The CEO of Arizona’s largest business association tells 12 News the purpose of a media messaging campaign running on TV airwaves and online is to bring Arizonans together by reminding them of progress being made in the K-12 school system.
“This is a positive education message. We are a chamber of commerce,” said Glenn Hamer, CEO of the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry.
It sounds simple enough. But critics contend there is a more targeted political strategy behind the high-dollar ad campaign.
The commercials are produced by The Arizona Education Project, a nonprofit corporation. It is funded in part by two key players in the Arizona business community: Pinnacle West Corp., the parent company of the Arizona Public Service Co. and the Arizona Chamber of Commerce that Hamer represents. Both are politically allied with Gov. Doug Ducey.
The CEO of Pinnacle West Corp. declined an interview with 12 News to discuss his company’s support. Hamer says the chamber is funding the commercials because the mainstream media is not focusing enough on positive stories about schools.
“The intent is to get information out that rarely gets out,” Hamer said. “I’m more likely to see a Martian landing party than to see the mainstream media report that fourth- and eighth-grade students have made more progress in math and reading.”
Critics say the campaign skews the reality of the plight of teachers.
“It’s a slap in the face for us to sit and watch those,” said Noah Karvelis, a music teacher in Tolleson and organizer of Arizona Educators United. “You can ask anyone who works in the schools, that’s not our reality. We are not moving in the right direction. We’re moving in the wrong direction.”
The upbeat commercials contain the motto, “There’s more to do but Arizona schools are making progress.” They publicize key facts such as:
-Spending on teacher compensation in Arizona has increased nearly 10 percent since 2015.
-Overall, Arizona has increased school funding by more than $1.5 billion since 2015.
-Arizona students lead the nation in improvement in fourth- and eighth-grade math and reading since 2009.
The commercials do not contain other details, such as:
-A large portion of new spending on teachers goes towards new positions to accommodate more students in classrooms. So in reality, although spending is up nearly 10 percent, teacher compensation has gone up 5.1 percent since 2015, according to statistics from the Arizona Auditor General.
-On the issue of overall funding, the $1.5 billion increase in funds is the result of Proposition 123 which was money already owed to make up for years of underfunding. The current proposed budget remains nearly $1 billion less annually compared to 2008 levels before the recession hit.
Hamer pushed back against the suggestion that the messaging campaign is intended to convince the public that the current trajectory of progress of schools is sufficient enough.
He points to the chamber’s support of the temporary $1 billion sales tax during Gov. Brewer’s administration, the Proposition 123 measure and the extension of Prop 301 that was passed this year by the legislature than prevents a financial cliff to schools in 2021.
“It’s an ongoing effort. It doesn’t end with this legislative season. We’re going to do everything we can to make this economy move forward so that we have more money for teachers. It’s that simple,” Hamer said.
Karvelis and others are demanding a 20 percent teacher raise next year and a restoration of overall funding to pre-2008 levels, among other benchmarks. Anything remotely close to those goals would likely require the state to create new revenue sources though taxes.
Hamer said the chamber would be open to a higher sales tax proposal in the future.
“We would be open to considering different proposals. But’s it’s not just a revenue issue. We want to make sure that, particularly if you are talking additional revenue that would almost certainly have to go to the ballot, that we’re also making sure that those dollars are going to hit the target, meaning teachers. We know there are discrepancies across the state with districts and the dollars that ultimately get into the classroom. But we’re open,” Hamer said.
He said the chamber would be unwilling to endorse an increase in corporate taxes or a rollback of recent corporate tax cuts.
“Our economy is jumping forth. We’re going to be very careful about some sort of policy that is going to harm the state’s ability to create jobs,” Hamer said.
He insists the chamber is not against the cause of teachers.
"I understand and I respect that not everyone feels it is adequate or fast enough. But this is something that we're in for the long haul," Hamer said.
Karvelis says the source of funding of the Arizona Education Project should be revealing enough about its purpose.
“It tells me one thing: They want to keep their guy Ducey in there because he’s proven he’s going to look out for corporations instead of citizens, instead of teachers,” said Karvelis.
Regarding Pinnacle West CEO Don Brandt’s decision not to answer questions to 12 News for this story, Anne Degraw, a spokeswoman for APS issued a statement. It reads in part, “APS is a long-standing supporter of the education system in our state because it is fundamental to Arizona’s future and economy. The Arizona Education Project is an effort to have a dialogue about public education from an optimistic point of view…”
Degraw also wrote that the project is just one way APS in engaged and that it has a history of charitable giving to education-related organizations.