Arizona schools at risk of losing federal funds over standardized tests


Editor’s note: This story has been revised to add an assessment from a lawmaker and education officials on the effect the federal government’s actions will have on Arizona. 

The federal government has threatened to withhold upwards of $300 million of Arizona’s school funding if the Arizona Department of Education allows schools to choose their own standardized tests for students.

With bipartisan support, lawmakers in 2016 approved a law allowing school districts to offer a “menu of assessments” to choose from, such as the SAT or ACT, rather than one statewide standardized test, currently the AZMerit test.

The law allowed high schools to make the switch this year, and many school districts have already moved away from the AZMerit test in favor of the ACT or SAT.  Another portion of the law would have allowed schools teaching grades 3-8 to adopt a menu of assessments next year.

But the state law goes against the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, and the U.S. Department of Education denied Arizona’s request for a waiver to that law to allow the state to implement its “menu of assessments.”

That means all Arizona students will still be required to take the AZMerit, or a similar standardized test, at least once in high school. While they will still be allowed to offer additional tests such as the ACT or SAT, as some districts always have, high schools will not be allowed to drop the AZmerit test altogether.

That creates a problem for school districts that already have dropped the test, though officials at the Arizona Department of Education said that those tests can be made up in the future. A ninth grader at a school district that doesn’t offer the AZmerit test this year, can take the test next year, for example.

Arizona’s law also violates ESSA by allowing 3-8 schools to choose their own assessment in the 2019-2020 school year. State education officials had previously acknowledged that the law was a violation of the federal law, but had held out hopes that US Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos would give the state an exemption.

Those conflicts have put in jeopardy millions of dollars of school funding, US Department of Education Assistant Secretary Frank Brogan told state officials in a March 28 letter.

“I have therefore determined to place ADE’s fiscal year 2018 Title I Part A grant awards on ‘high risk’ status immediately,” Brogan, wrote.

Title I Part A funds provides financial assistance to schools with high numbers or high percentages of children from low-income families, which if lost would be significant, but Arizona School Boards Association lobbyist Chris Kotterman told Arizona Capitol Times that threat is really just the federal government’s attempt to get our attention.

“The sky is not falling,” he said.

Kotterman said the threat of taking money from the state is the only mechanism the U.S. Department of Education has to bring the state into compliance.

Arizona Department of Education officials also downplayed the fears about what the federal letter means, writing to local school officials that “there is no impact for the current school year.” The state Department of Education said all districts and charters must continue with their spring testing as planned, including high schools that selected ACT or SAT from the menu.

Lawmakers say a fix is already in the works. SB 1346, sponsored by Sen. Sylvia Allen, R-Snowflake, that would give the state Board of Education authority to decide which grades could take alternate assessments, giving officials more flexibility to ensure it complies with ESSA.

Rep. Regina Cobb, R-Kingman, said she doesn’t see any real risk to Title I funding and that things are going to be fine.

“This is just the U.S. Department of Education getting a little over-exuberant and Kathy Hoffman freaking out because she’s new in there. I think we’re going to be fine. We’re working on it,” Cobb said.

Kotterman said the legislation would solve most of the problem by giving the board the flexibility to designate 10th, 11th and 12th grades as those that the menu of assessments applies to. He said if the bill goes through as is, the Legislature has done its job by essentially putting it in the Board of Education’s hands.

But therein lies a political problem of convincing the Legislature to put a system in place that doesn’t meet muster.

“This Legislature doesn’t like to be told by the federal government what to do,” Kotterman said, adding there’s the extra drawback of AZMerit’s unpopularity with lawmakers and school districts.

But the prospect of losing millions in key funding will likely weigh heavily on how this is dealt with, and it’s not a complete loss under the feds’ response.

“We get to preserve the menu option for 10th and 11th grades, which really when people talk about the menu, that’s what they talk about,” he said. “Some members may have heartburn about the fact that the federal government said ‘no way’ to the 3-8 menu. But frankly… no one in this state is ready for that anyway.”

Joraanstad said no one was ready to roll out the menu for grades 3-8 because no one really knew what choices would be included, leaving elementary schools immensely uncertain heading into 2020. Now, they can at least deal with the devil they know, he said, referring to AZMerit and its unclear future.

That’s still a step in Joraanstad’s eyes.

“If AZMerit had gone away, it’s not as if you can go to some assessment store in the sky and just pick an Arizona-standards aligned assessment off the shelf,” he said. “This at least lends clarity to a situation that was totally lacking in clarity.”

Katie Campbell contributed to this story.

AZ Board of Education violated federal law, disclosed student names, birthdays, test scores

The Arizona State Board of Education violated federal student privacy law by disclosing the names of more than 1,000 Arizona students, in some cases along with their birthdays, and their scores on the AzMERIT exams in response to a public records request filed by AZCIR.

The students all attend schools that are appealing the letter grades awarded in October by the Board of Education. AZCIR filed a public records request for all such appeals, and the Board of Education on Oct. 13 provided the documents that were submitted by 73 schools. AZCIR published those documents Oct. 16 as part of its reporting detailing the reasons schools cited for appealing their grades.

However, Board staff did not redact identifying student information from the files before complying with the records request, as required by federal law. The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, or FERPA, is a federal law that protects the privacy of student education records, including family information, test scores, grades and disciplinary records.

FERPA applies to schools and other educational institutions that accept federal funding, including the State Board of Education. Violators risk losing their federal funding.

Carrie OBrien, an attorney at Gust Rosenfeld and the Arizona Department of Education’s chief privacy officer and director of legal services from 2012 to 2016, said the breach is troubling, and should prompt the Board of Education to revisit its data practices.

“If I was a parent, and that was my kid’s data, I wouldn’t have been happy,” she said. “The fact that it was published on the internet makes it worse. The magnitude is that much greater.”

AZCIR learned on Oct. 24 that the documents it published included federally protected student information when an administrator for New School for the Arts and Academics, a charter school in Tempe, asked for documents related to its appeal to be removed from the AZCIR website.

The charter school also informed the Arizona Department of Education that its student data had been released to the media.

Upon examination, AZCIR discovered that student names were included in appeals filings for six schools: Cesar Chavez High School, Flagstaff Arts and Leadership Academy, Leading Edge Academy East Mesa, New School for the Arts and Academics, Paramount Academy and Sinagua Middle School.

In addition to the names, the data included student scores on AzMERIT tests. In several cases, student birthdays were also included.

AZCIR immediately removed the files from its website.

On Oct. 25, Catcher Baden, the Board of Education’s deputy director and spokesman, told AZCIR that the Board had learned of the disclosure earlier that day. He said he could not comment at that time.

The next day, the Board of Education informed AZCIR and other media organizations that it had incorrectly released records with student identifying information. It is unknown if the Board informed the schools whose students’ privacy was violated, though an administrator at one of the schools was unaware of the disclosure until contacted by AZCIR.

Karol Schmidt
Karol Schmidt

Dr. Karol Schmidt, the executive director of the Board of Education, said her staff had actually prepared redacted versions of the appeals documents, but an employee inadvertently sent the original documents to the media.

“It was an honest mistake,” she said.

Schmidt said the employee who made the mistake was still on staff, but she declined to identify the employee. However, she did say that the Board is adding new procedures to ensure similar disclosures don’t happen in the future.

“Going forward, there will be review by the executive director and attorney general, as appropriate, before the files go out,” she said.

(Note: This story comes from the Arizona Center for Investigative Reporting through a Creative Commons license. AZCIR is a nonprofit investigative newsroom.)

Charter group: Excluding advanced math 8th graders skews test results

The exclusion of nearly 20 percent of eighth graders from the state’s public schools achievement test drove down math results in 2016, according to the Arizona Charter Schools Association.

Ildi Laczko-Kerr, the chief academic officer for the association and the Center for Student Achievement, found that about 16,000 eighth grade students enrolled in accelerated math classes took high school level end-of-course exams that year, but the results were not included in the state’s AzMERIT pass rate. AzMERIT is an annual statewide test that measures student performance in English language arts and math. The pass rate for eighth graders was reported at 26 percent. However, according to Laczko-Kerr, the pass rate is actually 36 percent when those 16,000 missing kids are factored into the equation, along with their general math peers.


In an op-ed written for the Arizona Capitol Times last week, Laczko-Kerr warned that the exclusion and lack of transparent data on accelerated students “creates big hurdles for policymakers who aim to advance policies that will drive academic excellence.”

Laczko-Kerr elaborated following the publication of that piece.

Without complete data, she said, policymakers, teachers and parents may be left to make assumptions about the effectiveness of accelerating students thus far.

“Our parents might think that our students don’t have the capacity to be accelerated,” Laczko-Kerr said. “It’s just being fair to our communities and transparent in the data so that we can make good, informed decisions. The bottom line is, right now, we don’t have the transparency we need, so we may be making poor decisions.”

But according to Arizona Department of Education spokesman Stefan Swiat, the state Board of Education made the decision not to include those taking advanced exams based on how the data has traditionally been reported to the federal government for eighth graders and others. Swiat said that data has been reported based on grade level and assessment taken.

“Essentially, what they’re asking in this editorial is just a different question, a different way of reporting what’s already there,” he said. “That case was made before the board, but the board decided to go with the historic way. As the state, we’ll report it however everyone wants it reported.”

To include the accelerated students’ scores would certainly help the overall pass rate, Swiat said, but it would also be “comparing apples to oranges.”

General math students are tested on subject matter that differs from, say, that of the Algebra I exam. To lump the two groups together struck Swiat as an unusual idea, but if the Arizona Charter Schools Association wants that data, he said the department would be open to providing a report including the accelerated students.

Beyond that, he said, the association can go before the board and make an argument of why the way the data is reported should change.

Ildi Laczko-Kerr
Ildi Laczko-Kerr

But Laczko-Kerr argued that choices driven by this method of reporting now could be detrimental to students for years to come.

Laczko-Kerr said eighth grade is a pivotal year in terms of continued access to math education – something Gov. Doug Ducey acknowledged when he included algebra proficiency by eighth grade among his “Education Matters Arizona” goals.

“What we know is students who have accelerated math in eighth grade actually have more opportunities to take math in high school and to take higher level math classes in high school,” Laczko-Kerr said. “So, if the endgame really is getting more kids college and career ready as a state, then we need to understand what that means to accelerate students and also to track it.”

The best remedy, she said, would be to include all students’ scores in the statewide pass rate. Additionally, she recommended reporting the accelerated student’s scores separately to better track and support their success.

When AzMERIT was first implemented in 2015, schools could not test students outside of their grade levels. But in 2016, schools had the option of giving high school level exams associated with advanced math classes, including Algebra I, Algebra II and geometry. Some schools, according to Lazcko-Kerr, had accelerated students take both exams, but that’s not reflected either.

And she cannot know what 2017’s results will hold.

Eileen Sigmund
Eileen Sigmund

Eileen Sigmund, president and CEO of the Arizona Charter Schools Association who co-authored the op-ed piece with Laczko-Kerr, said they only discovered the exclusion through their own efforts to check on charter schools’ performance. The statewide data included both district and charter schools. Now, she said, they are presenting their findings for the sake of accuracy.

“We just want to have credit for really doing better than what the numbers are showing,” said Sigmund. “We need to measure and report math performance for all of our students in eighth grade no matter what test they take… What you measure you can always improve upon.”

She said there are “reverberating impacts” on the business community when Arizona’s performance may look lackluster compared to the rest of the country.

Sigmund said concrete consequences of the exclusion have not been identified at this point. She was certain, for example, that results-based funding was not impacted. But when school letter grades dictate whether a school can even keep its doors open, she said measuring performance with complete data is of the utmost importance.

Confusion abounds over Ducey’s public-school performance pay plan

Gov. Doug Ducey
Gov. Doug Ducey (Photo by Katie Campbell/Arizona Capitol Times)

Gov. Doug Ducey’s signature performance pay plan for excelling schools still has districts questioning when they will receive money and how exactly it must be spent.

The results-based funding plan was one of the biggest chunks of new spending in Ducey’s budget proposal. The money rewards high-performing schools by giving them more money to spend on teachers or expansions of successful programs and practices.

The program, totaling $38 million this year, will provide schools that score in the top 10 percent on the 2016 AzMerit tests additional money per student. Next year, schools will be assessed based on the letter grade they receive in the state’s rating system.

Districts are relying on a list of about 250 schools compiled by the Joint Legislative Budget Committee in the spring, but the official list of schools that will receive money, and how much they receive, has not been finalized by the Arizona Department of Education.

Districts, which adopted their budgets in July, haven’t been told when to expect payments from the results-based funding initiative. They haven’t been directed, beyond what’s in the approved budget, on where they can use the money.

“This budget item and this funding was really well-intended, but it wasn’t thought out as well as it should have been,” said James Lee, superintendent of Paradise Valley Unified School District. “Districts are scrambling to figure out how to use it.”

All this as students are getting ready to begin the school year in the coming days and weeks.

The Department of Education will provide additional information, including the dates and amounts of payments, to schools on the results-based funding program within the next month, department spokesman Stefan Swiat said in an email.

Swiat said the schools should receive results-based payments in September and May, though multiple school districts told the Arizona Capitol Times they have not yet been told when they will get the money.

The majority of the money should be used to hire more teachers or pay them better, or for teacher professional development, the law creating the performance funding plan said. Some of the money can be used to expand or replicate the successful schools’ models, including adding more spots for students at those schools, physically expanding schools, or mentoring other schools.

It could be tough for schools to add new teachers using the results-based funding this year, considering teacher contracts are typically signed in the spring. And since the funding is based on performance in a given year, districts are wary of including it in teacher salaries.

Low-income schools, defined as those with 60 percent or more students qualifying for the free or reduced lunch program, would get $400 per student if they score in the top 10 percent of all low-income schools.

High-income schools, meaning those with less than 60 percent of students on free or reduced lunch plans, would get $225 per pupil if they score in the top 10 percent of all schools.

Several districts that were identified on the JLBC list put the anticipated money into their official budgets, but still don’t have firm plans on how to spend it.

For example, five schools in the Washington Elementary School District qualified for the additional $400 per student, based on the JLBC list.

The district’s business manager, Cathy Thompson, said a school could spend the money on professional development programs for teaching math, mentoring, training or additional small-group learning opportunities for students.

Matt Strom, the assistant superintendent at the Chandler Unified School District, said he’s not concerned about the timing of the payments since he knows the program is funded. Chandler Unified will treat the money as one-time funding, as it has with previous governor-initiated programs, Strom said.

“Sometimes these things are here this year and gone the next,” he said.

The additional money could be used for operating costs like teacher salaries or on expanding access to the successful schools, Strom said. Chandler Unified’s legal counsel has reviewed the budget language to make sure the school spends the money as allowed by law, but Strom said the district would still like guidance from the Department of Education on where the money can go.

Lee, who heads Paradise Valley Unified School District, has 12 schools that could receive the additional funding, based on JLBC’s list. The district put the money in its budget, but hasn’t allocated it to any specific areas yet.

Lee said the idea of performance pay for teachers in some of his schools instead of the whole district could hinder his ability to keep or hire teachers in the ones that don’t get the added funding. He said he wants to hear how other districts will use the funding and get some guidance on some of the parts of the law that he considers open to interpretation.

The confusion over how to spend the money and how to allow for it in school budgets isn’t uncommon for new programs, said Chuck Essigs, director of government relations for the Arizona Association of School Business Officials.

“Any new legislation that passes, like the results-based funding, is hard for districts to get in place and get them operating in the next school year. That doesn’t mean the Legislature shouldn’t do new things, but first year is always difficult,” said Essigs, who has worked in school finance for several decades.

Essigs said there are still questions over what districts have to do with the money and what they may do with the money based on the budget language. And the law says the schools have to be making “steady improvement” in order to continue getting funding after three years, but doesn’t specifically say what that entails, Essigs said.

Handling the timing of payments shouldn’t be tough for most districts, said Chris Kotterman, head of governmental relations for the Arizona School Boards Association. It’s essentially a cash flow management issue, and schools are good at managing cash flow, he said.

But these kinds of questions, over timing of payments and where funds can be used, come up when special programs are created to target certain districts instead of the school system as a whole, Kotterman said.

“As a general rule, ASBA would advocate for schools to be funded in a way that provides the greatest predictability and equity across the board,” he said.

Ducey proposes pay raises for nearly half of state employees in $11.4 billion budget

Gov. Doug Ducey

Gov. Doug Ducey wants to grant pay raises to nearly half of all state employees, with an emphasis on boosting salaries for law enforcement and corrections officers.

About 45 percent of the state workforce, or 15,000 of Arizona’s roughly 33,200 employees, would see salary increases of 5 percent or more in the $11.4 billion budget plan Ducey released Friday.

Most of the $74 million allocated in the budget for pay hikes goes to law enforcement officials, such as corrections officers and highway patrol. Pay raises at other agencies are awarded only to those employees certified by the Arizona Peace Officer Standards and Training Board.

Corrections officers would get a 10-percent pay bump. Officials expect the higher salaries — average pay would increase from $37,000 to $40,700 annually — to help reduce the department’s nearly 20 percent turnover rate for corrections officers. Ducey plans to follow through with another 5-percent pay raise in the next budget cycle.

Ducey also proposed 10-percent pay raises to Department of Public Safety troopers, and a 5-percent pay bump for non-police officers within the agency.

As the Department of Child Safety continues to fail to meet benchmarks set for hiring caseworkers, Ducey plans to attract more workers with a 9-percent pay increase for agency caseworkers and case aides. DCS has a 35-percent turnover rate and has yet to hire the 1,406 caseworkers mandated by state lawmakers, according to figures provided by the Governor’s Office.

Most other law enforcement employees throughout the state would receive pay raises of about 5 percent, with the exception of those that work within the Department of Juvenile Corrections and Department of Health Services, who would receive 15-percent raises.

Ducey’s budget also provides a roadmap to his other spending priorities, including education, infrastructure and some of his pet projects, such as his school safety plan and additional funding for career and technical education and the Arizona Teachers Academy.

Thanks to an estimated $1.1 billion cash surplus, the governor has a sizable chunk of change to spend with this budget cycle. Instead, he proposes saving approximately half of that amount in Arizona’s rainy-day fund and spending the other half on various initiatives.

As the governor outlined in his “State of the State” address, Ducey wants to boost the rainy-day fund by $542 million, which would bring the balance up to $1 billion. That’s roughly 9 percent of total revenue estimates for FY20.

Deposits to the rainy day fund could be even greater if there’s a windfall for state coffers from tax conformity, though the governor’s budget does not account for those potential revenues.


college-books-webThe governor’s plan fulfills the next step in a three-year plan to boost teacher pay, boosting funding for K-12 public schools by a total of $233 million. That’ll translate to a 5-percent pay raise for teachers, and new dollars to school districts for additional assistance.

Performance-based funding would go to more than triple the current number of schools under Ducey’s plan, which overhauls the process by which schools qualify for those dollars and more than doubles the amount of funding available to high-performing schools.

Ducey’s budget would add $60 million to the Results Based Funding program on top of the $38 million provided in FY19, for a total of $98 million in FY20. Those dollars will go to 675 schools throughout the state, roughly half of the 2,000 district and charter schools in Arizona.

The dramatic increase in the number of schools affected by those funds — only 285 receive such funding in FY19 — is due to a shift in the formula to qualify.

Currently, schools are judged based on AzMerit test scores. But that standard can no longer apply universally after the Legislature adopted a bevy of possible tests to track student achievement at the high school level.

Instead, the new standard will rely on the A-F letter grades assigned to schools by the Department of Education, and the grading system that takes a more holistic approach to judging schools for their performance. All schools with an “A” grade would be eligible for Results Based

Funding, a total of 454 “A” schools with at least 60 percent of the student population on free-and-reduced lunch would receive an extra $400 per pupil, while all other “A” schools would receive $225 per pupil. “B” schools in low-income areas, those schools with at least 60 percent of the student body on FRL, would also get $225 per pupil.

The Governor’s Office estimates that of those 675 schools eligible for the funding, 83 percent are districts schools, while 17 percent are charters.

Overall, roughly 36 percent of the schools are in low-income areas where most students qualify for free or reduced lunch.

The new funding comes with new reporting requirements. While no details were immediately provided, the governor wants to ensure that schools are reporting not just how they’re spending those dollars, but where. That’s because the Results Based Funding is distributed not to specific schools, but to school districts.

At minimum, 51 percent of those funds must be spent at “A” or “B” schools, but remaining balance can be spent elsewhere in a school district. That leaves open the possibility that dollars earned by one high-performing school can help other struggling schools in the same district.


(Photo courtesy Arizona Motor Vehicle Division)
(Photo courtesy Arizona Motor Vehicle Division)

With a new vehicle registration fee to pay for public safety freeing up nearly $100 million of Highway User Revenue Fund money, or HURF, half of which goes to the state, Ducey is looking to widen Interstate 17.

Work has already begun to expand the road between Sunset Point and south of Black Canyon City, but Ducey’s budget calls for an additional FY19 appropriation of $40 million to start work on a third lane between Anthem and Black Canyon City on the northbound side and several miles of southbound.

The governor also projected another $45 million in both FY20 and 21 to finish the project, for a total of $130 million worth of new investment in that stretch of congested highway, saying expanding the road would increase safety.

That’s all in addition to the State Transportation Board’s scheduled allocation of $193 million to design and construct the I-17 expansion project.

The governor is also calling for an additional $10.5 million from HURF to fund preventative road surface maintenance, bringing the total budget for that up to $51 million, enough to fully fund all ADOT’s preventative maintenance requests, according to the Governor’s Office.

In the last decade, the Mariposa Port of Entry on the west side of Nogales has dropped from the top site for fresh fruit imports to the third place slot behind Laredo and Hidalgo, Texas. After spending millions in recent years to expand the port, Ducey is proposing a $700,000 investment to construct a cold inspection facility, with local partners including the Fresh Produce Association of the Americas, putting up the remaining $300,000.

The administration and local business groups hope that will incentivize produce importers with avocados, berries and other temperature sensitive fruits to run their product through Nogales.

That could mean up to $30 million in product traveling through the state annually, and pulling in up to $4 million per year in state and local tax revenues, according to the estimates from a University of Arizona study.

Other spending priorities

The budget allocates funding for several initiatives Ducey mentioned in his “State of the State” speech Monday.

After pledging, then failing to deliver, $11 million in additional funding for school resource officers last year, Ducey is proposing $9 million for school-resource officer grants this year, which he says will provide an additional 89 officers, totaling about 200 provided by the grant program.

The proposal would supply officers to about one out of every 10 schools in the state, fulfilling requested demands for police officers in schools, according to the administration.

Since the grant funding has not kept up with demand for so long, many school districts have simply quit applying, and have found other ways to pay for officers, meaning demand is likely much higher than the governor is estimating.

The governor wants to pump $21 million into the Arizona Teachers Academy, a program that was launched in 2017 with no additional funding in the FY18 budget for the universities to execute it. Instead, universities were left to find the dollars needed to provide free tuition for teachers who agree to teach in Arizona schools in their existing budgets, opening the opportunity up to only about 200 students to start; there are currently about 230 students enrolled.

With the money proposed by Ducey in his executive budget, enrollment is expected to expand to about 3,800 students, according to the Governor’s Office.

That far exceeds the Board of Regents’ growth expectations back in 2017. With no help from the state government to cover the cost of the program, ABOR expected to have just 730 students enrolled in the academy by its fifth year. The governor also wants to expand eligibility to juniors and seniors who are majoring in STEM fields and to non-resident and post-baccalaureate community college students.

Ducey’s proposal would also allow students to request tuition benefits for up to four years — students have so far been able to receive up to two years — and would provide for annual $1,000 stipends for students who agree to teach in critical-need areas after they graduate.

Backed by $36 million, Ducey is also pushing for increased investment in career and technical education.

His budget creates a $10 million incentive program that would provide a $1,000 payment to career and technical schools for each high school student that earns an industry certification in specific high-demand fields like manufacturing, health care and construction, among others.

Ducey also wants to direct $20 million to Pima Community College’s Aviation Technology Center. The contribution is designed to meet growing workforce demands from in-state aviation companies like Boeing.

The governor also aims to direct $6 million to expand healthcare training at Maricopa Community College District.

Unsurprisingly, Ducey’s budget also includes the $35 million in state funding he previously promised in an attempt to solidify Arizona’s drought plan, which in turn, means the state could sign onto the multi-state Drought Contingency Plan.

English immersion repeal priority of schools chief, Dems, GOP

Group of Multiethnic Diverse Hands Raised
Group of Multiethnic Diverse Hands Raised

Reyna Montoya was a math whiz, but she didn’t speak English when she was 13.

Neither did the kid from Russia who sat beside her four hours a day, nor the one from China nor the one from Afghanistan.

She and her classmates were there together because of Proposition 203, which banned bi-lingual education in favor of an “English immersion” approach.

Republicans and civic groups backed the 2000 ballot measure, saying that by forcing non-English speakers to speak English – and only English – in school, would allow them to pick up the language faster.

It was an argument that many voters intuitively understood. But it hasn’t been backed up by the data.

Montoya, the 28-year-old founder of Aliento, a community organization that helps undocumented kids, said being forced into the four-hour English-immersion bloc kept her from moving into an honors math class at the suggestion of her teacher, and it put her behind in all her other studies.

Reyna Montoya (Photo by Diego Lozano/Aliento)
Reyna Montoya (Photo by Diego Lozano/Aliento)

“I was really good at math, but because of the bloc I couldn’t make it work with my schedule … so I felt discouraged that all that seemed to matter about me wasn’t that I was good at math, but that I could not speak English,” Montoya said.

The days of English immersion may be numbered as Democratic Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman plans to make repealing the voter-approved law a legislative priority in 2020. The Legislature’s Democratic Caucus has also made a repeal one of its top priorities and Republicans are also on board.

Hoffman came close last year to getting a full repeal of the English-only education law referred to the 2020 ballot, but the measure sponsored by Rep. John Fillmore, R-Apache Junction, fell short.

The House approved Fillmore’s HCR 2026 on a 59-1 vote, and it flew through the Senate Education Committee unanimously. But in the waning hours of the legislative session, the repeal was left to die, never receiving a full Senate vote.

Still, lawmakers backed serious reforms to the English-only policy. SB1014, sponsored by Sen. Paul Boyer, R-Glendale, quickly made it through both House and Senate unanimously and became one of the first bills Gov. Doug Ducey signed into law in 2019. That bill reduced the time English Language Learners, known in schools as ELL students, have to spend in an English immersion class from four hours per day to two.

But because the voter-approved initiative mandates some kind of “English immersion” program, that’s about all legislators can do – they can’t kill the policy outright without getting voter approval.

For opponents of English immersion, it was a huge step against a policy they say has failed Arizona children for nearly 20 years.

But it wasn’t enough to water down the policy

Marisol Garcia, vice president of the Arizona Education Association, said new research and data is what can be attributed to proponents of Proposition 203 coming around to now support repealing it altogether.

She said when the law was first introduced in Arizona, people just didn’t understand how linguistics or learning a second language worked. Putting students in these immersion classes was “hurting our kids.”

“Part of being an Arizonan and American is learning from each other,” Garcia said.

Nearly two decades later, Arizona’s estimated 83,000 ELL students are struggling. State data shows students who are struggling the most on the AzMERIT test are “Limited English Proficient.” Those non-native English speakers are only passing at a 4% and 9% rate in English and math, respectively.


Prop. 203 calls for ELL students to spend one year in immersion classes, then, when they can demonstrate a working knowledge of the language, they’re supposed to transition into traditional classes.

Instead, ELL students often languish in ELL classes for years.

A report from the State Board of Education found “significant deficiencies” in Arizona’s Structured English Immersion model, and concluded that Arizona’s model segregates students “both physically and academically,” doesn’t allow access to rigorous courses, doesn’t provide proper training for teachers, and is unrealistic in its goal of transitioning students into mainstream classrooms in one year.

But Montoya was determined. She said she realized quickly that if she didn’t know English well enough, she wouldn’t be able to access the same opportunities as her peers even if she was succeeding in her other classes.

“I learned [the language] pretty fast and was fortunate to test out after a year [or so],” she said.

Because they’re stuck in extended English classes, those ELL students often fall behind in other required classes and can’t graduate on time.

The most recent data from the Department of Education shows the 2017 graduation rate of Limited English Proficient students is roughly 40%.

Montoya, who is from Mexico, said she fell behind in her other classes because of the time commitment she had to learn English in a class with just three other students from different countries.

She said it was very difficult because it was a requirement to be in a four-hour bloc where she would then have to go to her other classes that only were in English and she didn’t speak the language yet. So she fell behind.

“I benefited more being in those mainstream classes because I was able to talk to native speakers,” Montoya said.


And while they’re stuck in that immersion program, they’re surrounded by other non-English speakers – almost always Spanish speakers.

“I felt isolated, no matter how hard I worked it was never good enough,” Montoya said. “It created a lot of stress and anxiety.”

Which is part of the reason Fillmore introduced his ballot referral.

The effort from Fillmore would allow schools to mix native English speakers with students learning English as an additional language in the classroom, commonly referred to as bilingual education or dual-immersion.

Fillmore suggested they take a “military or business” approach to this idea.

“Throw them in a room for a couple hours and, believe me, after a week they’ll both be able to speak a little bit of each other’s language,” he said.

Hoffman’s spokesman, Richie Taylor, said the Arizona Department of Education has not yet broached the idea with lawmakers, who are already talking about getting this accomplished.

Rep. Michelle Udall, R-Mesa, said she has seen data that would support the repeal being a good idea.

“Studies are showing more and more that if you can teach students in both languages simultaneously they can do much better in all subjects,” Udall said. Udall chairs the House Education Committee and also said the English-only law is not more successful than the previous program.

udallUdall said statewide polling she saw during the last session looked promising that voters would also support the repeal in 2020.

Taylor also said there seems to be a “public appetite” for repealing the law, as its deleterious effects have become more apparent to policymakers and the public in recent years.

Outside of Udall, Democrats in the Senate have already put repealing Proposition 203 on its list of priorities for the next year in a 15-page document titled “A Tale of Two Sessions.”

Sen. Sylvia Allen, R-Snowflake, who voted for Fillmore’s measure last session in committee, said she does not plan to introduce any bill next session on this matter.

“However, if any other legislator brings forward a bill that has a good proposition, I will be glad to hear it in my committee,” she said via a spokesperson.

Allen said she didn’t know why the bill never received a full vote from the Senate.

On the final day of the legislative session, Senate President Karen Fann introduced a floor amendment to remove two words and add a comma, thus effectively killing the bill because it would have had to go back to the House for a final read.

“It’s a tricky inside baseball move, but obviously someone was against [the bill] and wanted to slow it down to give it an excuse for it not to go through,” said Sen. Martin Quezada, D-Glendale. “The excuse was that there wasn’t enough time.”

Sen. Kate Brophy-McGee, R-Phoenix, who also sits on the Senate Education Committee, said she’s hopeful this referral will get done next session.

“Everybody, even my most conservative colleagues are for the repeal and that has been the case both times legislation has been offered,” she said. “There are still some hurdles to overcome, but I am absolutely certain we will get there next session.”

Missing 8th grade advanced math scores skew test results


Researchers, teachers, education advocates and others agree that eighth grade math is a critical indicator of success in high school and beyond. Governor Doug Ducey identified proficiency in algebra skills by the end of eighth grade as a strategic goal for Arizona to ensure a world-class, 21st century education in his “Education Matters Arizona” initiative.

Eileen Sigmund
Eileen Sigmund

But one in five Arizona eighth-graders is not included in state reported figures of the AzMERIT math exam, a required test for all public school students – district and charter, according to newly released data analysis by the Center for Student Achievement.

2016 test results show 26 percent of Arizona eighth-graders passed the math exam, but nearly 16,000 students taking accelerated math courses were left out of that statistic.

What does that mean?

If your child is taking an accelerated math class in middle school, they should be taking a high school end-of-course exam instead of the eighth grade AzMERIT math test.  Scores from accelerated math students taking those end-of-course exams are not included in results with the rest of their eighth-grade peers.

Ildi Laczko-Kerr
Ildi Laczko-Kerr

Thanks to research conducted by the Center for Student Achievement we do know how these students are performing and the impact on state reporting is significant. Taking all math test results into consideration for students in eighth grade, the overall math pass rate is actually 36 percent. This represents a 10 percentage point increase from the publicly reported eighth grade results, and a 2 percent increase from 2015 when eighth graders were not allowed to take the accelerated math exams.

The lack of transparent data on math acceleration creates big hurdles for policy makers who aim to advance policies that will drive academic excellence. To date, Arizona has only focused on AzMERIT scores of students taking the eighth grade math exam, and excluded accelerated middle school math students taking Algebra I and II and Geometry.

The Arizona Education Progress Meter, which represents key metrics that support a shared vision for world-class education in our state, includes eighth grade math as one of eight indicators by which to measure the health of education in Arizona.  We also know that employers are looking for students with science, technology, engineering and math skills.

What you measure, you can improve.  In order to monitor Arizona’s progress towards the Governor’s goals, we should encourage any programs or initiatives that not only address early identification and interventions for students struggling in math, but also measure and report the math performance of all eighth grade students, no matter the test they take.

— Eileen B Sigmund is President and CEO of the Arizona Charter Schools Association and manager of the Center for Student Achievement, a division of the Association. Dr. Ildi Laczko-Kerr is the Chief Academic Officer of both organizations.


The views expressed in guest commentaries are those of the author and are not the views of the Arizona Capitol Times.

New school ratings have something for everyone to hate

The chair of the Arizona Senate Education Committee felt the harshness of the state’s new school accountability system this week.

The school that Republican Sen. Sylvia Allen co-founded, a charter school in Snowflake called the George Washington Academy, received an F in the ratings, released October 9 by the Arizona Board of Education.

For Allen, the fact that a school her grandchildren now attend, where she works to create teachings about character traits like honesty and patriotism, could fail under the new system shows the A-F accountability program needs to be adjusted.

But it’s not just Allen who found something to hate when the grades were released – the A-F grades have been roundly criticized from all parts of the education advocacy spectrum. Nearly everyone has found something to hate in the grades.

The Arizona Legislature approved a law in 2016 that directed the state board to create new accountability measures for its statewide school ratings system, dubbed the A-F School Accountability Plan. The board finished a methodology in April and began crunching the numbers, though the data released October 9 still was not a complete database of the grades, and the board called the results “preliminary.”

But the database still shocked many, despite what was known to be the case before the ratings were publicly released: There are far fewer A grades than under the previous system, and many schools, particularly heavyweight charter brands, were shocked to see they didn’t achieve the highest marks.

Arizona A-F letter grades


So far, 258 schools, or about 15 percent, have earned an A under the new grading system, compared to more than 500 schools that got an A under the previous system. The bulk of schools got Bs and Cs this time. Thirty-five schools failed.

But 170 schools are still listed as “under review” in the board’s database, meaning the numbers for each grade will likely change.

The board itself has also recognized its work isn’t done. The board recently announced a series of open houses to gather public input about potential changes to the grades and an advisory committee designed to look at ways to alter the grading system.

The board would not answer questions from the Arizona Capitol Times about what changes should be made to the system, if the grades are a valuable way to measure schools, who is primarily responsible for the system succeeding and more. Instead, board spokesman Catcher Baden said the board will be addressing these questions at a meeting on October 23.

For schools that received low marks, though, the public damage may have already been done. The grades are intended to inform parents on their children’s schools and hold schools accountable.

Joe Thomas, president of the Arizona Education Association, speaks at a press conference calling for increased public school funding on April 13. (Photo by Rachel Leingang, Arizona Capitol Times)
Joe Thomas, president of the Arizona Education Association, speaks at a press conference calling for increased public school funding on April 13. (Photo by Rachel Leingang, Arizona Capitol Times)

“These letters, A-F, are very powerful in the education setting, and parents aren’t going to understand why schools are coming out with low letter grades,” said Joe Thomas, the head of the Arizona Education Association, the teachers union.

The state’s highest elected official also wants to see changes in the grading system. Gov. Doug Ducey’s spokesman, Daniel Scarpinato, said Ducey thinks a lot more work needs to be done to make sure schools are accurately assessed and that parents know what the grades mean.

“This is a public policy shift, so we need to make sure we get the details right,” Scarpinato said.

And this time around, there’s money on the line for some schools with regard to the grading system. Next year, the school grades will decide if schools qualify for extra funding under Ducey’s results-based funding plan, which financially rewards high-performing schools.

Under the new grading system, K-8 schools will be graded based on student proficiency (weighted at 30 percent) and student growth (50 percent), both of which are judged on scores students received on AzMERIT, the statewide achievement tests. The formula also includes English Language Learners’ growth and proficiency (10 percent) and acceleration and readiness measures (10 percent).

At the high school level, the grading system will consider student proficiency (30 percent), student growth (20 percent), ELL growth and proficiency (10 percent), graduation rates (20 percent), and college and career readiness (20 percent).

For Thomas, the formula’s emphasis on standardized test scores, particularly at the K-8 level, means low-income schools are less likely to get high marks since test performance and income are strongly correlated.

There should be a wider range of measures taken to assess a school’s success, he said, like the number of counselors accessible to students or the available Advanced Placement course offerings.

Allen and Thomas, not typically allies at the Legislature, seem to agree on this point.

Sen. Sylvia Allen (R-Snowflake)
Sen. Sylvia Allen (R-Snowflake)

Allen, an advocate of school choice, said there needs to be a way to capture the uniqueness of the variety of school offerings in the state instead of primarily looking at test results.

If the state wants to maintain school choice and allow parents to pick schools that best reflect their values, there should be a “menu of assessments” schools can choose to be judged on, she said.

It wasn’t just the scores for George Washington – which says on its website that it aims to educate kids in a “brain-compatible manner” – that weren’t justified, she said, but many of the district and charters that she has visited in her area and across the state. Beaver Creek School in Yavapai County, for instance, focuses on hands-on methods, including raising chickens and taking kids to a creek for instruction, she noted.

“They were ranked a C. How could you rank them a C? That’s the kind of school I just love,” she said.

While some districts and education advocacy groups have long lamented the role the AzMERIT and A-F grading system play, charter schools are now joining the chorus of critics questioning the grades.

In a message to parents last week, Peter Bezanson, the CEO of BASIS schools, routinely the poster child for charter schools in Arizona, questioned the new grading system and said it would not accurately reflect BASIS’ successes.

The scores place more emphasis on students’ growth than their overall proficiency, which means high-performing schools with smaller margins for growth get dinged, he said.

He assured parents that nothing will change at BASIS campuses and “your children will still attend one of the highest-performing schools in the entire world.”

Many of the BASIS schools show as “under review” in the state’s database, though Bezanson told the Capitol Times the schools didn’t appeal the grades. Rather, the state is still figuring out how to assess them because they don’t fall under a typical K-8 or 9-12 configuration, he said.

That’s another flaw with the data released by the board – it makes no distinction between schools that are “under review” because they appealed their grades or those still being reviewed by the state.

Several of the schools in the Great Hearts Academies network also show as “under review,” though the charter operator has only appealed one school’s grade, its chief innovation officer, Erik Twist, said in an email.

Twist said that any ranking system should reflect the quality of a school, but it’s “glaringly apparent” the formula as it stands today does not do that.

For example, Twist said, a Great Hearts site in Glendale scored well above the top 10 percent in the state on AzMERIT in the past year, but the formula gave the school a C.

“This is absurd! Any school that has proficient and highly proficient students and keeps them at that level year over year, as our Glendale school does, should be recognized as an A school,” he said.

The charters publicly criticizing the system, coupled with the discontent overall on the scores and the board’s rollout of them, will likely pull weight at the Capitol for changes to the grading methodology.

Thomas of the AEA said the problems could be ironed out in short order if all the stakeholders, brought together by the Legislature, got into a room and discussed the proper way to assess students. And it’s vital that the grading system get fixed soon, he said.

“We have to see this moment as a moment of correction. It is absolutely broken,” he said.

Indeed, the myriad issues and complaints people have brought up with the A-F system mean the Legislature will have to dive back into the issue and try to make it right, Allen said. She wants to hold a hearing and listen to what all stakeholders have to say, then come up with a better path.

“I think we have not hit it right. I think it’s flawed. My goal was to make it to where every school would have the possibility of becoming an A school,” she said, adding that the new system doesn’t do that.

The board needs to “go back to the drawing table” and figure out a way to measure and analyze metrics that parents and schools care about in a way that allows for the uniqueness of schools, she said. And she questioned whether any A-F system would really be able to do that.

Non-profit opens charter schools to serve poorest students

cover2A Phoenix nonprofit aiming to open 25 A-rated charter schools serving students in the city’s urban core by 2020 is well on its way to meeting its goal.

Through funding from the Bob and Renee Parsons Foundation, New Schools for Phoenix, an organization associated with the Arizona Charter Schools Association, has worked to open quality schools in high-poverty areas by training leaders who want to open a new school, replicate a successful one, like was the case with the first school opened as part of the program, or reform a failing one.

Since 2014, New Schools for Phoenix has opened 17 schools serving elementary to high school students.

Another five charter schools will open this fall and six others are slated to open in 2019.

Most schools in the program are located in areas where the 2018 per capita income is less than $31,800, with many in areas where the per capita income is less than $24,900, according to a presentation provided to the Arizona Capitol Times by the Charter Schools Association.

At almost every school in the program, more than 70 percent of students received free or reduced lunch through the National School Lunch Program during the 2017-18 school year, with most schools reporting more than 90 percent of its students participating in the program.

Statewide, only 57 percent of students participated in the program during the last school year, according to the Arizona Department of Education.

All together, the schools in the program will serve an estimated 12,500 students in some of the poorest areas of Phoenix, said Eileen Sigmund, president and CEO of the Charter Schools Association.

“In our Phoenix urban core, K-12 education is one pathway to lift students and provide them with options and choices for the future,” she said. “We’re making a difference by getting talented leaders to hire great teachers, put them in the right classrooms and relentlessly use data to improve culture, results, curriculum, everything, at each school.”

Sigmund said the program supports leaders who want to open new schools by working with the Department of Education and the federal government to secure start-up funds and grants. The program also helps leaders find a location, train teachers and develop curriculum that best fits the schools’ and students’ needs.

This year, New Schools for Phoenix launched two professional development series designed to help guide new and prospective charter school operators through the process of opening a new school by providing them information about budget and financial management, charter application, and maintenance and operations of a school.

The program also worked with the Arizona State Board for Charter Schools to provide training to charter schools’ founding committees as they make the transition to a school governing board.

Sigmund said the program also raised money to send teachers and school leaders in Arizona to other states with strong charter programs to see how they can replicate those models and use it as a “footprint” for their schools.

“When schools are starting they don’t get any startup money to hire teachers, do marketing, buy buildings. So we support them in whatever they may need,” she said.

While all of the schools aren’t yet A-rated and lag behind the statewide average on the state’s standardized test, the AzMERIT, Sigmund said school leaders are working to identify what works best for its students to achieve that goal.

After 2020, schools in the program will transition to another nonprofit branch associated with the Charter Schools Association, the Center for Student Achievement, which will ensure the long-lasting success of the schools, she said.

School cites alarming teacher incidents for failing grade

A South Phoenix charter school said problems with teachers involving knives on campus, apparent mental illness, and nude photos on a tablet led to its failing grade in the state’s new rating system.

The George Gervin Prep Academy asked the Arizona Board of Education to simply not grade it this year after a series of alarming incidents with teachers.

George Gervin Academy

The A-F letter grades were released last week, resulting in 73 schools that appealed their grades. Most appeals related to data collection or calculation errors.

The appeals were published online Monday by the Arizona Center for Investigative Reporting.

But George Gervin Prep Academy’s appeal stands out.

The school acknowledges it had an “unusually daunting school year” resulting in a failing grade, and it cited four teachers in particular, all of whom were in the testing grades, in its appeal.

The incidents involved are alarming and range from attendance issues to inappropriate conduct with students to bringing a knife to the school during AzMERIT testing.

George Gervin Academy

The four teachers represent a sizable portion of the school’s teaching staff. On its website, the school shows just 14 teachers. The school says it serves 200 students from kindergarten to eighth grade.

The school’s superintendent, Barbara Hawkins, said the school worked quickly, while balancing human resources issues with personnel, to handle the problematic teachers. She said the school put new programs in place to train and manage teachers since then. For instance, the school now has a pool of substitutes readily available so they can remove teachers as soon as possible, should the need arise, Hawkins said.

She also noted the ongoing teacher shortage the state has seen as a factor. It’s been hard to recruit and retain good teachers, she said, though the four teachers that had problems were all qualified and certified.

The school could have easily taken the failing grade, moved forward and not publicly acknowledged what was happening, Hawkins said, but instead it chose to discuss the issues with education officials in the hopes similar situations won’t happen again.

“Our kids deserve so much more, and they deserve the best,” she said.

Last school year, a fifth-grade math teacher was an ex-Marine dealing with post-traumatic stress symptoms who was also going through a divorce and custody battle.

“He created a hostile environment that lead to him having a knife on campus March 28, 2017, during testing,” the appeal says.

Students said they were afraid and uncomfortable. The teacher began acting erratically after that, not showing up, sharing inappropriate information and bullying kids and staff members. He eventually resigned after several disciplinary steps.

In supporting documents included in the appeal, students’ notes say the teacher played inappropriate movies that included a lot kissing and “also a little booby action” to fifth graders. He also made inappropriate comments to students and had naked photos on his phone and other devices, the students claimed.

George Gervin Academy

“One day when we were using his tablet as a dictionary, we saw pictures of naked people,” one student note says.

One student wrote a list of other students and the various reasons the teacher made fun of them, for reasons like their height, laugh, hair and skin color.

Another teacher who taught 7th and 8th grade English and Language Arts was “immensely affected by the presidential election” and “began to show signs of mental illness.”

The song “Proud to be an American” proved to be triggering for the English teacher when another teacher played it on Veterans Day, the appeal says. He also discussed death and committing suicide, and told students about how he used to be on drugs. He was eventually let go.

George Gervin Academy

A third grade teacher who was considered a mentor and leader to other teachers was going through a divorce and had attendance issues. After the attendance problem was brought up with her, she “became very paranoid and began to show signs of distrust” to other staffers, negatively affecting morale at the school.

Her students obtained zero percent proficiency in math. She was ultimately told her services wouldn’t be needed next year.

George Gervin Academy

A fourth teacher was diagnosed with a bladder disorder and “began to wear an exposed catheter.” He wasn’t operating at full capacity, and his attitude toward students “became very unsettling.” He was asked not to come back at the end of the school year.

The school said in its appeal that it removed its principal the previous school year and has been working to revamp its teachers, academic model and learning environment. The new principal had inherited the staff and was trying to motivate them to succeed, the appeal said, but was ultimately unable to fully turn things around in the seven months she had been in charge so far.

Many of George Gervin Prep Academy’s students are low performers when they arrive at the charter, and the troublesome teachers didn’t effectively increase their performance, the school wrote.

Receiving an F doesn’t accurately represent the school, and it would diminish the confidence of parents and students, the school said.

All staff had to reapply for their jobs for this school year, and the school conducted a national search for teachers, it wrote. The school also increased its base salary and offers additional perks like professional development and performance bonuses. The school has also “strengthened” its board of directors by adding more members, most of whom are educators, it wrote.


School unfairly attacked provides quality education at less cost


Recent attacks and inaccurate statements about the integrity and success of Primavera Online and its students demand a proper response. On behalf of the more than 200,000 students we have served over the past 18 years, the truth about us deserves to be told.

Damian Creamer
Damian Creamer
  • The Arizona Republic reports our dropout rate at 49 percent. This is inaccurate, and we are working with the Arizona Department of Education to correct errors made when all schools transitioned to the state’s new data system in 2015-2016. Once finalized, we expect our dropout rates to resume being much lower than that of our alternative school peers.
  • The Republic has reported multiple student-to-teacher ratios ranging from 215 to 1, most recently 68 to 1. Both numbers are ludicrous and evidence of The Republic’s baseless reporting. Our average class size last year was 33 students per teacher.
  • The Republic states we raised teacher salaries by 1 percent. Again, inaccurate. Teachers’ base salaries were increased an average of 15 percent over the last two years, while significant cost increases to health care benefits have been covered by Primavera – not passed on to our teachers.
  • The Republic reports that we – like half of all schools throughout the state – perform below state average on AzMERIT. What they don’t report is that our scores exceed those of other alternative schools. More than 70 percent of Primavera students are considered at-risk of not graduating, yet our passing scores are higher than our peers by 13 percent in math and 20 percent in English. For the past three years, Primavera’s AzMERIT improvement has outpaced the state’s average by increasing 7 percent in ELA and 10 percent in mathematics.

The Republic has failed to publish these facts, which we have submitted to them on several occasions, possibly because they don’t fit into their narrative against charter schools.

What they do not acknowledge is the immense value Primavera provides to the people of Arizona.

Primavera educated 22,000 students last school year. The vast majority of these students chose Primavera to recover graduation credits over the other 150 alternative schools throughout the state. In fact, one in 10 of all Arizona high school seniors chose to enroll in a Primavera course last year.

For taxpayers worried about overpaying for education services, that isn’t happening. Safeguards to protect Arizonans from paying more than once for a child’s education already exist in statute. The state splits funding proportionally between all schools that educate each child.

Primavera also has a large full-time student body – 20 percent of whom are adults between 18 and 21. We graduated nearly 1,000 of these students last year alone. Most of our graduates were at least one year behind after attending other high schools. These matter because according to the Arizona Mayors Education Roundtable 2018 report, these graduates alone prevented an approximate $415 million in total estimated lifetime loss for Arizona.

Primavera also saved families approximately $1.2 million last summer alone by enrolling over 6,700 students who would have otherwise paid $180 per class to traditional district summer school programs. Primavera’s unique ability to help any student recover credits so that they can graduate with their classmates at their home school (or ours), doesn’t cost the state one penny more. In fact, it saves everyone money. And, unlike other schools, Arizona’s online schools are required to educate every student 20 percent more time for less state funding per pupil than brick and mortar schools.

To provide a rigorous and effective program, we created the technology and digital curriculum that powers Primavera’s online platform. This is an ongoing endeavor to innovate how students learn and teachers teach in the modern era. Our curriculum and technology have won over 60 prestigious regional and national awards. Primavera’s unique innovations include tools that allow teachers to track student progress and foster engagement. Primavera is nationally regarded as a pioneer in online education, and as an Arizona charter school, we continually re-invest our resources to give students the top-notch education they deserve.

Since 1994, the private sector has successfully played a critical role in improving the quality of public education by providing school choice. Primavera is an essential piece of that success. Our 18 years of experience has taught us what works and more importantly, what doesn’t. We invest heavily in our faculty, staff, curriculum, and technology. Unlike a brick and mortar school built for a fixed cost, enterprise-level education platforms continually evolve to meet the changing needs of the modern student.

We’re 500 employees strong – dedicated professionals providing even the most disadvantaged students with the highest quality education and proud of the work and service we provide. It’s unfortunate that The Republic has chosen a one-sided attack that impugned the positive impact Primavera has in Arizona.

Damian Creamer is founder of Primavera Online Schools and StrongMind. Editor’s Note: Managing Editor Gary Grado has a relative who is an employee of Primavera.


The views expressed in guest commentaries are those of the author and are not the views of the Arizona Capitol Times.

The good, the bad, the ugly of my first legislative session


When I took office in January, I promised to work collaboratively with stakeholders to find solutions to the challenges that education faces in Arizona. We have made significant strides toward building and repairing relationships between the Arizona Department of Education and our partners in the Governor’s Office, the Legislature, and the State Board of Education.

The Good

There were several bright spots in this year’s budget, including money for districts to hire new school counselors and the next installment of 20×2020 raises. There was also funding for the Teachers Academy to address our critical shortage of teachers. I applaud the bipartisan efforts that helped deliver these wins.

Kathy Hoffman
Kathy Hoffman

An urgent priority as I took office was to repeal antiquated, discriminatory policies that had impacted students and families for decades. One of these laws was known as the “no promo homo” law and I called for its repeal in my first State of Education speech. While I could not have predicted the turn of events that led to its eventual repeal, the state made the right decision by removing this outdated and harmful legislation from the books. Our LGBTQ students no longer face codified discrimination in our schools, and all students will benefit from the ability to receive medically accurate sex education.

But there were other issues that I discovered needed addressing – and fast – when I assumed office. For example, I quickly learned there was widespread confusion and instability surrounding statewide testing. I worked diligently with my staff, the State Board of Education and the Legislature to adopt a five-year plan that provides educators and families with clarity about what to expect regarding AzMERIT and statewide testing.

I can’t reflect on this session without celebrating one of our earliest successes: reducing the restrictions of the four-hour English instruction blocks. Improving instruction practices for Arizona’s many English-learning (EL) students is a top issue for me. That’s why I was thrilled when legislation relaxing this mandate passed both chambers with unanimous support in mid-February. The next step will be to repeal Arizona’s English only instruction law – an effort that almost made it through this session. I remain hopeful we can send it to the voters for approval in 2020.
The Bad

We saw success forging bipartisan agreements on several issues, but there were missed opportunities for more collaborative work across the aisle. Broad bipartisan support existed on issues like charter school reform, repeal of the English only law, a more comprehensive approach to CTED’s and more. It was disappointing to see these bills fail when we could have worked together to develop solutions to benefit all Arizonans.

We also went another year without finding a sustainable, dedicated revenue stream to return education funding to pre-recession levels. It is indefensible that our schools will have to wait another year for us to address this issue. Education funding is one of the defining issues our state faces as it looks to the future. We must find the political will to solve this problem. Our students deserve nothing less.

The Ugly

We established the ESA Task Force in February, bringing together stakeholders with diverse views on vouchers to help us find ways to improve the management and transparency of the ESA program. It’s been a productive, collaborative group. Already, we are working to select a new vendor for an improved payment system that will reduce the cumbersome processes families must now follow, and that will lessen the chance for fraud or misspending.

I am proud of the work the task force has done to improve the program, but I was dismayed to see politics get in the way of progress. Our department missed out on critical funds from the budget that our ESA team needs to manage workload capacity and to transition to the new payment system.

Final Thoughts
I am proud of what we accomplished this year and of the relationships we’ve built. It makes me optimistic about the possibilities the next legislative session holds as we commit ourselves to proactively building coalitions to find sustainable, effective solutions for education.

Kathy Hoffman is the Arizona superintendent of public instruction.