PHOENIX – Students, teachers and parents were among those that crowded around the Arizona state Capitol building Monday to ask the state Legislature to give public education more funding.
Public education advocates shared their own stories, toured the Capitol and delivered hand-written postcards to Senate President Steve Yarbrough and Speaker of the House J.D. Mesnard.
“We clearly don’t have enough money to fund our schools and to fund our teachers and to fund our students, and that’s what we’re trying to get the Legislature to do,” said Kinora Hernandez, a member of the Board of Directors for the Arizona Education Association. “I’ve been working 26 years. I have a master’s degree. And I still work paycheck to paycheck.”
Protesters asked the Legislature to hold a public hearing on the education budget prior to the introduction of budget proposals. Many people voiced their opposition to Senate Bill 1431, which would expand the Empowerment Scholarship Account program. They said they feared it will gut public school funding.
“I just am against it, and I made it my mission to let people in my district know that it’s their state senator that is up to no good,” said PJ Cole, a former teaching aide from Surprise. “I just wish that our senators would hear their constituents.”
Cole held a neon green sign that read, “Debbie Lesko, Enemy of Public Schools.” Lesko is the state senator from Cole’s district and sponsor of SB 1431.
SB 1431 and its twin, House Bill 2394, would allow parents to use public money to pay for the educational expenses of children who do not attend public schools. It would be offered to students in four grades in the 2017-18 school year and expand to all grades by 2020-21.
Proponents believe parents should be able to choose what school is best for their child, regardless of cost. Opponents believe it will divert money away from public schools, and it would benefit higher-income families that can afford tuition that isn’t covered by the scholarship account program.
Marisol Garcia, a teacher in the Isaac School District, said she was extremely concerned about schools having empty classrooms.
“We have almost 3,000 empty classrooms in our state, which means that students across the state are not getting high instruction levels,” Garcia said. “They’re not able to compete across the country and every year, we keep seeing our budgets cut. We keep seeing our salaries cut, and it’s not gonna help the future of our state.”
Garcia said there is not enough money in the budget to replace broken items. She said field trips continue to decline, and she can’t take her students to visit the state Capitol because there is no budget to support the trip.
“I’m also a mother of a fifth grader, and he’s never had a fully funded school since he started in kindergarten, and that’s just not fair for my son or anybody’s son across the state,” Garcia said.
Julie Erfle, the advocacy director with AZ Schools Now, said they are asking legislators to talk about finding new revenue sources to fund schools.
“I would say today is one of the first steps,” Erfle said. “We need talk about how we invest in our schools for the long haul so that we don’t continue to go from one crisis to the next.”
(Video by Alexis Berdine/Cronkite News)