Students Protest Arizona Education Cuts

Students from across Arizona are demonstrating Wednesday at the state Capitol against budget reductions in education funding. Some of their professors canceled classes to allow them to attend the protest.

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State governments across the country are facing tough calls on how to balance their budgets. Arizona is among them. In Phoenix, outside the state Capitol building today, students protested a plan to slash millions from the university system. From member station KJZZ in Phoenix, Rene Gutel filed this report.

Unidentified Man: Welcome, guys.

RENE GUTEL: Bus after bus from Tucson and Flagstaff pulled up to the protest. Nearly all students were dressed in black.

(Soundbite of protest)

GUTEL: Earlier this month, GOP lawmakers proposed $240 million in reductions to Arizona's three public universities. University of Arizona Student Body President Tommy Bruce rallied the students from a podium.

Mr. TOMMY BRUCE (Student Body President, University of Arizona): I've got one question. WTF.

(Soundbite of cheering)

Mr. BRUCE: Where's the funding?

GUTEL: Arizona certainly isn't alone grappling with what might be called a state budget catastrophe nationwide. New York, California, Minnesota, just to name a few of the many states facing huge shortfalls. Here in Arizona, university officials said $240 million in cuts was impossible. The state board of regents countered that they could cut less than half that, $100 million. And state House Republicans have proposed a counter-counter-offer at 129. Even at that level, University of Arizona President Robert Shelton says the impact will be gut-wrenching.

Dr. ROBERT SHELTON (President, University of Arizona): Class sizes will certainly grow. They will grow significantly. Course offerings will be reduced. All of these impacts will make it longer and more expensive for students to complete their studies and to then return their graduation knowledge to the economic power of the state.

GUTEL: Shelton was speaking at a press conference before the rally. Also watching the scene unfold today was Republican lawmaker John Huppenthal, the chair of the Senate Education Committee and a supporter of the proposed budget cuts. He admits the money crisis has put all politicians in the hot seat.

State Senator JOHN HUPPENTHAL (Republican, Phoenix, Arizona): I wasn't really looking forward to being reelected, to be honest with you, because I fully anticipated this environment was going to happen.

GUTEL: Huppenthal says the state has few alternatives to the education budget cuts, and raising taxes should be out of the question.

State Sen. HUPPENTHAL: And that's what they did at the start of the Great Depression and it lasted for a decade when it showed historically before that the recoveries had been two years or less. So the Great Depression teaches us some lessons, and the number one is don't do tax increases when you're in a downward spiral.

GUTEL: Protesters, estimated at more than 2,000, walked from the state lawn to the Capitol building. University of Arizona student Paige Bo(ph) said she was here to save Arizona schools. But she also admitted that her professors, whose jobs are on the line, did encourage her to attend.

Ms. PAIGE BO (Student, University of Arizona): Actually, pretty much all of my professors did because it's so important to the University of Arizona.

GUTEL: Did any of them offer extra credit or anything like that?

Ms. BO: No, they didn't, but a lot of them canceled classes just because they knew that a lot of students weren't going to be coming so that they could give us the opportunity to come out here without any detriment to our education, you know?

GUTEL: More than 25 buses were used to drive students from universities outside Phoenix to the protest at a cost of more than $20,000 paid for by student associations. For NPR News, I'm Rene Gutel, in Phoenix.

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