Saying they can't find qualified applicants for jobs, business leaders from around the state asked lawmakers Wednesday to support funding to implement the new "common core'' standards.
But they're not willing to raise their taxes to do it.
A parade of speakers told a joint meeting of three House committees that even with the high jobless rate, many positions go unfilled. The reason, they said, is that students do not graduate from high school ready to work, or ready for college.
Potentially more significant is the ability to think critically and not just acquire knowledge.
"Critical reasoning is important on how students progress from one level to another, said Ron Carsten, chief engineer for Raytheon Missile Systems.
"It can't just be a memorized equation or the multiplication table,'' he told lawmakers. "It's got to be how does that apply, how does it solve a problem.''
But Carsten said the problem goes beyond finding qualified workers from among Arizonans. He said the shortcomings here affect Raytheon's ability to recruit from elsewhere.
"The first question they ask: How good are the schools,'' he said. Carsten said his response is to tell them in which school districts they should buy a house.
"I shouldn't have to do that,'' he said. "We need some of these people in Arizona to be more competitive across the nation and globally.''
Todd Sanders, president of the Greater Phoenix Chamber of Commerce, said there's a "huge problem, a huge concern with having a qualified workforce.'' He even told legislators that education is a greater economic development tool than the tax credits that they have provided for businesses.
But for all the support for lawmakers to support additional dollars, no one volunteered to pay higher taxes to make up for what Rep. Eric Meyer, D-Paradise Valley, told colleagues is the $2.9 billion that's been taken from public schools in the last four years.
And even Sanders, questioned after the meeting, said his comments did not mean that businesses are ready to forego some of those credits.
"I think they're two separate issues,'' he said.
Sanders said that, for the first time in years, the state appears to have more revenues coming in than are needed to fund services at current levels.
"We think that some of those dollars should be allocated toward funding 'common core,' '' he said.
Glenn Hamer, his counterpart at the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry, repeated the same theme.
"We're not talking about rolling back credits or anything like that,'' he said.
Rep. Tom Forese, R-Chandler, who helped organize the meeting of the committees on education, commerce, and higher education and workforce development, said he hopes to spur an interest in more spending on education by some of his Republican colleagues.
"We're at a crossroads,'' he said. "We will not have the Arizona in 20 years that we have today.''
Forese said decisions made now on education funding will determine whether the state is "a shell of a megatropolis where moved and shakers and entrepreneurs have left'' or "a hub of capitalism.''
Gov. Jan Brewer already has said she intends to seek some funds for this coming year to implement the standards.
She has not said how much of the possible $600 million in surplus funds she plans to dedicate to that, saying that will have to wait until Friday. But Brewer already has listed a series of other priorities that will eat into those dollars, including money for new school resource officers and hiring more caseworkers for Child Protective Services.
And there could be even less available if the state has to comply with Tuesday's ruling by the Court of Appeals to add an extra $82 million in inflation funding for public schools.
In praising the standards, the business leaders said they align what students in Arizona are supposed to learn with what is being adopted in most other states. But Cathleen Barton, the regional education manager for Intel Corp., said it goes beyond that.
She described the old standards as "a mile wide, an inch deep.''
"Now they're fewer,'' she said.
"The learning and the understanding will be deeper,'' Barton continued. "This will help develop critical thinkers, problem analyzers and solvers, and good communicators.''
And Barton said improving education in Arizona will do more than ensure the company, which employs about 11,000 in the state, finds enough qualified job applicants.
"We want consumers who have the purchasing power to purchase our goods and services,'' she said. Barton said an educated workforce also is good for national security, saying 20 percent of those who try to get into the military do not meet even the basic requirements.
And she echoed Carsten's point that a good education system is recruiting and keeping qualified workers.
"We want good education opportunities for the children of our employees so they feel comfortable in continuing to work here,'' Barton said.
Carsten said the benefits of teaching critical thinking are even broader than that in having an informed electorate. For example, he said, it will help people separate fact from fiction and discriminate between what is evidence and what is rumor.''
He said it's not adopting the common core standards that will cost money. It's making them work.
"We're going to have to have ways of changing our professional development for our teachers,'' he said.
"We're not just teaching to a test,'' Carsten continued. "We're teaching critical reasoning.''
Forese said that while implementing the standards will cost money, he believes the state will have to live with the funds that are available. But he said once there are plans for implementation he believes more funding will follow.
And Hamer said that the tax cuts his organization fought for actually will produce those new dollars. He said they already have borne fruit, with state revenues increasing as companies decide to invest and hire in Arizona.