Writing Exercise

Wanda Christopher helps Robert Navarro with a writing exercise in a Kinder Camp classroom at Thomas Elementary School in this July 2014 file photo.

Jake Bacon/Arizona Daily Sun

If there’s any doubt what the top state issue will be in next year’s election, just take a look at what’s already filling up the November 2018 ballot.

There will be a referendum on expanding private school vouchers, a likely push to extend and expand Prop. 301, the possible renewal of FUSD’s 15 percent budget override and maybe another attempt to increase CCC’s property tax revenues.

All this churn on school finance comes just a year after Gov. Doug Ducey supposedly made public school budgets whole by settling a longstanding lawsuit over inadequate inflation payments by tapping the state land trust fund. For 10 years, schools will get an extra 8 percent in state funding – not enough to push per-pupil state funding out of the bottom five in the country.

Meanwhile, new teachers are leaving in droves, with some citing low pay that prevents them from covering their student loans. So the governor has proposed putting up a million dollars to waive tuition for new teachers who stay in the profession for at least four years. At $40,000 a student, that will cover just 25 new teachers out of the hundreds leaving in the first two years.

Significantly, Ducey did not commit to simply raising teacher pay by hiking the 0.6 cents sales tax rate in Prop 301. That’s the initiative that already pumps about $600 million a year into higher teacher pay and classroom supplies. Upping the rate by a penny raises an extra billion dollars, which would make a real difference on top of state school payments that now total about $4.4 billion a year.

That tax hike was a key recommendation coming out of last week’s Education Town Hall by LAUNCH, the coalition of Flagstaff education advocates looking to move the needle on student achievement and success in Arizona. It already has commitments from a host of business and civic groups to partner with the schools on STEM, after-school programs and extracurricular tax credit campaigns. But with the courts essentially taking decision-making on school funding levels out of local hands and giving it to the Legislature, LAUNCH is gearing up to mobilize Flagstaff voters on behalf of an expanded Prop. 301.

How important is more money to mainstream public schools? As we have reported, it’s not just about pay raises for beginning teachers. Those we talked with rankle at classrooms that have too many students for effective teaching – more teachers would mean smaller class sizes, especially in schools with lots of English language learners.

New teachers also aren’t prepared or apparently willing to assume the role of surrogate parent and disciplinarian when it comes to making sure homework is done on time and children get a good night’s sleep. Many single parents and others do need help with their children’s preparation and organization, but why not hire counselors and tutors rather than put it on classroom teachers? The answer: that kind of intervention takes money that Arizona mainstream public schools currently don’t have.

So why aren’t the charters, which are also publicly funded using roughly the same state formula, crying for more funds? Because for the most part they aren’t recruiting high-needs students with learning disabilities or from dysfunctional and impoverished families. And they have either downsized their physical plant by eliminating cafeterias, auditoriums, libraries and stadiums or, like Basis.ed, leveraged supplemental, private capital to tap public building loan funds. Plus, when it comes to getting tax credit-eligible donations, most charters have an easier time tapping upscale parents who owe more in state income taxes than, say, a single mom in Sunnyside or Plaza Vieja.

That unlevel academic and financial field has to be top of mind as educators and legislators consider how to use the AzMERIT test scores and the school letter grades that result. Standardized testing can be a useful diagnostic tool for students in need of remedial help as well as teachers looking to push advanced students beyond the basic material. But there is no such thing as a standardized school, and thus calculating median passing rates and assigning a grade as a way to rate the value that a teacher or a school has added is an arithmetic fool’s errand.

To take an example, if 75 percent of all new students at Basis arrive having passed the AzMERIT tests the previous year no matter where they attended school, it’s fair to expect at least a 75 percent pass rate from them this year at BASIS. And if that median stays level – no matter how far above the pass rate at a mainstream public – does that automatically justify an A grade for the school?

Conversely, if only 8 percent of the incoming ninth-graders at Flagstaff High School mastered math as eighth-graders at Mount Elden Middle School, as evidenced by their AzMERIT scores, but 22 percent get a passing score in ninth-grade math, shouldn’t Flag High get more than a C grade as a school on the basis of that improvement?

It’s that kind of unfair labeling of school value that threatens to undermine voter confidence in public school funding measures. We acknowledge that teachers and schools need to be held accountable for the efficient and even creative use of the resources at their disposal. But let’s also consider the different aptitudes and preparation of the students they work with, and the adequacy of those resources. If the playing field can’t be leveled when it comes time to divvy up any extra money that might come from Prop. 301 or the FUSD override, at least make sure it goes where it is most needed.

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