False Choices for Arizona

Just when I was starting to think highly of the AZ Republic Editorial Board’s judgement, they came out today with: “The focus of this budget was clearly education – from kindergarten through the university level. It is the beginning of a long climb to provide Arizona’s schools with the resources they need to serve our youth and help drive the state’s economic growth.” Wow! Talk about drinking the Koolaid!

After all, this headline a couple of days ago: Gov. Doug Ducey gets much of what he wanted for education, was bad enough. Those in Ducey’s camp no doubt read it as him being successful, but those who know what he proposed against what our districts need, know that his getting “much of what he wanted” wasn’t well…all that much.

Instead, it is clear that his commitment to delivering tax cuts every year he is in office is much more important to him than fixing our state’s severe teacher shortage. That’s clear in his woefully inadequate proposal of a permanent 2% increase, rolled out over five years which amounted to only $15 per month  in the first year for the average teacher. As it turns out, the Legislature funded a 1% increase for next year with a “promise” to fund it again the following year. This funding is only for existing teachers, is more a stipend than a “raise” since it is not distributed on a per-student basis and therefore doesn’t increase with inflation. It amounts to about $500 per year, or about $40 per month. The Republic Editorial Board writes that, educators “will be watching next year to see if this is a good-faith effort.” Not so much I think. I mean, fool us once, shame on you. Fool us twice, shame on us. I don’t think educators or public education advocates have much faith in any promises the GOP-led Legislature or this Governor make to public education.

The Results Based Funding Plan of $37.6M he proposed for students attending excelling district or charter schools was pushed by none other than the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry (led by “teachers are crybabies” Glenn Hamer.) That tells me up front this isn’t going to be a great deal for our district schools. Appears I am right with The Republic reporting that 65% of this funding ($25M) will go to middle and higher-income schools. And, 26% of the monies would go to charters schools (and 12% of that to BASIS and Great Heart chains exclusively) versus districts, even though charters only educate 16% of the state’s public-school students. The money is misplaced infers Dr. Anabel Aportela, director of research for the Arizona Association of School Business Officials and Arizona School Boards Association. “BASIS is receiving a lot of attention for its top spots in the rankings and that’s great, but collectively the five BASIS school graduated just over 200 students, according to the latest data,” Aportela said. This a mere drop in the bucket of the 94% of the 13,778 students district high schools graduated in 2015, and doesn’t even begin to represent the diversity of those district graduates or the state at large. In addition, Ducey’s results-based funding uses only AzMERIT scores to determine where the money goes, but Arizona’s new A-F school accountability plan uses a more realistic set of factors that gives any school in the state the opportunity for a higher grade, not just those in higher socio-economic areas. Public education advocates would much rather have seen this funding added to teacher compensation where they believe it would have done the most good.

Speaking of good, that may be what Ducey’s proposed $10M next fiscal year and $20M the following year (the final budget allocates $8M and $12M) for full-day kindergarten or early literacy programs at schools looks like, but there is more to the story. This program provides additional funding where at least 90% of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch (FRPL), but will help certain charter schools much more than it is likely to help school districts. That’s because in order to qualify, the entire school district must meet the 90% threshold even though they may have several schools that meet it. Charter schools though, are each considered separate districts, even if they are managed by the same for-profit corporation. Once again, Ducey leans in for school choice over our 1.1M district students.

Yes, Ducey’s plan included $20M the Legislature didn’t fund, to help school districts deal with the negative impact of the change to current-year funding. Keep in mind though, that this change to current year funding versus prior year funding was totally a self-inflicted wound on the part of the Legislature last year. This, even though they had tried current year funding prior in 1980 and it proved to not work. The GOP-led Legislature didn’t care about that last year when they saw it as a way to save $31M in the budget. This change will hit districts with declining enrollment hard this year, making long-term planning difficult and making it even harder for them to attract and retain teachers.

Our Governor also asked for and got $17.2M in one-time money for school construction and building maintenance and the Legislature added $63M more for new school construction projects. But – and this is a big but – districts have been denied about $2B in funding in this area since the AZ Supreme Court ruled that the state needed to fund it. This is why now, 20 years after the Arizona Supreme Court originally ruled that the state’s method for capital funding to districts was unconstitutional, education plaintiffs are forced to file suit again. “Districts are funded at about 15 cents on the dollar for capital” and Joe Thomas, president of the Arizona Education Association said, “When you give a child an option of you’re going to have an air-conditioned room or you’re going to have a teacher, that’s a false choice for Arizona.”

In my mind, these are all “false choices for Arizona.” We know what needs to be done to recruit and retain quality teachers, properly maintain our facilities and buses, and give our students every opportunity to succeed. We, and I mean the collective “WE”, just don’t have the political will to do it. Money is not the only answer, but it is definitely a big piece of the equation and all this pretension that it isn’t is just freakin’ exhausting.

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