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Gubernatorial candidates tout plans for education

sThis year’s gubernatorial race could have major implications for the future of K-12 education, from funding levels to school choice to the rancorous debate over the standards known as Common Core.

Many of the candidates running in this year’s wide open gubernatorial race have big plans for education, which took severe cuts after the recession hit in 2008. For some, boosting funding is a key issue. Others want to expand school choice, an area in which Arizona is recognized as a national leader.

Fred DuVal, who is running unopposed for the Democratic nomination, said one of his top priorities will be to restore K-12 funding at least to the 2008 level, a historically high level of funding that was made possible by economic boom times.

Others, such as former Mesa Mayor Scott Smith, say more funding may be needed, but that spending isn’t necessarily the key to improving education. Instead, they are focusing on reforms.

State Treasurer Doug Ducey, one of seven Republicans vying for the Republican nomination, emphasizes easing the wait lists at the state’s top schools, citing several charters that rank among the top public schools in the United States.

And state Sen. Al Melvin wants to radically overhaul Arizona’s entire K-12 system, replacing the current funding model with an $8,000-per-student universal voucher and possibly even rejecting all federal funds for education.

Meanwhile, policymakers await a pending court ruling that could force the state to repay as much as $1.7 billion that was withheld from the K-12 system during the fiscal crisis that hobbled the state several years ago.

A big impact on school finances

Chuck Essigs, of the Arizona Association of School Business Officials, said Arizona’s last three governors have had major impacts on education. Jane Hull championed Proposition 301, a ballot measure that raised taxes and mandated education funding levels. Janet Napolitano dramatically increased funding and created all-day kindergarten, which later fell victim to the fiscal crisis. And current Gov. Jan Brewer spent her first year in office pushing for a temporary sales tax hike that was, in part, meant to alleviate cuts to K-12.

The next governor could leave an equally important mark on education, Essigs said.

“Whoever is going to be the governor will have a significant impact on the fiscal condition of schools,” he said.

Funding has crept up since the darkest days of Arizona’s multi-year budget crisis. DuVal said he wants to restore the funding that was cut, but acknowledged that it will be a slow process that can’t be completed until Arizona’s revenue is back up to 2008 levels as well. He also called for the restoration of all-day kindergarten.

“It would be a slow, multi-year process,” DuVal said.

DuVal said he wouldn’t be willing to raise taxes for education funding, and said he doesn’t think it will be necessary because the economy will continue to grow, and revenues will grow with it.

But funding alone isn’t the key, the presumptive Democratic nominee said. DuVal said he wants to implement reforms.  He said he wants to find out what makes Arizona’s top schools excel and replicate those models in the rest of the state. He also proposed a performance-funding plan that would base funding on a number of factors, including graduation rates, teacher retention and salaries, and testing.

“It’s not just about money. It’s money as a tool to incent reform, accountability and better results,” DuVal said.

Smith’s three objectives

On the Republican side, many candidates say funding isn’t the issue, at least not funding alone. Smith, like other candidates, wants to find ways to replicate Arizona’s most successful schools. More money may be needed, he said, but that’s hard to gauge until he determines exactly how to achieve the first goal.

He said he would focus especially, but not exclusively, on three objectives. He wants to increase third-grade literacy, with an emphasis on early childhood education. He plans to emphasize the hiring of great teachers through what he called his “Four Rs” — recruit, respect, reward and retain. And Smith said bolstering the university education system would encourage excellence in K-12 education as well.

Smith said he would bring together education organizations to help craft his proposals.

“Once we focus on those three things, I guarantee you it will be very specific. But anyone who says we will go do this, this, this and this is excluding the major component, and that is to build consensus,” Smith said. “What the governor can do is create the vision of improvement, bring people together, be the great convener and then build consensus on a specific plan.”

One way Smith suggested increasing funding to schools is by developing and selling state trust land that has appreciated dramatically in value over the past several years. Smith wrote in his plan that the state must revisit the way it disperses revenue from the state trust land fund to schools.

Ducey’s roadmap

Ducey said money isn’t the key to a better education system. In his “Arizona Roadmap” plan, Ducey said the state needs to make “real reforms” rather than just “throwing money into a system that’s underperforming.” He told the Arizona Capitol Times that he would review how the state spends about $9 billion in current K-12 funding before deciding to increase funding further.

One of Ducey’s main plans for education is to provide funding to excelling charter schools to eliminate the long waiting lists that keep parents from enrolling their children. Ducey often points out that three of the country’s top 10 public schools are in Arizona, but that Great Hearts Academies has a 9,000-student wait list while BASIS Charter Schools has wait list of about 2,000.

Ducey said the state should provide funding so that those schools can expand with new facilities. He said the state also has 43 empty school facilities that could be used so excelling schools can expand.

“If schools have wait lists and want to expand, there should be available capital funding and/or the use of empty district buildings,” Ducey said.

Eileen Sigmund, president of the Arizona Charter Schools Association, said there simply isn’t enough funding for facilities for charter schools, which lack the district schools’ ability to increase funding through voter-approved bond and budget overrides. Sigmund said the state should focus on expanding high-performing schools on both the charter and district sides, noting that top district schools also have waiting lists.

“We need a political leader that can move forward education. So this gubernatorial race is critical,” Sigmund said.

Parents already have a lot of school choice options in Arizona, and Ducey said he wants to provide more. He said the state should update school funding formulas that were developed in the 1980s to provide more flexibility and more choices. Like Smith, he said he would work with education experts to determine the best way to do that.

Ducey also said he wants to implement reforms that would apply the best practices of high-performing district and charter schools to other schools in the state.

Jones wants to find efficiencies

GOP candidate Christine Jones declined to speak with the Capitol Times. A campaign spokeswoman said she’ll wait to go into details until she releases her education plan.

During a June 7 candidate forum, Jones said simply throwing more money into education isn’t necessarily the key to improving it, and said the state should strive to find efficiencies in the K-12 system. She also proposed making it easier to fire bad teachers and administrators.

But she said more funding to bring Arizona up to the national average on per-pupil spending would be good, and said she’d seek to increase funding, if possible.

“If you could get an extra $800 million into the classroom … can you imagine what that would be? That’s more teachers? More income for teachers. Smaller student-teacher ratios. More money for curriculum and supplies and the basic fundamental things that help teachers impart knowledge,” she said.

Riggs would eliminate Common Core

Republican candidate Frank Riggs, a former California congressman, has made the elimination of Common Core standards, which he says is part of the “Obamanization of Arizona,” a top issue of his campaign.

Riggs said he would focus his K-12 education policy on the students and schools that need it most, increasing funding to low-performing schools. Ultimately, he said that will likely require more overall funding for education.

“In the long term, yes. In the near term, I think we’ve got to be more targeted and smarter about how we use those resources,” Riggs said.

Bennett favors more classroom spending

The campaign of Secretary of State Ken Bennett, also a Republican candidate, did not respond to a request for an interview. In a video posted on his campaign website, Bennett said the state must spend more in the classroom, pay teachers more and find ways to grow the “economic pie” so a bigger share of the state’s revenue can go to education without raising taxes. He is one of several candidates advocating for the elimination of the state’s income tax.

“The greatest gift we can give a child is a great education. And how much we spend on that education is important. But it’s not as important as how we spend it,” Bennett said in the video.

Some candidates and education advocates have framed candidates’ plans to eliminate the state’s income taxes as an education issue. Andrew Morrill, president of the Arizona Education Association, which supports DuVal, said funding is low enough as it is. He said the state can’t properly fund education without raising taxes, let alone while cutting a revenue source that provides billions of dollars a year.

“You’ve got this ridiculous debate over ending the income tax, which … would wipe out about half the state revenue,” Morrill said. “There’s no answer for that. There’s absolutely no plan that’s going to make that feasible.”

One major factor that could affect the next governor’s education plans is a pending court ruling. The Arizona Supreme Court determined that the state failed to adequately fund schools under Prop. 301, and could order it to provide up to $1.7 billion in back payments.

Some, such as DuVal and Riggs, said their plans will largely depend on whether the courts order the state to make those payments.

Essigs said he doubts the court will require the repayment of the money in one lump sum. But any court-ordered repayment would make things more difficult for the next governor, he said.

“That’s going to be a big item on their plate, at least early in their term,” he said. “Somehow they have to fit that into their plans for education and for other programs that they want to see implemented.”

Another issue that is likely to come up during the next administration is the proposed expansion of the Arizona Empowerment Scholarship Accounts program, a voucher-style program that provides money to parents who pull their kids out of public schools. The program is currently open to limited groups, including disabled children, foster children and the children of veterans who were killed in action.

The Legislature in 2014 struck down a proposal that would have expanded the program to all low-income students. But some advocates of the ESA program ultimately want to expand it to all students in Arizona.

Ducey said he’d like to expand the program and give parents more control over how education money is spent, though he wasn’t sure about expanding it to all students. Riggs said he would be interested in expanding it to low-income families, as long as the program included means testing.

Others were more hesitant. Smith said he would only consider some expansion if the ESA program has adequate accountability and oversight, while DuVal said he opposes the program.

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