Schools May Get Performance Grade By State

State superintendent wants Florida-style reforms on a budget

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State Superintendent of Education John Huppenthal vows to give every school district in the state a letter grade based on student performance and to embrace comprehensive Florida-style reforms.

Only one difference: He hopes to achieve Florida’s big gains in elementary school reading and math scores without the billions in additional spending that state approved.

“We all know we’re in dire need of improvement. The key to everything is a disciplined, organized classroom, with a well-supported teacher,” said Huppenthal, a former state legislator.

Huppenthal laid out his education reform agenda last week before the Arizona House Education Committee, whose members include newly elected 5th District Rep. Chester Crandell, who represents Rim Country.

Huppenthal said the literacy rate of Florida students in the past few years has risen 30 percent more than in Arizona, where students rank 41st in reading achievement nationally.

The gains among Florida students were especially pronounced among minority students, which also comprise nearly half of the students in Arizona schools.

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Andy Towle/Roundup - atowle@payson.com

Casey O'Brien

Huppenthal attributed the gains in Florida to a variety of reforms, including an expansion in the number of charter schools, simple report cards for each school district, the embrace of teacher evaluation systems that consider student test scores and one-on-one tutoring for elementary school students struggling to read.

In addition, Florida invested billions in sharply reducing class sizes — especially at the elementary school level. The state also held back third-graders with trouble reading, which researchers maintain played a role in the sharp increase in fourth-grade reading scores. Florida’s 12th-graders showed much less improvement as a result of the changes than the elementary school students.

Payson Unified School District Superintendent Casey O’Brien said Florida’s reforms had important and useful elements — but he doubted Arizona could reap the same benefits without investing the money in smaller classes and tutoring for students struggling to read.

“Florida made some impressive gains at the lower elementary grades,” said O’Brien “and Huppenthal is very serious about reform and about raising the bar.”

O’Brien said the state and federal government have repeatedly imposed reforms that force a big increase in administrative costs, but often don’t provide the resources schools need.

As one example, Florida spent heavily to reduce class sizes as part of its reform movement. However, the Payson school board is currently considering a plan to erase a million-dollar deficit in part by increasing elementary school class sizes from 20-22 per class to 27-30 per class.

Huppenthal’s presentation underscored O’Brien’s point about the administrative burden of grants intended to speed reform. The state department of education has about 540 employees, but fewer than 10 percent of those employees are paid out of the state’s general fund. The rest are all working on administering federal grants to the state and local districts.

Arizona’s per-student spending rate of $7,700 remains among the lowest in the nation, ahead of only Utah and Idaho. Florida spends $9,100 per student and the national average stands at about $9,500 per student, according to figures compiled by the Heritage Foundation. The figures show that Arizona spends 23 percent less per student than the national average and its students rank near the bottom nationally in terms of tests.

But Huppenthal said he will strive to use the threat of competition from charter schools for students, a system that grades districts based on student achievement, pilot programs, intensive research and school “accountability” to improve student performance, even though the state can’t afford to increase education funding.

Two different advocacy groups launched a campaign to convince the Legislature to raise taxes to maintain support for education. Former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor heads up The Arizona Education Commitment along with Expect More Arizona and hopes to convince the Legislature to raise taxes rather than make further cuts in education.

In the past two years, K-12 schools have lost $605 million, community colleges $54 million and universities $200 million. Gov. Jan Brewer’s proposed budget for 2011-12 proposes an additional 19 percent cut in state support for universities and a 55 percent cut in state funding for community colleges. That budget proposes only modest additional reductions in K-12 spending, where per-student funding levels have already been cut back to 2006 levels.

Huppenthal said he would seek reforms within the state’s shrunken budget.

For instance, Florida provided one-on-one tutoring for third-grade students who had trouble reading.

Perhaps school districts should turn cafeteria workers, bus drivers, volunteer parents, retirees and others into unpaid writing tutors to achieve the same results, he suggested.

“Florida put a reading coach in every school, so we’re looking at the resources available to see if we can duplicate that. You’re correct, we don’t have the resources that Florida had — so our ability to implement those changes might be limited,” he told a legislative committee last week.

Crandell, one of Rim Country’s two representatives in the House, asked Huppenthal how vocational, career and technical education fit into his plan. Crandell said 75 percent of the jobs of the future will not require a college education — but may require strong technical and vocational skills and training.

“In my mind, if you don’t have a career and technical education you’re not getting an education,” said Huppenthal.

“As I have analyzed the background of great leaders, the great majority were working with their hands, doing stuff we associate with career and technical education. These students who are disaffected and disengaged, it’s a way of engaging them.”

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