Arizona Prefers Prison Over Education


April 24, 2014

By Christina Martinez, DFER-AZ State Director

Originally published on the Huffington Post, April 5, 2014

$1 million to private prison would hurt AZ kids.

Budget cuts. Not enough money. Spending cutbacks.

If you live in Arizona, you’ve probably heard these words too many times in conversations about government funding. According to Republicans in the state legislature, this dire economic crisis is the reason the state’s claim to fame is spending the lowest amount of money per pupil for public education in the nation. But we’re all in this together, right?

Wrong. In Arizona, it seems that anything is possible, if you fund the right people. Just ask Representative John Kavanagh, who this week allegedly attempted to sneak a $900,000 handout into the House budget for a private prison company, The Geo Group, Inc. — which also happened to be one of his biggest donors in the 2012 election.

This is the same guy who tried to take money from First Things First, Arizona’s version of Head Start, to help fund Child Protective Services as a standalone agency. Rather than recognizing the essential services offered by both programs and working with local organizations and bipartisan coalitions to develop a solution, Kavanagh again demonstrated a gross misunderstanding of what it means to be an elected representative. Blindly taking money from a successful program and throwing it at a failing one is not the answer to Arizona’s problems. In his attempt to create $900,000 out of thin air in an 11th hour backdoor move as a favor to a private company with deep pockets, it looks like Representative Kavanagh has done it again.

The United States is a prison-dominated society. Prison culture is especially harmful to low-income and minority individuals who fall through the cracks in society — especially in Arizona, which in 2010 had the sixth-highest rate of incarceration per 100,000 people in the country. Without adequately-funded schools and support programs for at-risk youth, we are willfully perpetuating the school-to-prison pipeline. We are keeping a generation locked away and throwing away the key rather than aggressively attempting to change the status quo by funding programs that do important, life-changing work. Make no mistake: The money for The Geo Group was not for rehabilitation services or for helping inmates earn their GEDs while in prison. It was for profit, and nothing else.

In an economic landscape where it’s impossible to even begin a conversation about providing adequate funding for crucial services like K-3 reading programs for students, plans to fix failing schools, or incentive programs for good teachers, it is frankly offensive that a politician would so blatantly disregard the needs of his constituents.

Democrats in Arizona should stand up to Representative Kavanagh and his cronies in the state legislature, who are all up for reelection in 2014. If we’re going to fix Arizona, we’re going to have to work together. Passing money under the table to political funders is only lining the pockets of the people who put us here in the first place. It’s time to stop that vicious cycle in its tracks.

This is not the first time Kavanagh has overstepped his bounds as an elected official. This is not the first time Republicans in the state legislature have sidestepped the most important issues affecting the state, and it certainly won’t be the last. This time around, let’s not forget about it.