State Senator Wants To Transform School Funding

Chester Crandell

Chester Crandell

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Newly elected District 6 state Senator Chester Crandell (R-Heber) says that he wants to free local schools from state restrictions — but link their funding to the results they achieve.

He also thinks Arizona should let the federal government worry about implementing the Affordable Care Act in this state, instead of setting up a health care insurance exchange as specified in the federal law.

Moreover in a wide-ranging post-election interview, he expressed support for the plan to build a university in Payson — but linked it to making better use of community colleges to provide enough low-cost college degrees.

“I’ve already started looking at education,” said Crandell, who recently beat Rep. Tom Chabin (D-Flagstaff) for the Senate seat in this dramatically redrawn district, which now includes all of Northern Gila County. “It’s been one of my top two priorities. We do a lot of regulating. We do a lot of requiring. I’m putting together some things to give the school districts a little relief from the state — to free up their ability to make decisions. We have to figure out how to give them the money and still hold them accountable for the outcome.”

He has proposed linking school funding to outcome measures, like the percentage of students who can pass the AIMS test at certain stages or the school’s graduation rate.

Critics of that approach have worried that such a system could result in a windfall for wealthy districts with kids from highly educated parents with high test scores and graduation rates, while punishing districts with large numbers of minority and low income students — or districts like Payson with large numbers of displaced or homeless students and an unusually high percentage of special education students.

However, Crandell said the key lies in finding ways to measure student progress and outcomes that take into account all those factors but still measure the progress individual students make.

He said federal “Race to the Top” rules could provide the incentive to shift the system toward an “outcome based” funding system, since it includes a national system of tests of student achievement and requires schools to include student testing in teacher evaluations.

“The new (federal) Race to the Top grant for the districts — and in the governor’s office — they’re looking at that very issue to be able to pay on outcome. That gets us a long ways toward where we need to be. It should be the school districts that determine how they get to that outcome. We spend a lot of money trying to figure out how to evaluate teachers — if you put it on a free enterprise system, it would work better.”

Last year, he introduced a bill that would have set up a pilot program to try out a system based on paying districts for “outcomes” rather than “seat time.” Such an approach would offer a way to treat public schools more like charter schools, with minimal regulations — but all the money the districts get would be dependent on these “outcome” measurements.

”We need to be deregulating and allowing the school districts to have more freedom in how they spend their money and what they do with that. It will be very bipartisan. We’ll work together to make some good changes.”

Crandell said that despite the defeat of Proposition 204 to extend a $1 billion sales tax hike expiring next year, “I’m not anticipating there’ll be any more cuts (in K-12 funding).”

On the topic of the effort to build a university campus in Payson, Crandell said, “I think anything we can do to kind of marry the higher education systems together is a good thing. You have a community college system and you have a university system — and they’ve in the past been working against each other. It’s a good thing for them to work together on the 2 + 2 program” in which students complete two years at a community college campus, then finish at the university.

“What we need to do in that, if we’re going to have a 2 + 2 partner — we need to look at how we fund that. You don’t want to double fund — where you’re paying the college and then you pay the university too. It’s like the high schools and the community colleges — with dual enrollment — we need to figure out how you do that. I think it’s a good fit.

“The selling point is — if they’re going to build an ASU campus up there, they’re going to utilize the students coming out of the (Gila Community College) provisional college — so the community colleges would do the first two years and the university would pick it up from there. Putting the university campus up there: I don’t see a problem if they want to do that, I think it’s good.”

However, he also expressed skepticism that the campus could attract the 6,000 students planned. “I think what they’re counting on is people in Show Low and Snowflake would migrate to that — I think they’re anticipating students coming out of Mesa and those areas. My experience with high school students up there is they want to get to the big city. But they’ve done the research. I’m not going to second-guess what they want to do. I think it’s a good idea. The more opportunities we get out in rural Arizona for a university education the better. “

On the topic of implementing the federal Affordable Care Act, Crandell said he thought the state should leave it to the federal government. The federal reforms allow each state to set up what amounts to an online health insurance supermarket, so that people could easily compare competing health plans and figure out whether they’re entitled to a federal subsidy to reduce premium costs based on their incomes. The federal reforms provide money to each state to set up a health care exchange, but the federal government has said that it would set up the exchange itself if states opted out.

“Governor (Jan) Brewer has already accepted some of the money to set up those exchanges,” said Crandell. “The insurance lobbyists have really started lobbying for the Legislature to try to do that. One of the selling points to the states is you’ll have the opportunity to run it like you want to — but in the fine print is that it still comes under the control of the federal government. My position right now is let the federal government set it up. They’re going to run it anyway. There was no money appropriated in the Obamacare to set those exchanges up. They anticipated that each state would jump on it and get it done. But there’s been quite a pushback. There are a lot of things still out there that we need to take a look at.”

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