Chamber Demands Funding, Education Reform

Chamber Demands Funding, Education Reform

Go to any city.  Talk to any business owner.  Ask them what the biggest challenge is to their ability to grow and create more well-paying jobs.  The odds say that almost 100% of the time the answer will be finding qualified talent.  Ask a site selector what the number one “X Factor” is when relocating a company and they will tell you the same thing.  Does anyone see a pattern here?

Gov. Ducey says that the number one goal of his administration is economic development.  During a conversation I had with Gov. Ducey not long ago the governor said that if he can rev up the state’s economy many of the state’s other challenges would be solved.  I like that kind of thinking.

But here’s the problem.  Arizona is a non-player when it comes to getting serious about education and its funding.

  • We rank 48th in per pupil spending.  (
  • Pima Community College and Maricopa Community College have had their state funding slashed to zero.
  • We almost lost funding for the Joint Technical Education District (JTED) a couple of years ago. JTED graduates 98% of its students (the state average is 78%).  And JTED grads leave high school with the career and technical readiness needed for the workforce.
  • Arizona leads the nation in cuts to higher education according to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities. Per student state funding for Arizona’s public universities declined more than 55 percent between 2008 and 2016. (

This past February, chamber of commerce executives from around the state held a series of meetings at our state capitol.  Among the guest speakers we heard were Senate President Steve Yarbrough and Speaker of the House J.D Mesnard.  When asked about what the state was prepared to do to increase funding for education, the answers went something like this: “We’re proud of the fact that we have a balanced budget.”  With all due respect, WE’RE happy that the state budget is balanced, too.  But having a balanced budget is not mutually exclusive to funding education at a higher level.  Arizona can walk and chew bubble gum at the same time.

States across the country are waking up to the fact that their economic futures depend on amping up the pipeline of qualified graduates coming out of their education systems – K-12, community colleges and higher ed.  Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam and Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval, both Republicans, are two great examples.  Both have brought significant focus, reform and funding to their states’ education systems.

If you’re still not convinced, consider this.  Communities that enjoy higher levels of college attainment among their citizens also enjoy more prosperity.  Yup, according to a study called Effects of Educational Attainment on Regional Prosperity done by The Milken Institute in 2016 and summarized by the University of Arizona MAP program, “….education attainment is one of the key drivers of local income, job and population growth…(and) less educated residents benefit from living in a region with a large concentration of college graduates.”

The study says that adding just one year of college to the region’s workforce causes the regional gross domestic product (GDP) per capita to jump 17.4%.  Translated, the increase in college attainment makes the entire community richer (and nicer) for everyone.

Tucson’s profile in this key metric is a mixed bag.  The more mature demographic in Tucson has a higher level of college attainment than the state or national average, but the reverse is true at younger demographics.  If our current population “ages in place”, we will lose that advantage in coming years.  The ONLY solution is to graduate more homegrown college graduates, because it is unlikely that recruiting out-of-state grads will have any effect on this trend.

At the Tucson Metro Chamber we’re not waiting for the state to act.  The Chamber has two programs designed to help improve the quality of the local workforce.

  • INTERN TO CAREER is a program that helps place high school students who are on a career/technical path with local employers between their junior and senior years.  These are paid summer internships.  Last year’s pilot project was so successful that the program was increased and added four more sectors for the this summer.
  • EARN TO LEARN is a program partnership that helps qualified but financially-challenged local high school grads get funding for four-year degrees at UA, ASU or NAU. The Chamber’s role is to help coordinate internship opportunities for juniors and seniors so they graduate from a four-year school and graduate into a local business instead of taking their talents somewhere else.  This is a hidden workforce, folks.  The majority of these students have STEM majors and graduate at a much higher rate than the general university student body.

Is increased funding a silver bullet for commensurate increases in education attainment and the number of qualified workers?  Not necessarily, but without increased funding we are guaranteed to fall further and further behind in what matters most to employers.  “Throwing money” at a problem is an incomplete approach.  However, since educators are crying for more money and the state needs more homegrown qualified workers, isn’t this the ideal time for state officials and educators to come together and strike some kind of “grand bargain”?  Sit down together and figure out what Arizona needs in the way of young talent and tie increased funding to education reform that leads to improved outcomes.  C’mon.  We’re all adults and we can do this.  Other states have.


Michael V. Varney
President & CEO