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Arizona Gives Foster Kids

Free Education, Sort Of

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Gov. Jan Brewer. Image by Gage Skidmore and used under the terms of a Creative Commons license.
Gov. Brewer Signs SB1208: No Funding Mechanism Turns A Noble Gesture To Provide Foster Kids A College Education Into Further Neglect Of Public Universities And Colleges By The State


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From The Editors
Special for Modern Times Magazine

June 21, 2013 — Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer signed SB 1208 into law on Thursday after it took a protracted path through the state legislature, but is the seemingly compassionate legislation merely a distraction meant to take heat off of lawmakers who continually make education and healthcare spending cuts that adversely affect the lower and middle classes?

The new law, which creates a college tuition waiver for foster children, is the type of legislation that seems worthwhile on its face. While fiscal squabbles and the immigration debate create sensational headlines and divide the state, legislation like SB 1208 appears to show that, occasionally, the legislature can make swift progress on proposals that tangibly and positively affect the quality of life and standard of living of many young Arizonans who need help.

In essence, the law compels Arizona foster children receive tuition waivers at in-state schools. The law requires the Arizona Board of Regents and each community college district in the state to create a five-year pilot program in order to provide the waiver to qualified foster children and former foster children.

Republican Majority Whip Adam Driggs introduced the bill along with Democrats Leah Landrum Taylor, Anna Tovar and Lela Alston and Republicans Rick Murphy, Steve Yarbrough and Thomas Forese.

Under the law, qualified students must be at least 16-years-old and in foster care or have been in foster care when they were 16-years-old. Additionally, recipients must be United States citizens and under 21-years-old at the time they first receive the waiver.

Recipients also must have less than $10,000 in personal assets and complete 30 hours of community service annually.

The waiver will cover the cost of tuition after other awarded waivers and grants are taken into account.

While all seems benevolent on the surface, the new law shouldn’t distract the electorate from the larger question of how Arizona has balanced the state budget by slashing education funding that has translated into skyrocketing tuition rates at community college and university systems in this state.

The law provides no funding for what could become a sizable tuition load. Rather, it simply requires the Board of Regents and the community college districts to provide whatever funding is needed to cover tuition for eligible students.

Despite this apparent misstep, the bill moved quickly through both houses. The bill received a first read in the Senate on Jan. 28 and passed in a 27-1-2 vote on March 6. The proposed legislation then made its way through the House of Representatives, where it passed 49-9-2 on May 8.

This law asks a lot from an educational system that has seen its funding cut multiple times over the past several years. Just last year, Gov. Jan Brewer and the legislature approved a budget that included about $450 million in education cuts, $198 million of which took place at the university level.

How will colleges and universities cover the increased cost of providing free tuition to foster children? The logical answer is a raise in the cost of overall tuition. Currently, the cost of tuition at one of three state universities in Arizona falls between $9,700 and $10,050 per year, a number that has increased substantially year after year over the last decade.

Based on recent trends, it is obvious that tuition will increase again this year, especially now that  SB1208 passed. However, the additional strain caused by the law is sure to add a substantial cost to the tuition increase. This increase could feasibly make higher education an unrealistic goal for some lower and middle class students whose families have experienced financial strain during the recession.

This reality makes the law a contradiction. According to the logic of the bill, the only way to provide higher education to one group of young Arizonans who cannot afford it is to make that very same education unaffordable for another group.

So, why would both houses and the Governor swiftly pass such an ill-prepared bill? The answer to that question lies within the legislation’s inherently positive nature.

While it can be argued that the bill would do more harm than good if passed in its current state, most citizens would agree that providing education for foster children is a good thing.

And the politicians know that.

Brewer, Driggs and their colleagues are banking on the fact that feel good legislation like this will stick with voters when election time comes. All parties involved either want to retain their current positions or advance their political careers the next time around.

While the legislature has continually cut public services and education while spending much of its time focusing on divisive issues like immigration, you can be sure that they hope SB1208 will distract voters from that reality.

SB1208 could develop into worthwhile legislation; however, without the proper attention and budget preparation, it functions as little more than a prop that the legislature and Governor can use to sway voters.
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