The conversation about education in Arizona is finally shifting to focus on incentivizing excellence in all schools, rather than exclusively pouring resources, time, and energy into the failing ones that never improve. This is a thrilling change, and one I have waited on for many years. It has given me a renewed sense of excitement about Arizona’s education policy landscape and a hope for a new era of possibility.
Consider that many of the country’s most outstanding schools are right here in Arizona and most have waiting lists in the thousands. These top performing schools are not limited to wealthy neighborhoods either. Dozens of low-income district and charter schools are ‘A’-rated, operating at full capacity, and have extensive waitlists of families seeking an excellent education for their child. These public school leaders – both district and charter – would love nothing more than to replicate their model in order to provide that same high quality education to more students, but they are limited by access to capital, debt service costs, and barriers to growth. Meanwhile, countless students are stuck in failing schools, but who would jump at the opportunity to get into a better system if given the choice. I remain hopeful that the concept of an “Achievement District,” presented by Gov. Doug Ducey in his inaugural State of the State message, will address a number of these problems for our highest performing public schools, with an emphasis on those operating in and serving low-income communities.
No other state in the nation is incentivizing excellence through an “Achievement District” that targets the top performing schools rather than the bottom tier. The supporting idea is that every Arizona student – regardless of zip code – deserves a world-class education. By enabling our highest performing schools to grow and replicate and serve students who want to attend but cannot get in, we can give more and more students the opportunity to attend the best possible school.
True, the media continues to cry failure in our schools and many in the community lament what they perceive as the bleak state of education. I, however, remain optimistic because I see firsthand the tide turning towards real, tangible change in our education system. For the first time in a long time we are getting serious about putting best practices in place to reform our school finance formula, the A-F grade system for schools, and our academic standards and assessment.
Other actions have converged that have given me this sense of hope. The first is the formation of the Governor’s Classrooms First Initiative Council. This council is taking its charge seriously to simplify and modernize the current school finance code to ensure more funding for teachers and classroom instruction. I have the privilege of serving in an advisory capacity to the council by providing technical and policy assistance. In this role, I am pleased to see the governor’s desire for a fair and equitable single funding formula for all public schools. To free up more money for all schools, the council is evaluating ways to increase per-pupil spending while maintaining a focus on achievement.
Simplifying the school-funding model is only one part, however; there must also be new sources of education money. That’s where the Governor’s State Land Trust proposal comes into play. Hearing the growing chorus of concerns from industry, parents, and schools, Gov. Ducey has presented an education-funding proposal to increase State Trust Land distributions. This would infuse an estimated $1.8 billion into Arizona’s schools and teachers’ paychecks by 2021. This ambitious plan takes advantage of accumulated earnings intended to support education. While the full plan has yet to be unveiled, this bold proposal is a game changer for an education sector still reeling from the Great Recession.
In another step toward higher achievement, the State Board of Education recently set a higher passing score for the new state assessment for grades 3-8 and high school end-of-course exams. This rigorous requirement more accurately reflects student readiness for the next grade level or post-secondary work and learning than ever before. By increasing the rigor of our academic standards, we have raised the bar for student proficiency and performance.
Although in a transition period with our A-F grades, the committee tasked with revamping our school grading system has established core principles for a more honest and accurate rating. As a member of the A-F Committee, I support the push towards a more robust grade that can serve as a true indicator of school quality. By evaluating multiple measures, we can establish honest and accurate labels that highlight true performance and schools that are helping all students succeed.
All of these initiatives are in their beginning stages, which is why this is such an energizing and exciting time in the world of education. We are entering a new phase in Arizona focused on high quality for all. As executive director of A for Arizona, I am thrilled to see education reform taking shape in a way that will have meaningful impact on Arizona students. At the end of the day, that is where our focus must remain. After all, a high quality education doesn’t just change a child’s grade on their report card. It can change their life.
— Lisa Graham Keegan is the former state superintendent for public instruction and the executive director of A for Arizona, a project of the Arizona Chamber Foundation and the Tucson Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.