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Education Focal Point of First General-Election Gubernatorial Debate

Capitol Media Services photo by Howard Fischer

Education took center stage Wednesday night as gubernatorial hopefuls, Democrat Fred DuVal and Republican Doug Ducey, faced off in their first debate ahead of the general election. Arizona Public Radio’s Howard Fischer was there.

One point of contention is last year’s Supreme Court ruling that state lawmakers ignored for years. It was a voter-approved mandate to boost state aid to schools each year to account for inflation. Now the state is disputing how much is owed. DuVal said it’s time to stop fighting and pay up the more than $300 million in additional funds.

“The Supreme Court has ruled. We can keep delaying the payments. We can keep postponing what is going to be inevitable. These children, we’ve lost five years. We’ve lost half a generation,” DuVal said.

DuVal said there’s enough in the state’s rainy day fund to take care of the first year. But he was less clear on where he will get cash for future payments, talking about procurement reform and perhaps privatizing some state functions like the Arizona Lottery. But, Ducey wants the state to keep fighting the schools as long as possible. And, if the state loses he has ideas about changing how schools get to spend the money.

“If the courts rule we must put this money into education, we’ll put it into education. But what I want to do is take the opportunity to restructure our formulas that I don’t believe are working, I don’t believe are getting dollars to the classrooms, to support our teachers. So I’ll take this crisis as an opportunity to restructure our education funding,” Ducey said.

The debate also touched on higher education, with Ducey pointing out that during DuVal’s six-year tenure on the Board of Regents tuition doubled.

“I think the record would show that under your leadership on the Arizona Board of Regents there was record-high tuition increases, record-high spending and record-high borrowing,” Ducey said.

DuVal said Ducey is ignoring some facts, including that lawmakers slashed per-student state aid to universities by more than a third. And that’s just part of the story.

“We took a one-third enrollment during that time. Our per-student investment remained flat for the time I was on the Board of Regents while we were taking on record levels of new enrollment. And the question simply became, folks said, just close campuses, the only way you can deal with this is to close campuses. There’s no other legal way to get around. I said not going to happen. We’re going to redesign the system,” DuVal said.

Ducey was not impressed. He said when state revenues shrank it was up to the universities to make cuts.

“Just like everyone in the audience, just like every small businessperson, just like state government finally got to it, you have to tighten your belt,” Ducey said.

Moderator Braham Resnick asked Ducey if he would be OK with closing college campuses when state funding falls short. Ducey said no, leading Resnick to say that choices have to be made. But Ducey would not bite.

“I’m not here to do Fred’s job as a regent. But there are different options. And just like a legislature or a treasurer or what we did to reform the permanent land endowment trust fund, I would look at different options so we could do things more affordably than they were done,” Ducey said.

The pair have agreed to four more joint appearances.

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