This legislative session promises to be the most important in recent Arizona history. Arizona House Democrats are committed to investing in education. Nothing deserves a higher priority. Our schools must prepare our children for a competitive world economy. Businesses won't bring high-paying jobs to a state whose education ranks 49th out of 50 states.
We also need to invest in better reimbursement for licensed child-care centers. This will allow working families, especially those with single parents, to earn a living instead of staying home and relying on social services.
How do we pay for all this? Arizona is projected to have a $650 million excess even after we refill the state Rainy Day Fund. Families know the importance of paying their bills and putting some away in a savings account. We should use the same common sense to invest wisely in preparing for the future.
We must continue funding all-day kindergarten. Arizona is one of the few states that does not fund a full day of instruction for its youngest students. Completing the five-year phase-in keeps us on pace to catch up. In addition, an Arizona Department of Education report indicated that full-day kindergarten can reduce achievement gaps between students of different backgrounds.
The entire education continuum needs our attention. Our K-12 system needs adequate resources. College tuition that has risen by more than 73 percent in just the past four years has battered Arizona's families. Our constituents need more financial aid, or their children will be denied access to a higher education.
But our first priority must be the looming deadline imposed by U.S. District Judge Raner Collins of Tucson. Collins, frustrated by six years of delay and broken promises, has given the state just 15 days to adopt a plan that adequately funds programs for English learners. There is overwhelming evidence that these students, most of them U.S. citizens, are denied access to an equal education, as mandated by federal law.
If the Legislature fails to meet that 15-day deadline, Collins will impose fines that start at $500,000 a day and quickly climb to $2 million a day. House and Senate Democrats, working with Gov. Janet Napolitano, have a plan that meets the judge's mandate. The Republican majority can work with us on a solution, or they can follow through on their threat to adopt a plan that the governor vetoed last year because it was woefully inadequate.
A generation of kids has been lost in the time that the majority has dragged its feet. It is time to meet our obligations to these students.
House Democrats also support the new medical campus in Phoenix that is a joint project of the University of Arizona and Arizona State University. The medical school will provide an educational complement to the bioscience campus already being constructed in downtown Phoenix. The school will be a major engine for biotech jobs and it will address the shortage of doctors in the entire state.
Another issue is the need to invest in state employees. Arizona government has become a de-facto training ground for local government and private businesses that only have to offer modest salary hikes to draw trained state staffers. We must keep our employees by increasing state pay.
In addition to being among the most important sessions in recent memory, this session could also be one of the most contentious. However, House Democrats are committed to working with Republicans to improve the quality of life for all Arizonans.
Phil Lopes is the leader of Arizona House Democrats. He represents District 27, Tucson.