In a word, opportunity is the reason my family came to the United States from India nearly 50 years ago. Education – public education – was the foundation of that opportunity and the pathway to progress for my family. This has been true for our three kids, who attended Arrowhead public schools, just as it is true for all American families. That is why we must make sure every child has a quality education regardless of their zip code.
Our economy rests upon the commitment we make to quality, public education for people from all our communities. Indeed, for Arizona and the United States to remain competitive in the 21st century, global economy, we need a higher level of educational achievement than we are delivering today. Our jobs require knowledge and technical preparation extending beyond our current K-12 school system.
We must establish and maintain a relevant, nimble public education system that invests fairly in the educational needs of all our residents. That is why local, state, and federal governments as well as the private sector should support Arizona’s goal of raising the level of postsecondary attainment to 60 percent by the year 2030.
A strong public school system has been instrumental in America’s history and modern economic success, and we must be vigilant against efforts to erode or undermine it. I stand firmly against the privatization of public schools, and against defunding public schools through alleged “choice” programs like vouchers. Data should help drive our education policies, and there is no current, consistent evidence of the benefit of voucher programs. Vouchers only offer real “choice” to higher socioeconomic families, most of whom can already afford private schools. This essentially gives them a publicly-funded discount while working- or middle-class families remain with schools receiving even less support going forward. We should be narrowing the inequities and disparities in our educational system, rather than growing that gap.
Generally speaking, charter schools can play an important role in our public school system, like being incubators of innovative strategies that can be implemented in other schools. But as we’ve seen in Arizona, they can be fraught with failure and fraud without proper oversight. Many charters appear to simply be for-profit organizations. I believe that any school receiving public funds should follow the same guidelines and have the same oversight as public schools. This includes laws and transparency regarding student entrance criteria, performance benchmarks, and teacher qualifications.
While Arizona’s K-12 public education system receives approximately 85% of its funding from state and local sources, the 15% that comes from the federal government plays a critical role. For example, Title I funding is essential to schools in communities with low financial capacity, and helps to level the playing field for all students. This funding can also include other important policies, such as requiring schools to provide adequate mental health services or help with funding vital after-school programs.
Our commitment to higher education must include alternatives to the traditional, four-year college tract so that students can pursue highly valuable technical and career training and certification. Federal support for higher education must include cutting-edge trade and professional schools as well as career and technical education (CTE) programs in middle and high schools.
Finally, we must address the alarming rise in student loan debt. In Arizona, this also hits us hard in our fight to address the teacher shortage.
Nationwide, all student loan debt exceeds $1.5 trillion, an astronomical increase over the past decade. The reality is that student loan debt is dragging down the potency of a college degree or CTE program for Arizonans in all kinds of professions. It is time to recalibrate our nation’s commitment to funding higher education. For the past ten years, Congress has consistently reduced federal grants and need-based aid relative to what is needed, which has allowed unsustainable loan debt to take its place. Ironically, this has occurred at a time in which Americans need higher education more than ever.
Arizona schools are facing a teacher shortage of epic proportions. While horrifically low teacher salaries are a local issue, the problem is aggravated by new teachers coming out of college with piles of student loan debt. In addition to addressing the larger problem of student debt, the federal government should look at ways to provide incentives, such as loan forgiveness or national service opportunities, for people to enter the teaching profession.Studies show a direct correlation between a higher investment in K-12 public schools and better student outcomes. But simply throwing money at the problem isn’t enough; we must be thoughtful in our approaches, and that may be the toughest part – the place where great minds can disagree. So let us at least start from a common place by recognizing that we must do better by our kids, and that our communities’ futures rely on the commitment we make today to give our children a solid foundation in life.