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With Prop 204 defeated, what's our Plan B for education?

From the archive: This story is more than 10 years old.

With Prop 204 defeated, what's our Plan B for education?

The 2012 election left a long list of questions in its wake, but none more urgent for Arizona than those clouding the future of its public education system. 

In short: Given the defeat of Proposition 204, how do we propose to address the needs of a system that routinely produces far too many dropouts and underachieving graduates? How can we continue to ignore the yawning academic achievement gap between non-Hispanic Whites and Latinos — the latter Arizona's fastest-growing population?  

In other words: What's Plan B, Arizona?

This is not a new question. Arizona has for years lingered at or near the bottom of all states in per-pupil spending. Our students' performance on nationally standardized tests has been uninspiring. The state's education budget, already low, has recently been slashed by as much or more than anywhere in the nation. But the issue has taken on new immediacy with Tuesday's decisive defeat of Prop 204, which would have retained a one-cent-per-dollar sales tax increase, mostly for education, that voters approved in 2010 but that is set to expire next year. This, coupled with the fact that voters in at least a dozen school districts rejected requests for budget overrides, bodes ill for a school system already seemingly incapable of providing Arizona's children with the quality education needed for success in an increasingly complex world. 

Prop 204 was defeated by a 2-to-1 margin. It wasn't even close. Perhaps the measure was in part a victim of its complexity, built-in inflexibility and lack of an "off switch" if future economic circumstances warranted changes to its provisions. And opponents did a better job portraying the measure as a burdensome tax than proponents did of selling it as a needed means to improve education.  Whatever the reasons, its opponents now have the opportunity to present their suggestions for addressing Arizona's very real education problems. 

The issue is larger than the pros and cons of any single ballot measure. As noted in Morrison Institute's report, Dropped? Latino Education and Arizona's Economic Future,  Arizona's Hispanic schoolchildren still struggle against barriers to educational achievement that keep them lagging well behind the state's non-Hispanic White population in educational performance. 

This imbalance represents a grave threat to Arizona's future economic health. That's because 1) Latinos form Arizona's fastest-growing population group and will provide an increasingly larger share of our leaders, workers, employers and entrepreneurs; and 2) Education and skills training will become even more important drivers of workforce  economic growth than they are today.

If we're to develop, attract and retain well-paying, high-skill industries that will enhance the quality of life for all Arizonans, the state must have a critical mass of trained workers and the promise of more to come. How much sense does it make to prioritize economic development while letting our education system, the bedrock of modern economic development, continue to deteriorate?

These are not ideological issues. They are not Republican or Democratic. They are straightforward matters of demographics and economics. Arizonans must prepare for the future or suffer the consequences.  And there's no quick fix; our dismal educational system took years to reach its current state, and even in the best scenario will take many more years to bring up to par. It's already way past time to start.

Fortunately, every state leader from Governor Jan Brewer on down has proclaimed improving education as among their very highest priorities. A dedicated one-cent tax is clearly not a popular path. So, again, what's Plan B?

Morrison Institute for Public Policy is a leader in examining critical Arizona and regional issues, and is a catalyst for public dialogue. An Arizona State University resource, Morrison Institute uses nonpartisan research and communication outreach to help improve the state's quality of life.

Bill Hart is a senior policy analyst at Morrison Institute for Public Policy.

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