Barbara Underwood

Barbara Underwood

The Payson School Board really, really hopes the Arizona Legislature will resume paying for all-day kindergarten classes.

Oh, yeah: Could we please stop giving hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars to private schools.

Wait. Wait. Wait. Also, please stop cutting school budgets after all the teachers and administrators already have contracts and school has already adopted its budget?

Oh, one more: Could we please, please, please stop using standardized test scores to grade schools. Let’s just use the scores to track student progress but stop punishing rural schools with lots of low-income families.

That rounds out the Payson School Board’s top five legislative priorities in a state that ranks 48th in per-student funding for public schools — but close to the top in public support for private schools.

The Payson School Board discussed its priorities to offer input to the Arizona School Boards Association (ASBA) on its legislative lobbying agenda for the upcoming year. Some 200 school boards list their priorities and the ASBA mushes them together to come up with its lobbying list for the next legislative session.

Schools had mixed results this year in lobbying for changes in state policy and budgeting. The $12 billion state budget featured a $300 million tax cut and a near-doubling of state reserves. Education advocates didn’t get key priorities like all-day kindergarten funding, restoration of vocational classes for high school freshmen and restoration of deep per-student cuts during the recession. However, the budget did provide an extra $100 million for school capital needs, with more promised in the next few years. The budget included money for a 5 percent teacher pay raise and a little more money for school counselors and security. The state hasn’t yet restored the per-student cuts made since the recession.

The budget left the Payson School Board’s top priorities largely unaddressed.

I wanted to see if you guys had any direction,” said Superintendent Greg Wyman, so we could try to match up some of this stuff.

“All-day kindergarten and restore ninth-grade NAVIT (vocational) classes — those are my big ones,” said board president Barb Underwood promptly.

“Those are mine too,” said outgoing board member Shane Keith.

So here’s a rundown on the Payson School Board’s top five issues for the Legislature:

All-day kindergarten

State lawmakers cut funding for all-day kindergarten as soon as the recession started and have not restored it , despite a growing state surplus and booming state economy.

Like most schools, Payson cut all-day kindergarten when the extra money went away. However, the district scraped together money to restore all-day classes due to parent demand and a critical lack of day care options for working families.

Gov. Doug Ducey put $10 million into kindergarten funding, but only for schools where more than 90 percent of the families qualify as low-income. This would help only a handful of schools in the state, many of them charter schools. About half the families in Payson schools qualify as low-income.

Since 2011, the cuts in kindergarten have cost schools $1.5 billion, according to the ASBA.

Limit use of data from

standardized test scores

Currently, the state mostly grades schools based on how well students do on standardized tests. Wyman says the system benefits wealthy school districts, since family education and income have the biggest impact on student scores.

The Payson School Board wants to continue using the AzMerit test to track student progress and skills mastery, but opposes letting the test scores dominate the student grades. The state now gives extra money to many A-rated schools.

In the meantime, the state has now said school districts can use any standardized tests they want, but hasn’t figured out how the change will affect the school grading system.

Vouchers for private school

and charter reforms

The Payson School Board wants the state to stop giving private schools some $62 million annually in scholarships, paid for with tax money.

The state gives both tax credits for private school tuition and taxpayer-funded vouchers. Boosters say the empowerment scholarships actually save the state money, since they pay a little less than what the state would pay the public school. Critics say the scholarships have served to siphon off top students mostly in wealthy districts, since families still have to pay the sizable difference between the voucher and the full private school tuition.

The Grand Canyon Institute concluded the program in 2015-16 diverted about 13,000 students from public schools to private schools at a cost to taxpayers of $10,700 per student.

Wyman noted that one recent news report highlighted Arizona students using their empowerment scholarship money to attend private schools in New Mexico.

The Payson School Board also objected to the state policy of paying public charter schools an extra $1,000 per student, while exempting the small, privately run, publicly funded schools from many regulations. News accounts have highlighted recent problems with charter schools, including multi-million-dollar profits for state lawmakers who sold charter schools.

“It’s just totally unfair,” concluded Underwood.

Fully restore education cuts and get rid of ‘current year funding’

The board favors the restoration of an accumulated $4.5 billion in cuts to education funding since the recession — especially the shift to “current year funding” mostly to benefit charter schools. The Legislature has boosted education funding in the past two years, but still hasn’t restored inflation-adjusted, per-student funding to 2008 levels.

“When it comes to any type of funding,” said Wyman, “the reality is that we’re back to 2008 funding. If I don’t pay my mortgage for 10 years and then I finally start to pay on time — can I say let’s just wipe out those 10 years of missed payments? We have to be very careful the way they sell it. It’s something we need to fight for because it’s an ongoing issue.”

The shift to “current year funding,” mostly helps charter schools but hurts districts like Payson, which have slowly declining enrollment. The old system allowed districts to adopt a budget based on year-end enrollment. The new system cuts funding when enrollment declines in the fall, months after the district has adopted its budget.

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(2) comments

Mike White

These inflammatory claims by senior education administrators and their legislative allies in the Democrat Party that any support of competitive educational solutions is by definition contrary to the viability of 'District' schools is disingenuous at best and blatantly dishonest at worst. I continue to wonder why the District school administrators are so very fearful of free-market, parental decision-driven educational alternative solutions. I keep hearing that government-run schools claim they can't compete with open-market solutions because of all the 'economically disadvantaged' students thrust upon the district. Assuming this supposed disadvantage results only from the family having a low income and not from any language, family structure, or cultural differences, then providing vouchers to families solely on the basis of income would surely solve the root-cause income-disparity problem.

Phil Mason

This article is chock full of so many half truths and misinformation that it is difficult to address them individually within the space limits of this publication. As you may be aware, the Roundup has a limit of 400 words for a Letter to the Editor, yet this obvious advocacy piece posing in the guise of a news story is nearly three times that limit. The overt opposition to a parent's right to send their child to a school that will provide the best outcomes for their children is stark. Of course, it is never recognized that those same parents are required to contribute through their residential and business property taxes to the very school district that is not meeting those goals. It is worth noting that those property taxes provide the largest percentage of funds to the district schools, which district school advocates never recognize. Let's continue the debate with simple facts instead of blatant bias.

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