Public Education and our AZ Constitution

Republished February 2012

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In less than two weeks, Arizona will be celebrating 100 years of statehood. Public officials across the state will gather to pay tribute to our progress since those early days as a territory, the challenges to secure statehood, and how the vision of our forefathers has been realized by the generations who have succeeded them.
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The state’s centennial celebration is the perfect time to reflect upon our state’s constitution. Considered the most progressive document of its kind, ours set forth a vision for our state across all areas and placed notable emphasis on the provision for public education.
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The Arizona Constitution requires that the legislature commit to not only the proper maintenance of education in our state, but its development and improvement. Since 2008, the Arizona legislature has cut over $1 billion in public K-12, university and community college funding.  This lack of support for education funding not only undermines the constitutional provision for the  maintenance, development, and improvement of our schools, it also threatens our state’s economic security.  Arizonans should hold their representatives to the requirements of our constitution every day, but most notably on its 100th anniversary.
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Public education has long been recognized as the crucial component for ensuring our economic and civic structure in the state of Arizona.  John Goodwin, the first governor of the Arizona Territory, stated definitively that “self-government and universal education are inseparable.  The one can be exercised only as the other is enjoyed.”  As early as 1864 he called on the territory legislature to establish free public K-12 and university education, noting that “The first duty of the legislators of a free state is to make, as far as lies within their power, education as free to all its citizens as the air they breathe.”
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Thus public schools were already well established in our state by December of 1910, when 52 delegates from across the Arizona territory came together to draft a state constitution.
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The Arizona Constitution was not a haphazardly formatted document; nor was it a rigid, federally mandated decree by a group of men in powdered wigs and leggings.  The delegates, or constitutional framers, were miners, ranchers and small business owners–the hardworking, enterprising men who defined the “American pioneer” as we think of it today.  Their efforts, combined with several reviews by the voters of Arizona, shaped the enduring and progressive document that has ensured prosperity for our state and its citizens for generations.
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In addition to the territorial legal precedent, the Arizona delegates also had the basic tenets of the Northwest Ordinance as a guideline for their new constitution.  The three-paged Ordinance outlined pre-statehood rule of law to the territories and underscored the four basic cornerstones of democracy and preeminent American values:
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1.    Freedom of religion.
2.    Trial by jury.
3.    Public education.
4.    Prohibition of slavery.
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Article 3 of the Northwest Ordinance speaks to education in the following passage:  “…. knowledge, being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.”
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While the Northwest Ordinance and territorial laws provided the basic scaffolding, the elected delegates were allowed great liberty in how they arrived at the final destination of statehood. Their constitutional course was expected to be one that would be most “comfortably” maintained for the citizens; based largely, if not wholly, on the values and consent of the citizens they were representing in the process.  Addressing the manner of providing public education required the framers to consider the existing and future resources and potential of the territories, and their shared expectations for the growth of a great state.
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Article XI of the Arizona constitution defines the basic parameters for a ‘general and uniform’ public school system from Kindergarten to the University level, outlines the administration of the schools and guarantees an education free from religious or political discrimination. The constitutional authors of 1910-1911 also had the foresight to avoid the unfunded government mandates that we often see today.  They made sure that the funding for Arizona’s public education system was well defined and enduring: Article 11, Section 10 reads:
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“The revenue for the maintenance of the respective state educational institutions shall be derived from the investment of the proceeds of the sale, and from the rental of such lands as have been set aside by the enabling act approved June 20, 1910, or other legislative enactment of the United States, for the use and benefit of the respective state educational institutions. In addition to such income the legislature shall make such appropriations, to be met by taxation, as shall insure the proper maintenance of all state educational institutions, and shall make such special appropriations as shall provide for their development and improvement.”

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Our Arizona forefathers wisely set the bar at a level that would rise alongside the population; allowing for funding increases as needed and with a explicit directive to future legislators to ensure consistent, reliable support for the enhancement and prosperity of our public schools.  The Constitution does not read “We should provide for education” or “We should maintain our state educational institutions when we can afford it” it states explicitly that public education funding must rise beyond the adequate and to the level of providing for the “development and improvement” of our state schools.
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And yet, almost 100 years later, here we are. Per-pupil funding for our Arizona public schools has been on the decline for over a decade and our current legislative leadership is working diligently to unravel existing revenue for our public schools.  The constitutional law which requires our elected representatives to “make such appropriations” is being studiously ignored despite a rising outcry from parents, teachers, our military personnel and the Arizona business community.  To suggest that any article or section of our state constitution is simply irrelevant or inconsequential undermines the significance of our forefather’s vision and foresight. To ignore and/or undermine the constitution is, without a doubt, unconstitutional.
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Our constitution matters.   It is, as Toni McClory states in Understanding the Arizona Constitution, “the most authoritative guide available” and a “continuing limitation on powers of government.”
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In fact, our constitution matters enough that we require our elected representatives to swear an oath prior to taking office:
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State of Arizona, County of ______________ I, _____________________(type or print name)

do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support the Constitution of the United States and the

Constitution and laws of the State of Arizona, that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same

and defend them against all enemies, foreign and domestic, and that I will faithfully and impartially

discharge the duties of the office of ___________________ (name of office) _____________________

according to the best of my ability, so help me God (or so I do affirm).
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(signature of officer or employee)

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Our current course is unacceptable.  It would be unacceptable to our forefathers, and it’s unacceptable to most Arizonans.  Arizona’s race to the bottom in the US education rankings is hurting the students in our schools today as well as the future of our economy.  It is time for every Arizonan to stand strong and give voice that it is time to reclaim the vision of our founding fathers and re-prioritize the values of our government.  Our children–our collective future–should come first.
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To learn more about the history of Arizona and its constitution, we recommend the following sources:.

Smith, Zachary (2002) Politics and Public Policy in Arizona.  Can be viewed on-line via Google books at this address.

History of TUSD:  The First Hundred Years (2003) The Organizers 1867-1870 can be viewed here.
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The Northwest Ordinance available online at Our Documents and at Early America.
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Understanding the Arizona Constitution McClory, Toni; The University of Arizona Press, 2001. This informative book is available for check-out at your public library or for purchase at Amazon.com.
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Arizona State Constitution can be found at the website for the Arizona State Legislature, Article XI, Section X can be found here.
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Arizona historical information can be found at the Arizona State Library, Archives, and Public Records.

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11 Responses to “Public Education and our AZ Constitution”

  1. Thomas says:

    Great recap of the importance Arizona’s founding fathers placed on education. I had not realized how entwined public education was with the creation of Arizona statehood. Does our legislature realize that they have a constitutional mandate to not cut public education funding?

  2. Ed G says:

    Thanks for the basic reminder…can you send this to our legislators? I’m going to cut and paste a copy and send it to our governor.

  3. [...] as a state.  For a brief history of the weight our forefathers placed on public education, visit: Public Education & The AZ Constitution. [...]

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  5. Max Femur says:

    Our lawmakers appear to have formed a ‘thick skin’ with regards to upholding the Constitution of the state of Arizona as it relates to funding Public Education.

    At a town hall meeting conducted in June by Senator Melvin, he was challenged on whether or not the constitution was being upheld. He boldly pointed his index finger at Dr. Barabee from Amphitheatre School District and told him to get an attorney if he felt that there was legal wrong doing.

    Very telling, Senator. Very telling.

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  8. Kim D says:

    So can the legislators who are illegally signing agreements with out-of-state entities to never raise taxes in Arizona be sued for failing to uphold the Arizona Constitution? I have also wondered whether we could put an initiative on the ballot to raise income (or property?) taxes to support education. Our income tax is way too low in this state.

  9. Bill J says:

    The majority in the AZ Legislature is tied to an ideology that all taxing is bad (thanks to Grover Norquist). They are also spineless to not vote for or against a tax increse since that would be a public record.

    When property values were increasing at record levels, the Legislature cut property taxes about $250 million (mean of $84/year/home valued at $200,000). NOW, everyone owns a less valuable home and they are unwilling to go back to where we were.

    Tell those who do not have children that 30% of this is for public safety. If they value firemen and policemen responding, they also have a vested interest in passing this TIME LIMITED tax increase. EVERYONE will pay something for these areas.

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