Education Reform Ideas Need Funding

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Alice: Sometimes I believe in as many as six impossible things before breakfast.

The Mad Hatter: That is an excellent practice.

— From Alice in Wonderland, by Lewis Carroll

Newly elected State Superintendent of Education John Huppenthal has a plan. He says Arizona should embrace the expensive reforms that Florida has instituted.

Only one difference: Huppenthal doesn’t want to spend any money on reading tutors and big reductions in class sizes across the board — factors many experts credit with Florida’s significant increase in elementary school reading scores.

Huppenthal unveiled his reform priorities at a hearing of the House Education Committee recently, decrying the failure of the schools in a state that ranks near the bottom on almost every measure. Yet in the next breath, he insisted we can’t afford to spend any more money on the problem.

Certainly, Florida’s reforms have thrown down a bold challenge before other states. Florida adopted a voter initiative mandating smaller classes — especially at the elementary school level. It also provided a sizeable pot of money to put writing coaches and tutors in every school. The state embraced as its top priority making sure students could read adequately by the time they entered fourth grade.

This resulted in a sharp rise in reading scores in the fourth grade, although the decision to hold back a huge number of third-graders who have not yet learned to read adequately may have affected the results as well.

Florida also moved to a system that will give each school a letter grade, depending on the progress its students make on standardized scores, and give parents more choice as to where they send their children.

Certainly, such ideas offer intriguing opportunities for Arizona schools. But it seems strange to assert that Florida’s gains came mostly from the no-cost changes and not from the expensive push to reduce class sizes and then provide one-on-one help in reading for struggling elementary school students.

Clearly, the ramshackle record of school reform demonstrates you can’t solve core problems simply by burying them under mounds of new spending. On the other hand, ample evidence does suggest that some essential reforms do depend on providing teachers with adequate resources.

We wish that the reformers would stop peddling an illogical hash of ideas and focus on the proven reforms — even if they cost more money.

Please note, at the moment Florida spends about one-third more per student than Arizona, which remains near the bottom rank nationally.

Now, we agree Arizona schools should strive to shift limited funds to the classroom from administration, support services and bureaucracy.

For instance, teachers comprise fewer than half the employees at Payson Unified School District — and yet the teachers are slated to bear the brunt of a new round of layoffs — resulting in a big increase in elementary school class sizes. Moreover, ossified waves of reform have left 80 percent of the people working for the State Department of Education administering federal grants.

We believe that reforms that added layers of paperwork and bureaucracy to the burden of struggling K-12 schools have done more harm than good.

But we also wish that lawmakers and elected officials would start talking straight to Arizona voters — instead of continuing to promise six impossible things before breakfast.

The Mad Hatter: Have I gone mad?

Alice: I’m afraid so. You’re entirely bonkers. But I’ll tell you a secret. All the best people are.

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