Revising Results-Based Funding

Beth Maloney Current Affairs, Education, Education Policy, Social Issues

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Results-Based Funding

With little fanfare last month, 288 schools in Arizona received the first payout of results-based funding, the largest education initiatives outlined in the Governor’s State of the State address. The initiative became SB1530, a $38.63 million bonus for schools achieving the top 10% of scores on the AZMerit test, especially those schools serving students living in high poverty areas. The funds awarded $400 per student to the state’s poorest high-performing schools and $250 per student to high-performing schools in higher-income areas.

I was surprised at the lack of hoopla surrounding the funding payouts. I sat as the only teacher on Governor Ducey’s Classrooms First Council from 2015-2016.  The Council was charged with revising, modernizing and simplifying Arizona’s current funding formula to provide equity for every student across the state.  While the Council consisted of people with a wide and disparate range of views on public education, the one thing we consistently and passionately agreed on was that our state does not adequately fund public education and that schools that serve the poorest students need additional money to close the achievement gap. We returned time and time again in our lengthy discussions to the fact that in order to meet the specific needs of students living in poverty, like food, clothing, health-care services, interventions, and school supplies, schools needed more funding to close the achievement gap and best serve their students.

On the surface, it may look like the initiative and payouts might have fulfilled the Council’s recommendation of giving more to students who have less. It has not. The Arizona Republic and the Arizona School Boards Association determined that results-based funding primarily benefitted the state’s wealthiest districts – the bulk of the money was awarded to schools with levels of poverty below the statewide average of 58%. In fact, $15 million went to the state’s richest schools! ASBA’s analysis also found that the schools who received the most funding not only serve fewer students living in poverty, but also serve fewer students with disabilities, less English language learners, and fewer minority students than the state average.

Few rewards went to rural schools. While on the Classrooms First Council, I learned that rural areas, already disadvantaged by geography and access to affordable services, struggle to provide transportation and find qualified teachers. Having never worked in a rural community, I learned about the increased costs which impact providing an equitable education for rural students. But the vast majority of the results-based funds went to metro Phoenix and Tucson schools. In fact, not a single school in Greenlee, La Paz or Navajo counties received results-based funding.

Less surprising to me was that charter schools make up 30% of the schools who received awards, even though charter schools educate less than 15% of our students. Not only was I the only teacher on the Classrooms First Council, I was also in the minority representing district public schools, even though district public schools educate the vast majority of students. The Council consisted primarily of charter school stakeholders. Policy and statute heavily influenced by charter school proponents and investors are commonplace in Arizona.

So How Does Results-Based Funding Narrow the Achievement Gap?  

It doesn’t. In fact, it widens the achievement gap. By giving more to wealthier schools, it leaves less funding available to all the other schools across the state of Arizona with AZMerit scores below the top 10%. You know, the other 90% of us!  Since 2008, Arizona’s current K-12 funding has been significantly reduced. One might use the word decimated – we spent $1,300 less per pupil in fiscal year 2016 than in fiscal year 2008 when adjusted for inflation. The yearly budget cuts have forced our schools to make tough choices and live on tremulously lean budgets. Our schools cannot afford to operate on even fewer dollars.

A Fatal Flaw: Using Standardized Test Scores to Fund Schools

The stack of research that unequivocally proves that students in high-income schools typically perform better on standardized tests is too overwhelming to be ignored any longer. It is a fact – student achievement test results are strongly correlated to student poverty. Until the law changes, to qualify for the additional funds, 41% of a school’s students must pass math and English Language Arts standardized testing. Be we need to admit that schools, even great schools, can’t control poverty and poverty substantially contributes to test scores.

Wait, the Law Changes?

Yes, this formula for results-based funding this year is an anomaly. Beginning next school year, only A-rated schools will receive results-based funding, with no stipulations to ensure a significant number of schools serve students in poverty. But you’ve heard all about our new scoring system for awarding schools letter grades, right? No? Me neither but school letter grades become public on Monday. The new scoring system seems complex. As far as I can tell, the largest percentage of the grade is still based on AZMerit scores with student improvement factored into the test scores, along with ELL student scores on the AZELLA test, and something called “acceleration and readiness” measures.

A Better Policy

As we can see, results-based funding awards reflect the socioeconomic levels of students in a school and not necessarily the impact that a school has on student learning and growth. One recommendation is the use of student growth percentiles. Improvement funding does not typically tend to favor one socioeconomic group over another.

Another recommendation is to add a poverty weight to the current formula. Arizona is a high poverty state with a majority (58%!) of our students qualifying for free and reduced lunch. In our Classrooms First Council discussions, we noted that students living in poverty face unique educational challenges that must be met with additional school support and resources to help them succeed, otherwise they will never catch up with their peers.  Creating a funding system with winners and losers cannot be tolerated.





I am in my twentieth year of teaching and enjoy every minute of my time in the classroom. I have taught kindergarten, third grade, and currently teach fifth-grade science and social studies in Surprise, Arizona. I am an enthusiastic public school advocate. I am a National Board Certified Teacher and a Candidate Support Provider for the Arizona K12 Center, where I coach and mentor other teachers undergoing the rigorous National Board certification. I am the past president and co-founder of the Arizona National Board Certified Teacher Network and president and founder of the Arizona Chapter of the National Network of State Teachers of the Year. I am honored to be Arizona’s 2014 Teacher of the Year and appreciate having the opportunity to represent the teachers of Arizona. I love talking with and learning from other teachers around the world. I strongly believe that teacher voice in the public education dialogue is the best way to make change for the better for all students.

Comments 8

  1. Sandy Merz

    What a great bit of analysis and reporting. I heard about the law and basically filed it away somewhere in the back of my mind. I remember thinking it seemed like a bad idea, and your post demonstrates that. It did remind mine of almost the opposite thing happening in my district years ago. They labeled the poorest performing schools, “Star Schools” and paid their teachers something like $1000 more. It really smelled like rewarding failure. I don’t remember if it had much effect on the schools’ later performance. Leaving aside the question of whether failure or success is only measured by test scores, either system pits schools against each other in a battle for limited resources. God knows I don’t know what it is, but almost anything would be better than SB 1530.

  2. Jaime Festa-Daigle

    Thank you Beth for this. We had a couple Title One Schools qualify for this while the rest did not. Half our schools are Title One, and half are not. We do not identify the high school as Title One, as all it would do is sap money from our elementary schools. So here again, we have more inequity in our district that serves a rural community, three hours outside of metro-Phoenix. We will have more support in some of our schools, while the other schools in the same district continue to make due.

    And moving forward, I can not for the life of me believe that we are tying our letter grades to A SINGLE test. Could you imagine if that happened in our classrooms?

    From a high school perspective, our students are taking the PSAT, SAT, ACT, ASVAB, and on and on. Those mean something. Students respond to incentives, and I am not sure what the incentive is for them to do well on the AZ Merit. It is low stakes. So I do not know how a high school, unless they are serving the cream of the crop, or the most internally motivated teenagers on the face of the planet.

    1. Beth Maloney

      Thanks for the comments and perspective, Jamie. I cannot imagine a classroom where we grade our students on a single test. Insanity! I totally agree with you about the lack of incentive for students to do well on the AZ Merit. In fact, I know that some students bomb it intentionally – either because they just don’t care to participate in the test or because their parents were protesting through the Opt Out Movement and told them to start the test but click random answers. There are better ways to measure success and growth in our students!

  3. Susan Collins, NBCT

    You make excellent points. As a faculty member in a rural school serving a high poverty population, I absolutely see the need to make sure the achievement gap is addressed appropriately with funding. As a school that did receive the results-based funding, I can tell you that the cash influx is absolutely needed! We are considering one-time purchases that would greatly enhance the learning process for our students.
    I can also tell you that school culture has a high impact on why our school qualified for this funding. Is money important? ABSOLUTELY. Is it the only factor? NOT AT ALL.
    Results-based funding is a baby step in the right direction. Does it need revising? YES Should we throw it out completely? NO, if one school benefits, it’s worth it. I have had many days of teaching that I thought were a waste, then one student says something that lets me know I made a difference and my whole view of the day changes.

    1. Beth Maloney

      Thank you for the response, Susan. My eyes were truly opened to the unique challenges of rural schools through my time on the Classrooms First Council, having never taught or lived in a rural setting. I am curious about the one-time purchases your school was able to buy with the funds. Do you know what they were?

  4. Jess Ledbetter

    Beth, this is a great expose about school funding inequity…that I did not even know about! Way to bring these issues into the light for teachers and voters to consider. Shame on these new policies that favor wealthy schools and charters (who can choose the students they admit). Shame on our state for funding education poorly to begin with. Now schools are left competing for table scraps of what’s left instead of fighting together for what is right for kids: funding schools at a reasonable per pupil rate that promotes thriving environments for ALL kids.

    1. Beth Maloney

      Thank you, Jess. I agree – shame on our state for making us fight for scraps instead of fully funding the education our students need and deserve!

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