Some education advocates, like myself, feel a strong sense of urgency. After all, each year that a child can’t read creates lasting impacts for them, their family, and ultimately, the state’s economy. We constantly hear that clock ticking. Sure, it’s very easy to get bogged down in political cycles, state statutes, and annual budgets. If you are in this arena long enough, that sense of urgency gets tempered with patience and humility. But it never goes away.
So, when Governor Ducey revealed his budget proposal, I was cautiously optimistic. He hit the right notes on teacher support, early literacy, and a focus on low-income schools. He made education his top priority. And he was right to point out that in certain areas, 8th grade math for instance, Arizona is one of the only states showing improvement (NAEP scores, 2015). The investments we made as a state are starting to pay off.
But to use a sports analogy, we have scored a run in the first inning. There’s still so much game to go.
Sixty percent of all Arizona 3rd graders can’t read at grade level. Think about that for a second. Faced with that 3rd Grade stat, is the $10 million the governor wants to devote to early literacy programs in 2018 enough to make a significant impact for our kids?
There is so much more we can do, not just in funding, but in strengthening supports for teachers facing the toughest reading challenges. We can free up regulations that keep some students segregated from their classmates as they try to learn to read. Right now, that practice is failing, causing those students to fall further and further behind.
And, on a grander scale, you may have noticed there was no talk from the Governor’s Office about a key date looming on the calendar: Proposition 301, a sales tax currently generating approximately $600 million for education every year, is set to expire in FY2021. If it were allowed to fizzle, Arizona teachers would lose a decent chunk of their base pay! We are having enough trouble keeping good teachers from fleeing the state seeking better pay and conditions, and that’s after recent pay increases due to Proposition 123.
When Proposition 301 passed, it was meeting the education needs of Arizona in 2000. The education funding landscape has significantly changed since then. Our state learned we can’t rely on construction cycles to create a stable economy. We must do what any smart investor does. We must diversify.
Stand for Children Arizona believes Proposition 301 must be renewed, and even increased. These discussions need to start now, to make sure Arizona’s children don’t lose more ground, but instead are given a long-term, sustainable funding solution. Stand for Children Arizona has been researching options and learning from financial experts across the state and the nation. The funding structure needs to be rooted in accountability that is meaningful and drives improvement. This is doable, but it takes leaders to pull together, learn together and chart a course together.
In December, we released a poll showing 77 percent of Arizonans believe the state should be spending more on education. Additionally, 65 percent want to increase the Proposition 301 sales tax from 0.6 cents to a full penny. The people seem to be ahead of the politicians on this one.
Now, I understand we shouldn’t throw good money at bad results. But, as the governor points out, Arizona schools are doing better. It’s time to invest in good results. This type of commitment to Arizona’s children will pay dividends in every sector of the economy. It’s the smart thing to do. It’s the right thing to do.
— Rebecca Gau is executive director of Stand for Children Arizona.