Arizona's Education Debates Reflect Republican Candidates' Conservative Rhetoric

In the last few months, Arizona's conservative state legislature has sparred over bills that would police teachers for profanity inside and outside the classroom and allow for the study of the Bible in public and charter schools. These debates follow the 2010 ban on teaching ethnic studies.

According to critics, though, these arguments -- which primarily focus on social issues that can come up in the classroom -- ignore Arizona's deeper, festering difficulties in educating its children.

"This is the third or fourth legislature where instead of talking about the real issues -- not enough resources for education or accountability for everybody involved -- they do things like saying kids don’t know enough about the bible," says Katie Barnes, a seventh-grade public-school teacher in Tempe, Ariz. "It's distracting."

As the Grand Canyon State heads into the GOP primary Tuesday, its legislature's handling of education is, in ways, a microcosm of how the presidential candidates address the topic on the campaign trail: as a cipher for conservative credentials that largely ignores students' academic well-being.

Academic performance in the state is dismal. On the 2011 National Assessment for Educational Progress, a national exam considered the gold standard among education experts, Arizona's fourth graders ranked 46th in reading. In math, Arizona's fourth graders had the 44th highest scores in the country.

As Barnes sees it, Arizona's economic well-being is at stake. "We have kids in Arizona who are not prepared for the jobs that Arizona will need to be a productive state," she says.

To top it all off, Arizona is one of the most frugal states when it comes to funding education. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, Arizona is one of just four states to have reduced per-student spending by more than 20 percent since 2008.

"Many voters feel education is the single biggest issue facing Arizona," says Bruce Merrill, an Arizona pollster and professor emeritus at Arizona State University. "But there's so little support for public education in the legislature."

And not just within the legislature: In last week's Arizona debate, presidential candidates squabbled over who hates No Child Left Behind the most. NCLB, the Bush-era education law that expanded the federal government's reach into schools, became a sticking point for former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), who tried to distance himself from his vote for the law a decade ago.

"I made a mistake," Santorum said. "It was against the principles I believed in, but, you know, when you're part of the team, sometimes you take one for the team."

In response, Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) said, "So the senator voted for No Child Left Behind ... but now he's running on the effort to get rid of it. So I think the record is so bad."

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, a believer in NCLB's tenets, argued for the law in a 2007 debate -- but that didn't stop him from walking back on it last week. During the debate, he referred to the need to "shrink the size of government" in education, and then slammed Santorum on his NCLB vote the next day.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich's stance on the federal government's role in education has also magically changed. Several years ago, Gingrich toured schools with U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, promoting the Race to the Top competition. He even promised to help Obama reauthorize NCLB. But during last week's debate, he said the Education Department should do "nothing but research."

Chris Cross, a longtime Republican congressional education staffer who now runs the California consulting firm Cross & Joftus, is keeping track -- and is trying to convince his partisan colleagues to get beyond superficial K-12 discussions. "It's not an issue in the political realm people that feel comfortable talking about, because they don’t know enough," Cross says. "When they do, it tends to be headlines rather than a discussion."

Santorum also drew headlines for a recent statement slamming the viability of public schools. In an Ohio Christian Alliance appearance earlier this month, Santorum pledged to home-school his children as president.

"Yes the government can help,” Santorum said. “But the idea that the federal government should be running schools, frankly much less that the state government should be running schools, is anachronistic."

As Merrill of ASU sees it, this same argument is playing out in Arizona, as reflected in measures like the bible bill. "The right wing of both parties feels threatened by secularization," Morrill said. "That's why you see a trend to support private parochial education and get the bible back into the classroom."

Last week, Arizona's House of Representatives passed a law that allows public schools to teach a course on the role the bible plays in the U.S.

The bill's sponsor, Rep. Terri Proud (R-Tucson), did not return requests for comment. "The key is for all sides to step back and give first consideration to the principles that bind us together as a people," Proud said, according to the Associated Press.

The bill is expected to sail through the state Senate, says Rep. Ed Ableser (D-Tempe), the only Mormon Democrat in Arizona's legislature. He tried to add an amendment that allowed for the teaching of the Book of Mormon, but it failed to garner votes from the nine Mormon House Republicans, and didn't pass. Though Ableser eventually voted for the bill, he too chides the majority for ignoring Arizona's educational problems.

"The legislature doesn't value education as a holistic approach that will solve many of our problems," Ableser says. "And all four of these candidates for president appeal to these individuals like them."