by Ryan Gear
As a pastor in Arizona, I value one particular book very highly, but I have personally felt the power of education to improve lives. I received an outstanding public school education in my hometown in Ohio, I was the first person in my family to graduate from college, and I eventually earned a Master’s Degree. I believe in education, and even a casual reading of the Bible reveals that the nurture of children is deeply embedded in Judeo-Christian values.
Sadly, Arizona children may not have the same educational opportunities I received. Repeated state budget cuts to public education have knocked Arizona to near the bottom of the country in education funding.
As Arizona voters know well, the most recent budget cuts came after a four-day budgeting process ending in a budget passed in the middle of the night. Arizona has cut total education spending by 32% since the recession of 2008, more than any other state in the country.
The cuts have reduced education resources for Arizona’s children, from kindergarten to college. According to the Arizona Education News Service:
In Arizona, 41 mostly small, rural districts were on a four-day school week this school year. Next year, Apache Junction and Coolidge Unified will join them in an effort to cut costs, while Peoria Unified decided against it in early April and approved a plan at their board meeting last week to reduce expenses in other ways.
The effects of these cuts on our children’s education are devastating, and the cuts were not limited to elementary, junior high, and high school. From the Arizona Republic:
According to the report released Tuesday night by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, Arizona is spending 47 percent less this year per college student than it did in 2008, adjusted for inflation. That’s a larger percentage cut than any other state, equating to $3,053 less annually per student.
The budget cuts further reduced funding to college students and actually eliminated all funding for Arizona’s three largest community college districts. In response to the cuts, Arizona college and university tuition has risen more than any other state since the Great Recession, placing the financial burden squarely on lower and middle class students and their parents who were already struggling to afford college anyway.
In addition, the repeated budget cuts have led to a teacher shortage in Arizona. The 2013-2014 school year saw a 29% increase in the number of substitute teachers, as 62% of school districts reported open teaching positions in their schools. Last school year, 74% of Arizona schools had between one and five teacher positions open in September. This school year, a member of the church I serve who is a principal in the Southeast Valley of Phoenix lamented that it was very difficult to hire enough teachers. As to the cause of the teacher shortage, 42% of former teachers reported that the primary reason they left teaching was to pursue a career offering higher wages. Already underpaid Arizona teachers simply can’t afford these cuts.
These budget cuts disproportionately affect women. In 2012, over two-thirds of all public school teachers in the U.S. were female. When public teachers pay, women pay. Not only are the budget cuts impacting Arizona students and their families, the cuts are directly affecting the jobs of thousands of Arizona women.
It may come as a surprise to some Arizona voters that the deep cuts to education coincided with tax cuts given to corporations. In 2011, while Arizona was still recovering from the Great Recession, lawmakers passed a bill giving a 30% tax cut to corporations, amounting to $270 million, more than K-12 received in funds. Prior to the 2011 tax cuts, nearly two-thirds of Arizona corporations reportedly paid almost no state tax. While I understand the need to lure new businesses to create jobs, Arizona’s excellent cities, abundant sunshine, and natural beauty can still help to attract corporations and employees, even if corporations foot something at least in the ballpark of their fair share of the tax burden.
Ironically, the education cuts may actually reduce the number of new jobs produced in Arizona. Phoenix Business Journal recently reported that two companies that would have added 3,000 new good-paying jobs in Phoenix chose to expand to other cities instead. What was the reason these companies took their 3,000 new jobs elsewhere? One manager explained:
My key managers didn’t want to relocate to Arizona despite the golf and the weather,” said one decision-maker. “They were afraid they would not find good schools for their own children. They also felt that the state’s reputation for poor education would affect the ability to recruit talent from outside.
Along with slower than recent migration to Arizona, the tax cuts actually created the deficit that the education cuts remedied. In 2015, however, the corporate tax cuts remained in place, while the education budget was further reduced. When tax cuts create a deficit, someone has to pay the bill, and the ones paying now are Arizona women and children. So much for “women and children first.” Speaking as a pastor, both the Jewish and Christian scriptures call this an injustice.
While Arizona cut its education budget more than any other state, it is not the only state to drastically cut funding for public education. Louisiana, Wisconsin, and Kansas have instituted deep cuts as well. Voters should be aware that the governors of these states seem to be following a shared pattern of behavior and also share a well-documented connection to the same donors and influencers. The education cuts appear to be part of a multi-state agenda.
How does our faith inform our treatment of vulnerable women and children? The prophet Isaiah does not mince words, “Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow.” Arizona students may or may not be orphans, and teachers may or may not be widows, but they are now both vulnerable. Forcing them to bear the burden of state budget cuts is unjust.
It turns out that this injustice comes at a price. Arizona voters are practical enough to know that there is a difference between fiscal conservatism and fiscal irresponsibility. Instead of asking corporations and those with means to pay anything close to their fair share of the cost, the repeated cuts to Arizona public education amount to a tax on Arizona lower and middle class families, and especially on women and children.
Ryan Gear is the founding pastor of One Church in Chandler. Ryan is also the founder of openmindedchurch.org, a growing national directory of churches willing to thoughtfully wrestle with questions and doubts. He is a regular contributor to Huffington Post, OnFaith, Beliefnet, and Convergent Books and has been featured in Real Clear Religion.
Follow Ryan on Twitter @ryangear77