A brief, fierce exchange about whether the Legislature has crippled public schools provided one of the liveliest moments in last week’s appearance of Republican candidates for the state legislative seats that represent Rim Country.
The moment came when Payson Unified School District Board Member Barbara Shepherd challenged Rep. Chester Crandell’s plan to dramatically change the way the state funds K-12 schools.
Crandell wants to quit paying schools based on average daily attendance and instead pay only when students make progress as measured by things like test scores and graduation rates.
“What we’re doing is not allowing students to progress at their own rates. We can turn that around if we pay on outcomes,” said Crandell.
However, Shepherd objected to a plan that would “punish” school districts when students don’t work or drop out after the Legislature had cut so deeply into school district budgets in the past three years.
“The Legislature continues to take away and take away. Now you want to punish us because children don’t want to stay in school and learn. Now you want to punish us by taking money away when we don’t have the outcome you want.”
But Crandell bristled at the criticism. “I take offense that you say I want to take that money away. I never said I want to cut money. Charter schools say we’re at a disadvantage and there’s a tremendous amount of waste. We’ve got to get back to the Constitution that says every child is funded equally. I never once said to take away from education.”
The exchange came during last week’s candidate forum before a crowded meeting of the Payson Tea Party. Republican State House candidates Brenda Barton and Bob Thorpe also appeared at the session, but didn’t make any comments or proposals concerning education policy except to object to federal programs and mandates.
Crandell’s Democratic rival for the District 6 Senate seat wasn’t at the forum. However, he has also proposed big changes in education funding. Rep. Tom Chabin has called for the elimination of almost all exemptions from sales taxes and income taxes, which he says would produce enough money to not only lower tax rates overall, but boost the state’s per-student spending levels from 48th nationally to 25th. He said that would add between $2.5 billion and $3 billion to K-12 spending in Arizona. The state in 2010 spent about 25 percent less per student than the average state, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, even before the most recent cutbacks.
A national study by the Center for Budget and Policy priorities concluded that Arizona has cut K-12 education more deeply than almost any state since 2008. Inflation-adjusted, per-student spending in Arizona has declined by 24 percent since 2008. Only South Carolina cut as deeply, although California came close.
The Arizona Education Association prepared a summary that tallied $2 billion in cuts to K-12 education between 2009 and 2012. That includes $210 million for books, computers and supplies, $1 billion for construction and upkeep, $218,000 million by eliminating all-day kindergarten, $15 million in payments to teachers for extra training, $32 million
in cost shifts to teachers for their benefits, $30 million by eliminating vocational classes for ninth-graders, and a roughly $200 million cut in state, per-student payments.
One estimate concluded Arizona school districts cut 10,000 jobs between 2010 and 2009, two-thirds of them teachers. Some of those cuts reflected a statewide population decline, but most stemmed from reductions approved by the Legislature.
The Legislature imposed additional cuts in the current budget, although not nearly as many as in each of the previous two years. The Legislature did approve a new $40 million program to ensure third-graders can read before they advance to the next grade. However, it cut money for school construction, textbooks and computers and several hundred million in plans to restore funding included in Gov. Jan Brewer’s original budget. Much of the money the governor’s budget earmarked for schools instead went into a $450 million “rainy day” fund.
Those actions would seem to run counter to public opinion, as measured in a recent poll by the Morrison Institute, a think tank at Arizona State University. That poll found that 97 percent of Arizona voters said top-quality public schools are either crucial or very important and 74 percent said the Legislature has provided schools with less funding than they need.
However, Crandell said schools perform poorly in part because the funding system doesn’t provide an incentive to move students along quickly and efficiently.
“We pay for seat time,” said Crandell, who served on the board of a regional, vocational education school district set up by the state to funnel job and technical education money to local districts. “We give them 13 years of funding, so they’re not enthusiastic about having students get through quicker — because that’s going to affect their funding. If we’re going to be paying all that money, we ought to be paying for what we’re getting.”
But Shepherd said the Legislature can’t strip the schools of the resources they need to do their jobs, then punish them for students who won’t put out the effort and don’t understand the consequences of dropping out.
“We’ve closed an elementary school, we’ve laid off teachers, we’ve cut and cut and cut,” said Shepherd. “But the Legislature just takes more money away every year.”
Another questioner complained about how poorly American students fare on tests when compared to students from other, industrialized countries.
U.S. students score about average in international comparisons. One recent comparison of 57 countries found that Finland’s students did best. Other top-rated countries included Hong Kong, Canada, Taiwan, Estonia, Japan and Korea. U.S. students were in 16th place in science and 23rd in math. The U.S. had among the highest gaps between top-performing and low-performing students, while top-ranked Finland had the smallest. Finland starts students at age 7 and emphasizes socializing rather than academics in preschool. The country’s schools rarely use standardized testing, but do make frequent use of diagnostic testing to spot problems early. Finnish students have light homework loads and don’t get grades until they hit high school, when they’re divided into college and vocational tracks. Teachers there make about the same as in the U.S., but teaching remains a high-status profession that generally draws the top 10 percent of college graduates.
“What do you think about the low educational level of American schools,” asked the questioner. “How can we catch up?”
“The system hampers students,” said Crandell. “We don’t allow students to progress at the rate they could progress. To turn that around, you have to pay on outcomes.”
“But we’re way down the list on the international ratings,” persisted his questioner.
“Not every country tests every student. If you compare apples to apples,” said Crandell, “we compare pretty well.”