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Plan to reward high-performing Arizona schools advances

A panel of lawmakers on Thursday advanced the governor’s proposal to create a new system of financially rewarding schools based on their performance.

But as the Senate Education Committee hearing showed, getting the legislation out of committee was just one of its many hurdles.

The proposal, SB1444, awaits debate and a vote by the full Senate.

While hardly anybody contests the need to reward high-achieving schools financially, some questioned the proposed system’s fairness to perennially low-performing districts, which might end up losing dollars. In other words, schools that need the most help, especially financial help, would instead face dwindling resources.

For some, it boils down to the inadequacy, even now, of the budget for Arizona’s K-12 schools.

“In some ways, it’s like having a beautiful building that’s very attractive from the second floor up,” said Sen. David Bradley, D-Tucson. “However, there’s a problem on the first floor.”

Bradley said the problem is that not enough resources are made available to struggling schools. He added this must be addressed first before policymakers contemplate a rewards system. He also drilled down on a theme he brought up during the hearing: You can’t sever social demographics from students’ and schools’ performance.

The committee debate affirmed the complexity of the challenge Brewer and others in the education community seek to remedy: Many students can’t read at their level. A quarter of them drop out of high school before graduation. Students average only middling scores on standardized tests.

The energy that’s being directed toward this debate at least means stakeholders won’t settle for the status quo.

Gov. Jan Brewer views performance funding as a key factor in improving schools. She had argued it’s time “start funding the academic results we want to see.”

“Investing additional resources in the schools that deliver the results we want will incentivize innovation and achievement – better preparing our students for success,” the governor said in a news release today.

At its core, the performance funding being championed by Brewer and sponsored by Sen. Kimberly Yee, R-Phoenix seeks to reward schools for making improvements that include helping those who are struggling.

The challenge is to translate that lofty goal into reality.

The bill creates a 200-point scale to evaluate how schools are faring.

Under the measure, there are two ways a school could boost their funding – by its achievement and how much it has improved.

Essentially, schools that get better letter grades or show improvement in tests scores would see an increase in funding.

But because of the way it’s calculated, some schools may not get any performance money and instead would see their funding decrease.

Take for example Peach Springs Elementary School District, a school that, under the proposal’s 200-point scale, got only 81 points in school year 2012.

Assuming the district doesn’t perform any better and just maintained the 81 points, it would get minus $17.26 dollars per student next school year. (Calculate how much your district might get in performance money)

Bradley summed up his concern with this question: How do you dig the D and F schools out of their quagmire?

“I struggle with the concept of taking away dollars from underperforming schools,” said Sen. Chester Crandell, R-Heber.

He also wondered whether it would be better to revisit the legislation when new Common Core standards and a new testing system are settled. But he ultimately voted in favor of the measure.

Sen. Rick Murphy, R-Peoria, raised another scenario: In a district with a mix of highly-performing and poorly-performing schools, what’s the assurance that the district will focus on pulling up the lagging schools and not be complacent if it’s getting extra dollars for its overall performance anyway?

“What is to protect those students that are left behind?” he said.

Dale Frost, the governor’s education policy advisor, replied it won’t be in a district’s best interests to be complacent.

“It does become a self-correcting mechanism,” he said.

Janice Palmer, a lobbyist for the Arizona School Boards Association, which supports the bill, said the idea can be a powerful tool to honor the good that schools are doing.

She said struggling schools certainly need more resources, but that shouldn’t stop the state from rewarding the higher-achieving schools in the meantime.

Meanwhile, Lisa Atkins of the Greater Phoenix Leadership also praised the idea, and told lawmakers reform in K-12 schools can’t wait.

“More than anything, we must have a sense of urgency. We really can’t wait and we can’t stand any more delays,” she said.

But Jennifer Loredo, who represents the Arizona Teachers Association, said the bill seeks another change as schools still are adjusting to existing reform mandates.

“They’re getting pulled in many different ways,” she said. She added that the proposed system might, in fact, reduce incentives for schools to improve out of fear they won’t keep up in the next year and subsequently won’t get as much in performance funding.

Frost said the AEA’s point might be valid for schools that experience really huge leaps in achievement or improvement, but he doesn’t think that’s necessarily going to be the scenario across the board.

Nonetheless, everybody in the room indicated they appreciate that the governor’s office is listening.

“It will change. The question is how much change,” Chuck Essigs of the Arizona Association of School Business Officials said after the hearing.

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