It was sunny and unseasonably hot Sunday, when the faithful showed up for a pro-schools rally at CDO Riverfront Park in Oro Valley. They were parents, children, teachers, concerned citizens, perhaps 300 in all during some part of the two-hour rally, maybe 150 at 3 p.m., the assigned time to join hands in a big circle.
The Northwest people who have formed Concerned Arizona Residents for Education, or CARE, hoped for at least 100 in the audience. They got that. But it wasn't as many as the estimated 1,750 who turned out for the Tucson Tea Party, a tax protest. Who pays attention to the crowds? Media, for one group. And the partisans, for another.
Democrats were in the shade at Sunday's rally, introduced but not asked to the microphone. CARE is attempting to remain non-partisan in its advocacy. Reports from the Tea Party indicate similarly public citizen-level organization. One grass roots rally was formed by people who are tired of paying taxes. One grass roots rally by people who want full funding for public schools.
Everyone who's tired of paying taxes, raise your hand. No one likes paying taxes. Everyone who supports well-funded public schools, raise your hand. Who out there doesn't want our kids to get an excellent education?
The trouble, of course, is that Arizona doesn't have as much money as it needs to fund government the way people want it funded. You can play the numbers any way you want — and everyone does just that — and the bottom line is that the Arizona pie doesn't have enough filling to feed all the needs. So what do you do.
First, let's acknowledge that every government service has a constituency, people who very much depend upon it. When government cuts any spending, someone gets hurt. Should any service be eliminated? Maybe, but there's pain. Should any service be immune from budget reductions? Harder question. Public schools are vitally important. So are police. Roads. Water and sewer services. Prisons. Social services. Cut one, cut some … cut all?
School funding is uniquely tangled in its complexity. Don't forget that part of the reason Amphitheater schools, as an example, are expecting less money next year is that they will have fewer students. In every state constitutional challenge, high courts across America have ruled that school funding must be equal, and the best way to distribute money is on a per-student basis. More kids? More money. Fewer kids? Less money.
Here's another twist. A study by the Pew Institute estimates more than 100,000 students in Arizona are directly or indirectly tied to illegal immigrants, consuming public resources. Should those children be educated? Yes, but the legitimate bigger question is this — should they be here?
Never mind the Arizona debate about school choice. It's a sticky web, all of it.
District 26 Republican Sen. Al Melvin, a member of the Legislature's Appropriations Committee, assured a crowd last week that school funding for fiscal 2010 would be similar to the 1.3 percent current year reduction the Legislature made this winter. He believes the pink slips given to educators in the last few weeks will be negated when the budgetary dust settles. Let's hold him to it. Let's hope he's right.
CARE and its founders are doing something terrific. They simply want to see public schools adequately funded. They've found a collective voice, and they'll keep speaking in parks, and at the polls next year. Good for them. And carry on.