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Governor’s plan to bolster education spending is not enough

Lawrence Robinson

Lawrence Robinson

I give Governor Ducey credit for finding a little additional money for schools, but it’s a temporary fix and it’s simply not enough. Assuming his proposal passes in 2016, it will only increase per pupil funding by $300 in 2017.  This increased funding will bump Arizona from 50th place to 49th. So, until the legislative leadership is willing to talk about broader educational issues, including addressing the inflation funding lawsuit in a serious manner, Arizona’s education future isn’t going to change.

A new U.S. Census Bureau study shows that Arizona spends the fewest dollars per pupil on teacher pay, classroom instruction, and school administration. That’s astounding. First of all, this completely undermines the right-wing red herring argument that too much money goes to administrative costs in our state. So, let’s finally put that one to bed.

Second, as a governing board member of the Roosevelt School District, I consistently talk with business and community leaders who consistently stress that investing in our schools is essential for Arizona’s future. Gutting classroom spending certainly doesn’t lay the foundation for that vision.

And perhaps the most troubling piece of data to come from this report is that Arizona spends less money per pupil on teacher pay than any other state in the nation. Study after study confirms how critical it is to ensure a good teacher in every classroom. It’s why I led the campaign to pass bond overrides for the Roosevelt School District in 2013, which in turn accounted for increases of 5 per cent to 30 percent in staff salaries. Investing in good people is just common sense, whether you’re a multi-national corporation or a public school. And maintaining good teachers is directly related to the success of our students, therefore the success of our future Arizona economy.

This is something where almost everyone agrees.  We know the National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers want higher pay. I also hear the same calls from parents, business leaders, and education advocacy groups such as Democrats for Education Reform.

So, why is there this disconnect between our elected Republican legislative leadership and the vast majority of people?  Perhaps part of the problem is the anti-education extremists have successfully used silly rhetoric such as “you just can’t throw money at the problem” to cloud the real issues. They talk about teacher pay, performance, classroom funding, and administrative costs in ways that sound as if you can only achieve one at the expense of the others. In reality, teacher pay, classroom and administrative spending, and performance are all inextricably linked to one another.

Education advocates – whether Democratic or Republican – need to work together. Teacher pay and performance shouldn’t be a divisive issue framed by extreme right wing activists, it should be a unifying rallying cry for progressive education advocates throughout the state!

As a school board member, I have to consider input from parents and students, the administrators, and the teachers and staff.  Sadly, right now it seems the only ones who have any input on Arizona’s educational agenda is the Republican legislative leadership. And, instead of actually working to improve our schools, they are focused on creating scapegoats. Which, more often than not, have been teachers. Over the past several years, they’ve attacked teacher pay, support services, resources and even the ability for teachers to represent themselves through collective bargaining. None of which are actually related to improving our schools. It’s simply a political game.

A quote from Charles Barone, policy director for Democrats for Education Reform, might sum it up best: “If collective bargaining were the obstacle to better public education, Wisconsin’s Republican Gov. Scott Walker would be presiding over the highest-performing education system in the country. The reality is quite the opposite, and we are determined to keep standing up for collective bargaining rights and not allow the Republican Party to use platitudes about education to hide their ulterior efforts to undermine unions as a whole.”

I couldn’t agree more. It’s time we all stand up for education in Arizona. Let’s tell Governor Ducey that his funding plan is fine, but it’s only a small step in a very long march. Let’s make it loud and clear to Senate President Andy Biggs and House Speaker David Gown that we’ve had enough of their disregard for public schools and for Arizona’s children. It’s time to put education first in this state, and if they’re unwilling to make that happen then we’ll all come together and get the job done ourselves.

– Lawrence Robinson is a Roosevelt School District Governing Board member and Maricopa County director of the Arizona School Boards Association.

11 comments

  1. State Senator John Kavanagh

    Criticism is fine but none of these advocates say what level of funding they want and how it should be funded. I would like to know. The legislature needs input. We are listening.

  2. Great article Lawrence! As for Senator Kavanagh, give me a break! You are being entirely disingenuous when you say “none of these advocates will say what level of funding they want and how it should be funded. The legislature needs input. We are listening.”
    1. The people voted for the Prop 301 inflation funding for education, and a judge has told the Legislature to pay it. We are still waiting for this critical funding. You know what we want!
    2. As for how it should be funded, that is YOUR job! I personally think it should be through repeal of corporate tax breaks and income tax increases, especially on wealthier Arizonans. The business community is in support of an increase to the sales tax to help provide funding for public education because they understand we invest in our future by investing in our children.
    3. There are many legislators who are NOT listening. I’ve been to the Capitol numerous times advocating for public education along with ASBA. It is my belief that many legislators are totally set on privatizing public education. This is absolutely not in the best interest of ALL the children in Arizona.

    I do not for a second believe your assertion that our Legislators don’t know what needs to be done to serve the students of Arizona. This is not a lack of understanding, it is a matter of lack of political will. Reminds me of one of my favorite quotes: “Politicians think of the next election, leaders think of the next generation.”

  3. Senator Kavanagh, I work at the same college system you do. These students need better K-12 support! I’m done trying to live and work in AZ. Right now I’m in a bright blue state with great education system. Is being 50th and now 49th a great legacy?
    Consider the future of AZ when current retirees stop coming to AZ and the population dwindles. Without a population of well educated workers in the Phx area will have to come up with solutions that cost far more than any current republican can stomach. Wisconsin is the litmus test for poor education and Arizona will not follow–I hope.

    I hope you do plan to listen and fix it. And you have to spend tax money to fix it, unless you truly think Wisconsin is happy. Me? I’ll be long gone. Good luck to ya! JT

  4. Mr. Robinson & Senator Kavanagh, let me address your pragmatic questions to a certain extent. Just FYI, I have been teaching high school for 11 years, and I am currently working on my Master’s in Administration.

    This article reveals that Arizona is 50th is teacher pay per pupil. There are two ways to fix this ratio, and both cost money.

    The first way is increase teacher pay, but this is unlikely to have a drastic effect on instructor ability. The pay increases would be so modest that they would not inspire the best and the brightest to become teachers, unless they were already considering that path. Teachers typically do not enter the profession for the money, and modest gains would not affect that.

    The second way to change the ratio is to reduce the number of students in the classroom. This is hardly a new concept, as teachers, administrators, parents, and both political parties put lower class size as the #1 issue they would like to see addressed. However, this idea gets little traction because of cost and logistical difficulty. In short, the most pressing issue is ignored because it is “too difficult.”

    Let me be clear, the obstacles to reducing class size are real. In the Tempe district, reducing each class by one student per class would cost $1.5 million, and a one-student reduction would have little effect. Reducing class size by 10 per class would have the desired effect of increasing student achievement, but would cost a bare minimum of $15 million, not including facility and scheduling issues. This may seem insurmountable, but if we give up and fail to act, then we are surrendering to disaster.

    What can the legislature do? Step one- help the community keep it in perspective. $15 million might sound like a lot of money to a layperson, but not when compared to spending on the whole. For example, TUHSD recently passed a $75 bond which only cost the average home owner an additional $14 annually. Although many in our state are ideologically opposed to tax revenue, this is in part because the public does not trust that the money will be spent in the way the voters intended. Passing legislation that ensures revenue be tied exclusively to reducing class size could sway moderate conservatives.

    Step 2- reduce waste. Of course, this a political “go-to” phrase (along with fraud & abuse), but I will pinpoint for you two specific areas to reduce waste. Professional development programs enacted by districts waste a large amount of time and money. I risk heresy in the educational world by admitting publicly that the seminars conducted by many (not all) districts, do nothing to improve teacher effectiveness, but they do provide full time work to people at the district office who are in charge of creating and presenting these seminars. If prioritization is the name of the game, giving teachers the opportunity to succeed by reducing their class size trumps giving teachers the opportunity to succeed through more seminars.

    The other area of waste is possibly more controversial. Current attempts to integrate cutting edge technology sound great on paper, and are miserable in practice. Just look at the disaster in Los Angeles with their attempt to go totally digital. Problems with hardware, software, student behavior, and faculty turnover have made this multi-million dollar investment a bust, and similar issues are happening across the county, including Arizona. Some technology is great and effective, but districts that attempt to be “early adopters” of technology face the burdens of higher up-front costs, bugs that have not been fixed, and a teaching staff that is inept in its use. Almost exclusively, the student population is already more knowledgeable about technology than then instructors anyway.

    So, there is a good start for the #1 problem facing our system. A regular teacher will have much more success with 20 kids and nothing but paper and pencil, than with 40 kids and a room full of high cost items. Teachers require two things to find success- Opportunity and Accountability. Small class sizes provide that opportunity (Accountability is another issue, that I won’t get into here… but could).

  5. *Correction- The TUHSD bond was for $75 million (not $75)

  6. John, sweeping the State Land Trust Fund is NOT a viable option. Despite potential wrath from Grover Norquist, the time is upon us to raise income and/or property taxes, in a progressive scale, to properly fund all of the rightful functions of state and local government.

  7. Ann Marie Palmer

    For level of funding, how about national average for a starting point? Surely our teachers and students deserve and would benefit greatly from average funding as a minimum.

  8. Senator,
    As an elected official you should be aware that it is the role of critics to merely point out inequities as Mr. Robinson has done. It is up to policy makers such as as yourself to find solutions. Simply trying to throw your responsibility back to people who do not control the budget you set is disingenuous at best.

  9. As for Senator Kavanagh, give me a break! You are being entirely disingenuous when you say “none of these advocates will say what level of funding they want and how it should be funded. The legislature needs input. We are listening.”
    1. The people voted for the Prop 301 inflation funding for education, and a judge has told the Legislature to pay it. We are still waiting for this critical funding. You know what we want!
    2. As for how it should be funded, that is YOUR job! I personally think it should be through repeal of corporate tax breaks and income tax increases, especially on wealthier Arizonans. The business community is in support of an increase to the sales tax to help provide funding for public education because they understand we invest in our future by investing in our children.
    3. There are many legislators who are NOT listening. I’ve been to the Capitol numerous times advocating for public education along with ASBA. It is my belief that many legislators are totally set on privatizing public education. This is absolutely not in the best interest of ALL the children in Arizona.
    I do not for a second believe your assertion that our Legislators don’t know what needs to be done to serve the students of Arizona. This is not a lack of understanding, it is a matter of lack of political will. Reminds me of one of my favorite quotes: “Politicians think of the next election, leaders think of the next generation.”

  10. IT Allen said “Consider the future of AZ when current retirees stop coming to AZ and the population dwindles.”

    How about when current residents like me (retiring in 4 years with a good retirement income) leave the state to live elsewhere because we are so appalled at the downward trajectory of this state? I thought I would stay here in retirement but I am actively researching for a better place to live and spend my retirement income. Living in a state with poorly educated citizens, as well as state and city governments too broke to fund basic services because they have cut taxes to ridiculous levels, is not a picture of a good place to live in retirement.

    Senator Kavanagh, your statement is ridiculous. It’s your job to successfully lead this state. Citizens all over this state have voiced their dismay at the education cuts over the past several years. We are at 50th in the nation and you don’t know where to go with that? Something tells me that you would balk at paying the national average. AZ isn’t a third world country, though many of your colleagues are determined to take us there. Sad.

  11. We left the state as a high school principal and my wife as a teacher. It just is too low in salary and in funding which means campus and district budgets are too low. New Mexico pays state minimum $50,000 (level III) for a teacher with 6 years plus a Masters, $40,000 for a teacher with 3-5 years (level II), and 34,000 for new teachers (level I). I am now going to come over to Arizona recruitment fairs and pilfer, plunder, and pillage, plucking the teachers from Arizona, making their teacher shortage worse bwaaahaaaa! AZ districts just can’t compete. And when we add mathematics and science stipends and AP/dual credit stipends, and higher than AZ coaching stipends. Well I feel bad for you AZ as I grew up in AZ in the valley of the sun, am a Sun Devil alum, wife is an NAU alum born and raised in Tucson. Oh well.

    Don’t even get me started on Texas pay, double AZ pay because educators don’t pay a state income tax nor social security, WOW! Teachers in the Houston area make in the mid to high 50’s without a Masters. Principals don’t pay social security or a state income tax in Houston also. Yes property tax is high but the gargantuan increase in pay far far outweighs this. I feel sorry for AZ and I am republican but even republicans have to understand the logic of being 50th, DEAD LAST, bwaaahaaaaa!

    Teachers willing to move…. do yourself a favor and do so, look at a Texas or New Mexico school district. Houston, Dallas, San Antonio, Austin, Santa Fe, Albuquerque are great places to live and your pay actually becomes somewhat adequate. I know, I know family and weather. Yes, I miss some of this but not enough when the direct deposit goes in I somehow forget.

    – Happy in Albuquerque

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