Two Democratic candidates for the Arizona Governor seat are pledging more pay and an end to the state's private school voucher system.

David Garcia and Arizona Sen. Steve Farley pledged their aid, if elected governor, to a crowd of at least 150 teachers, members of the public and school administrators at a town hall meeting held by the Arizona Education Association Wednesday night at Flagstaff High School.

Garcia is a former research analyst for the Arizona Senate and served as an associate superintendent at the Arizona Department of Education. He is currently a professor at Arizona State University’s Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College. Garcia is also a veteran of the U.S. Army and first in his family to finish college with the help of the G.I. Bill. He also has a master's and doctoral degree from the University of Chicago.

Farley has served in the Arizona Legislature for 11 years,  first as a member of the Arizona House of Representatives and for the last five years as a senator for the Tucson area. He has served as the House assistant minority leader. He now serves as the Senate assistant minority leader, is the ranking Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee and a member of the Senate Appropriations, Joint Legislative Budget and Ethics Committee.

One of the first questions asked anonymously by the crowd through comment cards was what the candidates thought were the top two issues that needed to be addressed in education.

Garcia immediately jumped on teacher pay and underfunded capital improvement projects for schools as his most important issues. Garcia pledged to close tax loopholes and raise taxes on the wealthy in order to generate the revenue needed to increase teacher pay and funding for new schools.

“We are going to pay teachers what they deserve and let them teach, let them be creative,” he said.

Farley said he was incensed by news that Gov. Doug Ducey had given the employees in his department raises while teachers only got a 1.25 percent raise this year. Paying teachers more is important to the state’s overall economy, he said. There are businesses that are not coming to or are leaving Arizona because the state doesn’t support its public education system.

Farley said teachers deserved a 20 percent raise and he knew the state could do it. He said he’s worked on a number of state budgets over the years and as a member of the Senate Finance Committee. He said he has seen the numbers. He’s watched the businesses come in and ask for special sales tax breaks and loopholes. If the state cut some of the 330 sales tax loopholes it could lower the overall sales tax by about 1 percent and still have enough money to increase funding for schools.

Garcia also said that funding for special education was severely underfunded in the state. The current formula of giving each school a set amount of special education funding because there might be students who need it was broken, he said. Schools should be given funding based on how many special education students they actually have.

Farley said the state formula used to determine how much each school gets for special education was based on outdated information. He was pushing in the Senate for a bill that would require the state to study how much funding was needed to support special education in the state and then find the funds to do so.

Funding for all schools should be equitable, not equal, Garcia said. It should be based on the need of the community and the school, not on every school getting the same proportional share of the funding pie.

Farley said he wanted to reform the state’s private and public school tax credit system. The system widens the funding gap between schools in wealthier areas and poorer areas. Both systems favored schools in wealthier areas. That’s because parents who have the money to send their child to a charter or private school are more likely to also have the money to spend on those tax credits.

The state also needed to restore funding to its universities and community colleges, he said. It’s really an economic issue, Garcia said, echoing Farley. Universities and community colleges are the generators of middle-class jobs. The state needs to invest in its workforce in order to draw business here.

Farley agreed. Jobs and skills needed for those jobs are changing. If the state doesn’t invest in education at every level, including community colleges and universities, then the state economy won’t survive. Businesses will leave.

Neither Garcia nor Farley liked the state’s new private school voucher system. Ducey signed a law earlier this year expanding the program to allow all parents, not just parents of students with disabilities, to use vouchers to pay for their student’s education at a private school.

Garcia said he would get rid of the program altogether. He said he jumped into the race for governor because Ducey signed the voucher expansion bill. Garcia said that he believed in school choice, parents should be able to send their child to the school they think is best for them, but vouchers weren’t the answer.

Public schools and public charter schools needed more flexibility in what classes they can offer, he said. He pointed to magnet schools such as Phoenix Union High School’s Coding Academy.

Farley said vouchers were just a way to privatize education and suck more money from the public school system. He said he fought against the bill as a state senator. Ducey wasn’t looking out for the citizens of Arizona, he said. Ducey was looking out for his friends in Washington, D.C., who were behind bills like this.

Both Garcia and Farley said that there needed to be more transparency in how charter schools do business. Charter schools should be held to the same rules of financial disclosure as local public school districts. They should also receive the same funding as public school districts.

The AEA is holding three more town halls with candidates for governor throughout the month in Tucson, Phoenix and Yuma.

The reporter can be reached at sadams@azdailysun.com or (928)556-2253.

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