Some Arizona businesses and their lobbying groups are spending money this week in a bid to convince voters that the state’s education situation is not as bad as some would say.
Matthew Benson, spokesman for the newly formed Arizona Education Project said it has made a “six-figure’’ buy of TV ads in the Phoenix area this week to counter what he called the “negative voices’’ in education. He would not identify who they are.
“I think you know who we’re talking about,’’ he said.
And this is just the beginning. Benson said future ads featuring upbeat descriptions of the state’s K-12 education system are planned, including an expansion into the Tucson TV market, though he refused to provide a budget.
The campaign comes as Gov. Doug Ducey and Republican legislators are under increased pressure to deal with the fact that Arizona is close to the bottom of per-student funding. The commercial is designed to emphasize what has been done since Ducey took office.
Yet even the staff of the Joint Legislative Budget Committee acknowledges that, on an inflation-adjusted basis the state is putting fewer dollars into public schools now on a per student basis than it did a decade ago.
Benson is not disputing those numbers.
“It’s more about making sure the other side of the story is told, because there is a positive story when it comes to Arizona education,’’ he said. For example, there’s the National Assessment of Education Progress, a standardized test of what students know.
“Arizona students are leading the nation when it comes to improvement in math, English and science,’’ Benson said.
What he does not say is that the scores, while improving, for the most part remain below the national average.
For example, just 30 percent of Arizona fourth-graders are at least proficient in reading, versus 36 percent nationally. And 25 percent of Arizona eighth-graders are proficient in science compared with 34 percent nationally.
Benson said the media campaign chose to emphasize certain “data points.’’
He also said the commercial is not designed to secure Ducey’s re-election or push for or against specific legislation, pointing out the Arizona Education Network is set up as a 501(c)(3) charity.
But the funding is coming from various groups that have been supportive of the governor – and who also have benefited from the corporate tax breaks that have been phased in which have left the state with more than $300 million less in revenues now than had the tax rates remained the same.
The list of funders provided by Benson include the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry and the Hispanic chambers from Tucson, Douglas, Sierra Vista and Nogales. Money also is coming from the Arizona Lodging and Tourism Association and Services Group of America, a private firm involved in food distribution. Also donating is Pinnacle West Capital Corp. which owns Arizona Public Service Co., the state’s largest electric utility.
“Too often, all we hear is a drumbeat of the negative and cherry-picked figures to paint a downbeat picture, which is simply not accurate,’’ Benson said.
There has been extensive media coverage of not only Arizona’s national ranking in per-student funding but also the fact that teachers here are paid less than pretty much anywhere else.
That point was repeated Monday by Diane Douglas, the state superintendent of public instruction, in her annual ‘State of Education’ report to the Legislature. (See related story.)
At the same time, there is pressure on lawmakers to not only extend the current 0.6-cent sales tax for education that will self-destruct in 2021 without action but also expand it to bring in more dollars for teacher salaries and other needs.
Several education groups are asking a judge to rule the state is not living up to its constitutional obligation to provide adequate funding for school buildings and repairs.
Finally, enough signatures have been gathered to force a public vote in November on a plan approved by lawmakers and signed by the governor to expand a program that provides public dollars for students to attend private and parochial schools.
Benson said the other side of the story needs to be told.
“For too long, the debate in this state on education has been dominated by negative voices,” he said.