How $200M Could Have Been Better Spent

Although the real total costs will likely never be known, the Arizona Republic reported yesterday that Governor Ducey’s

five-month effort to close gaps along the U.S.-Mexico border with shipping containers will cost Arizona taxpayers more than $200 million.

I’m not writing to debate the wisdom of Ducey’s actions, (okay, just for a second, it was a stupid political stunt). But rather, I’d like to make a case for how that money could have been better spent.

Regardless of what you’ve heard from GOP lawmakers, or have read in right-leaning media, Arizona schools are not flush with cash. Rather, much of what’s been added recently just reinstates part of what was taken away since 2007 and leaves Arizona still at 48th in the nation for per-pupil funding. Additionally, our schools are still hemorrhaging teachers with almost 9,700 vacancies at the start of the 2022-23 school year and about 4,900 filled with alternate teaching requirements or long-term subs.

Another statistic that should also raise alarms, is Arizona’s student-to-counselor ratio. The American School Counselor Association recommends schools maintain a ratio of 250 to 1. The nationwide student-to-school-counselor ratio in the 2021-2022 school year was 408 to 1. Arizona’s ratio that same year was 716 to 1. Although this is down from the 905 to 1 Arizona had in 2019, it is still approaching double the national average and keeps us last in the nation in yet another dismal education statistic.

Superintendent Kathy Hoffman focused on this issue, tweeting in 2022,

Since 2019, I’ve successfully lobbied for the funds to add hundreds of school counselors, lowering our student to school counselor ratio by 20%

The AZPBS’ CronkiteNews verified her claim citing “an increase of 290 counselors in three years” for an improvement of 21%. This was one of Hoffman’s priorities because, as she said,

In an era of balloning classroom sizes, teachers feel unequipped to manage a class of 30 children while also finding the time to provide individualized attention to their students, especially those facing depression, anxiety, or suicidal thoughts.

And that was in 2019, before the global pandemic which according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, and the Children’s Hospital Association declared in November 2021,

pandemic-related decline in child and adolescent mental health has become a national emergency.

Hoffman was right to focus on this issue. What’s the chance “Stop CRT” Horne will do the same? (Yes, that is a rhetorical question.)

Before I start down that rabbit hole, let’s get back to the $200M. Based on what I’ve written thus far, I’m betting you can guess it has something to do with school counselors.

According to a SOSAZNETWORK.org report, 135 of Arizona’s 223 school districts are rural and serve 35% of the state’s students. More than 23% of these rural children live in poverty, the second highest poverty rate in the nation. They also have one of the lowest high school graduation rates in the U.S. These kids need the additional help a qualified counselor can provide.

So, what if instead of using OUR $200M for a stupid, partisan, political stunt, Ducey had bought more school counselors with it?  The average salary for school counselors in Arizona is about $55K. To be safe, let’s add 30% for benefits which brings the total cost to $71,500. Let’s see, $200M divided by $71,500 average counselor salary and benefits buys 2,797 counselors for one year. That number of counselors divided by 135 school districts, would give us 20.71 years of one counselor per district. Think of the lives this could impact.

Okay, I know this math is VERY rough, after all, I’m a writer, not a statistician. We know that salaries would increase and it would be difficult to find enough counselors willing to go to some of these rural areas, even if we could fund them (that’s the case in my rural district). Maybe we would need to contract with companies to provide the professional support we need and this likely would cost substantially more. Maybe even then we couldn’t find them and we’d have to start a program to grow our own?

The point isn’t to solve this problem in this article, but rather to show that there were much more important priorities for the $200M than Doug Ducey’s personal erector set project. This is just one example, don’t even get me started on the needs in our rural animal shelters. I’ll save that for another post.

Let’s hope Governor Hobbs can find a way to work with the Arizona Legislature to make headway on fixing Arizona’s major problems. So far, she seems focused on education and water. That sounds about right to me. Nose to the grindstone Governor!

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AZ in Top Third with National Board Certified Teachers

Let me be clear. I’ve never worn blackface and can’t for the life of me understand why someone would think it is okay. But, I’ve been guilty (when much younger), of making the insensitive and derogatory comment that, “those who can, do, and those who can’t, teach.” I was referring to military trainers, not K–12 teachers, but I am still mortified and profusely sorry for ever thinking, let alone saying that, about any educator.

I was ignorant and didn’t know what I didn’t know. I now know that good teachers are highly skilled professionals who have honed their art. I know that the overwhelming majority of K–12 teachers have chosen their profession because they have a passion for helping children grow and thrive. I also know that teachers are the number one in-school factor to student success. I fervently believe, that if we are to truly unleash our students’ and our state’s potential, we must focus on preparing, hiring, supporting, and trusting, high-quality, professional educators.

I was surrounded by several hundred such professionals at this year’s Arizona K12 Center’s 10th Celebration of Accomplished Teaching. It was a wonderful gala to celebrate the 136 Arizona teachers who achieved or renewed National Board Certification (NBC) in 2018.

Established in 1987 as a rigorous assessment program, NBC was designed to “develop, retain and recognize accomplished teachers and to generate ongoing improvement in schools nationwide.” To be an NBCT, “a teacher must hold a baccalaureate degree and have three years of teaching experience on a provisional or standard certificate (no emergency or intern) in early childhood, elementary, middle, or secondary schools prior to submitting an application. “ According to the National Board of Professional Teaching Standards (NBPTS) website, “National Board Certification was created by teachers, for teachers, to “represent consensus among educators about what accomplished teachers should know and be able to do…and is available in 25 certificate areas spanning 16 disciplines from Pre-K through 12th grade.”

In the AZ Republic’s Joanna Allhands words, NBCT “Teachers are tested on their content knowledge and must prove academic growth in their students. They also must demonstrate how they interact with their students and that they can effectively use testing data to help their students grow.” She goes on to note that Arizona doesn’t pay teachers extra (though some districts do give a stipend) for achieving NBCT status. Rather, the teachers work for certification anywhere from one to five years, at a personal cost of about $2,000, because “they know what it means for their students. Studies from across the country show that students learn more – the equivalent of one to two months’ extra instruction – from a National Board Certified Teacher.”

As a professional educator (what a breath of fresh air that is), Arizona’s Superintendent of Public Instruction, Kathy Hoffman, understands how important professional development is for educators and the students they teach. Speaking at the Celebration event, she lauded the 86 new and 50 renewed NBCTs for 2018. She also told the audience she is absolutely committed to maintaining her unbridled optimism in support of Arizona’s educators. The future of our state she said, will be determined by the future of our students, and they must have professional educators to prepare them. At a time when challenges abound for public education in Arizona, she proudly highlighted the fact that our state is 18th in the nation for the total number of NBCTs and 14th in the nation for the number of new NBCTs.

A big reason for these success is the leadership provided by Arizona’s K12 Center, led by Executive Director Kathy Wiebke. Our state’s first-ever NBCT, Kathy is the program’s biggest cheerleader saying that, not only does it elevate the profession, but individual teachers as well. As the Center’s website states, NBC provides the opportunity for our best teachers [and school counselors] to pursue “the accomplishment and recognition that other professionals, like doctors and architects, pursue in their areas of specialty. In fact, ”more than 150 studies indicate that National Board Certified Teachers (NBCTs) make a significant and measurable impact in their schools, and the process is regarded the finest single professional development program available to teachers today.”

In addition to running the National Board Candidate Program, the Center is home to the Master Teacher Program, which works to “build capacity for teacher leadership, while providing support to the newest members of the teaching profession. The program places experienced, accomplished teachers into non-evaluative leadership roles in schools as mentors or coaches for their peers.” Other programs include a professional development opportunity called Lesson2Life which “brings education and business together to better prepare students to be career and college ready with the skills necessary to be successful citizens in a rapidly changing world.” The program takes place over the summer, and “allows teachers to see firsthand the skills needed in today’s workplace while educating businesses about the current reality of today’s education system.”

We’ve already seen how lowering job requirements for teachers hasn’t helped improve retention, with only one-third of the way into the 2018–19 school year, almost half as many certificates being issued to untrained teachers as the entire previous year. How’s about we try something else? I don’t know…maybe like treat our teachers as the professionals they are and encourage and support their efforts to continue to develop their craft?

The solution to our teacher retention problem is staring us in the face and is the same solution that will drive more student success. That’s because teacher working conditions are student learning conditions. Only when we truly embrace this concept will we begin to make sustained, statewide progress we can all be proud of.

So, how’s that teacher shortage?

Anyone wondering where we stand with Arizona’s teacher shortage? After all, last year was probably the most significant year ever for Arizona public school teachers. Some 75,000 of them marched on the state Capitol demanding better pay for themselves and support staff, lower class sizes and more. The result was an additional 9% salary increase added to the 1% Governor Ducey had originally offered for the year. Surely this must have helped us retain quality teachers, right?

Well, not so fast. As the Arizona School Personnel Administrators Association (ASPAA) learned in their annual statewide survey of districts, we are a long way from “out of the woods” and aren’t even headed in the right direction.

242EFF29-BFCA-4C0A-B496-C54953BBAD3DThe 211 districts and charters that responded last year reported that 7,453 teacher openings needed to be filled during the school year. As of December 12, 2018, there were still 1,693 vacancies and 3,908 individuals not meeting standard teacher requirements, for a total of 75% of teacher positions vacant or filled by less than fully qualified people.

On top of that, 913 teachers had either abandoned or resigned from their teacher position within the first half of the school year without a candidate pool to replace them. To make matters worse, 76% of these teachers held a standard teacher certificate.

These are alarming statistics, made all the more so considering the strides made in 2018, and the worse status since the 2017–18 report. It showed that as of December 8, 2017, 62.5% of teacher positions were vacant or not meeting standard teacher requirements and 866 teachers had abandoned or resigned within first half of the year, over 80% of whom held a standard teacher certificate.

The salary increase didn’t solve the problem, partly because salary and benefits still aren’t competitive, but also because teacher working conditions (such as high class sizes and the dramatic increase of children dealing with trauma and Adverse Childhood Experiences) make it really tough to do the job right. And, oh by the way, allowing our districts to hire uncertified teachers hasn’t done anything to make our teachers feel valued as professionals. As the state’s Superintendent of Public Instruction, Kathy Hoffman, told the state House Education Committee yesterday, our teacher shortage is a crisis. To make matters worse, 25% of Arizona teachers are eligible to retire in the next two years.

I’m sure there are people who thought the Governor’s #20X2020 plan would fix the teacher drain but of course, it was never going to be that easy. First of all, only 10% of it has been allocated thus far. The other 10% is but a promise and must be appropriated by this, and probably next year’s Legislatures.

Quality teachers are the number one in-school factor contributing to student success, so it makes sense that they should be our focus. Ask yourself then why yet again, state legislators are sponsoring several voucher expansion bills that will further drain resources available for 95% of Arizona’s students.

We can solve this, and most other problems, IF we have the collective will to do it. Therein lies the rub.