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.

Focus on the Fix!

Linda Retire CropOne of the concerns about Common Core Standards is that they move us further toward the federalism of public education.  The effort to provide Federal guidance for public education actually began in 1965 with the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA).  Then in 2001, President George W. Bush pushed through the bipartisan reauthorization, giving it the “catchy” name: “No Child Left Behind (NCLB).”  This law required schools with low-income students to meet annual goals, as determined by standardized tests, to qualify for federal money.  It was the result of a compromise between “federalists who argue that only Washington will be able to set high standards because they’re immune from state governors, versus a states’ rights (granted by the Constitution) perspective.[i] NCLB has been much criticized for creating a focus on “teaching to the test” and for unrealistic standards.[ii]  Both Democrats and Republicans agree it is broken and have been working for several years on a reauthorization of it, since 2007 but have been unable to agree on the fix.[iii]

In an effort to deal with the broken NCLB, the Department of Education (DOE) announced the Conditional NCLB Waiver Plan in September 2011 to exempt certain states from NCLB accountability requirement. As part of the deal, the DOE mandated additional requirements for states seeking a waiver. To qualify, states had to agree to adopt “college- and career-ready standards (either Common Core, or a set of standards certified by the state’s colleges and universities consistent with Common Core) and declare their membership in either PARCC or SBAC, or its intention to adopt those, or similar, assessments.[iv]

A troubling concern for many is that Common Core Standards were developed outside any sort of legislative body and some allege states were “bribed” (with stimulus funded Rate to the Top Grants for example) into accepting the standards prior to even seeing them.  Proponents point to the fact the nation’s governors and education commissioners (through their representative organizations) developed the standards.  They also point to the fact that teachers, parents, school administrators and experts from across the country were involved in the effort.[v]  In fact, our very own Dr. McCallum, head of the Department of Mathematics at the University of Arizona, was a lead author of the Common Core Math Standards.[vi]

I’m not much of a conspiracy theorist and believe the motivations for action on public education are pretty simple and fall into three categories.  They are:  1) desire to make political hay, 2) desire to make a profit, and 3) desire to have the children receive a truly high-quality education.

The motivation that concerns me most is those viewing public education as a profit center.  We saw what greed drove in the absence of regulation and transparency in the housing and banking industries.  In 1983, during the Reagan administration, a report called “A Nation at Risk” set the stage for big business to look to public education as a place to mine for profit.  Corporate influence, in the form of venture philanthropy (where giving is viewed s an entryway into the work versus supporting the work of others) now is the major driver of the education reform movement.  “The leading venture philanthropies are now pushing charter school growth, school choice, education privatization in general; alternative routes of teacher and administrator certification; and curriculum and test development.  Unfortunately, all this drives a transition from public deliberation by elected officials to decisions of individuals with no accountability to the public.”[vii]  Since 1999, the Gates Foundation (they are not the only players) has donated approximately $30 million to the National Governor’s Association and $70 million to the Council of Chief State School Officers.  It has also provided significant funding to a variety of other organizations (on both sides of the ideological spectrum) working to influence education policy, including the National Education Association, the American Federation of Teachers, the American Association of School Administrators and others. [viii]

Ultimately though, all the controversy is a diversion that is just not helpful to the task at hand.  That is to ensure all of America’s children receive a quality public education and have a shot at the American Dream.  I believe the Common Core Standards are a valid attempt to improve the education system in the United States.  Are they perfect? No.  In most states though (other than California, Indiana and Massachusetts), they provide a higher goal than the current model.  If properly implemented, (a huge if), they will allow us to more realistically compare academic results across multiple states, provide an emphasis on the ability to think, read, and write critically across the curriculum, and provide an increased focus on classroom rigor and student expectations.  Opponents point to several concerns including that the standards were not field tested prior to a nation-wide rollout, show a lack of attention to students with special needs, and place too much emphasis on college-readiness without balanced preparation for career and technical education.[ix]

Rarely, are solutions to complex problems “plug and play.”  In a more ideal world though, we’d all put our energies fully behind the effort so we can figure out what needs to change.   In Arizona, (and many other states), the Common Core Standards are still an unfunded mandate.  In January 2013, the Arizona School Boards Association and the Arizona Association of School Business Officials conducted a survey of Arizona school districts to determine the cost of implementing Arizona’s Common Core Standards.  Districts from urban, suburban and rural Arizona school districts statewide, representing 38 percent of the total K-12 district population, responded.  Based on the survey results, the estimated statewide costs for essential elements of Common Core implementation just for the 2013-2014 school year was $156.6 million.  On top of that is the $230 million cost of additional hardware, software and required upgrading of Internet capacity.  Zero additional monies have been appropriated by the state for the mandate to implement the standards.[x]

While the critics of the new standards are numerous and loud, I haven’t yet seen a better plan.  The Common Core Standards are the first educational reform that has the potential to hold students, teachers, and schools to the same standards nationwide. This will make it easier to understand what is working and hopefully, apply the lessons learned.  That can’t be a bad thing.[xi]


The AZ Legislature is Busy…How Will Education Fare?

Several bills on education have been introduced recently in the Arizona Legislature.  Some will help support the majority of our students (almost 90% whom are enrolled in traditional public schools.)  Some however, will only serve to support privatization of education in Arizona which will not work to the advantage of most of our students.  The description of these bills has been provided by the Arizona Education Association.  My comments follow in italics.Thomas photo med_2

HB2399 would double school districts’ bonding capacity, which would help some districts out that are able to get voters to approve the bond, but this measure would also increase the economic inequities between school districts. – As many SaddleBrooke residents know, our latest bond issue for the Oracle School District failed in 2011.

HB2425 would disband the ELL Task Force and move its assignment to the Arizona Department of Education.  This task force was originally charged with the creation of the Structured English Immersion (SEI) program to be used in all school districts and with reviewing and approving alternative SEI models submitted by school districts.

HB2530 requires students enrolled in an Empowerment Scholarship Account (ESA) to annually take a norm-referenced achievement test or a college admissions exam. Kudos to Rep. Heather Carter for pushing this bill forward and ensuring there is accountability in this tax-payer funded voucher program.  Unfortunately, another bill (SB1363) expands the ESA voucher program to include students who are eligible for kindergarten. – HB 2530 is supported by the AZ Education Assoc. and the AZ School Board Assoc.  It is absolutely amazing to me that not only do we not have laws that require standards and testing in AZ’s work-around to a voucher program (ESA) and home schooling, but the AZ Legislature and AZ Dept. of Education is prohibited from regulating these programs.  How then do we know the children in these programs are being properly educated?

SB1285 would require the Arizona Department of Education to mail a pamphlet to parents about non-public school options such as private schools and vouchers. The bill would cost $1.5 million annually and proposes to use federal Title 1 funding.  AEA President Andrew F. Morrill told the Arizona Republic, “The bill appears to be a marketing ploy to use public funds to increase the customer base for private schools. This is unnecessary and probably would run into some legal challenges down the road.”  The bill is ALEC’s signature legislation this year.  It was held in Senate Education committee last week and is on the agendas for the Education and Appropriations committees this week.

SB1385 would make private charter school teachers’ evaluations so they could not be released under a public records request. – How can this be in anyone’s best interest except for those who profit from the charter school’s operation?

SB1450 seeks $5 million from the general fund for Arizona’s Alternative Teacher Development Program to be awarded to a qualifying service provider, i.e. Teach for America. – Both Diane Ravitch, former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education and an education policy analyst and Linda Darling-Hammond, Professor of Education at Stanford University, have criticized Teach for America (TFA) for sending inexperienced young people to teach the nation’s most vulnerable children.  In fact, a study in Arizona in 2002 held that TFA teachers had a negative impact on their students as compared to certified teachers.  Another study Darling-Hammond led with 4,400 teachers and 132,000 students concluded certified teachers consistently produced significantly higher achievement than those uncertified and TSA teacher had a negative or nonsignificant effect.