Brain Drain

Written by Leah LeMoine Category: Hot Topics Issue: August 2014
Group Free
Pin It

Has Arizona declared war on public education?

PHM0814Flash 1 1

During the 2013-2014 school year, Peoria Unified School District superintendent Dr. Denton Santarelli held a series of “open chats” with administrators and teachers at each of the district’s more than 40 campuses. They were voluntary, after-hours, and Santarelli didn’t expect high attendance – people are busy, he figured. To his amazement, each discussion was packed with educators. After answering questions from students all day, they had many of their own.

What was the latest development in Arizona’s College and Career Ready Standards (formerly known as Common Core)? What would next year’s standardized tests look like? Would there be more cuts to education? What was the deal with the media headlines about Empowerment Scholarship Accounts, school choice and charter schools? And why were parents bombarding them with increasingly partisan questions and comments – even accusations – about it all?

“There was a point in time as professional educators where you didn’t have to worry about the politics. And you shouldn’t have to worry about the politics, because you teach kids,” Santarelli said. “Those days are gone.”

That statement reverberates through Arizona’s polarized education community, where even basic issues of funding have become politically charged over the past five years, insiders say. Educators work in a climate beset by misconceptions and misinformation, from conflicting data to shifting definitions even within its systems. Recently, high-profile debacles like the Phoenix Veteran Affairs situation and the dismantling of Child Protective Services, in addition to evergreen concerns like immigration and unemployment, have left education in the public-attention lurch. Compounding the problem is the fact that Arizona’s annual per-student spending is the fourth-lowest in the United States at $7,666 (in the fiscal year 2011, data last updated in May 2013), according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s report on education finances. The national average is around $3,000 more. Factor in state policy-makers who aggressively lobby for charter and private schools while slashing education budgets; the concomitant debate over school choice, vouchers for private school and Empowerment Scholarship Accounts; and the implementation of more rigorous standards than public education has seen in generations, and it’s a “perfect storm” for public schools to become “unsustainable,” Santarelli says ominously, leaving many to wonder: Has Arizona declared war on public education?

Multiple Choice Test
While Arizona lags behind most states in per-student spending and has a middling graduation rate (78 percent of students in 2011, about average for the U.S., according to the U.S. Department of Education), we’re on the forefront of some education initiatives.

“Hands-down, Arizona probably has the most comprehensive school choice environment of any other state,” says Jennifer Liewer, director of communication for the Arizona Department of Education.

School choice is a passion project of Superintendent of Public Instruction John Huppenthal and is exactly what it sounds like: Parents can choose how they want their child to be educated. In Arizona, that means they can home-school them or send them to a traditional district public school, a private school or a charter public school. District public schools are what most imagine when they hear “public school” – your neighborhood public school that kids in the area automatically feed into. Almost 83 percent of Arizona’s 1.1 million school-age children attended district public schools in the 2013-2014 school year, according to the Superintendent of Public Instruction’s Annual Report for Fiscal Year 2012-2013. Money for district schools comes from the public fund supplied by taxpayers. Conversely, private schools are specialized, selective schools that require tuition – think parochial schools like Xavier and Brophy college preparatories. Parents can supplement what they’re able to pay for with school tuition tax credits and scholarships through school tuition organizations.

Charter public schools, commonly known as charter schools, are an increasingly popular and sometimes controversial option. Governor Fife Symington signed the charter school system into law in 1994. There are now 602 charter schools in Arizona, with about 190,000 students (17 percent of all public-school students). Since they are publicly funded, they are technically public schools. However, they are privately owned (usually by educators or education management organizations, but sometimes by individuals, “mom and pop”-style), independently run and have more leeway than a district public school in determining their personal standards. Consequently, many are specialized, focusing on STEM (science, technology, engineering and math), the arts, high-achieving students, students with special needs, etc. Charter school employees draw their salaries from the public fund much the same way a public school does and are eligible for Prop. 301’s performance pay. Their pay may be aligned to principal/teacher evaluations, but it is not a mandate.

Empowerment Scholarship Accounts “were originally created to help special needs kids who were not able to get the services they needed through the public school system,” Liewer says. “It’s the first of its kind in the country. They’re not vouchers.” After qualifying, parents must complete a yearly application process and manage the money that a school would receive to educate their child according to the ESA’s rules and an Individualized Education Plan (IEP). They can put the money toward private school tuition, a specialized charter school, or to educate their children themselves and employ tutors, speech therapists, etc. About 500 of the 680 students that were in the program in 2013 were special needs; others met the ESA’s since-expanded requirements, including children with parents in active military duty, in foster care, or attending a school labeled D or F. A bill proposing expansion to include all students attending Title I (lower-income; majority of students receiving free or reduced-price lunches) schools was defeated in 2014, but Governor Brewer approved an expansion to include siblings of students who have participated in ESAs, children of military personnel killed in the line of duty and preschoolers with special needs.      

Huppenthal says his engineering background and data wonk mindset led him to advocate for school choice. “One of the things I looked at was the Gallup organization survey... They always came up with 8 percent of the parents rating their child’s school a D or an F,” Huppenthal says. “It was just logical to me that if you had school choice, that those 8 percent would put their child in a school that they would at least give a C experience, and those students would escape whatever travails that they had.” His zest for choice irked some in February, when he recorded a series of robocalls promoting ESAs and alternative options to the public education system he presides over: “That’s right. You may be able to send your child to private school for free!” The Republican, who was interviewed for this story before his blog scandal erupted in June (see p. 32) later issued a statement that he didn’t intend to slight anyone in public education but maintained his championing of choice. A more competitive school environment with more choices is better for parents, teachers, students and schools, Huppenthal says, rather than a district public monopoly.   

“It essentially guarantees a full classroom and the worst kind of outcome,” Huppenthal says. “Just the empowering ability of this… one thing I’ve noticed is that parents are more satisfied with their school and their choices, even if they don’t take advantage of those choices. If you’re in a place that you have to be in, it changes your mental attitude. If you could choose 20 other places, but ‘I still choose this place,’ it has an empowering effect.”

The modern school-choice movement picked up steam in the 1980s and has been championed by conservatives wary of the public-school environment for various reasons – religious concerns (creationism vs. evolution, prayer in schools, etc.), taxpayer spending and fears of government encroachment, to name a few. Privatization of education became an extension of education reform in conservative political rhetoric nationally, but especially in traditionally conservative Arizona. In recent years, school choice and Common Core/Arizona’s College and Career Ready Standards have split the party lines down the middle, with majority conservative support (Republican legislators, Tea Party members) of the former and majority liberal support (teachers’ unions) of the latter.  

School choice skeptics worry these educational alternatives come at the expense of district public schools, which are losing students and funding to privates and public charters. Funding is a source of tension between district public and charter public schools. District schools receive $4,438 in per-pupil funding, while charters receive $5,438, according to the Arizona Department of Education. The original rationale for charters receiving more is that, unlike district schools, they can’t receive additional funds through bonds and overrides. The rub: Not all voting districts support bonds and overrides, so not all district schools receive those additional funds to help them reach equilibrium. Regardless of educational philosophy, everyone interviewed for this article agrees that more funding for public schools is crucial to produce students who can compete in a global market.

Even some who have taken advantage of school choice, like Paradise Valley Unified School District governing board president Julie Bacon, are cautious about how that choice is used. Bacon’s daughter went to district public schools, but her son is attending a STEM-focused charter high school.

“I think choice in and of itself is good for us to meet the needs of students and parents,” Bacon says. “My concern about choice when it’s couched as a reform movement is that it really hasn’t reformed anything. There’s that piece, those two different schools of thought on what the reasons for choice are. I’m all for parents and kids making a choice about what’s right for them – not sure it really works as a reform movement.”

Some take a harsher tack and argue that school choice marginalizes students from lower socioeconomic strata whose parents can’t afford private school tuition or transportation to a private or charter school farther away. Janice Palmer, director of governmental relations and public affairs for the Arizona School Boards Association, is one of them. “It’s a complete false choice. The reality, especially when it comes to private schools – and I’m even hearing with some of the charter schools – they’re being asked to pay this ‘voluntary fee’ or have to provide transportation,” Palmer says. “Unfortunately, if you’re poor, those aren’t real choices for you. You’re trying to make sure that you put food on the table. They really are a false choice unless there’s some sort of augmented funding.”

For their part, many charter schools provide transportation and a high-quality education alternative for students, particularly in lower-income, inner-city areas. “Focusing in on our urban area and changing the results is something that is really hard work... but we see families absolutely choosing schools that work for their students,” says Eileen Sigmund, president of the Arizona Charter Schools Association. “We definitely have some success stories with Espiritu in south phoenix. ASU Prep is a charter school that’s got a wait list. We’ve got some schools that are focused on our urban core that families are flocking to that have wait lists.”

Multiplying While Dividing
When outsiders ask Santarelli what it’s like in education today, he responds by presenting this scenario. It’s a conundrum, a practical and philosophical puzzle. Rather than leading to enlightenment, it’s much more likely to induce insanity:

“You’re a teacher and you come to school for the first day. You’ve been off for the summer. You sit in your first principal meeting and your principal says, ‘Oh, by the way, we have a new curriculum that you’re going to use this year. It’s called the Common Core, aka Arizona’s College and Career Ready Standards, and by the way, it’s more difficult than the curriculum you’ve taught before. But good luck, you’ll do well with it because you’re a teacher. Oh, and by the way, we don’t have textbooks or resources that align to that new curriculum because of this huge depression that we’ve been in and we can’t really fund that, but do the best you can with it. And by the way, here’s another document and this document is the gap curriculum you have to teach because the AIMS test that your kids are going to be taking in the spring doesn’t match the new curriculum so you’ll have to teach this secondary curriculum, and make sure your kids do well.’ And to add fuel to that, ‘By the way, with this whole growing movement around performance pay, your pay’s gonna be tied to perhaps how well your kids do on this test that doesn’t match the curriculum that you don’t have the resources to support.’”

It’s enough to make the most seasoned teacher run for the solace of a detention room. In the 2014-2015 school year, educators will grapple with the aforementioned Arizona’s College and Career Ready Standards, which emphasize comprehension and critical thinking – explaining why and how you got to an answer rather than simply answering the question – over rote memorization. “For kids who are young, they’ll never know any different,” Liewer says of the standards. “I think high school is struggling a little bit because they’ve had eight years of not being challenged the way they should.”

Teachers will also have a new standardized test to teach to, since AIMS (Arizona’s Instrument to Measure Standards) ended in the 2013-2014 school year. As of press time, the state was still reviewing applications by standardized test vendors. Whatever the outcome, it’s likely that tests will be given in two parts each year: a skills-based assessment in spring and a cumulative year-end assessment. The standards and these tests will be mandatory for all public schools, including charters, and a portion of teachers’ pay will likely be determined by their results. Schools at large are also affected, though low performance doesn’t immediately spell the end for a school. Closing a district school is rare, and would only be done after years of low performance and after state and federal intervention to help it improve had failed. Charters, meanwhile, are typically held to higher standards and must answer to the Arizona State Board for Charter Schools, the largest charter school authority in the country. Until this year, districts were permitted to convert some of their schools to charters to adopt that model and receive additional funding. Next year, those schools must revert back to traditional district schools.

Schools will have to implement these things with fewer and fewer resources, educators say. Santarelli says that over the last few years, his district has lost $30 million in funding that was directly tied to supports for students and $40 million in money tied to facilities and infrastructure. “Really hard-working staff and dedicated teachers are keeping this thing going, but it’s going to be challenging going into the future,” he says. “Specials” like art, physical education and music classes have seen cuts, and alternative programs like gifted education have been cut or “redefined.”

“I’m a little fond of some of the specials and things that are getting cut first. Kids should have more PE and art and things like that because I think that would help them in the academic world if they didn’t have to sit for eight hours,” says Shannon Loehr, a seventh and eighth grade teacher in the Dysart Unified School District. “It would be nice to have more of those additional interest-based things, things that actually end up becoming their careers beyond the skills the students get. A lot of those teachers go part-time or the classes go shorter than they should be.”

Indeed, budgets aren’t the only thing getting cut. “It’s really also a human capital issue,” Palmer says. “We’re not getting teachers, principals and even superintendents, frankly – superintendent openings were receiving less applicants, less quality of folks, because it is a resource issue but it’s also I think a perception that Arizona’s not investing its resources in that sector.” Salaries comparable to a retail job and waning public support thanks to the politicization of education issues don’t offer much incentive for people to enter or remain in education, either, Santarelli says. “It’s concerning because the teaching profession is being devalued in the eyes of society. What is that going to do to the pipeline in terms of getting young people interested in getting into the profession?” Teaching now extends beyond the classroom and stacks of papers toted home to grade to include pro bono PR about the profession. “If you do not, as a professional educator, stand up for your profession [and] correct the wrongs that are being stated by neighbors, friends and relatives, nobody else will,” Santarelli tells PUSD teachers.

Michelle Dean, a fourth grade teacher at a Title I school in the Cartwright School District in the West Valley, says the cuts in funding, lack of resources and additional stress on teachers have exacerbated the problem. “There is a lot riding on how much money we get each year,” Dean says. “Some of these schools are so desperate for teachers that they are hiring subpar newbies, and that puts a lot more pressure on the veteran or ‘better’ teachers to, in a way, carry the school.” She also laments the time lost during testing. “I agree that we need to see their growth, but losing six weeks [total] of teaching time... is crazy.”   

Balancing the Equation
It’s not all gloom and doom, Palmer says. She’s been encouraged by public school reforms improving principal/teacher evaluations by requiring more quantitative data. Arizona is also second only to Florida in participation in the Move on When Reading program, through which the state infused $40 million each in the fiscal years 2013 and 2014 to ensure that children in kindergarten through third grade attain reading and writing proficiency. “That’s one of a few areas where we have policy with resources that follow it,” Palmer says. “There’s a disconnect between the policy/legislation side and the actual implementation side [in other areas]. We can kind of check the box of, ‘That policy has been passed,’ but it’s really the hard work of implementing it that determines whether a policy is successful or not.”

Huppenthal says Arizona is on the right track. “Our pacing right now, I think it’s just about perfect. Our district schools are showing that they can be competitive, that they can keep their students,” he says, citing an increase of 280,000 students in district public schools since the inception of the school choice environment in 1992. “Everybody said regular public schools would… end up wither(ing) away under school choice environment, but that growth is No. 2 in the nation. That doesn’t even count the 180,000 students over on the charter side. To a remarkable degree our district schools have been able to flourish in the environment of school choice.” Some districts are flourishing population-wise, like Santarelli’s PUSD, which hasn’t lost as many students to charters as other districts and has a 94 percent graduation rate. However, he cautions against adapting to a “new normal” of the expectation to achieve more with dwindling resources. Not all schools are doing more with less, he says.

Huppenthal’s own extracurricular activities have amplified concerns about public education in Arizona. In June, he attracted more attention for inflammatory comments he left in a series of anonymous posts on political blogs. Highlights: Calling welfare recipients “lazy pigs,” blaming the Great Depression and the rise of Hitler on President Franklin D. Roosevelt and likening Margaret Sanger’s work with Planned Parenthood to Nazi-esque eugenics. Huppenthal apologized in a public statement for offending people, but maintained his right to freedom of speech. As of press time, several politicians and education leaders have called for his resignation, but he has remained resolute in his office and re-election campaign.

Politicians behaving badly aside, there is hope in education circles for greater collaboration, whether that be between business and education, politics and education, or between educators of different philosophies. “You’ll see a lot of collaboration among all public schools as we move forward because the us vs. them doesn’t work,” Sigmund says. “We’ve got to be focused on the consumer, which is our students and their families. It’s not about any system of governance. It’s really about a system of excellence, and that needs to be our conversation.”

It’s time to start doing the homework.

Report Card
Our education sources caution against an apples-to-oranges comparison with other states, citing Arizona’s unique challenges – large migrant population, preponderance of students for whom English is a second language, and high poverty levels in our rural, inner-city and Native American communities, to name a few. But it seemed only fair to apply their letter-grade system to them. The graders have become the graded.


Arizona’s College and Career Ready Standards (aka Common Core)  
The rigor’s finally there – whether students will rise up to meet it and both sides of the political aisle will embrace it remains to be seen. - B

Education Reform
The wheels are turning for both conservatives and liberals. Only time will tell what will pass and, more importantly, what will be actually implemented. - B

Graduation Rate
Our 78 percent graduation rate is about average for the U.S. Our graduation rate for students with limited English proficiency is dead last at 25 percent – concerning for a state with a high population of ESL students. - C-

School Choice
Being a charter school leader and ESA pioneer is good for choice. Concerns remain about whether these choices marginalize less-privileged students.- B+

Per-Student Spending
Our average of $7,666 is the fourth-lowest in the U.S. and $3,000 less than the national average. - F

General Comments:  Needs improvement