Steller: Arizona's Constitution needs an upgrade on education

2014-01-17T00:00:00Z 2014-01-17T09:57:03Z Steller: Arizona's Constitution needs an upgrade on educationTim Steller Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star

Shafts of winter sun 

Maybe it’s time for Arizona to change the way the state constitution treats university education.

In one of its most disappointing clauses, the Arizona Constitution raises hopes by saying instruction at the state’s universities shall be “as nearly free as possible.”

Great news, right?

What that has come to mean, though, is pretty much nothing. One key problem: The constitution says instruction, not tuition, shall be as nearly free as possible.

Tucson attorney Paul Gattone filed a legal challenge to a 39 percent tuition increase at the University of Arizona in the 2003-2004 year on the basis that it violated this constitutional clause. In 2007, the Arizona Supreme Court ruled in that case that it would leave the determination of what’s “as nearly free as possible” up to the Arizona Board of Regents and the Legislature, deciding it was a “political” question.

Enter Gov. Jan Brewer, who in her State of the State speech this week, said Arizona public-university undergrads ought to be guaranteed stable tuition for four years of education. It’s not an entirely new concept: Northern Arizona University already mandates undergraduate tuitions that are stable for four years. But it would be useful, as Brewer said, for families trying to plan to pay for their kids’ education.

In response to Brewer’s proposal, Board of Regents President Eileen Klein put out a statement that blamed the state Legislature for recent tuition increases.

“Just as Arizona suffered from one of the worst recessions in the nation, state budget cuts to Arizona’s public universities were also among the worst in the nation, resulting in a massive cost shift from the state to students and their families,” she said.

A pragmatic alternative: Maybe we should tamp down the hopes raised by the constitution and change the wording to say “Tuition shall be as nearly stable as possible.” That we might be able to deliver.

State of the stumbling State

On Tuesday, Brewer came down to Oro Valley to deliver her Tucson-area State of the State at the Hilton El Conquistador.

Let’s just say her performance was underwhelming.

One problem is that the annual speech here comes a day after the real State of the State in Phoenix, so the element of policy surprise — such as her executive order reorganizing Child Protective Service — is lost.

But more important, Brewer was speaking to a crowd that should be her base: The speech is organized by the Tucson Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce and is attended largely by business people in business attire. Yet time and again, Brewer gave an applause line and paused, only for it to be met by silence.

The worst, for her, was when she suggested that she might run for a third term, a suggestion the audience greeted as much with a chuckle as with a cheer.

Brewer did find a tried-and-true way to get the audience going, though. After talking about tuition stability, she said, “And while I’m at it, I’d like to give a shout-out to our undefeated Wildcat basketball team — number one in the nation!”

That got the biggest cheer of the afternoon.

However, an even bigger one could have gone to the Canyon del Oro High School’s Canyon Singers. Before Brewer’s speech, they delivered one of the most beautiful renditions of the Star Spangled Banner I’ve heard in years.

Arizona learns to lose

Some members of the local talkerati like to bash Tucson for losing or pushing away business opportunities. The apparently lost opportunity to base the Air Force F-35 at D-M or Tucson International Airport has been one of the top examples.

But Phoenix proved it can lose, too, when the Federal Aviation Administration picked six other states as locations for new drone-testing facilities. The state government had put together a bid for Arizona to be one of the sites, but it ended up being one of the 18 losers. Our neighbor Nevada was the most similar state among the six winners.

Fortunately, as my colleague Emily Bregel writes today, Southern Arizonans have not given up. They’re planning to launch a private testing site for unmanned aerial vehicles in Sierra Vista.

Contact columnist Tim Steller at tsteller@azstarnet.com or 807-7789. On Twitter: @senyorreporter

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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