Grassroots groups battle on for Arizona's public schools - East Valley Tribune: East Valley Education News

Grassroots groups battle on for Arizona's public schools

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Posted: Saturday, June 26, 2010 2:01 pm | Updated: 10:15 pm, Tue Jun 29, 2010.

Buoyed by the passage of Proposition 100 - a temporary hike in the state sales tax for public education - grassroots groups are forging on to continue the fight for Arizona schools.

The committees - with alphabet soup-type names like PLAN, AEN, SOS and more - are setting their sights on the fall elections. They hope to encourage voters to question candidates about their ideas and values surrounding education.

For several years Arizona's public education funding has ranked poorly in a number of polls compared to other states. But with the economy doing well at the same time, it appears few parents took notice of what was happening in the classrooms, one supporter said.

Now, as the economy has tanked and more and more of those parents are being asked to help out in classrooms, they're discovering the inner workings - and not liking what they see.

"We're in the classroom more than we've ever been. We're seeing how big the classes got. We've gone from 22 (students in a class) to where 27 is acceptable. We're watching music, art, physical education be stripped way and we're walking into classrooms where the teachers are just done," said Jen Darland, co-founder of the Tucson-based group, Arizona Education Network. "When the economy was doing good, people didn't pay so much attention. But now when a lot of alarm bells are going off for a lot of reasons, people are going back to the basics, ‘Our school is falling apart.'"

A recent poll asked Arizona voters about the quality of the state's education offerings. Most responded with pessimism, from "concerned" (43 percent), to "frustrated" (15 percent) and "unhappy" (12 percent). Only 13 percent chose "satisfied," "optimistic" or "happy."

The poll also found 43 percent believe the quality of education is "declining," while 38 percent believe it has not changed. A majority - 70 percent - said the statewide education system is "fair" or "poor," though they ranked their local systems higher, with 43 percent stating they are "excellent/good" and half rating them "fair/poor."

The survey was conducted by national polling firms, Lake Research Partners and American Viewpoint, Inc., on behalf of the education advocacy group Expect More Arizona.

Concerns were fueled more than a year ago when school districts statewide starting announcing teacher cuts. Thousands were given pink slips as districts prepared for cuts to public education funding at the state level.

One group that formed from that was the Parents Legislative Action Network, created by parents in the Gilbert Unified School District. The parents came together last year as news of the cuts and the grim budget made headlines, said Adelaide Stevenson, a Gilbert school board member and one of PLAN's leaders.

"People were up in arms (asking), ‘Why is this happening?'" she said of the group's start to get word out to parents and the community. "It was our mission to distill the information and bring it into laymen's terms. When you're bringing your kids to school, it's not on the radar screen. But when it's tangible and your student goes into a classroom where there are now 40 versus 30 kids or there's no reams of paper, it hits home."

The group spent the last several months getting word out about Proposition 100, which voters passed in May to increase the state sales tax by .06 percent for three years.

Stevenson said groups have come together in Gilbert in the past to support ballot measures, but PLAN isn't going away now that the job is done.

The next step is, "making people more aware of who we're choosing to represent us," at the state and national level, Stevenson said.

PLAN is putting together a survey for candidates in Legislative District 22. The group also hopes to put together a candidate forum, possibly before the August primaries.

Expect More Arizona is also rallying the troops. The group - which registered as a political action committee - is posting signs around Arizona that say "Are they 4 education?" and "Vote 4 education" to get voters to question their prospective representatives in state leadership.

Nicole Magnuson, executive director of Expect More Arizona, said education supporters are also fighting to support First Things First funding. That initiative was created to support early childhood education and health through a voter-approved tobacco tax increase. But now lawmakers have put an issue on the November ballot that would sweep those funds to assist the state's budget crisis.

"Clearly the passage of Prop. 100 was critical for education. A piece of what we're trying to do is educate Arizona that it reduced the severity of the cuts to education but it has not eliminated what's going to happen. There will still be cuts this year," she said.

Grassroots groups are reaching out to register people to vote or get on the permanent early ballot list.

Expect More Arizona launched last year to support public education and show how the connection between good education, business and communities makes sense for Arizona's future.

"We as Arizonans need to care about education," Magnuson said. "It impacts our economy. It impacts our quality of life and we need to be able to take care of that if we want to continue to have a great state to live in."

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