A Promise Is A Promise

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The Payson School Board this week loaded the gun, took aim at its big toe and pulled the trigger. Misfire. Thank goodness.

No doubt about it: Would have been pretty embarrassing for those molders of young minds to go hobbling around with such a needless, self-inflicted injury.

The near miss came up when the board started raising questions about a planned field trip to Costa Rica, financed mostly with Credit for Kids donations from parents.

Critics of the trip raised some interesting — perhaps even reasonable — questions about the trip. Certainly, taking kids out of the country offers potential for mishap that might well give the school board pause. Moreover, such trips threaten to create two classes of students based on how much extra parents can afford to shell out. The district has all but abandoned funding its extracurricular programs. That increases the risk our schools will accentuate differences rather than equalize opportunities.

Nonetheless, parents contributed Credit for Kids money with the clear understanding that their donation would finance their children’s trip to Costa Rica. And for a time, it looked like the school board was willing to ignore the clear, moral obligation the district had incurred by canceling the trip and using the earmarked Credit for Kids donations elsewhere.

That was a terrible idea, in so many ways.

For starters, the district must not break faith with parents — or students. A promise is a promise. If we want the kids to understand that simple principle, then we can’t pick and choose which promises we keep.

Moreover, the district now relies critically on Credit for Kids donations, which total between $300,000 and $350,000 annually. Those tax credit donations now pay most of the costs of the district’s sports, music, art, drama and other extracurricular programs. Study after study shows that such programs result in significantly higher academic achievement. It’s bad enough that those programs must now rely on private donations to survive. But the district will destroy Credit for Kids and squander broad community support if it refuses to honor its commitments when it comes to those donations.

Fortunately, Superintendent Ron Hitchcock had second thoughts about the school board’s resolution that would have effectively canceled the trip. Reconsidering whether the board had the legal right to renege, he has promised to bring the issue back to the board. In an interview, he said he’ll ask the board to adopt a clear policy for the future, without going back on a promise.

Good idea. We just hope the board will put down the gun, put on their collective shoe and try to avoid any more big toe target practice.

Ripples are spreading

Already, the ripples are spreading.

You’ll find two stories in the Roundup today that hint at the difficulties teachers, administrators, parents and school boards will face in trying to make sense of a slew of well-meaning, but disruptive reforms imposed on local schools by politicians in Washington and Phoenix.

Example No. 1: The Payson School Board approves a plan to spend $100,000 or more to hire a “director of student achievement,” charged with improving student scores on the standardized tests the Legislature wants to use to determine school funding and teachers’ salaries and job security. Mind you, the district’s enrollment continues to decline and Payson will likely lose crucial federal support in the upcoming budget year. Hiring a new administrator focused on test scores will almost certainly mean cuts elsewhere.

Example No. 2: The Tonto Basin School District superintendent resigns in the face of fierce criticism of her administration. She says that part of the problem lay in her effort to make sure teachers had the federally mandated certificates and that the little 80-student district could absorb all the new state and federal rules. The conflict touched on the difficulty of maintaining the distinctive atmosphere and culture of a rural school in the face of such accumulating mandates.

Now, we could chalk this up to the necessary pain of training for a marathon — but only if the reforms themselves made more sense. Instead, we fear the fanatic stress on standardized test scores will stifle creativity, electives and autonomy.

We’ve seen lots of evidence that small classes in elementary schools, abandoning the middle school model, empowering principals and giving great teachers free reign to teach will increase student achievement. By contrast, little evidence exists to support the reforms the state and federal lawmakers have imposed.

So please: Pay attention as the ripples spread through the system. Then make the lawmakers you support do the same.

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