Let The Battle Begin!

Brewer’s budget creates winners and losers for school districts


(This is the second in a series of articles about the impact of Gov. Jan Brewer’s proposed budget for 2014-15)

Gov. Jan Brewer’s proposed budget came in for some rough handling in a key legislative committee this week, particularly some proposals related to education.

Brewer has proposed giving K-12 schools a roughly $250 million boost, including $70 million in voter-mandated inflation adjustments, $40 million to reward schools where students improve scores on standardized tests and $17 million to develop a computerized system for tracking the test scores. K-12 schools account for about 40 percent of state spending.

However, the news of a roughly 7 percent increase in K-12 funding is partially offset by the suggestion that the state continue to withhold money for building new schools and facilities. The budget recommends continuing to suspend $239 million in capital spending for district schools and $16 million for public charter schools. The Legislature assumed responsibility for funding school facilities after the state Supreme Court ruled the property-tax-based system gave rich districts far more to spend than schools in lower-wealth districts, like Pay­son.

The increase in overall school funding proposed by the governor for 2014-15 comes after billions in cuts over the past several years. Arizona during the recession cut education funding more deeply than any other state, according to one national survey. Even before the cuts, Arizona had made the third-deepest cuts in school spending in the past six years, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Arizona has cut inflation-adjusted spending per student by 17 percent since 2008 — about $62 per student.

The governor’s budget would also take $15-per-student from each district to pay for expanded, high-speed Internet access for many schools. That proposal would cost Payson schools about $36,000.

The governor’s budget message said only 11 percent of the state’s schools meet the 100 Mbps standard Internet speed and access. By contrast, in Utah 95 percent of campuses are fiber connected, although it’s actually spending only slightly more per student. In Arizona, the build-out of the system will cost $360 million over the next six years. Half the schools needing the connection are in rural areas like Payson.

That plan drew criticism this week in the state appropriations committee according to an Associated Press report. Several lawmakers from both parties questioned whether districts that had high-speed Internet access already should pay a per-student assessment to help other districts. They also said the charge amounted to almost a quarter of the inflation adjustment.

Voters approved a ballot measure years ago requiring the Legislature to give K-12 schools an inflation adjustment every year. However, the lawmakers withheld that adjustment for three years during the recession, using the money to pay for other things when state revenues fell by nearly a third. A public interest law firm won a lawsuit challenging that decision. The state is still in court arguing it should not have to make up the withheld payments, at a cost of somewhere between $300 million and $1.2 billion.

The governor’s budget faced an even bigger potential problem this week when the independent Joint Legislative Budget Com­mittee Director Richard Stav­neak revealed that the committee wants to use a lower growth and revenue increase projection. Gov. Brewer’s budget projects a $435 million surplus in the course of the next four years. The JLBC projections instead project a $933 million deficit over that same period.

For each of the past three years, the Legislature has rejected key elements of Republican Gov. Brewer’s budget, although both chambers have big Republican majorities.

The governor’s budget message focuses heavily on her support for a $40 million increase for schools where students make gains on standardized tests.

The state has also required school districts to overhaul teacher evaluations and make sure that roughly half of a teacher’s evaluation will depend on student test scores. Those evaluations will then play a key role in raises, promotions and layoffs.

Supporters of the stress on test scores that lie at the heart of both state and federal education reforms say the system will hold teachers and school districts accountable, force schools to improve their curriculum and give parents a tool they can use to compare their children’s school to others.

Critics of the system fear it will mostly reward schools in rich districts, penalize minority students, give misleading information to parents, narrow the curriculum, undercut local control of schools and crowd out electives by focusing all the attention on a few subjects.

Gov. Brewer’s budget message said the proposed Student Success Funding program that the Legislature decided not to fund last year will reward schools when students either reach or exceed grade-level proficiency targets and students make above-average progress, even if they remain below or above grade level. The system would also take into account graduation rates.

At least initially, the system will rely on scores on the AIMS tests students take in grades 3-8 and grade 10. The rewards in grade 12 will depend on the graduation rate.

The state intends to soon abandon the AIMS test altogether in favor of a different, national standardized test. The federal government provided big payments to states that adopted this national, standardized testing system, partly of the effort to induce states to adopt Common Core curriculums that stress critical thinking skills.

The changeover from the long-established AIMS test to a new, national test that may not match up to the curriculum very well could pose a complication with the all-out effort to link school and teacher evaluations and funding to test scores.

Arizona State University Associate Professor David Garcia did an analysis of the likely effect of a similar proposal the governor included in last year’s budget. He predicted the bulk of the money would end up going to the larger, high-wealth school districts.


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