Nearly 5000 students from the 3 Arizona universities and several elementary and high schools descended upon the Arizona state legislature today to protest the massive budget cuts that are being proposed as a way of eliminating the state’s budget deficit. Republican legislators have proposed cutting $314 million dollars from the state’s universities and an additional $900 million from K-12 education. The overriding message from protesters today was that the proposed budget cuts will have multi-generational impacts with only a very short term gain.

Zack, a graduate student at the University of Arizona, brought his daughter Julia to the protest. “A forty percent reduction in the education budget will mean the death of education in Arizona. I’m here because I’m worried about the possible elimination of all-day kindergartens,” he told me. When I asked Julia why she was at the protest, she said, “because schools are important.”

Laura Briggs, the Director of Women’s Studies at the University of Arizona, was also at the protest. “Even if the budget cuts are smaller than what they are currently proposing, we are going to lose full time staff members. The bigger cuts mean we are in danger of losing faculty and that means reducing the number of classes we are able to offer and increasing the number of students in each class. 20% of our teaching budget for next year is already gone. We just started a PhD program and we’re very concerned about being able to fund the students who will be our future leaders and educators.”

Heather Metcalf, a Higher Education doctoral student from the University of Arizona, said she was attending the rally to push back on “an issue that matters to students all over the state and across political affiliations. Education is our future and we just can’t accept these budget cuts.”

Mary Fontana, an elementary school teacher from Chandler, Arizona, said that she was at the march because she is concerned about her granddaughter’s future. “She still has twelve years of school to finish and I’m worried that there won’t be anything left for her if these budget cuts are approved. I want her to have a chance.”

Arizona State University President Michael Crow address several of the points being debated in the legislature. In an e-mail the ASU staff and faculty, he explained that:

State revenue and the tuition paid by students account for 79 percent of ASU’s instructional budget. To make up the loss of state funding, tuition for in-state students would need to be almost doubled to $11,000 a year.

No other options have been put on the table by the Legislature. Historically in Arizona, legislative budget options often become the actual budget. Even as a starting point, these cuts are so extreme that the ending point could still have dire consequences for ASU. So, there is cause for grave concern.

ASU has already taken more than $37 million in state funding cuts and prepared for further reductions by eliminating a total of 500 staff positions and 200 faculty associate positions. We have disestablished schools and merged academic departments while managing to preserve academic quality.

The university is prepared to take additional cuts but we must be clear about what needs to be done to reach the funding reductions laid out in the proposed legislative budget. These actions could include:

* Laying off thousands more employees.
* Having a massive furlough of all remaining employees for two weeks or longer.
* Increasing tuition and fees.
* Closing academic programs.
* Closing a campus or possibly two.

The intended or unintended consequences of these cuts would be to move ASU away from being a research university – which it became 50 years ago by vote of the people of Arizona – back to being a state college without graduate programs or research.

The same arguments can be made for the University of Arizona and Northern Arizona University. Shutting down the universities is not an option for long term economic recovery in the state. Yes, these cuts might balance the budget in the next fiscal year. But how will this stimulate long term economic sustainability?

Many students in the crowd were asking why the state legislators we’re considering eliminating their own salaries as a way of trimming the budget. Others had signs urging the legislature to cut the budget for the controversial Sheriff Joe Arpiao. Erin Durbin, a Women’s Studies PhD student from the University of Arizona, held a sign that said, “cut prisons, not schools.” Durbin explained that “I haven’t heard anyone talking about cutting the budget for prisons. Why are we building prisons instead of funding our schools? Our priorities are skewed.”

The Arizona legislature is scheduled to vote on the proposed education budget cuts on February 1st. There is still time to call or e-mail your state legislator and tell them you oppose the drastic funding cuts that are on the table.