Declare a win and fight on!

This past week, Governor Ducey bowed to pressure from fed-up teachers and public education advocates in releasing a plan to give teachers a 20% pay raise by 2020 and restore District Additional Funding. Although details on funding sources are slim, the Governor has said the plan will not simply redirect money meant for other school needs. He also stipulated the 20% for teacher raises would be added to the base so that it becomes permanent funding our districts and their teachers can count on.

There is, of course, much consternation about how this “sausage” was made. Truth is, discussions between education advocacy organizations have been underway for sometime about the best strategy to fight for teacher salary increases and other funding our districts desperately need. Then, last week, nine GOP legislators collaborated to devise their own plan. As reported on AZCentral.com, it included a 6% pay raise next year, with an increase for five years to a total of 24%. This plan left some education advocates calling it a “shell game” because it included no new money for schools, but a reallocation of available monies. When Governor Ducey got wind of the effort, he called in the legislators, along with several education advocacy organizations, to discuss a solution.

The solution is far from adequate as it still won’t restore our districts to 2008 funding, and doesn’t provide enough money to adequately compensate support staff, or take care of our crumbling facilities and replace capital equipment. If it actually comes to fruition though, it is a big step in the right direction. We should, as representatives from SOS AZ, AZ PTA and the Arizona School Boards Association (ASBA) have said, “declare a win, a win” and take credit for the effective work we’ve all done to move the Governor to this point.

I recognize there are many who don’t think the solution goes far enough and can’t say I disagree. Effective governance though, requires compromise and no, that is NOT a four letter word. Compromise is what is required if we are to come up with the best, viable solutions that will hopefully give the majority of people at least some of what they want.

As the President of ASBA, I will be proud (assuming the Governor delivers) of our Association’s achieving victory on three of the important items from our member-approved 2018 Legislative Agenda:
– Provide additional state funding for nationally competitive salaries to attract, recruit and retain talented teachers;
– Restore district additional assistance (DAA) reductions; and
– Maximize local control and flexibility in managing funds and programs.

In addition, we sought the “Renewal of Prop. 301” which was another of our legislative agenda items. And, thanks to the work of SOS AZ with some financial help from Friends of ASBA, we may also achieve success on the agenda item to “Repeal any program that gives public funds for private schools, ESAs & STOs or prevent any future expansion.”

Even though I believe we may have largely “won” this battle, the overall war rages on and we cannot yet put away our pens, our signs, and our voices. There is much left to fight for because although the 20% raise would bring the average salary for AZ teachers within $800 of the 2017 national average, funding for their support staff is still inadequate as is that for many other needs. And although, Governor Ducey has made higher state revenue, the rearranging of his budget priorities, and lower state agency caseloads sound like viable funding streams, we are right to be suspicious of exactly where from, sustainable funding will come.

As the saying goes, the “devil is in the details.” We must all demand those details from the Governor and keep the pressure on him to actually deliver on his latest promises. We must also ensure our education community continues to work together and does not allow a wedge to be driven between us. This is important because, even though we may have some different ideas on how to deliver for our districts, we all want more opportunity and better academic results for ALL our students.

In the end, the only thing that will ensure our state works toward that goal is the election of more pro-public education candidates. We don’t need to, as the Chicago saying goes, “vote early and often”, but we do need to vote wisely. It is beyond time for Arizona voters to draw the nexus between the results they want, and the candidates they elect. I choose to remain hopeful, because failure is simply not an option.

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The Bucks Stop Here

The latest talking point about education funding coming out of GOP leadership at the AZ Legislature is that “teacher raises are the responsibility of school districts, not the state.” Senate Education Committee Chair Sylvia Allen, recently said this as week as that districts “did not use Prop 123 monies to give teacher raises” and then that “some did and some didn’t.” And, she made the point that districts also used the funds to give administrators raises.

Well, technically, she is not wrong. School district governing boards are responsible for approving the budgets for their districts, or rather, how those budgets are sliced and diced. Some districts used more of the Prop 123 monies than others to give teachers raises. And, yes, some administrators were also given raises, but keep in mind that these “administrators” aren’t necessarily just district superintendents and principals. The administration line item also includes business managers, clerical and other staff who perform accounting, payroll, purchasing, warehousing, printing, human resources and administrative technology services. And, even if some districts gave raises to superintendents and principals so what? Truth is, the state has a shortage of these personnel as well.

Toward the end of 2016, the Arizona School Boards Association asked 83 districts across the state how they used their Prop 123 funds for FY2016 and how they budgeted for them to be used for FY2017. The survey showed that a majority of the school districts spent the 2016 funds on teacher or staff raises. For 2017, 75 percent was budgeted toward compensation increases. Some districts were forced to also use the funds to restore cut classes and programs, purchase classroom resources and technology, replace out-of-date textbooks, make overdue facility repairs, and replace old buses.

Let’s face it, Prop 123 provided very little “new” funding to school districts, it really was just 70% of that which was already owed. It did not provide sufficient monies to make up for increasing general operating costs and severe funding cuts made by the state – $4.56 billion since 2009. These cuts included $2 billion to capital funding (including technology, textbooks, desks, building repair and maintenance and school bus purchases) and $1.5 billion for full-day kindergarten (which many districts still provide out-of-hide because it is critical to student achievement.) The Legislature also currently funds just 20% of what the law requires them to for building of new schools and major school repairs via the School Facilities Board. That’s why public education plaintiffs have filed another lawsuit (the first suit over this same issue was in 1994) to force compliance with the state’s obligation to “adequately fund the capital needs of public schools under a 1998 court ruling.” In fact, Arizona is one of only a handful of states still cutting today, even in a steadily improving economy. Because of these cuts, district governing boards have been faced with very tough decisions about which holes to plug first and as the ones closest to the ground, they are the right ones to make it.

But, it is totally disingenuous of Senator Allen to intimate that school boards “chose” to not give their teachers sufficient raises. First of all, the vast majority of districts did give teachers significant raises (my very small district for example, gave 7%.) Secondly, forced to deal with the highest cuts in per pupil funding in the nation, Arizona school districts are not even remotely close to the “self-actualization” level on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, but just barely at the safety and security level. District leaders are faced with daily decisions about how best to just keep students safe in light of deteriorating facilities and aged buses.

Allen and her legislative cronies can deflect all they want, but the state constitution is clear, “The LEGISLATURE shall enact such laws as shall provide for the establishment and maintenance of a general and uniform public school system…” STATE lawmakers, not school district governing boards, are responsible for ensuring adequate funding for the “maintenance of a general and uniform public school system.” District governing boards may have responsibility for slicing up the pizza pie they are served, but just like a personal pan pizza won’t serve a family of four, state education funding that has been cut 23.3% since 2009, just doesn’t provide enough to go around. And, with the 0.6% state sales tax funding from Prop 301 set to expire in 2021 (not to mention the Prop 123 monies disappearing in 2025), it is only going to get worse. If only Senator Allen would remember and act on the saying: politicians think of the next election, leaders think of the next generation. And just in case she didn’t quite understand the nuance, President Truman’s famous saying appropriate here is “the buck stops here”, not “the bucks stop here.”

Bubblegum Only Holds For So Long

The Arizona Republic reported this morning that two Glendale Elementary School District (GESD) schools would be closed for up to five weeks for structural deficiencies uncovered during a weatherization project. Inspections by architects and structural engineers found “varying degrees of damage to outside walls in every building on campus” said Jim Cummings, spokesman for Glendale Elementary.

What Glendale is experiencing, though, is just a peek at what is to come statewide. One of the GESD schools, after all, was built in the 1920s. Likewise, the majority of Yuma Elementary School District facilities are over 50 years old. In my district, Oracle Elementary, most of our facilities are over 40 years old and one was built in 1938. These are just a few examples of our aging district infrastructure in the Arizona.

In 1998, the National Center for Education Statistics reported the median age of schools in the West as 39 years, with 25 percent of the schools built before 1950. Admittedly, this report is old and, doesn’t hone in on Arizona, but current Arizona data just isn’t available. Thing is, it should be.
In 1994, the Arizona Supreme Court declared the state’s systems of school capital finance unconstitutional because it failed to conform to the state constitution’s “general and uniform” clause. “The system relied on the secondary property tax, driven by the property wealth of a school district, and general obligation bonding.” Under a court order to develop a constitutional system of school capital finance, then Governor Hull signed legislation to create Students FIRST (Fair and Immediate Resources for Students Today.) Late in 1999, the State Facilities Board (SFB) “adopted Building Adequacy Guidelines that now serve as the minimum standards for existing and new school facilities in Arizona.”

 Part of the new Students FIRST law established a deficiencies correction fund to help correct deficiencies in existing school facilities. The SFB was charged with adopting rules setting minimum adequacy guidelines for school facilities, assessing the facilities against those guidelines, and providing funds to get the buildings up to snuff. The SFB finished a statewide assessment of all 1,210 schools and 1,410 building sites, including fix cost, in April 2001. Over $740 million in 5,963 “hard construction” deficiency projects were identified including 904 roofs and 233 fire-alarm systems. By law, the existing deficiencies were supposed to be fixed by June 30, 2004.

The law also established a building renewal fund to maintain the adequacy of existing facilities and a new school facilities fund to construct new schools to meet minimum adequacy guidelines. The entire program was to be funded by appropriations from the State General Fund versus property taxes to level the playing field, but this change also made it easy for the Legislature to repurpose the funds. In fact, the only year the building-renewal fund was fully funded was in 2001, and from 2008 to 2012; school districts only got two cents of every dollar they should have received. To make matters worse, the state stopped providing dedicated funding for preventative maintenance. The repealed Building Renewal statute allowed school districts to use eight percent of their building renewal formula amounts for routine preventative maintenance but no more. And as if it makes everything better, the SFB strategic plan states that they “have expanded the preventative maintenance training and inspections to ‘counterbalance the lack of funding.'” I don’t know about you, but this sounds pretty ludicrous to me. First, you take away the funding for building renewal, then you train the districts on how to do preventative maintenance (with no funding mind you), and then you inspect whether the maintenance was done even though no funding was provided to do it. Right…makes perfect sense.

The failure of the Legislature to meet its obligations, has led Tim Hogan, executive director of The Arizona Center for Law in the Public Interest (ACLPI), to file a suit. Déjà vu since Hogan is the lawyer who filed the suit in the 90s. Yes, that suit. The one that resulted in “legislators agree[ing] to spend $1.3 billion to bring every school in the state up to a minimum standard, to create a formula to fund school renovations, and to pay for it out of the state’s general fund rather than out of local property taxes.” Glendale Elementary School District has already signed on to join Hogan’s new effort to force compliance. According to Jim Cummings, “the district voted to become a plaintiff in the lawsuit because the legislature eliminated all capital funding and GESD couldn’t raise enough through bonds to meet its capital needs.” Since the legislature eliminated capital funding, GESD has lost $18.7 million despite increasing enrollment. In 2015, Hogan said, “In each of the last two years, the amount appropriated has been about $16 million, far short of the $500 million needed by Arizona school districts.” He went on to say “The state has totally reneged on the commitment that it made to the Supreme Court at the time Students FIRST was presented for approval.”

Let’s be clear. The $3.5B that Prop. 123 will deliver over 10 years to Arizona’s district schools is money that was already due them (actually only 70 percent) per voter mandate and court order. It was funding designed to allow Prop. 301 funding (for facilities, teacher compensation, school performance measurement, statewide database and more) to keep up with inflation. It was not new funding. Yes, it is true that Prop. 123 funding came without strings attached. The majority of districts, though, used it to increase their teachers’ salaries, a more immediate need given the critical shortage of teachers in our state and the looming retirement of many of those who are currently teaching.

It is clear that our district schools are ever-increasingly being forced into making “the lesser of all evils” choices to keep the doors open, teachers retained, and students enrolled and well-educated. Our state legislature is playing games with the future of the one-plus million children that attend Arizona’s district schools. Please remember this when you cast your vote either before or on November 8th. If you want better for Arizona’s children, you MUST vote for candidates who share that vision and have the political will to deliver it. Anything else is just noise.

We need leaders, not politicians

AZ Senate President Andy Biggs claims more funding doesn’t produce better educational outcomes and points to Washington D.C. as proof. Wow, way to deflect Andy. The truth is, places with high poverty, crime and unemployment often require high per pupil funding to try to deal with these various intersecting complications. We have those places in Arizona too. But, I’m not sure how a subpar return on investment in D.C. education excuses Arizona’s ranking for the lowest per pupil funding in the nation. I also don’t buy that more funding doesn’t make a difference.

Bruce D. Baker, a professor in the Department of Educational Theory, Policy, and Administration in the Graduate School of Education at Rutgers University, says we know the strategies that help close achievement gaps: lower class sizes, a broad curriculum, and the attraction and retention of highly qualified teachers. But, he says, “we can’t get there without stable, adequate, and equitable funding” and claims that approach to closing achievement gaps is “one we’ve never really tried.”[i] Too often, he says, promising efforts are abandoned after the next election cycle. Great sounding campaign promises after all, are much easier to make than real results are to deliver.

Governor Ducey and other Arizona GOP leadership claim they have solutions to provide additional education funding. But, tax increases are definitely not among them. Governor Ducey wants to take money from the sell of state trust lands to generate about $300 more per child. His plan, if approved by voters in 2016, would begin to help in 2017, but only for ten years and some fear it will draw down the trust land monies available for future use. Biggs and House Speaker David Gowan propose asking voters to shift funds from early childhood education programs to K-12 education. They claim that could generate an additional $500 per student on top of the $4,300 the state now provides.[ii]

I am open to learning more about Governor Ducey’s idea, but on the surface it seems like a quick fix that we’ll have to pay for over the long term. Tucson education blogger David Safier points out that Ducey’s roadmap for additional education funding has numerous winding roads with plenty of roadblocks built in.[iii] Let’s just say I don’t plan to hold my breath waiting for this idea to come to fruition. But, you have to admit; it does kind of make the Governor look like he really cares about helping Arizona’s K-12 school children.

As for shifting money from early childhood education programs to K-12, that is a dead on arrival idea for me. Arizona has already cut kindergarten funding in half requiring school districts to fund the other half “out of hide” if they want to provide full-day programs. The state provides zero funding for preschool, despite all the evident that shows it is absolutely critical to improving educational outcomes and success in life. Preschool has been shown results in adults with better jobs, less drug abuse and fewer arrests.[iv] In fact, children who attend preschool, are almost 50 percent less likely to end up in jail or prison by age 40. One researcher at the University of Minnesota said the average cost per child for 18 months of preschool in 2011 was $9,000, but his cost-benefit analysis suggested that led to at least $90,000 in benefits per child in terms of increased earnings, tax revenue, less criminal behavior, reduced mental health costs and other measures.[v] Or, put another way, when it comes to funding preschool, you can pay me now, or pay me later. And believe me, the interest is pretty steep.

As for the idea of going back to the voters to approve either of these plans, let’s just review recent history. The Arizona Legislature referred Proposition to the voters in 2001. The voters approved the proposition and the inflation funding that went with it. The Legislature indicated they understood the voter mandate when they initially appropriated the required funding, but when the recession hit in 2008, they decided to opt out of that pesky little part of the law. Now, the courts have told the Legislature that may not opt out and yet…wait for it….the Legislature still refuses to comply. This, despite a voter mandate, despite court orders, and despite surplus revenue.

Mr. Biggs claims that increased funding is not the answer, and asks “how much is enough?” To answer his question, I say I’m not sure, “but I’ll know it when I see it.” Well, I don’t see it in a per pupil funding of $7,208 (from all sources) against a national average of $10,700. I don’t see it in our having made the highest cuts to per pupil funding since 2008. I don’t see it in our critical teacher shortage, and I don’t see it in facility maintenance and renewal fund that provided school districts only two percent of what were due from 2008 to 2013.[vi]

Finally, to Bigg’s claim that “some schools are excelling, doing an incredibly great job, even with current funding”, yes, our dedicated administrators and educators are doing all they can to do more with less. The situation reminds me of our military troops who would do whatever it took, with whatever they had, to accomplish the mission. Make no mistake, there is eventually a price to be paid. Just like a car can run for a long time without an oil change, problems will develop over time and eventually, the engine will seize up. In our Arizona public school districts, that price is now presenting itself in the form of a critical teacher shortage. With a counselor to student ratio of four times that recommended, it could also come in the form of more serious student behavioral incidents. These are just two examples, there are many more.

Governor Ducey and his GOP led Legislature continue to kick the can down the road while Arizona’s students (through the 6th grade) have never been in a fully funded classroom. Every year the funding is denied is one more year our students are not fully equipped to succeed. And if they aren’t fully equipped to succeed, neither is our state. Whether today’s K-12 students are ready or not, they will be leading tomorrow’s Arizona. Well, unless they had to move out of state to get a decent job because quality companies were too smart to relocate to a state that prioritizes private prisons over preschool. None of this is rocket science, we know what to do. The question is, do our elected leaders have the will to do the right thing and will we hold them to it? Maybe we should all remember this quote by James Freeman Clarke: “A politician thinks of the next election; a leader, the next generation.”

[i] http://educationvotes.nea.org/2015/08/25/5-unavoidable-truths-about-school-funding/?utm_source=EdVotes&utm_medium=email&utm_content=SchoolFunding&utm_campaign=082915EdVotesEmail

[ii] http://tucson.com/news/local/education/coalition-urges-arizona-to-use-budget-surplus-for-education/article_07e0b3d2-98b9-53b3-8221-99f9434c66c9.html

[iii] http://www.tucsonweekly.com/TheRange/archives/2015/09/03/ducey-i-choose-the-school-funding-plan-behind-door-number-two

[iv] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/06/10/preschool-better-jobs-arrests_n_875036.html

[v] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/06/10/preschool-better-jobs-arrests_n_875036.html

[vi] http://www.azcentral.com/news/articles/arizona-schools-funding-debated.html