Almost every month this year brought big news for K-12 education in Arizona. Here is our condensed overview of the year’s six biggest stories:
#6 – SCHOOL LETTER GRADES
In October, the State Board of Education released A-F school letter grades for the first time since 2014. The new grades are based on the AzMERIT test rather than the old AIMS test, and the grades use a new formula that places more weight on student growth over the course of the school year than the prior system. It also gives points for other factors like graduation rates, taking Career Technical Education (CTE) courses, and taking college preparatory exams like Advanced Placement (AP) and International Baccalaureate (IB), among other changes.
The new letter grades immediately sparked criticism due to the complexity of the new formula, some concerns about the integrity of the data used to calculate the scores, and the large emphasis on growth that penalizes schools where most students already have high proficiency levels. Many schools appealed their grades. Raising the stakes, only schools with a grade of “A” will receive the new performance-based funding passed by the legislature in the spring.
#5 – MISALLOCATION OF FEDERAL FUNDS
In October and November, the Arizona Department of Education disclosed that it had improperly allocated $85 million of federal funds for Title I (low income) and IDEA (special needs) programs to Arizona school districts and charter schools. Some districts and charters received too little funding while others received too much. It’s still unclear whether the schools that received a surplus of funds will need to pay those funds back. But the verdict on that, which will come from the U.S. Department of Education, will have major implications: the state’s three largest school districts alone (Mesa Unified, Phoenix Union, and Tucson Unified) are staring down the barrel of a potential hit to their budgets totaling $7.8 million.
The miscalculation dates back to 2013. However, the Arizona Department of Education under Superintendent of Public Instruction Diane Douglas (who took office in 2015) has known about this issue since an audit in March 2015 and did not take action until early this year.
#4 – TOP NATIONAL RANKINGS
For the first time, an Arizona school—BASIS Scottsdale—received the number 1 ranking as the best public high school in the country by U.S. News and World Report. Four other BASIS charter schools, which are tuition-free and open enrollment, received rankings in the top 7 nationwide. (Disclaimer: The author of this article, Jonathan Gelbart, helped open the new campuses for three of these schools as BASIS’s Director of Charter School Development.)
Also this year, a New York Times analysis recognized three Arizona school districts for having some of the highest rates of student growth in the country. Chandler Unified School District showed the second-highest rate of growth of any district nationwide, Peoria Unified School District ranked 10th, and Washington Elementary School District ranked 16th.
#3 – EDUCATION FUNDING DEBATE CONTINUES
Demand for more funding to Arizona classrooms continues to grow. In April, the Arizona Center for Law in the Public Interest filed a multi-billion-dollar lawsuit against the state alleging insufficient funding of school capital needs such as building maintenance, school buses, textbooks, and technology. Per-pupil funding has increased in recent years but is still below FY2009 levels after adjusting for inflation.
Then in June, a prominent group of business leaders including former PetSmart Chairman and CEO Phil Francis called for expanding the Proposition 301 education sales tax from the current 0.6 cents to 1.5 cents as a way to fund Gov. Ducey’s education priorities like increased teacher pay and full-day kindergarten. This would raise the combined sales tax in Phoenix and Tucson to 9.5 percent, so the governor and others have so far remained mum on their support for the proposal. The business group is targeting the 2020 general election ballot for their proposition.
#2 – TEACHER SHORTAGE WORSENS
In April, the Morrison Institute for Public Policy at ASU released the results of its analysis showing Arizona elementary school teachers as the worst-paid among all states in the country after adjusting for cost of living. High school teacher pay ranked 48th. The same study showed that 42 percent of teachers who started in 2013 had left the profession within three years, largely because of these low salaries and increased administrative burdens.
In September, the Arizona School Personnel Administrators Association announced that there were more than 1,300 vacancies for teaching positions statewide. By December, that number had risen to nearly 2,000. More than 1,000 positions on top of that had been filled by long-term substitutes or holders of “Emergency Teaching Certificates."
Gov. Ducey and the legislature gave school districts an additional option to help address this issue in the spring, passing legislation allowing individuals with professional experience in a particular subject area, but not education degrees, to become teachers. Charter schools had already been allowed to hire uncertified teachers if they were highly qualified in their field. Close to 800 individuals have taken advantage of the new law.
#1 – EMPOWERMENT SCHOLARSHIP ACCOUNTS (ESAs)
This was the biggest education story of 2017, with the legislature passing a significant expansion of the state’s existing ESA program. The expansion would allow any student in Arizona to apply for public funds and use them for private school tuition, curricular materials, extracurricular activities, or other academic uses, making it the most wide-ranging program of its kind in the country. Participation in the program would be limited to about 5,500 new students per year. The group calling itself Save Our Schools Arizona (SOS) gathered enough signatures to refer the ESA expansion bill to the 2018 general election ballot for potential repeal, pausing implementation of the program.
The referendum now faces several legal challenges, and the legislature may also choose to repeal and re-pass a slightly modified version of the bill to avoid having it on the ballot next year. Regardless of whether the referendum, known as Proposition 305, does remain on the 2018 ballot, all signs point to this year’s number one issue continuing to be the hottest education topic next year as well.
Jonathan Gelbart is a Republican candidate for Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction
Photo credits: Flickr/Brian Cantoni, Flickr/www.ilmicrofono.it, Flickr/Gotcredit.com, Flickr/KooKoo Bear Kids, Wikipedia/Gage Skidmore