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zona Daily Sun 

A law enforcement vehicle sits on the road to Walnut Canyon National Monument Monday behind a series of barricades carrying a notice declaring that Walnut Canyon is closed to visitors due to a lapse in federal appropriations because of the government shutdown. The monument is expected to reopen Tuesday.

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Furloughed federal workers feel like ‘pawns’ in shutdown fight

WASHINGTON – The government shutdown that began Friday may have been short-lived, but that doesn’t mean the thousands of federal workers in Arizona who were sent home Monday or made to work without pay feel any less put-upon.

The state’s more than 55,000 federal workers will be back on the job Tuesday, after Congress voted Monday night to extend the budget that had expired Friday, sparking the shutdown. But the latest budget bill was extended for less than three weeks.

That left some worried that they would be right back in the same situation on Feb. 9, the day after the current continuing resolution on the budget is set to expire.

“It’s almost like having an abusive boss, where you don’t know when they’ll drop the hammer on you,” said Ryan Mims, legislative political organizer for the American Federation of Government Employees, District 12, which includes Arizona.

The shutdown began Friday when the Senate could not muster the 60 votes to stop a Democratic filibuster of the budget bill, over demands that it include protections for undocumented immigrants known as Dreamers.

Each side blamed the other for the shutdown while negotiations dragged on through the weekend. It ultimately ended in a deal in which Democrats agreed to let the budget pass and Senate Republican leaders agreed to hold a vote on a bill to protect recipients of Deferred Action of Childhood Arrivals.

The Senate voted 81-18 Monday to approve the budget, followed several hours later by the House’s 266-150 approval.

“The government employees are being used as pawns,” Harley Hembd, AFGE’s Arizona national representative, who blamed both sides in Congress for the shutdown.

A government shutdown does not mean the loss of all government services. Mail is still delivered because the Postal Service is separately funded, and agencies whose budgets were already approved, like the Veterans Administration hospitals, continue to operate.

In agencies that are affected, workers are divided into essential and non-essential employees. Essential workers – such as border patrol agents and Transportation Security Administration screeners – report to work, even though they are not paid for their time until the government reopens.

Mims says that federal employees already have very stressful jobs, and that the added uncertainty of their futures only makes the job more trying. That is definitely true for border patrol agents, whose normally challenging jobs have the added stress of having to work without various support staff, said Brandon Judd, president of the Border Patrol Council,

“It made our job a lot more difficult, it made securing the border a lot more difficult,” Judd said. “Morale goes way down during a government shutdown.”

Judd said that workers were left asking themselves: “Did I just work for free?” and “When will I get paid?”

Non-essential workers are sent home without pay, although the White House has agreed to support back pay for those workers once the government is back in business.

Mario Martinez, a Defense Department worker who audits federal contracts, said he was classified as a non-essential government employee and sent home without pay Monday. He said he doesn’t blame both sides, calling the shutdown a “case of failed leadership” that he attributed to President Donald Trump’s refusal to agree to a DACA deal.

Federal employees still worry that the government may shut down again in a matter of days, with Mims saying most workers are “concerned that this (latest budget deal) is just a Band-Aid.” Judd agreed.

“We can be right back in the same situation on Feb. 8,” Judd said.

Martinez said he isn’t sure whether he will be compensated and that at the moment whatever he would have made is lost family income.

“Unpaid time off means less food on the table,” Martinez said. “We’re doing our best.”

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Arizona education gets low marks on annual report card

PHOENIX – Arizona education scrapes the bottom ranks in the nation, receiving a D+ for school funding and the poverty achievement gap in an annual report card released Wednesday.

Arizona ranked 45th among the 50 states and the District of Columbia in the Education Week rankings for 2018, with a score of 68.7. But the U.S. didn’t score much higher: it got a C grade. Only 12 states received higher than a C+ overall score.

The rankings grade the quality of schools from an A, the highest grade, to a D. The D+ ranking is not new to Arizona: the state’s grade has not changed since Education Week updated the grading category three years ago.

An education advocate said the state has historically received low scores in nationwide reviews.

“It’s not surprising. It’s a little disappointing,” said Erin Hart, the chief operating officer at Expect More Arizona, an education advocacy group. “Arizona has always been at the bottom of these lists.”

The report card examined three categories to determine rankings.

Arizona’s schools earned a C in the “Chance-for-Success” category which measures the poverty gap, looking at factors such as parents’ education attainment, job longevity and income.

Academic achievement, including math and reading scores and graduation rates, earned a C- in the “K-12 Achievement Index” category.

But school financing is still dismal, according to the report’s grade of a D-minus, placing it as No. 46 in the nation. The state average was a C.

Gov. Doug Ducey vowed to focus on improving education in his 2018 State of the State address last week.

“Let’s spend these dollars — tens of millions of dollars combined — where they can go to better use: In our public schools and for our teachers,” Ducey said.

Much of the governor’s proposed $10.1 billion budget is devoted to education, which Hart called a step in the right direction.

“What the governor proposed is a budget that’s focused on education,” she said. “That could be really powerful. Our schools have been without resources for so long, and were really hit hard during the recession. The money still hasn’t come back to them completely. I think it’ll make a difference for schools.”

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Ducey backers launch upbeat school media campaign

PHOENIX -- Some Arizona businesses and their lobbying groups are spending money this week in a bid to convince voters that the state's education situation is not as bad as some would say.

Matthew Benson, spokesman for the newly formed Arizona Education Project said it has made a "six-figure'' buy of TV ads in the Phoenix area this week to counter what he called the "negative voices'' in education. He would not identify who they are.

"I think you know who we're talking about,'' he said.

And this is just the beginning. Benson said future ads featuring upbeat descriptions of the state's K-12 education system are planned, including an expansion into the Tucson TV market, though he refused to provide a budget.

The campaign comes as Gov. Doug Ducey and Republican legislators are under increased pressure to deal with the fact that Arizona is close to the bottom of per-student funding. The commercial is designed to emphasize what has been done since Ducey took office.

Yet even the staff of the Joint Legislative Budget Committee acknowledges that, on an inflation-adjusted basis, the state is putting fewer dollars into public schools now on a per student basis than it did a decade ago.

Benson is not disputing those numbers.

"It's more about making sure the other side of the story is told because there is a positive story when it comes to Arizona education,'' he said. For example, there's the National Assessment of Education Progress, a standardized test of what students know.

"Arizona students are leading the nation when it comes to improvement in math, English and science,'' Benson said.

What he does not say is that the scores, while improving, for the most part remain below the national average.

For example, just 30 percent of Arizona fourth graders are at least proficient in reading, versus 36 percent nationally. And 25 percent of Arizona eighth graders are proficient in science compared with 34 percent nationally.

Benson said the media campaign chose to emphasize certain "data points.''

He also said the commercial is not designed to secure Ducey's reelection or push for or against specific legislation, pointing out the Arizona Education Network is set up as a 501(c)(3) charity.

But the funding is coming from various groups who have been supportive of the governor -- and who also have benefited from the corporate tax breaks that have been phased in which have left the state with more than $300 million less in revenues now than had the tax rates remained the same.

The list of funders provided by Benson include the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry and the Hispanic chambers from Tucson, Douglas, Sierra Vista and Nogales. Money also is coming from the Arizona Lodging and Tourism Association and Services Group of America, a private firm involved in food distribution. Also donating is Pinnacle West Capital Corp. which owns Arizona Public Service Co., the state's largest electric utility.

"Too often, all we hear is a drumbeat of the negative and cherry-picked figures to paint a downbeat picture, which is simply not accurate,'' Benson said.

There has been extensive media coverage of not only Arizona's national ranking in per-student funding but also the fact that teachers here are paid less than pretty much anywhere else. That point was repeated Monday by Diane Douglas, the state superintendent of public instruction, in her annual 'State of Education' report to the Legislature. (See related story, A3.)

At the same time, there is pressure on lawmakers to not only extend the current 0.6-cent sales tax for education that will self-destruct in 2021 without action but also expand it to bring in more dollars for teacher salaries and other needs.

Several education groups are asking a judge to rule the state is not living up to its constitutional obligation to provide adequate funding for school buildings and repairs.

Finally, enough signatures have been gathered to force a public vote in November on a plan approved by lawmakers and signed by the governor to expand a program that provides public dollars for students to attend private and parochial schools.

Benson said the other side of the story needs to be told.

"For too long, the debate in this state on education has been dominated by negative voices and by organizations and entities that see some kind of political advantage in tearing down our teachers and our schools,'' he said. "We're just not going to stand for that anymore.''

Joe Thomas, president of the Arizona Education Association, said as far as he's concerned, his organization is not one of those groups that are "tearing down teachers.'' And he said the commercial is not entirely wrong.

"There are wonderful things going on in Arizona,'' he said.

"The problem is, it's not sustainable,'' said Thomas, who said the ad would have been more credible had it included statements from teachers. "We're losing those teachers to other states and they're getting burned out.''

But it isn't just the Arizona Education Association that has been beating the drum for more education funding. It also includes the Arizona School Boards Association, made up of board members who are elected by voters in their local school districts.

"I wouldn't consider us a negative voice,'' said Tim Ogle, the group's executive director. "I think we're always kind of advocating for children and advocating for what's right and fair.''

And Ogle said there's nothing wrong with pointing out that, even with the new dollars in the past few years, schools are still not back at pre-recession funding levels.

"You take away with the left hand but give back with the right hand,'' he said. "But that's not new money.''

"The business community that is behind this effort wants to make sure the other side of Arizona schools is told,'' Benson said. "And it's a positive story.''

For example, one of the points in the commercial is that education funding has increased by nearly $1.5 billion in the past three years.

That, however, includes not just what the state is required by law to fund by law due to the growth in the number of students plus a legally mandated inflation adjustment but also the more than $300 million a year going into K-12 education as a result of Proposition 123.

That measure, approved by voters in 2016, settled a long-running lawsuit accusing the state of failing to live up to its legal obligations. Some plaintiffs in the case said they agreed to settle to avoid protracted litigation even though they believe it reimburses the schools for only about 70 percent of what they were owed.

The commercial also mentions a program which forgives the debt of some students who agree to teach in state schools. The cost of that, however, is being picked up by the universities.