The most important economic development and crime prevention opportunity facing Arizona is a strategic focus on education, pre-kindergarten through grade 12. In September, a Tucson Community Town Hall was convened on the topic of “Funding PreK-12 Education”. More than 75 participants including public, charter, and private school educators, as well as business and nonprofit leaders, spent the day considering three questions: What are we trying to accomplish with Arizona’s PreK-12 education system?  To what extent do the methods of using public funds for Arizona’s preK-12 schools and the amount of funds provided impact the ability to achieve our goals?  What could be done, and by whom, to improve the amount or methods of funding for Arizona’s preK-12 schools? 

The answers in full are available at aztownhall.org and will also be incorporated into the statewide discussions and recommendations report at the Arizona Town Hall convening in Mesa this Nov. 12 through 15.  

So how did our community reflect on these key questions?

When it comes to our goals for the education system, we want our students to become citizens who have the creativity, skills and understanding of the available opportunities that are necessary for them to add value to our community by being good citizens and by adding to the talent of our state. Education is an economic issue. 

The system needs to support our citizens’ ability to earn a living wage. 

The ultimate goal is to shape and support responsible, engaged citizens who will serve the state as its next generation of critical thinkers and problem-solvers. This will help Arizona attract businesses, improve employment, reduce crime and reduce healthcare costs.

Yet the funds need to be there to do this. The current funding system is a complicated patchwork, is not outcome-driven at any level, and has significant disparities between urban and rural areas or between poor and more affluent neighborhoods. 

The group agreed current funding from the legislature is inadequate to produce the outcomes we seek and that sweeping changes are needed. At the least, Arizona’s education funding should be raised to the national median. Cutting taxes has led to inadequate budgets, hurting our ability to meet needs for school facilities maintenance, among other needs. 

We have improperly shifted the demands for providing basic school supplies and the costs of extracurricular activities to families and teachers. Citizens and political leaders must recognize that increased funding for Arizona’s schools is a wise investment toward stronger families and a viable future workforce.

Improving funding for Arizona’s preK-12 schools must include all options. Proposition 301 should be renewed and expanded to one cent. 

Voter and business leaders should be encouraging lawmakers to explore ways to increase tax revenue through tax reforms, including closing loopholes and eliminating tax exemptions and corporate tax credits. The use of ballot initiatives to fully fund education is a part of this. Lawmakers should give consideration to luxury, bed, and export taxes that allow Arizona to tax out-of-state buyers rather than further taxing Arizona’s citizens. New excise taxes, increasing income taxes and statewide property taxes should be explored. The initiative process should also be used to oppose expansion of vouchers beyond 2016 levels and to create a revenue stream for high quality early childhood education. Any new tax funds or funding sources allocated for education need to be dedicated to education only and protected against being swept from where they are meant to be spent. Think of it as our down payment on our future economy and workforce.

Increased pay and benefits for teachers should become a feature that boosts Arizona’s competitiveness in the global economy. The Arizona legislature should institute a program to forgive the student loan debt of education graduates who become and remain teachers in Arizona to help our schools attract and retain highly qualified educators.

All Arizona voters and residents will be impacted so they should be educated on why education funding is important. And neighborhoods, businesses, nonprofits and other organizations should develop relationships with schools to help with funding and other services.

These questions and answers affect our quality of life Arizona. If we get this right we will have less crime, better jobs, greater employment, less healthcare expenses and a better future for not just our children and grandchildren, but for all of us.

 Hank Peck is the board chairman of Arizona Town Hall and participant in the Tucson Community Town Hall. He is a partner with TCI Wealth Advisors, Inc.  Find out more at aztownhall.org.