The former chief executive of Intel Corp. told legislative and business leaders Tuesday that Arizona won't be a real magnet for new business until it turns out more qualified high school and college graduates.
"The educational system in the United States and in Arizona in particular is not particularly attractive," Craig Barrett told members of the Arizona Commerce Authority. In fact, he said, the situation is so poor that if Intel were looking for a site to build an entirely new operation, as opposed to expanding its $10 billion presence here, Arizona would not even be on the list of Top 10 choices.
He was not alone in his comments.
"The education system here is very weak," said Doug Pruitt, chief executive of Sundt Construction.
And Judy Wood, who runs Contact One, a small call center, said even her firm, which does not need college graduates, is having trouble finding Arizona high school graduates who can properly compose a sentence.
The comments were made as Gov. Jan Brewer, who co-chairs the authority and listened to the criticisms, is proposing to cut state aid for universities by $170 million, about 20 percent of their current state funding.
But that may not be the full extent of the problem. The Senate already has approved a budget which digs another $65 million into higher education funds. It also cuts about $250 million from K-12 education, an area of the budget that Brewer had tried to leave untouched.
"The bottom line is that I've been the crusader for education," Brewer said after the meeting. "I've led the charge to protect education. And I'm continuing to try to the very best, of anybody's ability, to protect education as we move through this budget process."
The governor said, though, nothing that Barrett or anyone said would cause her to back off her proposal to cut university funding or to scale back another part of her budget which would pare state aid to community colleges by half.
"We are going to do the best job that we can with the dollars that we have to deliver the best education to everyone," she said, from preschool through college.
Senate President Russell Pearce, R-Mesa, also said he has no second thoughts about the deeper education spending cuts his chamber approved.
On one hand, Pearce said Barrett "is not missing the mark" about the quality of Arizona education.
"But the truth is, funding's not the whole answer," he said. Pearce said he's convinced there is enough money going into education as long as the funds are being properly used.
He did take issue, though, with Barrett's contention that Arizona is in the bottom quarter of all states in the quality of its K-12 education.
"When all things are balanced, we're probably running in the middle, in the average," Pearce said. And he said part of that is due to "demographics," specifically the large percentage of students in school for whom English is not their first language.
"I think we probably have a very good educational system that just has challenges that many other states don't have," he said.
The Commerce Authority is designed as a public-private partnership charged with attracting new business to the state. It will replace the state Department of Commerce.
Barrett told authority members, though, their work is complicated by the shortcomings in the education system.
"The quality of education is extremely important to companies like Intel," he said.
The state faces an anticipated $1.1 billion gap this coming fiscal year between revenues and expenses. Brewer proposes to bridge some of that with accounting maneuvers and borrowing; the Senate plan relies strictly on spending cuts.
Barrett said the budget problems "don't bode well for the future."
"If you want those high-paying jobs - the jobs that pay two to three times the average - look for your educational infrastructure to be the key," he said.
Pruitt said the state also needs to do a better job in training those who are not destined to go on to college, saying two-thirds of the jobs of companies like his do not require a four-year college degree.
"I'm a big fan of technical education, which is also very weak in Arizona," he said. And Pruitt said there needs to be a "relook at the entire K-12 system to get these young people out of high school with working skills."
Wood said her experience in trying to hire people proves that graduates don't have the necessary talents to do the job.
"They need to have good grammar, good spelling, able to write in complete sentences because we do lots of (online) live chat," she said. Wood said she finds that foreign students from the universities have "far superior" skills than Arizonans showing up to look for work.
Wood said the problem, from an economic development factor, is bigger than what her firm faces. "How can you get businesses to come when they're looking at the school system and saying, ‘Where can I send my kids to school?'" she said.
One bit of fallout from the budget problems is that students at the state's three universities are going to have to pay more in tuition, even if the schools are cut by just the governor's $170 million proposal. Brewer would not answer questions of whether that will make higher education unaffordable for many.
"The Board of Regents are meeting and they will determine where that tuition goes," Brewer said. "It's something that we're all working on."