Last month, Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich filed a lawsuit against the Arizona Board of Regents, which governs the state’s three public universities, claiming the board has been “dramatically and unconstitutionally increasing the price of base tuition and mandatory fees at Arizona’s public universities by more than 300 percent since 2003.”
Brnovich alleges that the board’s slow increase in tuition violates the Arizona Constitution, which requires that “the university and all other state educational institutions shall be open to students of both sexes, and the instruction furnished shall be as nearly free as possible.”
An in-state student who enrolls at Arizona State University today would pay $10,370 per year in tuition, roughly costing over $41,000 for a four-year degree. Less than 20 years ago when I was enrolled at ASU, tuition was $2,007, meaning my entire eduction cost less than a single year nowadays.
Over the last 20 years, the value of that ASU education — stop your snickering, University of Arizona alumni — surely has not increased fourfold to warrant such a dramatic increase in tuition.
While Sedona families can hope that Brnovich’s prosecution may mean their kids could have lower tuition come this May, the probability of that is far from secure. One would be hard-pressed to find a judge who would issue orders requiring the tuition be immediately lowered or even find the means to validate such an order. It would be even harder still for a judge to justify reimbursing the tens of thousands of Arizona university students back-tuition from its coffers, which new students would have to pay.
The lawsuit may arrest further increases for a time, which could be welcome news.
The politics of the case are far more clear. Rather than simply issue a public statement as happens in nearly every Arizona Attorney General case filing, Brnovich held a press conference and invited the media so residents around the state can link Brnovich in the fight for lower tuition, which will enter its stride in the courts sometime next year, conveniently just as Brnovich is campaigning for re-election.
Politicians, even lawyers, often use big public gestures of being seen doing their job to win races. But if, in the end, his lawsuit helps stalls further tuition increases, we can’t necessarily blame him for playing politics if it helps lower costs for Arizona families.
The odd part in this story is that a few days after Brnovich’s filing, Arizona Superintendent of Education Diane Douglas issued a full-throated statement concurring with Brnovich’s lawsuit.
We would expect that the head of the state’s education system would want lower costs for students and supporting such a lawsuit prior to her own re-election campaign in 2018.
Arizona Superintendent of Education Diane Douglas has failed to show up at a single Arizona Board of Regents meeting since her election in 2014, but supports an Arizona Attorney General's Office lawsuit against it ... apparently without realizing she's actually a co-defendant.
Except Douglas appears to have overlooked an important detail in her political play: By the nature of her office, Douglas is actually a member of the Board of Regents and thus, technically a defendant in Brnovich’s lawsuit.
Imagine a murder suspect declaring in court that the prosecution is doing one heck of job and she hopes the jury gives the defendant the electric chair — to the shock of her defense attorney.
In response to our query on whether Douglas knew she was a defendant, Arizona Department of Education public information officer Stefan Swiat replied, “Yes. I thought that was inferred.”
We looked through the board’s meeting minutes since Douglas’ 2014 election and can’t find a single meeting she attended. Despite calls to Swiat on his office and cellphone and eight emails, he has refused to respond to the number of Arizona Board of Regents meetings Douglas has attended, so voters must wonder how she has failed to keep tuition low when she, more than anyone, had the opportunity to fight for Arizona families but failed to even show up.
Christopher Fox Graham