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Arizona has a reputation for frugality with regard to state support for higher education, but a deal reached this week between Governor Doug Ducey and legislative leaders is leaving educators in the state stunned. The agreement would completely eliminate state support for the three largest community college districts in the state -- while also imposing deep cuts on the public universities.

Ducey, a Republican, reached the deal with the Republican-controlled Legislature. Ducey had already proposed significant cuts for higher education. For example, he had proposed cutting about $10 million from the three community college districts. But the final deal would cut an additional $9 million, to eliminate all state funds. Small community college districts would continue to receive money, but the large districts that would now have no state funds include the mammoth Maricopa and Pima districts.

While the plan has not received formal legislative approval, those opposing the budget deal face a difficult challenge in that legislative leaders and the governor have united behind it.

The theory (long since abandoned in practice in many states) of community college funding has been that a third of operating funds come from the state, a third from local governments and a third from students in the form of tuition.

With state support for public higher education dwindling generally, experts on community colleges have for several years been lamenting the reality of states (including Arizona) where the share of state support for community colleges is in the single digits. But until now they haven't been talking about zero state support.

The specific plan in Arizona would disqualify community colleges for state funds if they are in counties with more than 350,000 residents. That covers the large counties that are home to the Pima and Maricopa districts, and also covers Central Arizona College, where President Doris Helmich told The Casa Grande Dispatch that the idea that her college could lose all state funds was "shocking, absolutely shocking."

Lee D. Lambert, chancellor of Pima Community College, issued this statement: “We know that the state is in a difficult financial position, but we are extremely disappointed that the governor's proposed budget seeks to compensate for a state revenue shortfall by withdrawing all support for the Pima and Maricopa community college systems, as well as reducing funding to other institutions of higher learning within Arizona. These proposed cuts to our funding will do irreparable damage to PCC in the near term, especially at a time when operational costs are rising, and the overall impact of such a precipitous reduction is impossible to calculate. We are working hard to anticipate and mitigate the damage as the budget process unfolds.”

Daniel Scarpinato, a spokesman for Governor Ducey, defended the cuts, telling The Arizona Republic that the budget plan "protects taxpayers."

Added Scarpinato: "We can't spend money we don't have, and the governor is committed to protecting taxpayers by balancing the budget. This is a values-based budget that puts the state on a stable fiscal path."

Public higher education leaders -- at community colleges and universities alike -- have long ceased to rely on the state for covering much operating support. But the move to zero it out for community colleges has left many stunned. Arizona is a fast-growing state, so community colleges and universities all face pressure to educate more students.

While universities were not zeroed out in the budget deal, they also saw what was already a planned cut turn into a larger one. The governor originally wanted to cut their budgets by $75 million, but the new deal would cut state appropriation by $104 million, or 14 percent of their state support.

Michael Crow, president of Arizona State University, sent alumni an e-mail Thursday in which he said the new plan makes education a "low priority in Arizona," The Arizona Republic noted. The newspaper said that the e-mail marked a "change in tone" for Crow, who has been "largely measured" in speaking about the governor's budget plans.

An editorial in The State Press, the student newspaper at Arizona State, denounced the cuts. Arizona State will take a disproportionate cut under the plan because the reductions are based on enrollment, and the editorial said this means that the university will "essentially be decapitated." The editorial also noted that the elimination of state funds to community colleges will affect the universities because so many students start their higher education at two-year institutions and then go on to transfer.

The editorial said the antispending views of Republicans need to be challenged. "After campaigning on a promise to run the state like a business, Ducey has failed to enact one of the basic concepts of economics: making wise investments to ensure a stable and profitable future. Ducey and Arizona Republicans have made an all but official declaration that the education of future generations is less important than the feelings of millionaires on tax day."

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