Some East Valley students and teachers lobbed hard questions and passionate arguments at state Rep. Russell Pearce, RMesa, on Saturday morning, striving to stop plans to cut their adult education classes from the state budget.
"People come to us to get better jobs," said Lynn Reed, executive director of Literacy Volunteers. "If they get better jobs, that would reduce (spending for state-paid health insurance), that would allow them to help their children in school."
Pearce spoke to about 60 students and instructors from Mesa Unified School District’s adult education program at Mesa Community College. He began by explaining the approximately $1.5 billion budget shortfall Arizona is facing.
"There’s some tough decisions to be made," Pearce said. "We’ve become a socialist state. We ought to rely on family, church and community first."
A proposal is at the Legislature now to cut adult education altogether, making Arizona the only state without such a program, said Pam Schoenfeld, an adult education teacher at MCC. She said she hoped Pearce would see the program’s benefits through Saturday’s visit.
Pearce said adult education is one of several programs the Legislature is considering to cut. He told the audience several times that he respects adult education students and believes education is a government responsibility.
He also said adult education is not a mandatory program and he’s not sure if it can be justified. All the same, he said, he would like to see the program continue, suggesting that school districts may be the ones to fund it or, "maybe they (students) need to start paying for it themselves."
Students said the uncertain future of their classes is saddening. April McCullough, a General Educational Development student, choked back tears as she told Pearce that the adult education services have helped her as she’s raised her 3-year-old child.
"I have never collected one food stamp," said McCullough, 21, of Mesa. "Government has never been a last resort. These classes are."
As one after another addressed Pearce, he repeatedly said the budget shortfall requires tough decisions, that he doesn’t want to "mortgage our children’s future" by leaving behind a debt, and that raising taxes would prevent businesses from growing.
But many in the audience said adult education is a good investment — not a luxury or a burden for the community and taxpayers.
"To me it would be worth paying a little more in taxes to make sure we don’t mortgage our children’s future in education," said Julie Jorgensen, a GED teacher who introduced herself as a conservative Republican in Pearce’s district.
Adult education produces so much for the little funding it gets, it wouldn’t make sense to cut it, Reed said.
On a $4.4 million budget, the program teaches more than 46,000 students and graduates 27 percent of the state’s high school diploma recipients through GED programs, she said.
After the discussions, Reed said, "I think he’s trying to be fair and they’re all in a difficult position. I think they need to look further into the true value of education."