By Howard Fischer
Capitol Media Services
PHOENIX -- Gov. Doug Ducey said Monday he will not fund "empty seats'' in classrooms or allow schools to remain in "a perpetual state of closure.''
"Students have been kept out of classrooms for long enough,'' the governor said in his seventh State of the State speech. "They've lost out on childhood experiences that can't be duplicated on a computer screen.''
Ducey said parents and teachers have done the best they can with remote and online learning.
"But it's time to get our students back where they belong,'' he said.
"With every public health professional, from Dr. Fauci and the CDC on down, saying that the safest place for kids to be is in schools, we will not be funding empty seats or allowing schools to remain in a perpetual state of closure,'' he said. "Children still need to learn, even in a pandemic.''
But after the speech, the governor's press aide insisted that was not a threat to cut off state dollars for schools that operate entirely online or with hybrid programs.
"Gov. Ducey supports virtual options for those parents who want them,'' said C.J. Karamargin. "He is not considering cutting funding for virtual students.''
And what of not funding those "empty seats''?
Karamargin said that simply means that, beginning next school year, if a parent chooses a different option for a child, the state aid will follow that child to a new public school, whether a district school or charter school.
But Karamargin emphasized that Ducey's preference remains to have kids in seats.
"With the vaccine now here, teachers are being vaccinated with high priority,'' he said. "Any student who wants to be in a classroom should have that opportunity.''
The governor also made it clear that he doesn't believe that virtual learning produces the same results as being in a classroom with a teacher at the front.
"Before COVID, we had an achievement gap in our schools,'' he said. "And it's only gotten worse,'' the governor said, with a definite correlation between that gap and economic and racial lines.
"Distance learning has not be good for these students, who often don't have wi-fi or a laptop available,'' the governor said. And that, he said, leads to his suggestions of summer school, longer school days and one-on-one targeted instruction and tutoring.
"It should be our goal that every student graduates high school on time and at grade level,'' Ducey said.
Karamargin stressed, though, that the governor was not seeking to mandate summer school, longer school days or private tutoring.
"We'll provide funding to schools for families that want it,'' he said.
In the speech delivered virtually from his office due to COVID concerns, the governor also proposed lowering taxes on both individuals and businesses which he said will preserve the state's competitive advantage and selling off state buildings which he said are not necessary given the shift to remote work by employees.
But much of his emphasis was in providing a full-throated defense of what he has -- and has not -- done to deal with COVID-19 even as the state continues to set new records. And he had strong words for those who have suggested that the virus can be curbed through new restrictions on business operations, closed schools and public gatherings.
"It's a question that only makes sense if you forget about everything else, all the other troubles that lockdowns set in motion,'' the governor said.
"The rest of life doesn't stop in a pandemic, lease of all our basic responsibilities,'' he continued. "People still have bills to pay, children in need of schooling, businesses top run and employees who depend on them.''
And the governor, departing from his previously released remarks, took a specific slap at mayors who have publicly urged him to do more. While he didn't name names, that was a clear reference to the mayors of Tucson, Phoenix and Flagstaff, all Democrats, who have criticized him for lack of action.
But there's another reason Ducey is raising that point.
Several lawmakers are moving to dissolve the emergency declaration the governor declared in March. And in that declaration he specifically forbade local governments from imposing any restrictions that he, himself, had not approved.
If the statewide declaration no longer exists, then local government would again be free to use their own powers to decide what to implement. And Ducey said he will oppose any move to strip him of emergency powers, for no other reason that only he stands in the way of local officials who have different ideas.
"I'm not going to hand over the keys to a small group of mayors who have expressed every intention of locking down their cities,'' he said.
Ducey's argument comes as the Arizona Department of Health Services reported that a record 4,957 hospital beds were occupied with patients with confirmed or suspected cases of COVID-19.
The issue is even more pronounced looking at beds in intensive-care units, where 1,158 COVID patients are now occupying 65% of all ICU beds in the state. That compares with the prior peak of 970 in July.
Overall, 10,147 Arizonans have died from the virus, with 627,541 having been diagnosed with the disease.
Ducey, however, said lots of Arizonans do not have the option of remote work and are not getting direct deposits.
"To make as living, they have to show up somewhere,'' he said. "And if the doors are closed, then at a certain point they are never going to open again.''
And then there's what Ducey said is the other side of the issue, including increased opioid abuse, alcoholism, addiction, mental health issues and "the sheer loneliness of isolation,'' including suicide.
Anyway, the governor said he doesn't believe that other states with stricter mandates are having any better luck in curbing the spread of the virus.
"They're still dealing with the worst of it, just as we are,'' he said.
But what Ducey did not address is that, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Arizona has the second highest daily case rate in the past seven days of any state in the nation.
In that period, CDC says Arizona has 122 cases per 100,000 residents. That was exceeded only by Rhode Island at 130.3.
And a separate metric shows that only six states have a more rapid rate of spread than Arizona.
Ducey was unapologetic.
"I'm well aware that taking the measured, steady, responsible approach will continue to invite criticism from all directions that we're doing too much or not enough,'' the governor said. "The critics can say what they want, but the path I've outlined is the right path for Arizona.''
Instead, the governor is effectively counting on the newly available vaccine to solve the problem, boasting about the new 24/7 vaccination site now available at State Farm Stadium in Glendale for those who are eligible at this point.
"Everyone needs this vaccine,'' he said. "And the sooner we all receive it, the more quickly we can get on with life.''
Ducey's decision to stay the course is likely to get a fight from both fellow Republicans who resent the restrictions that remain on things like restaurant and gym capacity and Democrats who say the state needs to do more to get ahead of the infection before it gets worse.
All that leads into Ducey's position on getting kids back in school -- and ways to get students caught up on what they've missed.
Inb talking about taxes, the governor never made a direct reference to the decision by voters to approve a 3.5% income tax surcharge on earnings of Arizonans about $250,000 for individuals and $500,000 for married couples filing jointly.
But Ducey, who opposed Proposition 208, said states that take more money from residents "chase away opportunity with their new taxes.''
"Why on earth would we ever want to follow their failed and depressing example?'' he asked. The governor said he wants to "reform and lower taxes'' to "preserve Arizona's good name as a responsible, competitive state.''
"On tax reform, let's think big,'' Ducey said.
An aide to the governor said what his boss has in mind includes both reductions in both business and individual taxes.
Ducey also said he wants lawmakers to create "better roads and bridges.'' But the governor has consistently opposed any effort to raise gasoline taxes which finance those improvements even as vehicles are more fuel efficient and revenues are not keeping pace with traffic.
- a "modernized gaming compact'' that would expand casino gaming on Arizona reservations in a way to generate more cash for both tribes and the state;
- expand access to broadband which also will mean greater access to telemedicine;
- having Arizona continue to be a leader on "water innovation.''
The governor also made passing reference to the violence this past week at the nation's Capitol.
"In the United States of America, violence and vandalism have no place in the people's House,'' he said.
"Perpetrators should be prosecuted to the full extend of the law,'' Ducey continued. "Let us resolve that it never happens again.''
But Ducey, in an earlier conversation with Capitol Media Services, refused to say that President Trump bore any responsibility for inciting the riot.
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