Gov. Doug Ducey’s proposed $5 million to bring high-speed internet to Arizona schools — most of them rural — will only serve one-fifth of the schools.
That, and a proposed pay raise deemed mediocre at best, will do little to fix problems in Arizona’s rural school districts, according to the leader of an association of rural schools.
Moreover, Arizona doesn’t have the teachers to utilize the increased internet access.
“It’s kind of a joke as far as teacher retention money,” said Don German, executive director of the Arizona Rural Schools Association (ARSA).
Without better high-speed internet and more teachers, rural school districts could continue struggling to improve test scores.
The definition of rural schools varies from statute to statute, which makes tracking their progress difficult for advocacy groups and the government alike. The ARSA classifies rural schools as any school district not directly connected to Phoenix or Tucson, which encompasses over half of the school districts in the state. According to census data, though, the classification is narrower than that, with any school district in an area with a population of less than 2,500 people.
How are they struggling?
Rural schools are in a unique position – while their needs tend to align with that of schools in larger districts, they don’t have the political power or geographic proximity to receive the help they need.
“None of [Arizona schools] have nearly enough money to operate efficiently,” German said. “We’ve tried to make every issue as broad as possible.”
German said there are two main reasons rural schools are struggling: they don’t have high-speed internet and they don’t have enough teachers. This has contributed to lower test scores across the board for rural schools.
With the governor’s $5 million, the ARSA can leverage it through federal e-rate grants and bring it up to $50 million, which they can make work for one year. The money will go based of off needs to the most isolated rural schools. But, according to German’s estimate it will take that $5 million over the course of 10 years to bring all Arizona schools up to speed. The bottom line is that if this a one-time drop in the bucket, it will cover only 20 percent of Arizona school in need of high speed internet.
“All [Arizona schools] have some internet, just most do not have enough bandwidth to do all the testing and reporting necessary,” German said.
With better internet connectivity, schools can use alternative learning techniques like blended learning to make up for some of the teacher shortage through computer programs, and can increase testing scores through online training programs for the students.
Blended learning involves the students working online, learning from educational videos, and sharing their work through Google Docs. This learning style teaches students techniques to learn for themselves and from their peers. This helps school districts alleviate some of the pressure on teachers who often have too many students due to the teacher shortage in schools across the state.
“They find that they have internet, but with the state’s reporting requirements, they have to time everything they do but they don’t have enough broadband to do it,” German said. “Ideally there’d be enough broadband to bring technology into the classrooms.”
Step 10 of Gov. Ducey’s 18-step education plan was to connect rural schools to high-speed internet, coupled with a statewide computer science and coding initiative.
“This session, let’s break the firewall and get these kids connected,” the governor said in his state of the state address.
The $50 million is a start, German says, but it won’t cover what they need to give every school in the state high-speed internet. And on top of that, there is maintenance, which is virtually untouched by Ducey’s new budget.
“The only thing people are happy about is that he isn’t proposing any cuts,” German said. “It doesn’t even come close to what we need.”
To reach high-speed internet across the board, German says it will take a minimum of five years – not including the indefinite amount of maintenance.
“What everyone would like to do is eventually go completely online,” German said. But with this kind of funding, that might not be possible any time soon.
Where are the teachers?
There are over 4,400 open teacher positions in the state, and teachers are leaving their jobs in Arizona faster than they can be replaced, according to an Arizona School Personnel Administrators Association survey. And it’s even more difficult to get teachers engaged and willing to teach in isolated rural districts.
It’s a largely held opinion by educators across the state that the only way to increase teacher retention is to increase teacher pay or offer monetary incentives for teachers to go to a rural district in Arizona in the first place. But neither of those solutions are being taken seriously.
“Lack of funding not only prevents hiring more qualified teachers, but schools aren’t able to afford for additional training for new employees hired into the system,” Eva Dickerson, Sierra Vista district public information officer said.
The average teacher salary in Arizona is around $43,000, and according to the National Education Association, that salary has decreased by over seven percent in the past decade.
Gov. Doug Ducey is offering two percent over the next five years.