This legislative session has started out like so many others in Arizona. There are more bills moving through to once again expand vouchers (SB1452) and expand tax credits for private schools (SB1041). This is in addition to the tax cuts that are being proposed from the Governor’s budget.
While school choice has a harmless, even tantalizing ring, school choice in Arizona is happening before schools are ever properly funded. If the Arizona legislature is focused on choice as a model that will benefit students, it must adequately fund schools so they are not forced to choose between effective curriculum or working air conditionings, nurses or specials like music and physical education, smaller class sizes or raises for staff that keep up with inflation. The state of Arizona must first find out the true cost of educating a student and fund students at that level. It must stop with one-time funding mechanisms like results-based funding and grants for counselors. Schools are unable to plan in any sensible manner because money may or may not be there the following year. This is not how to best educate students.
Some things to consider for Arizona to fully fund students and schools.
After being cut in 2011, Arizona still does not fund full-day kindergarten. Kindergarten students are only funded for half a day. Schools are left to fund kindergarten through overrides or by shifting money around that is needed elsewhere. We know the importance of early education and full-day kindergarten is an essential component that sets students up for success throughout school.
Although Arizona has finally restored cuts to District Additional Assistance and begun to fund the inflation factor, years went by with schools having little to no capital. That is no dollars for textbooks, buildings, or any other capital items. Schools must now make up for all that time and invest in both curriculum and structural improvements. Before we begin cutting taxes and giving money to private schools, we should ensure that schools have adequate capital resources.
Arizona continues to short fund special education by approximately $100 million annually. Schools are left to fund the difference from their general coffers. The good news is that a bill to increase some special education funding was introduced last year and is being heard next week in the House Education Committee (HB2418).
These are but a few of the areas Arizona needs to look at to understand the true total cost of educating students adequately. As opposed to focusing on systematic improvement and ensuring these foundational pieces are in place and being used effectively by districts, the state has chosen to move money to charters or private schools. Again, this is done without clear thought of what students need to learn throughout their careers. The only thought is that competition will make AZ schools stronger.
Competition has not made education stronger, but it has developed the skills of schools as salespeople. Is this where we want funding to go – to slick sales pitches about why our school is the best? I do not believe this is the way forward, but in a cutthroat game of ‘every student matters to the bottom line’ that is where Arizona is.
In this time of crisis, I urge Arizona leaders to take a step back from moving us closer to privatization or to permanent tax cuts. I urge them to take the year to better understand what is needed to fund schools properly so that schools are not dependent on federal emergency dollars and overrides to keep them afloat. At the point when we can say that we know the dollars given to schools allow for a standard, appropriate education through base level funding, if schools are still missing the mark of whatever it is that the AZ legislature is looking for, then let’s talk competition.