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The economics of education

Citizen Staff Writer
Our Opinion

In arguing in the Guest Opinion below that higher education is a “public good,” author Gary Rhoades asks:

“Why don’t our legislators and governor understand?”

That’s a complex question with different answers for every member of the Legislature and for the governor.

But a recent comment by one Arizona legislator gives some insight into the thinking that has led to deep spending cuts for higher education.

In a hearing before the state House Ways and Means Committee last week, Elizabeth Slaine, an English teacher at Tucson High Magnet School, said spending money on education is a sound investment. Arizona’s economy won’t improve unless there are people qualified to be in business, Slaine testified.

That led Rep. Andy Biggs, a Gilbert Republican, to shoot back, “Education does not create jobs.”

That is a shocking statement that indicates that Biggs – a retired lawyer beginning his seventh year in the Legislature – doesn’t understand one basic fact:

Education is not a money-eating state service, like operating prisons. Education is an investment in our future – an investment that, as Rhoades points out, pays rich dividends.

If Biggs doubts this, he might turn to the report written following the 2008 Arizona Town Hall – hardly a hotbed of liberal thinking.

Town Hall participants concluded that within the next 10 years, Arizona’s economy will require more than 330,000 additional bachelor’s degrees, 74,000 master’s, 16,000 Ph.D.s and 23,000 professional degrees.

“Arizona must . . . make some significant changes to its higher education system in order to accommodate this demand and keep pace with both its own economy and the growth in bachelor’s degrees nationally,” the Town Hall participants concluded.

So how did the Legislature and Gov. Jan Brewer respond? By cutting funding for education at all levels.

There was a time when Arizona’s economy was based on the five C’s: climate, copper, citrus, cattle and cotton. Biggs and others in the Legislature may be under the mistaken impression that is still the case.

But Arizona is increasingly becoming a major player in technology, science and information. Those areas require a new set of skills – skills available only through top-notch universities.

Craig R. Barrett, chairman of Intel Corp., put it clearly: “Unless we improve the substandard quality of education in this country, we’re not doing all we can to assure a strong future.”

One does not have to teach at or attend a university to have a stake in their strength. Strong universities benefit the state’s entire economy.

Would Raytheon Missile Systems Inc. – Tucson’s largest private employer – stay in southern Arizona if it did not have a steady supply of engineers and other well-educated employees from the University of Arizona? Clearly, no.

Rep. Biggs’ statements are his own. But the hollow-headed thinking behind those statements is indicative of the lack of understanding of the clear connection between education and the economy.

Arizona Town Hall says the state needs more college graduates.

So the Legislature cuts funding for education.

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