Good schools are good for business. It’s that simple. Contrary to popular belief, incentives and tax breaks aren’t necessarily the only things businesses take into account when considering a move to Arizona or an expansion of a local operation. Sure, they want to make money, but the quality of the education system, from K-12 through colleges and universities, also is a key element in the decision-making process.
In early July, $3.2 billion in budget funding for the K-12 public education system was restored after initially being cut by Gov. Jan Brewer in a line-item veto. The education budget was also increased by $500 million, which now qualifies the state for $2.3 billion in federal stimulus money. Despite dodging that bullet, schools remain under the threat of future budget cuts, and that has caught the attention of business leaders. But paying attention isn’t enough. They need to be more involved in the process, insiders say, establishing and maintaining working relationships with state legislators who control the purse strings.
The business community has a stake in education on two fronts, says Chuck Essigs of the Arizona Association of School Business Officials (AASBO), which provides professional development opportunities for individuals working in all jobs in the education field.
“One,” he says, “is the ability of the education system, both elementary and secondary and the universities, to prepare an adequate work force, and to make sure schools are adequately funded so they can carry forth their mission of having an educated population. So when the business community hires people, they’re hiring people who have the skills and training to be productive workers.”
The second aspect involves Arizona businesses that are recruiting workers from out-of-state or businesses that are considering an expansion to Arizona from elsewhere.
“If those workers have school-age children, they want to know what the school system is like,” says Essigs, AASBO’s director of government affairs. “If they feel that their kids are not going to get a quality education, it might make them hesitant to leave where they are. They might think twice about taking a promotion and putting their kids at a disadvantage in a school that’s not up to the standards they want.”
Robert E. Mittelstaedt Jr., dean of the W.P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State University, says most businesses are far more concerned about the general education environment.
“I remember a bank official in Philadelphia 25 years ago saying he couldn’t find a receptionist who could read and write,” Mittelstaedt says. “You still hear that. Companies expect to have an education system that graduates students who are qualified to enter the work force in some minimally accepted level.”
If the public schools fall short, perhaps because of inadequate funding, the option of sending children to private schools becomes a cost factor for employees.
Javier Rey, vice president-operations for State Farm Insurance’s Tempe operations center, says it’s critical that Arizona’s youth are better prepared for higher education, so they can contribute to the nation’s and state’s civic, economic and social advancement.
“The quality of schools is a factor that businesses look at when considering relocating or expanding,” Rey says.
Christopher Smith, manager of government and regulatory affairs for Cox Communications, calls education “critical to economic development.”
“It is an essential ingredient in the lifeblood of our economy, both nourishing the supply of talented workers and attracting and retaining the customers they serve,” Smith adds. “Education ranks high on the various lists of important factors in location/relocation decisions, not only due to the increasingly critical competition for knowledge workers, but also because executives making these decisions care deeply about the education of their own children.”
Smith gives Arizona’s education system reasonably satisfactory grades, but says the status quo is not good enough to meet today’s challenges.
“We need to break the mold a bit and unleash more of what made America so great — liberty, bold innovation, inspired risk-taking, creativity, robust competition and an unflagging entrepreneurial spirit,” he says.
Susan Carlson, executive director of the Arizona Business & Education Coalition (ABEC), a nonprofit K-12 education policy advocacy organization, says the business community needs to be more involved in the school-funding process.
“Business needs to be engaged in the conversation,” she says. “They need to watch what the Legislature is doing. We can’t keep saying ‘no’ around tax reform and ‘yes’ around increased skills for students. It may take more money, if money is allocated to the right things. It’s going to take being focused on research-based strategies. Educators are willing and committed to support research-based strategies, and redirecting some of the funding that exists.”