Even though I’m listening to Wham’s “Last Christmas” for the third time today, I know the Ghost of Christmas Future looms right around the corner – for January brings the beginning of the Arizona legislative session. I’ve written before about the emotional toll the session brings, so this year, I’m going to outline my wish list for the 2020 session. ‘Tis the season of hope.
- First, do no harm. Legislators hold incredible power over our school system. Practice the principle of non-maleficence. Sometimes doing nothing at all is better than passing a bill that may have dire unforeseen consequences. Don’t risk causing more harm than good. My ask is that you act in a bipartisan manner and involve teacher voice and expertise into any bills you may float. Remember that we are all ultimately here for the students of Arizona.
- Increase funding. According to legislative budget analysis, the state funding formula will allocate approximately $5,401 to educate a student this year. That is $336 less than we spent to educate a student in 2008 when you factor in inflation. It’s time to find a sustainable revenue source to increase the overall pool of money. The pool has been too shallow for years.
- Revise the antiquated funding formula weights for special populations to create equity. Weighted student funding, which differentiates funding based on the demographics that each school serves, can fund quality programs that will have the greatest impact on the unique student population.
- Students in poverty need more from their schools than their more affluent peers. A 2016 study found that between 1990 and 2011, states that reformed school finance policies to allocate more funding to high-poverty school districts narrowed the achievement gap by an average of one-fifth. We must increase funding for low-income schools.
- We also must increase funding for students who cost more to educate. We need to consider the costs of educating students with speech and mild learning disabilities and the costs of educating students with moderate and severe learning disabilities – the number of whom is increasing rapidly. The lack of adequate funding creates a burden on districts and denies full opportunity to all students.
- Help us help our students. We have so many students coming into our classrooms today dealing with serious adverse childhood experiences, trauma, and mental illness. These students are not equipped to learn until their social and emotional needs are met. The Arizona Department of Education received 931 applications for the 2019 School Safety Program Grant where 466 school counselors, 396 social workers, and 307 school resource officers (SROs) were requested by schools statewide for a total cost of $95,430,147. The grant had $32 million available, which only funds 148 school counselors, 118 social workers, and 116 SROs. That leaves two-thirds of the schools requesting help for their students with no help at all. We need to do better than that.
- Do not expand the “Empowerment Scholarship Accounts” (ESA) voucher program. Remember, 66% of voters voted down Prop 305 last year, making clear our belief that taxpayer money should stay in public schools. Promote transparency and accountability for charter schools and ESA vouchers. If you insist on comparing two separate school system models while having us compete with one another, we should be playing by the same rules. And if you, as a legislator creating laws and policy for public schools, have a personal financial interest in charter schools, you should reconsider such an egregious conflict of interest.
- Stem the flood of teachers leaving the profession. No other factor in a school has as significant an impact on student achievement as the teacher in the classroom. High teacher turnover creates instability and negatively affects student achievement. Investing in bringing high-quality people to our profession is critical, but don’t forget about keeping veteran teachers in the classroom. It is more cost-effective and better for students when veteran teachers stay. It can cost more than $20,000 to replace a teacher in an urban school district. On average, teachers with 20 years or more of experience achieve larger student gains than teachers with five years or less of experience. Yet teachers like me, with 20 years or more teaching experience, are unicorns in Arizona’s schools.
- Fund full-day kindergarten. While most states are funding preschool and pre-kindergarten for their students, we haven’t figured out how to fund kindergarten as a full grade in Arizona. Research shows that students in full-day kindergarten gain more than 12% in reading and more than 10% in math over children in half-day kindergarten. Data show that children of parents with higher levels of formal education are more likely to send their children to preschool and those children are at a major vocabulary word advantage. High-quality full-day kindergarten develops early childhood literacy, prepares third-graders to read by third grade, and significantly improves high-school graduation rates. We need to give our students the opportunity to have a greater number of early learning experiences to best prepare them for academic and developmental growth.
My list may seem long, but you’ll notice that many of my wish list items are connected, and well thought out solutions can correct more than one problem. More early childhood opportunities and care for children with trauma will lead to less cost down the road. Transparency and accountability in the charter system and ESA’s will lead to less waste coming out of the general fund. Providing better supports for our students will lead to fewer teachers experiencing burnout and will lead to retention. Show us you care about Arizona’s students, or next year, to save me from tears, I’m voting for someone special.