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Business and education group urges reform of school-finance system

A system for tracking school expenditures and whether money spent on specific programs improves student performance would make schools more efficient and accountable, according to a group of business and education leaders.

The Arizona Business and Education Coalition is urging lawmakers put such system on their agenda for 2011, saying it would lead to a more competitive workforce.

“These are the people who will one day come work for us, and we want to make sure that they are qualified,” said Richard Condit, chief administrative officer for Tempe-based construction company Sundt.

The group includes more than 40 leaders from businesses, school districts, universities and colleges and groups advocating for schools and teachers.

The current formula for determining how much money school districts receive, which was last updated in the 1980s, isn’t sufficient to address today’s challenges, said Susan Carlson, the group’s executive director.

“We are now operating in an environment that is requiring higher levels of performance for students that were never considered back in the ’80s,” she said.

The state allocates money to schools depending on the number of students in a district and the additional cost of educating high school, English language learners and special needs students.

John Wright, president of the Arizona Education Association, said that system doesn’t consider whether programs and teaching strategies are working.

“We have a disjointed structure that is not research-based; it is not driven by data that shows evidence of programs being effective and does not address real identified needs of students,” he said.

Greg Wyman, associate superintendent for Tempe Union High School District, said the formula doesn’t take into account the AIMS test or special programs districts have added since the ’80s.

“There is a desire to look at the system to see if it’s still appropriate for everything we are expected to do today,” Wyman said.

Tom Horne, state superintendent of public instruction, said by e-mail, “I am all for reforming the system,” but added that he can’t comment on the group’s plan until it makes a formal proposal. He didn’t return a telephone message seeking further comment by late Wednesday afternoon.

The reporting system is one of several recommendations from the group. Another would give school districts flexibility to spend money in ways local officials deem most effective.

“The ability for schools to be creative and innovative is limited because they have dollars that can’t cross over to where they really need to be spent,” Wyman said.

The group also recommends raising standards for the AIMS test and other measures of student readiness and requiring districts to provide data proving that programs and teaching strategies work.

Dubbed School Finance Reform, the plan calls for state leaders to address a tax structure that has left public education subject to deep budget cuts during the economic downturn.

“If the tax structure doesn’t produce enough funding, which is what is occurring now, then the programs and the infrastructure of the state that’s funded by that revenue suffers,” Carlson said.

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