Hundreds Rally Against Education Budget Cuts at Arizona Capitol

Stacey Jenner has been teaching special education in Peoria for 13 years, but, because of repeated cuts to Arizona's K-12 education budget, her paycheck has grown just $8 since the day she signed on.

When the mother of two learned that Governor Doug Ducey's Fiscal Year 2015-2016 budget proposal slashes per-pupil spending by about $120 per student, something inside her broke.

"I love my job," she said. "But this makes me want to leave teaching."

Jenner and about 250 others rallied at the capitol doors Wednesday evening, marching around the palm-tree-lined courtyard shouting, "Education costs money! Ignorance costs more!" "No if ands or buts! No more budget cuts!"

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Ducey's budget increases in-classroom spending by $74 million but calls for a $113 million cut to non-classroom spending, which critics say would mean less money for necessities such as technology, textbooks, transportation, librarians, teaching aids, and nurses.

Schools already are operating lean. Since the 2007 recession, Arizona has gouged its education budget more than all but two other states, cutting per-student spending by nearly 18 percent, according to a recent report from the Washington, D.C., think tank Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. During the 2013-2014 school year, the National Education Association ranked Arizona last in the nation for education spending. At about $7,021 per child, the state forks over less than a third as much as top-spender Vermont.

"I've had enough," said Janet Blankinship, a freshman English teacher at North High in Phoenix, who attended the protest.

Legislators are too easily distracted by "red herring issues," she said. "The focus should be on education. That's the most important investment we can make."

More Arizonans rank education as a top priority than any other issue, according to a poll released this week by the Morrison Institute for Public Policy at Arizona State University. Nearly 8 in 10 believe the state spends too little on the school system, according to the survey. And they're willing to help fix it: 75 percent of democrats, 53 percent of republicans, and 65 percent of independents said they would pay an additional $200 per year in state taxes to help improve K-12 schools.

Ducey spokesman Daniel Scarpinato said the governor designed the budget to deliver on election promises.

"Governor Ducey is governing on the issues he campaigned on -- putting classrooms first and keeping taxes low to encourage new jobs and economic development," he said.

While the protesters were organizing, Ducey was launching a social-media campaign under the slogan "classrooms first."

"I want to help teachers teach and students learn," he said in a tweet Feb. 24. "That's why my budget puts #ClassroomsFirst."

Jenner's biggest concern is that she might lose her classroom aid. She and her aid divide her class of 13 into smaller groups so they can attend to individual needs, she said. "There's no way one person can do it," she said. "We're barely doing it with two."

Jennifer Henze, a mother of four from Sun City, said she's worried that deeper cuts might mean the end of the gifted program at her neighborhood school, where her two oldest were thriving. She pushed her 2-year-old in a stroller around the courtyard. Her three older children waved homemade sighs. "Cuts hurt kids!" read one. "Invest in my education! In 20 years I'll be making all the laws for you!" read another.

"I like learning new things," said Henze's 10-year-old daughter, Lily. "My teacher makes it fun."

A few legislators came down from their offices and joined the masses, including Senator. Steve Farley ( D-Tucson) and Representative Sally Ann Gonzales(D-Tucson).

"Not only am I a senator," said Farley, rallying the crowd. "I'm also a pissed-off parent."

He thanked the protestors for "taking the power."

"I'm glad you're here because we need to change this," Farley said. "Now, find five more people and come back. Then have them find five more people and come back. And then have them find five more people and come back. Until we demonstrate that we are the majority and we don't want this; they will destroy us."

The crowd broke out into a chant, pumping fists and shaking signs.

"We'll be back!" they cried. "We'll be back! We'll be back!"

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