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.