Big Election: Conservative Ideals vs. Public Education

October 15, 2016

Frank Schmuck is a conservative Republican. He wants to double-down on the state’s devotion to tax cuts by eliminating the personal income tax.

Sean Bowie is a moderate Democrat. He believes the state’s top priority should be to restore education funding and strengthen our schools.

Their contest for the Senate seat in District 18 on the southeast side of metro Phoenix is a vivid microcosm of what is happening in legislative races across the state this election season. There’s a lot riding on the outcome – for state politics in general and for public education in particular.

Public education is behind the 8-ball as long as Republicans remain in control of both houses of the Legislature. The majority gives them the leadership positions, the chairmanship and majority membership of all legislative committees, and thereby a stranglehold on all legislation that will ever see the light of day.  Read More.

It’s remarkable how in district after district across the state, even those they have little chance of winning, proponents of public education have gamely stepped forward to challenge the Republican hegemony.

Although a number of them running for the House are promoting “single-shot” voting — “vote for just me, and not for either one of my opponents” — that could provide some surprises on Nov. 8, this fall’s election is unlikely to change the majority party in the House.

Democrats have a good chance of picking up a few seats, each of which will contribute to fending off bad education legislation, but it’s hard to see where they’ll get the six seats they need just to bring them up to parity in the House.

The Chances In The Senate Are Better

The Senate, however, could be a different matter. There, Democrats must pick up only three seats to evenly divide power in the Senate and a fourth to gain the majority.

They already have gained one in District 7, covering the Navajo Nation and the rest of northeastern Arizona. Democrat-turned-Republican Carlyle Begay did not run again and will be replaced by Democrat Jamescita Peshlakai, who is unopposed in the general election.

Most of the remaining Senate seats are safely in the hands of Republicans or Democrats, but pundits agree there are four districts that could go either way. Three are now in the hands of Republicans; one is held by a Democrat.

To gain outright control of the Senate, Democrats need to hang on to the one seat and win the three others. That’s a very tall order.  If they win two of the three, they’ll split the Senate 50-50.

These four districts could go either way:

District 6

The district, which ranges from Flagstaff across four counties to the White Mountains, has a decided Republican registration advantage. Most see this as the biggest reach of the four for the Democrats but Nikki Check Bagley, the personable former mayor of Jerome, is giving incumbent Sylvia Allen a serious run.

District 8

Covering much of Pinal County, this is the seat Democrats will have to hold. Incumbent Barbara McGuire, who describes herself as a conservative Democrat, faces a stiff challenge from Frank Pratt, a moderate Republican who is seeking to move from the House to the Senate.

District 18

The battleground for Schmuck and Bowie is Awatukee into south Tempe. Democrats thought they had a shot here even before the conservative Schmuck ousted a moderate incumbent in the primary. That could prove too much of a right swerve for a district that Democrats see as moderate and independent-minded.

District 28

The Biltmore Fashion Park area reaching into Paradise Valley is home to a battle of titans. Republican Kate Brophy McGee and Democrat Eric Meyer currently represent the district in the House, where each in different ways have played key roles on behalf of public education. It is unfortunate that both now seek to move to the Senate. Meyer termed out of the House.  McGee opted to challenge him for the Senate seat.  Only one will win.

Televised discussions among seven of the eight candidates in these four races will be available at http://www.educationshowdown.org/ beginning Monday, Oct. 17, and will air on Cox Communications later in the day.  The discussions were hosted by what are called 13 “pro-public ed organizations.”

Democrats are down to bare knuckles.  They are better organized than they have been, thanks in part to the newly created Arizona Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, and have a war chest of dark money on their side.

They have hammered McGee in recent weeks for trumped-up offenses that would go unremarked anywhere else.  The attacks are coming from groups with names such as Building Arizona’s Future. It gets major funding from the Arizona Democratic Party. McGee might win anyway.

The chairman of Arizona Republican Party told the Arizona Capitol Times a month ago that Republican fund-raising will match anything the Democrats do.

The four Senate races are at the tip of a battle being waged across the state.  Republican candidates say “vote for me, I’m a conservative.”  Democratic candidates say “vote for me, I’m going to do my all for public education.”

Advocates For Public Education Step Forward

The neophyte contenders who have stepped forward to defend education include former and current teachers, former school board members, those in social-services professions, and at least one grandfather with school-age grandchildren.

Their predominant, if not singular, theme is the plight of K-12 public education.  At the top of virtually all of their platforms is increased funding.

They echo the words of Jaime Alvarez, the grandfather running for the Senate seat in District 14 that stretches across southeastern Arizona: “I . . . cannot stand by any more and watch our public school system continue to be destroyed through legislation that is counter to what the citizens of Arizona and our district voted on.”

They seem to have an upswell in public sentiment on their side. A recent poll by the Arizona Republic found that 74 percent of voters think the state is not investing enough in education.

Democratic candidates in the swing districts report that as they canvass door-to-door they’re hearing a difference between the issues of 2014 and the issues of today. This year, they say, voters want to talk about education.

But you wouldn’t know it from the Republicans. Judged by their websites, most Republican candidates seem either tone deaf or stubbornly resistant to the rising tide of opinion.

Anthony Kern, a House incumbent from District 20 on the northside of Phoenix, steadfastly maintains, “We’ve added hundreds of millions of dollars to our K-12 budget, and I will keep working to stop politicians and their bureaucratic allies from putting unions ahead of students and teachers.”

Just to the west in District 21 covering Sun City and Peoria, House candidate Kevin Payne writes, “Education is the largest expenditure in the Arizona budget. In traditional public schools, we spend, on average, $7,200 per capita with public charter schools spending an average of $1,000 less.”

The message obviously being that enough is enough.

Only Two Republican Candidates Speak Of  ‘Increase’ Or ‘Restore’

Bringing Up Arizona was able to find only two maybe three Republicans courageous enough to trifle with party orthodoxy on the question of funding.

McGee, who is trying to win election to the Senate in the hotly contested District 28, is perhaps most out there. She writes that the state needs to “responsibly restore funding to critical education, health and assistance.”

Mary Hamway, who is seeking to fill one of the House seats that McGee and Meyer are vacating, calls for increased funding for K-12 education and for the state universities.

Down in District 9 in Tucson, Ana Henderson writes of “improving education funding” — but she then goes on to qualify that by adding “ensuring more dollars reach the classroom, giving parents more choice, and hold schools accountable. ”

Every other Republican candidate is taking a pass on the governor’s pledge — remember all the talk less than six months ago about Proposition 123 being just the first step in addressing school funding?

Other than McGee and Hamway, they steer clear of any such commitments as “increase” or “restore.” Even the few trying to hedge their bets refer to “appropriate funding” or “adequate funding,” which of course doesn’t commit to anything other than what we have.

Most of the Republican websites either dance around the funding question or avoid it altogether.

When they get around to the subject of education, they point their finger at the usual suspects:  uninvolved parents, the federal government, teacher unions, the high cost of turning on the lights and everything else that schools are supposed to do, the mystery of why every school across the state can’t compete with three elite schools.

In sum, whatever the problems of education are the fault of anybody but the Legislature.  Or, more generally, of all of us as a state.

A Vote For Or Against Public Education

Voters can’t say they don’t have a choice this election. They have a big one to make for or against public education.

Education-friendly candidates have come forward in every district, even those they have little chance of winning.  Meanwhile, conservatives like Frank Schmuck are sticking to tax cuts and other familiar themes they believe will once again sweep them into office.

Public-education advocates have to hope this election will be different, that public education is too important for the same ol’, same ol’ to once again carry Republicans to majorities in both chambers of the Legislature.

Other recent election coverage from Bringing Up Arizona:

How GOP Majority Stymies Public Schools

School-Choice Group Seeks To Impact Election

10 Primary Races Will Bear on Public Education

Schools Win Some, Lose Some