The State of Education in Arizona

From 2008 to 2014, our state enjoyed the third highest change in K-12 per pupil spending (down 17 percent) in the nation.[i]  Two out of three children don’t attend preschool, 27 percent live in poverty and three-quarters of fourth-graders aren’t proficient in reading.  In fact, Arizona ranks 47th overall in the annual Kids Count survey.[ii]

Yet, our Legislature seems determined to destroy public education.  In 2013, they expanded eligibility for Empowerment Scholarship Accounts (ESAs).[iii]   These accounts allow parents to withdraw their eligible children from public schools and use 90 percent of the state money to pay for educational alternatives, including private school, tutoring, curricula, textbooks, online classes and tuition at Arizona’s public colleges.[iv] Senator Barbara McGuire moved to reconsider the bill after the Senate initially defeated it and then changing her vote to see it pass.[v]  Arizona currently has 302 students with ESAs with $5.2 million taken from public education.[vi]   This amount is only expected to grow, at the expense, of our public community schools.  That’s one of the reasons passage of Oracle School District’s current budget override continuation is so important.

The $82 million per year in Prop 301 inflation monies the state has now been ordered to pay schools doesn’t event begin to close the gap.[vii]  The Common Core Standards adopted by Arizona in 2010 are an unfunded mandate.  The Arizona School Board Association estimates the cost of implementation in 2014-2015 alone at $156 million statewide and another $240 million in software/hardware upgrades and broadband expansion.[viii]

What can you do?  Register for the Arizona Legislature’s “Request to Speak” system at http://www.azsba.org/advocacy/resource-center/.  Once registered, you can comment on proposed legislation on-line and have it read into the record in Education Committee meetings.   You can also call and email your representatives and of course, writing articles and letters to the editor is always a good idea.  It is both your right and responsibility.  Want to learn more?  Email me at lthomas@osd2.org.

Senator McGuire Votes Against Public Education

Senator McGuire, AZ LD8, did not prove herself a friend of public education at the end of 51st Legislative Session.

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Although the Senate had initially defeated SB1363 [empowerment scholarship accounts (ESAs)], in the final hours of session on June 14, 2013, she alone brought the bill back to life by moving to reconsider the bill.  This “private school voucher expansion bill” then passed the Senate by a vote of 16 ayes – 13 nays.  Senator McGuire was the only Democrat to vote for this bill with the other 12 Democrats in  the Senate and Republican Senator Rich Crandall voting against it for the second time.

As a school board member and locally elected guardian of public education, I am concerned this bill will siphon off even more funding from our public schools.  It further expands the Arizona ESAs Program to kindergarteners and increases the amount available.[i]  Currently ESA funding per pupil is the same regardless of whether a pupil previously attended a school district or charter school.  SB1363 will increase ESA per pupil funding for former charter school pupils by adding charter school “Additional Assistance” to the ESA formula increasing ESA funding to former charter school pupils by approximately $1,600 per pupil (90% of the average “Additional Assistance” amounts defined in A.R.S. § 15-185B3) and increase total ESA costs by an estimated $100,000.[ii]

Both the Arizona Education Association (AEA) and Arizona School Board Association (ASBA) opposed the bill and are appealing a Maricopa District Judge ruling that taxpayer dollars may fund private schools.  This, after the Arizona Supreme Court found in 2009 that two similar school voucher programs violated the Arizona Constitution’s ban on aid for religious or private schools.[iii]

The 2011 law gave parents of special needs children access to public education monies and was further expanded for this school year, essentially doubling eligibility to 200,000.[iv]  Funds can be used for curriculum, testing, private school tuition, tutors, special needs services or therapies, or even seed money for college.  The program however, requires parents to waive their child’s right to a public education…a right that is guaranteed under the state constitution, in order to receive the benefits.[v]

Only 362 students in Arizona had ESAs last year, but 92 percent of ESA funds went to private schools, in many cases for children whose parents could afford the schools without the assistance. For students without special needs, the program provides from $3,000 to $3,500 a year. As this is not nearly sufficient to cover the cost of tuition to a private school (which can be as much as $10,000), the program is unlikely to benefit students from low-income families.[vi]  Last year, this voucher program took $5.2 million from public education funding. With Senator McGuire ensuring passage of SB1363, the amount could potentially increase to over $20 million and public school funding tied to enrollment will likely be reduced.[vii]

Barbara McGuire identifies herself as a “moderate Democrat who promised to work to improve state and local economies, create jobs, improve our kids’ education, address real estate recovery, growth, and quality-of-life issues.”  Her responses to an election questionnaire for State Legislature posted on AZCentral.com also bill her as a supporter of education.  When asked: “how would you change the state’s approach to spending”, she said she would “focus on making Arizona competitive by investing in education.”  When asked, “to name one state agency or program you believe gets too little money and why”, she responded: “Education. Our children are our future. Investment in that future will enable them to be competitive and successful in the global market. Without a good educated work force we risk becoming subservient to other nations.”  Finally, when asked, “would spending more money on public schools increase the quality of education in Arizona, why or why not?” she responded with “Absolutely. It must be spent in ways that create the best outcomes. Such as smaller class size, classroom resources, and dedicated well-paid teachers. Quality education is necessary to build a competitive future workforce.”[viii]

Today I am left feeling as though Senator McGuire threw public education under the bus for political expediency.  She has told me before that sometimes you have to give a little, to get a little.  This however, isn’t giving a little.  It is a fundamental move against public education in our state and against the commitment to public education she originally espoused.  I encourage the voters of LD8 to hold her accountable.