Implementing new technology, competition, accountability and effective funding will be the key to preparing Arizona’s children for the complex global marketplace that now awaits them, a panel of education experts said Tuesday.
But there was little consensus over the exact ways Arizona’s K-12 education system needs to change in order to produce the best results, and the lawmakers, lobbyists and advocates who debated the topic at the Arizona Capitol Times’ Morning Scoop discussion previewed how the next legislative session will try to grapple with possible solutions.
Rep. Doris Goodale, a Kingman Republican and chair of the House Education Committee, said the most daunting problem facing the public education system today is that it largely has not changed with the times.
“If Ben Franklin came back today, the only thing he’d recognize is our public education system,” Goodale said.
And she also pointed out that the system of funding public education in Arizona has largely stayed the same for more than 30 years.
“We can no longer use a business model from 1980 for public education funding,” she said.
Goodale advocated for increasing competitiveness between traditional public schools, charter schools and private schools.
Eileen Sigmund, CEO of the Arizona Charter Schools Association, said the benefits of the charter school system, which was created nearly two decades ago in Arizona, are just beginning to become evident, as the mechanism that evaluates student performance, then closes under-performing schools is only starting to take effect in Arizona.
“This only started in 2010,” Sigmund said. “But we’ll be actively closing schools that aren’t improving student achievement.”
While some panelists, including Superintendent of Public Instruction John Huppenthal, said the state’s competitive education environment – due in large part to an early adoption of charter schools and tax credits that expand opportunities for students to go to private schools – is a boon for Arizona, Senate Minority Leader David Schapira said policy makers can’t lose sight of the public school system. About 90 percent of current students in the state attend a traditional public school now, and the vast majority always will, he said.
“Right now we’re letting our district schools fail, while we say, ‘Oh, well, we have all these options over here with charter schools.’ We can’t let our school systems fail,” Schapira said.
Huppenthal said schools need to improve on how they use technology, arguing that new research has shed light on promising methods to integrate blended learning environments, where traditional and computer-based learning are used in complement, reducing overall costs.
“It might be the silver bullet,” Huppenthal said. “And if we can maximize academic value for our children with those technologies, we can bring physical education and arts back into schools.”
Steve Zylstra, president and CEO of the Arizona Technology Council, said he was encouraged by the discussion, and by Huppenthal’s enthusiasm for boosting technology in Arizona’s classrooms.
But while Zylstra said he looks forward to seeing how technology becomes a focus in improving Arizona’s schools, the trend toward slashing education expenses to cope with massive state budget deficits presents an equal challenge that has to be dealt with.
“Profound education reform – that’s going to be the No. 1 focus of the next session of the Legislature, now that the economy seems to be doing better and the jobs package has been passed,” he said. “There’s a lot of diversity of views on solutions, but one thing we all agree on is that funding can’t go backward.”
John Hartsell, the CEO of Hardsale Communications and prime sponsor of the panel, said the panelists demonstrated the disparate, and often partisan, ideas about improving education, which is important to understand before real progress can be made.
“No matter how strong a person’s political ideology is, I truly believe that our elected officials have the best interest of students at heart,” Hartsell said. “But we’ve seen an attack on schools in the past few years, and that’s unfair. It’s not a political issue.”
Hartsell urged elected officials to find the common ground over the shared desire to achieve top-notch education for every child in the state, and to pay close attention to the researchers who are proposing solutions that will have widespread benefit, not for just one set of students.