Gifted Funds Gutted

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Marlene Armstrong and Dr. Sandra Kaplan

This week’s gifted symposium at Rim Country Middle School attracted illustrious guest speakers and 104 teachers from around the state, 30 of them from Payson.

With the state’s elimination of funding for gifted education, events such as the conference have become the Payson Unified School District’s main way of providing local opportunities to serve the exceptionally bright.

The newly formed Payson Area Association for the Gifted and Talented organized the event, and proceeds will fund scholarships for local teachers to earn gifted endorsements. Local teachers also received scholarships to attend the symposium, which cost others $300 for three days.

Organizers sifted through more than 100 applications from people willing to come speak at the conference. During a talk Wednesday afternoon, Arizona’s Director of Gifted Education and Advanced Placement Peter Laing discussed the budget mess and how local communities must work to protect programs.

Middle school gifted and technology teacher Marlene Armstrong said organizers cherry-picked among applicants wanting to speak. “We went through a rigorous process of selecting the best, and that’s what we have,” she said.

Besides Laing, speakers included Sandra Kaplan, a University of Southern California professor and national education consultant, and Dr. Paul Beljan, a past president of the American Board of Pediatric Neuropsychology.

The conference featured a packed schedule of talks and breakout sessions over three days. Each day began with a keynote speaker at 8 a.m., followed lowed by four periods during which people could pick among three or four different classes or talks to attend.

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Marlene Armstrong (left) receives a vase of roses from Kristi Kisler, as Casey O’Brien looks on at a recent education symposium conducted at Rim Country Middle School.

Choices included “giftedness and poverty,” “no child left bored,” and “practical ideas and activities for gifted children.”

Armstrong said she got the idea for the conference when the football coach asked her to make a flier last May for football camp that cost $100 per child. “If you can do that for football, I should be able to do that for gifted,” said Armstrong.

With state gifted funding completely gutted this year, local groups and organizations must pick up the slack, said Laing, the state’s director of gifted education, on Wednesday.

Laing said the synergy between parents and teachers — such as the synergy that created the day’s forum — encouraged him.

Although no state funding exists specifically for gifted programs, the state law still requires that school districts provide gifted education.

He searches feverishly for grants, particularly because the state no longer funds his position. State schools chief Tom Horne and deputy superintendent Margaret Dugan had nothing to do with the decision, Laing said. “They were pretty much horrified by it.”

Even at the federal level, a pot of money that has funded gifted education has been threatened for years. Both Presidents George Bush and Barack Obama have recommended eliminating the stash, but Congress has continually saved it.

With such financial turmoil from governments, Laing said Arizona should follow the lead of other states and partner more aggressively with foundations and businesses to better education.

Next year, Arizona’s deficit will persist, and K-12 education accounts for the largest chunk of general fund allocations, absorbing 37 percent of the state budget.

The maintenance of effort funding requirement that requires the state to fund education at 2006 levels to remain eligible for federal funds will disappear soon. Laing said lawmakers are “salivating” at the thought of freshly accessible funds to potentially chop.

Some people thought that the successful sales tax increase would save education, said Laing. However, the extra 1 percent “kept it from being worse.”

The best recourse for people concerned with the fate of gifted education is to run for the school board, said Laing.

For example, Horne is an avid pianist. While he sat on Paradise Valley’s school board, and recruited other like-minded people to sit alongside of him, funding for arts remained strong, according to Laing.

However, after Horne left the board to become the state superintendent of schools, Paradise Valley’s funding for arts faced cuts, said Laing.

“They were always balancing the budget,” said Laing, however cuts reflect the board members’ priorities.

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