Ad blitz touting Arizona's K-12 education system hits airwaves – see who is funding it

When Arizonans turn on the television or look at the internet this week, they likely will see a 30-second advertisement that highlights how the state is spending money to help K-12 public education, along with some achievements of public schools.

The cheerful ad, with images of teachers in the classroom and students huddled around a laptop, comes from a newly formed non-profit corporation called the Arizona Education Project.

Donors to the non-profit so far include some heavy hitters: Pinnacle West Capital Corp., the parent company of Arizona Public Service Co., Services Group of America, the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the Arizona Lodging and Tourism Association, and the Tucson Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. –

All are allies of Gov. Doug Ducey, who is running for re-election amidst intense pressure to boost funding to public education.

The public-education ad is intended to counter the narrative set by those who question state leaders’ commitment to adequately fund public education, and to highlight positive stories, said Matthew Benson, spokesman for the 501(c)3 non-profit group.

The ads are not tied to any political candidate or legislative effort, he said.

“The message is pretty simple: Arizona schools aren’t perfect, but we’re making a lot of progress and too often in the current climate, that gets lost,” Benson told The Arizona Republic.

“There are groups and individuals that see political gain and advantage in talking down our schools, and our teachers. There’s another side, there’s another story to tell about Arizona’s education and that’s what we’re going to be talking about.”

Why do this now?

Benson said the group chose to buy significant air time now because “this is the dominant topic in Arizona public policy.” He said the group wants to ensure the discussion includes “everything that is happening in our schools that is positive,” too.

Dawn Penich-Thacker, spokeswoman for Save Our Schools Arizona, said those people behind the ads "underfund and discredit Arizona schools for decades and then spend millions patting themselves on the back for the tenacity of the very schools they systematically attack" through underfunding and privatization programs, she said. 

Benson would not disclose how much money donors have contributed to the project or how long the ad campaign would last. He said the group will spend “six figures” on its first week of advertisements, which will also eventually air in Tucson.

The ads are airing two weeks after the start of the state legislative session, one that will be dominated by education funding.

Ducey, who is widely seen as politically vulnerable on education, proposes $400 million in “new investments” for public schools. Of that, about $116 million, or about 30 percent, is legally required. The rest of the money would give schools extra money for building repairs, teacher pay and full-day kindergarten.

The spending plan, if approved by lawmakers, could help blunt criticism that he is not doing enough to fund public schools in a more meaningful way. 

Advocates call for more spending

Some school advocacy groups and business leaders, for example, want Ducey to more quickly expand Proposition 301, the 0.6 cent education sales tax that pumps $600 million into Arizona schools and is set to expire in mid-2021.  

And, Ducey drew criticism last year from those who oppose his program to expand a program that diverts money from public schools and lets parents use it to pay for private and religious schools. 

The expanded Empowerment Scholarship Account program is on hold after a group of parents and public-education advocates collected enough signatures to let voters decide in 2018 if they want to keep or reject the law.

Claims made in ad

The 30-second Arizona Education Project ad is set against the backdrop of upbeat music.

“What if I told you there’s a state that has increased education funding by nearly $1.5 billion in the last three years,” a voice-over asks. “Or that the state has led the nation in improvements in fourth- and eighth- grade math and reading since 2009. And opened a teachers academy to help college students graduate debt-free if they teach in state schools.

“This state is Arizona. There’s much more to do, but Arizona schools are making progress.”

The ad references a figure the governor has used to tout school-funding under his administration. The figure includes dollars from Proposition 123, which voters passed as part of an effort by the state to settle a long-running lawsuit over its underfunding of inflation costs.

However, per-pupil state funding, when adjusted for inflation, has decreased by about $900 since 2008. It is about $4,100 today, down from nearly $5,100 in 2008, according to the Joint Legislative Budget Committee.

Arizona is one of the most improved states in math and reading in the past decade, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress scores, but still underperforms when compared with other states.

Ducey launched the teacher academy last year, saying it would help address a persistence statewide shortage of qualified teachers.

Disingenuous message?

Penich-Thacker, of the grassroots parent group, said the message was disingenuous because those accomplishments have occurred "despite the lack of support" in adequate funding.

"What if I told you there's a state that invests nearly $1,000 less today for your students' education than it did a decade ago?" she asked. "Or that improvements in math and reading scores have happened despite chronic negligence of teachers and students by elected leaders?"

She added, "This state is Arizona. There's much more to do because Arizona politicians are starving the schools and driving away the teachers our state and economy rely on." 

Garrick Taylor, spokesman for the Arizona chamber, said business leaders are growing “more encouraged” by the state’s education landscape.

“When you find out that five of the 10 public high schools are located right here in Arizona, that’s a good story to tell,” he said. “When you see access to choice in Arizona is growing, that’s a story worth telling.” 

Documents filed Jan. 12 with the Arizona Corporation Commission said the Arizona Education Project will “share and promote information” about the state’s K-12 education system.

It plans to do that by highlighting academic achievements “and by working to connect directly with parents — through paid advertisements, research, and direct-contact programs like mail, e-mail, and phone calls — to inform them of their child’s education options and educate them on how to take advantage of those options.”

-Originally published by Yvonne Wingett Sanchez with the Arizona Republic on January 22, 2018 at 11:32 am 

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