Yesterday, I was listening to NPR and heard a story about how Arizona House Bill, HB2128 just passed the third read and was transmitted to the Senate. This bill allows those who lease land to churches to claim a tax exemption as a result. The law change will result in an additional $2.1 million from the state’s general fund ending up in private coffers instead. Yet another example of our representatives looking out for the privileged few versus the average Arizonan.
Okay, $2.1 million isn’t all that much compared to a state budget of about $9 billion, but it all adds up. I started thinking what our district schools could do with $2.1 million. Again, just a drop in the bucket compared to what has been shortchanged our schools over the last few years, but it would help us begin to make a dent in the need.
Although my primary focus tends to be early childhood education when discussing where to apply resources, $2.1 million wouldn’t even begin to address the need. Arizona does not fund full-day kindergarten, let alone preschool, so although I believe quality early childhood education is critical to improved outcomes, I also recognize it will take some real political courage and time to get us there.
When considering mission success in the Air Force, we were taught to consider what limiting factors (LIMFACS) could impact our chances. The fact that poor children start school having heard as many as 30 million fewer words than their wealthier counterparts is a significant LIMFAC that quality preschool can help address. Another LIMFAC in Arizona is our significant shortage of school counselors. Arizona does not mandate school counselors, but their benefit is well documented.[i] They work as a team with school staff, parents and the community to help all children achieve academic success by providing education, prevention, early identification and intervention.[ii] “Counselors generally spend 80 percent of their time with students, and the remainder of their time collaborating with teachers implementing Arizona’s College and Career Ready Standards, supporting testing, and using test data to create, monitor and evaluate student academic interventions. Helping students develop strong interpersonal skills, and identify and cope with social, emotional and mental health issues is an equally important part of the job, at all grade levels, and one being felt more acutely in some parts of the state.”[iii] The downturn in the economy created significant stressors for families, especially in rural areas and a school counselor can really help bridge the gaps.
Sadly, Arizona leads the nation (only California has a higher ratio) in counselor to student ratio. The American School Counselor Association recommends a 1:250 counselor to student ratio. The national average in the 2010-2011 school year was 1:471 and the Arizona average was 1:861.[iv] Why is this important? To understand how significant this is, one needs only to look at the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s “Kids Count Databook” which ranks states in four categories (economic well-being, education, health, and family and community) to determine child well-being within each state. For 2014, Arizona ranked 46th in the nation overall and 44th in education. [v]
Obviously, Arizona’s children have significant stressors placed on them. Counselors in schools can do much to help identify and address these stressors before they manifest themselves in a variety of less than desirable ways. After the Sandy Hook shootings, there was much discussion in Arizona and around the nation about putting school resource officers (cops) back in schools or even more drastic, arming teachers. Under the guise of “an ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure”, I believe our efforts and money would have been much better spent on ensuring every school had a counselor.
So, back to the $2.1 million the AZ Legislature just gave away to wealthy property owners. Assuming a counselor costs a school district about $60K (with benefits), the $2.1 million the legislators just voted to siphon out of the general fund could pay for 35 school counselors. Granted, that would only meet about 3.5 percent of the additional need, considering Arizona’s deficit just to meet the national average versus the idea. But, it is a start. In my small school district (about 450 students) our administrators, teachers and staff are stretched thin. Both the superintendent and the principal also teach advanced math classes, must provide coverage for student watch duties and, the principal is the grant writer for the district. It is hard for them to be everywhere at once and a counselor would go a long way to ensuring the health and well being of all students.
The Arizona Legislature is marching steadily on in their assault on public education. Their refusal to look for additional revenue, while also finding new ways to divert taxpayer dollars from the public sector to the private sector continues to widen the gap between the haves and the have-nots and is not producing better outcomes for the majority of Arizonans. We, the public, really must wake up and demand better. Of the people, by the people, for the people. The common denominator in all that is “the people.” If we aren’t involved, we can’t complain. The bottom line is that we get the government we deserve.