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Arizona Prefers Prison Over Education

By Christina Martinez, DFER-AZ State Director

Originally published on the Huffington Post, April 5, 2014

$1 million to private prison would hurt AZ kids.

Budget cuts. Not enough money. Spending cutbacks.

If you live in Arizona, you've probably heard these words too many times in conversations about government funding. According to Republicans in the state legislature, this dire economic crisis is the reason the state's claim to fame is spending the lowest amount of money per pupil for public education in the nation. But we're all in this together, right?

Wrong. In Arizona, it seems that anything is possible, if you fund the right people. Just ask Representative John Kavanagh, who this week allegedly attempted to sneak a $900,000 handout into the House budget for a private prison company, The Geo Group, Inc. -- which also happened to be one of his biggest donors in the 2012 election.

This is the same guy who tried to take money from First Things First, Arizona's version of Head Start, to help fund Child Protective Services as a standalone agency. Rather than recognizing the essential services offered by both programs and working with local organizations and bipartisan coalitions to develop a solution, Kavanagh again demonstrated a gross misunderstanding of what it means to be an elected representative. Blindly taking money from a successful program and throwing it at a failing one is not the answer to Arizona's problems. In his attempt to create $900,000 out of thin air in an 11th hour backdoor move as a favor to a private company with deep pockets, it looks like Representative Kavanagh has done it again.

The United States is a prison-dominated society. Prison culture is especially harmful to low-income and minority individuals who fall through the cracks in society -- especially in Arizona, which in 2010 had the sixth-highest rate of incarceration per 100,000 people in the country. Without adequately-funded schools and support programs for at-risk youth, we are willfully perpetuating the school-to-prison pipeline. We are keeping a generation locked away and throwing away the key rather than aggressively attempting to change the status quo by funding programs that do important, life-changing work. Make no mistake: The money for The Geo Group was not for rehabilitation services or for helping inmates earn their GEDs while in prison. It was for profit, and nothing else.

In an economic landscape where it's impossible to even begin a conversation about providing adequate funding for crucial services like K-3 reading programs for students, plans to fix failing schools, or incentive programs for good teachers, it is frankly offensive that a politician would so blatantly disregard the needs of his constituents.

Democrats in Arizona should stand up to Representative Kavanagh and his cronies in the state legislature, who are all up for reelection in 2014. If we're going to fix Arizona, we're going to have to work together. Passing money under the table to political funders is only lining the pockets of the people who put us here in the first place. It's time to stop that vicious cycle in its tracks.

This is not the first time Kavanagh has overstepped his bounds as an elected official. This is not the first time Republicans in the state legislature have sidestepped the most important issues affecting the state, and it certainly won't be the last. This time around, let's not forget about it.

Diverting Funds from First Things First to CPS: A Zero Sum Game

By Christina Martinez, DFER-AZ State Director

Adults at all levels in Arizona have been putting abused and neglected children in grave danger. Over 6,500 cases of child abuse and neglect reported did not receive a response from Child Protective Services (CPS) over the last four years. Recently, 4,900 of those cases have been assigned to investigators. There are currently two managers at CPS are on leave while they are being investigated for wrongdoing. Director of Economic Security Clarence Carter is also blamed for not meeting a December 2 deadline examining why there are nearly 7,000 uninvestigated cases of child abuse and neglect.

It is in this context that state representative John Kavanagh has proposed to re-direct money from the early childhood development program, First Things First, to CPS. Kavanagh wants to send $33 million - 25% of revenues that First Thing First receives from a tobacco tax - to CPS with the implication that early education is a lower priority and that it is money, not better management, that CPS most requires to improve.

CPS needs to be overhauled but it must be done in a way that does not perpetuate its dysfunction. Dumping money into a system that has bred alleged corruption and that is more than a month overdue in reporting the underlying causes of the agency’s abysmal performance is, to say the least, premature and about a big a waste of taxpayers money as we could think of. Even if it is ultimately determined that CPS requires an infusion of additional funds, pitting the interests of abused and neglected children against those of preschoolers is the wrong way to go about it.

In 2006, Arizonans voted for the cigarette tax in response to a need to address early childhood education and health needs for children. In a state that prides itself on low taxes, it was a landmark victory. Sam Leyvas, Interim Chief Executive Officer of First Things First, says that much of the necessity for First Things First was a result of the state itself cutting back on its own child care subsidies which created a waiting list of more than 6,700 young people. First Things First focuses on providing early education to children from low-income families to close the achievement gaps between them and their more advantaged peers. Program funds serve approximately 14,000 families to provide healthcare, scholarships for daycare and family support.

Arizona citizens used their power to vote for essential educational services to low-income families by creating First Things First. They did not vote to make FTF a slush fund for other programs and services. Thwarting those voters’ will is undemocratic and threatens the credibility of any such efforts in the future, and it makes FTF a target for future such raids on its funding in the future.

It is important for voters to understand that supporting Rep. Kavanagh’s proposal does not help more children. In fact, it hurts many of the same children that CPS is charged with protecting and would cut important family supports under FTF that may also reduce or ameliorate child neglect and abuse. Our kids need CPS to find solutions to its problems based on a thorough needs assessment, evidence-based best practices, stronger leadership, and tighter safeguards against malfeasance. Arizona state kids do not deserve to have our wise investment in First Things First siphoned away and be made players in a zero sum game where they have to choose between getting a good education and staying safe.

Christina has been working in politics and government relations for most of her adult career. A passionate education reformer, Christina has helped low income students in Arizona and across the nation receive the high-quality education they deserve. She has also been a champion in the AZ legislature fighting for families that have fallen victim to zip code discrimination. Read more about Christina here.

With Liberty and Justice for All?

By Christina Martinez, DFER-AZ State Director

With liberty and justice for all. This bold statement of equality in the Pledge of Allegiance is uttered countless times every day across the United States by those who are proud to call this nation home. It was the pursuit of liberty and justice that inspired the Founding Fathers to create a country where people could have a chance at life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness and it has served as the driving force behind political and cultural movements for generations.

In August, we celebrated the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and over the past half-century, we have made significant steps as a nation to make equal rights a reality. But while we may no longer face segregation and Jim Crow laws, we are still fighting against inequality: age discrimination, bias based on sexual orientation, and unequal access to opportunity.

Looking within my home state, I am reminded of how far we have to go to fully actualize the dream that generations of leaders like our Founding Fathers, Dr. King, and thousands of others have fought so hard to make a reality. Currently in Arizona, students across the state are facing unequal access to a quality education. In 2006, the state passed Proposition 300, requiring all students who enroll in a community college or university in the state to prove their citizenship and residency in order to receive in-state tuition. This law has disproportionately impacted thousands of undocumented students who are residents, but not citizens. Because of this law, these students must pay increased tuition at state colleges and universities instead of the lower in-state tuition provided to citizens, which has made the dream of pursuing a college education all but impossible for many. Despite this obstacle, however, some undocumented residents have slowly worked toward their degrees within the community college system by paying full tuition, but even this opportunity is now facing scrutiny.

Arizona Attorney General Tom Horne has proposed a redistricting of the Maricopa Community College Governing Board, the governing body for the largest community college system in the state. His plan would add two additional conservative seats to the board in an attempt to help pass several conservative education bills. He has recently pursued legal action against the Maricopa County Community College system, claiming that the in-state tuition rate offered to students who have legal residency and are actively working towards citizenship is against the Arizona Constitution simply because of their current immigration status. If the judge rules in favor of his lawsuit, it will remove the in-state tuition option from even more students including those who have legal status through the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program and undocumented students - putting the dream of a college education out of reach entirely for even more individuals.

This is not equality in my book. There is no liberty or justice in these types of political maneuvers, simply bias and exclusion.

Political actions like this must be stopped. They are happening in my home state of Arizona and in others all across the country. As a nation, we must work tirelessly to elect leaders who remain true to the pursuit of equality and justice for all - so that all students, regardless of legal status, can pursue their dreams. We must work to ensure that the hard work of past leaders is not undone and that all people have a chance at life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. We must work to guarantee that future generations know that this is still a nation of opportunity.

Christina has been working in politics and government relations for most of her adult career. A passionate education reformer, Christina has helped low income students in Arizona and across the nation receive the high-quality education they deserve. She has also been a champion in the AZ legislature fighting for families that have fallen victim to zip code discrimination. Read more about Christina here.

Arizona Education Champion Elected to State Senate

Devin Boyle | 202.445.0416 | Devin@dfer.org
Christina M. Martínez | 602.316.9732 | Christina@dfer.org


Arizona Education Champion Carlyle W. Begay Elected to State Senate
Appointed to Fill Arizona Legislative District 7

Phoenix, Arizona, August 6th, 2013 - Democrats for Education Reform Arizona (DFER-AZ) congratulates education advocate Carlyle W. Begay on his appointment to the Arizona Senate, organization officials announced today. Begay will represent District 7, which includes a significant portion of the Navajo Nation and seven other tribal communities.

“Carlyle is an education reformer at heart and a passionate defender of the rights of the Native American people and other marginalized groups,” said Christina Martínez, DFER-AZ state director. “He is a true champion for the people of Arizona who often get overlooked when it comes to having access to excellent schools. I am so very proud of him for the work he has done and the work he will continue to do as a senator!”

Born and raised on the Navajo Nation, Begay knows firsthand the inequalities in educational opportunities that can exist for minority and low-income groups. Because of his experiences, he has devoted much of his career to improving education for all and ensuring, regardless of location or race, every child receives the first-rate education they deserve.

Begay, a member of the DFER-AZ advisory board, has spent his career endeavoring to improve the quality of life for Arizona families through public policy and community service. He became involved in education while student teaching at the University of Arizona with the Collaboration for the Advancement of Teaching Technology and Science (CATTS), a program that partnered with local underserved school districts to improve students’ understanding of science, mathematics, and technology. He is currently a Principal at American Indian Health Management & Policy, Inc. (AIHMP), where he works tirelessly to encourage tribal leaders, community members, and all levels of government to develop comprehensive solutions to the many health care crises facing tribes today.

"Quality education is sometimes seen as a luxury—it comes down to the haves and have nots," said Begay. "For decades Navajo and Indian people, and many low-income and minority students and families across the country, have struggled to gain access to great schools. As a senator I will fight to provide excellent schools and equitable funding to all Arizona’s kids."


About Democrats for Education Reform
Democrats for Education Reform (DFER) is a political action committee with 13 state offices whose mission is to encourage a more productive dialogue within the Democratic Party on the need to fundamentally reform American public education. DFER operates at all levels of government to educate elected officials and support reform-minded candidates for public office.

Preparing for Failure

By Christina M. Martínez, DFER Arizona State Director

As August looms closer, I can’t help but think of all the students who will be shortly starting a new school year. Each year is a once in a lifetime opportunity for students to achieve to their utmost potential and to become excited about the learning process. Sadly, too many students in Arizona are denied that opportunity.

Arizona is currently in the bottom ten states in both per-pupil spending and high school graduation rates. Arizona also tops the list for childhood poverty and food insecurity. In addition, it is one of the only states with children on the waiting list for state funded healthcare. This is unacceptable. Our kids are in serious trouble. If we continue down our current path of underfunding and underserving the next generation, we are preparing them for a future of failure instead of a future of success.

Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to speak with Arizona state Rep. Mark Cardenas about education in his district. He represents an area in my state that is largely Hispanic and composed of working, middle-class families. The schools in his district have been struggling to provide their students with the classes and support that they need to succeed. Music and arts programs have long since been cut. Fortunately, however, gifted and Advanced Placement (AP) courses managed to stay funded in most schools up until the last academic year.

This past year, however, one high school in Rep. Cardenas’ district ran out of funding for AP courses and tests. Students were faced not only with losing educational opportunities for that semester, but also for their entire future. AP classes are higher-level courses that can help prepare students for college by exposing them to more rigorous coursework, helping them develop better study skills, and giving them a better idea of what they want to may want study. AP courses also give students the opportunity to earn college credits and thus provide them with a head start on what they need to earn postsecondary degrees. The fact that, unlike in college, students do not have to pay tuition for these courses while in high school is an added bonus.

The high school that serves a large portion of Cardenas’ district contacted him and his seatmates in Legislative District 19, state Sen. Anna Tovar and state Rep. Lupe Contreras, as a last resort to help fund the AP program . The advocates’ main concern was that the school had many students who signed up for AP classes and were counting on potentially earning college credits, but who would be set back if they were not able to take and complete the courses.

Luckily, with the help of the local legislators, the school was able to raise enough money from the community and nonprofits to fund AP classes for the rest of the year and enable students to stay on track with a college prep curriculum. This year, things worked out, but students next year could find themselves in the same situation if things don’t change. Moreover, while this story has a happy ending, that isn’t the case for so many other equally deserving and hard-working students. The struggle to fund advanced courses in Rep. Cardenas’ district isn’t just an Arizona story; it’s an American story. AP and gifted courses that prepare students for college are being cut or eliminated in many school systems due to chronic underfunding. Instead of preparing our students for a bright future, we are setting them up for failure.

Budget cuts to education and ineffective school leadership have shortchanged students in Arizona and across the nation for decades. Until we decide that enough is enough and demand effective leadership and legislation that affects change, we will only continue to set our schools and our children up for failure. We must elect leaders like those in Legislative District 19 who will fight for educational opportunities and strong schools. Until every child has these opportunities, the cycle of failure will continue.

As I think about the incoming students this year, I think about the students in Legislative District 19. I think about how their future was positively impacted by lawmakers with the will to do what is good for students and for tomorrow’s workforce by helping to raise money to fund under-resourced AP programs. I wonder if this will be the year we all decide enough is enough. I wonder - I hope - this will be the year we do what is necessary to give all of our children a quality education that helps them succeed.

Christina has been working in politics and government relations for most of her adult career. A passionate education reformer, Christina has helped low income students in Arizona and across the nation receive the high-quality education they deserve. She has also been a champion in the AZ legislature fighting for families that have fallen victim to zip code discrimination. Read more about Christina here.

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