Universal school vouchers, safety and teacher retention are among some of the top issues the legislature is poised to take on in its upcoming session. This week we talk with education officials at the state and local level to hear what they think lawmakers should be talking about.
Anyone who's lived in Arizona for at least one election cycle knows that education and the debate over what is the best policy is often at the forefront of campaigns. Part of that discussion focuses on per pupil spending, a metric that Arizona always finds itself near the bottom in.
One person who spent a career trying to address education policy in the state is Tom Horne. Last year, Horne was voted back into the state superintendent's office after previously holding the role from 2003 to 2011.
Horne believes some of the major issues that need to be addressed include proficiency rates.
“It's a matter of saying, if you can't show that you're minimally proficient in reading and math, you shouldn't get a high school diploma,” Horne said. “Employers need to know that a high school diploma means something.”
He says some schools have extremely low proficiency rates like 9%, but high graduation rates like 92%.
“Those are fraudulent diplomas, and we need to be sure that students are learning something in school, not just spending their time there and then getting diplomas without being able to at least do reading and math.”
Horne also said that teacher retention needs to be top of mind, not only with increasing teacher pay but also re-examining discipline.
“We need to have our administrators support our teachers on discipline. We've had too many administrators who want teachers to be understanding and so the kids get away with misbehavior without any consequence.”
For him, low test scores is a direct reflection of misbehavior in the classroom because it makes it hard to teach.
Others say Empowerment Scholarship Accounts (ESA), better known as universal vouchers, and funding will be a major issue in the legislature.
“It's not just Pima County,” Dustin Williams, the Pima County Superintendent of Schools, said. “This is 15 counties all saying how are you going to fund not just public schools in the form of districts, not just charter schools, but now you've tacked on private schools, and we were already last in per pupil funding, and we have a reduction in revenue. It's a big concern.”
Last year, the legislature approved universal school vouchers and since, it has gained scrutiny over how that money is used and who is using it. It is now projected to cost upwards of $900 million. But, Horne disagrees with those numbers.
“There's a myth that the ESAs are above budget and that's causing a state deficit. The fact is, if you take all of the school expenses, public schools, public charter schools, ESAs, and so on, we’re $75 million below budget.”
When asked how the high projection came to be, Horne said:
“I think it might be problems with the governor's staff when they do their calculations. They just figure the gross cost without figuring the cost that we would have to incur if they weren’t in public school and netting that out. I think that I don't think anybody's deliberately being misleading. But I think the staff over there have not calculated the numbers correctly.”
KJZZ politics reporter Wayne Schutsky forecasts that it can be a toss up on whether or not Democrats want to tackle ESAs during an election year.
“It depends on how much of a fight Democrats want to put up this year. I say that because with such tight margins, there's a very realistic chance they could take one or both chambers next year. And if that happened, then they would control the legislature and the governor's office and they could do whatever they wanted with the ESAs.”