Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Rep. Randy Friese Tells Us Where He Stands on K-12 Funding

Posted By on Wed, Jul 6, 2016 at 10:00 AM

  • Randy Friese
Voters and the media should demand that candidates for state legislature explain their positions on K-12 funding, in detail. If they don't do it on their own, they should be asked the question by every journalist who interviews them and by the public at every forum they attend—with follow-up questions to pin them down on specifics.

Rep. Randy Friese, LD-9, set the tone in a recent campaign email and on the front page of his campaign website. Full disclosure: Friese is my representative, and I have donated to his campaign. But I will be happy to describe and analyze statements on education from any legislative candidate anywhere in the state. You can send them to me at

Friese begins by noting that our schools are inadequately funded. It's closing in on two months since Prop 123 passed, yet we still haven't heard any details about Ducey's promised next step.
Was this a promise? Or was this just rhetoric?

In the absence of any proposed second step from the governor's office or republican legislative leadership nearly two months later, I'm concerned it was rhetoric.
Friese writes that he would put a freeze on corporate tax breaks until we restore school funding. He would have the legislature put a renewal of Prop 301 on the ballot before it expires in 2021 so its 0.6 percent sales tax for schools doesn't expire. He would change the amount of money the state draws from the State Land Trust from the levels set by Prop 123 so they are lower when state revenues are strong.

Friese ends with this.
In order to address our K-12 education funding needs, state leaders should propose a multi-year funding plan. The governor should call a special legislative session this summer to enact this plan. Only then will Arizona students, teachers, and parents be assured that state leaders are committed to properly maintaining our system of public education as required by our constitution.  

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Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Prop 123, Tucson Area Schools, and Salary Hikes

Posted By on Tue, Jul 5, 2016 at 10:00 AM

  • Courtesy of PhotoSpin
I read the article in the Sunday Star about teacher salaries in the Tucson area post-Prop 123, three or four times. I was trying to figure out exactly what it meant. The thrust of the article is, TUSD is being stingy with its salary hikes after receiving the recently disbursed Prop 123 funds while many other districts in the area are being more generous. But the article lacked head-to-head, apples-to-apples, salary-to-salary comparisons of teacher compensation across the districts, so I don't know if its conclusions reflect what's happening to teachers' paychecks. I tried to look a little deeper to understand the teacher salary reality in the Tucson area. That shed a little light on the subject, but not much.

If, as the article implies, TUSD allowed its teacher salary to fall below that of neighboring districts, it made a serious mistake. Because of the current teacher shortage, it's a sellers market. Teachers, especially the top prospects, are likely to get multiple offers, so they can pick and choose between districts, and salary is likely to be a serious consideration. If Superintendent Sanchez's decision to be "fiscally conservative" when it comes to raises, as he is quoted saying in the Star article, puts the district at a competitive disadvantage, then he made a bad decision. True, Prop 123 monies could face a court challenge, and an economic downturn could mean a loss of funding in the future, but it's better to take a long term gamble if it improves the short term situation where too many classrooms lack full-time teachers. And there's another issue, of course. TUSD teachers deserve a raise, and Sanchez is doing them a disservice if he's being less generous than other districts.

But is the TUSD salary raise as low as the Star article states, and is it lower than neighboring districts? I honestly don't know. According to the article, TUSD teachers will "see $700 added to their base salaries." However, the information on the TUSD website paints a different picture.

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Thursday, June 30, 2016

Diane Douglas on Testing and the Classrooms First Initiative Council

Posted By on Thu, Jun 30, 2016 at 4:15 PM

Superintendent of Public Instruction Diane Douglas. - COURTESY OF THE ARIZONA  DEPARTMENT OF EDUCATION
  • Courtesy of the Arizona Department of Education
  • Superintendent of Public Instruction Diane Douglas.
I was at Wednesday night's sparsely attended meeting with Ed Supe Diane Douglas. About 30 people showed up in the main library's conference room to hear Douglas talk about what's going on in Arizona education, a far cry from the packed auditorium at her Pima Community College event in April, 2015. Maybe the small crowd was because it's summer, when parents and teachers' minds are on other things, or maybe it's because Douglas is no longer new news as she was last year.

Most of the meeting was made up of audience comments and questions, but Douglas made a few statements that were worth noting, on state testing and Ducey's Classrooms First Initiative Council.

Douglas once again made it clear she's no fan of the overuse of standardized testing. "We need to test our students less," she said. And she indicated that results of the state's AzMERIT test are being misused. "[Standardized] testing was never intended to be an assessment of a teacher, a school or a district," she stated. Douglas said she is working on a more comprehensive A-F school grading system that will include more factors than a school's state test scores.

Douglas only spent a few moments talking about Ducey's Classrooms First Initiative Council, whose task is to propose ways to shift around education funding without adding new revenue. She's a member of the council, and it looks like she shares some of my skepticism about the group's unspoken agenda. (My recent posts on the subject are here, here and here.) Douglas said she was concerned that the council was "a special interest group," though she didn't mention what that "special interest" might be. However, a statement she made soon after is probably a clue to what she was alluding to. She said she is a supporter of charter schools, but she also noted that, 20 years after charters were set up in Arizona, 85 percent of students still choose to go to district schools, and we must be sure we do nothing to harm those students. I'm seeing dots connecting those two statements, which would mean she worries that charters will come out the funding winners in the council's final proposals, to the detriment of school district funding. She's spoken before about her concern that the pro-charter faction has outsized influence in the governor's office. In a press release from Douglas in February, 2015, Douglas wrote, "Clearly [Ducey] has established a shadow faction of charter school operators . . ." Douglas has tempered her language since then, but I get the feeling her sentiments haven't changed all that much.

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Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Winners and Losers in the Classrooms First Initiative Council Proposals

Posted By on Tue, Jun 28, 2016 at 8:34 AM

When you're shifting funds around in a revenue-neutral situation, you're going to create winners and losers. It's a zero sum game, so when one party gets a dollar more, another party gets a dollar less. The most important question when you discuss those kinds of funding shifts—really, the only important question—is, who are the winners and who are the losers?

That's the situation we're facing with Ducey's Classrooms First Initiatives Council which I wrote about last week. Ducey has tasked the council with coming up with a new formula for spending the state's K-12 education dollars without adding a penny to the overall budget. During its public meetings, it has listened to lots of arguments and proposals from actors on all sides of the education debate, but when it all comes down to dust, the arguments and proposals mean little. All that matters are the recommendations the council sends on to the governor. And it's not the fine, fancy logic and language the proposals are couched in that's important. It's who wins and who loses.

I want to try to inexpertly pick apart some of the possible proposals the council will put forward to see how they shift the flow of money. I say "inexpertly" because the proposals are general, without specific details, and the devil is always in the details, and also because I don't claim to know all the complexities of our very complex system of education funding. So consider this the beginning of a conversation we need to have before, not after, the council's proposals make it to the governor's desk and he sends them on to the legislature.

The buzz word at the most recent council meeting was "equity," and as is true with most buzz words, it's best to ignore it when you're trying to figure out what's going on. Basically, "equity" means being fair and even-handed. In education, that means giving every student as close to an equal chance of getting a quality education as possible, even if it costs more to educate some students than others. That's a great idea which most people talking about education say they agree with. But when everyone uses the same term, no matter what side of the debate they're on, the term is rendered meaningless. It's like "freedom." Everyone is for it, but it takes on different meanings depending on who's talking about it.

So let's look at some of the more prominent ideas in front of the council and try to figure out what they mean in terms of who gets more money and who gets less. The rest of this post gets pretty deep in the weeds, so here's the short version for those who want to leave early. The way I read the proposals, charter schools will be the winners, along with school districts with high income students. Districts with low income students will be the losers.

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Thursday, June 23, 2016

What Happened at Tuesday's Classrooms First Initiative Council Meeting?

Posted By on Thu, Jun 23, 2016 at 9:01 AM

  • Illustration from Photospin image
  • Courtesy of PhotoSpin
So far as I can tell, no one in the media has reported on Tuesday's Classrooms First Initiative Council Meeting where school funding proposals were considered, nor has Ducey or anyone in his office made a statement about it. The minutes may be published soon, though based on minutes from earlier meetings, the document will be short and general. However, we now have an online audio of the meeting, all 2 hours, 45 minutes and 50 seconds of it. I'll try to wade though the thing, though I imagine I'll do some skipping around. If anyone else wants to venture in, please report your impressions in the comments.

As I wrote in an earlier post, this meeting is the kind of "next step" Ducey was talking about before the Prop 123 vote, which involves looking at ways to shift around existing education dollars, not add more funding. So the question is, what funding shifts will the council recommend, and since this is a zero sum game, who will be the winners and losers?

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Wednesday, June 22, 2016

National Education Policy Center: Class Size and Money Both Matter in Education

Posted By on Wed, Jun 22, 2016 at 12:55 PM

The National Education Policy Center (NEPC), out of the School of Education at the University of Colorado, Boulder, just put out two short research papers that conclude, class size matters, and money in education matters. I believe the papers are right on both counts, but as always when I site research, whether I agree or not, I have to add that no conclusions in education research are conclusive. Education has so many moving parts, it's impossible to create perfect control groups or isolated variables. That being said . . .

The class size reduction study looks at data and research dating back to 1979, including the much-discussed Tennessee STAR (Student/Teacher Achievement Ratio) study where elementary students in a number of schools were randomly assigned to small classes of 13-15 students and larger classes of up to 25 students. According to the author,
The smaller classes performed substantially better by the end of second grade in test scores, grades, and fewer disciplinary referrals.

The gains lasted. The students that had been assigned to smaller classes were more likely to graduate in four years, more likely to go to college, and more likely to get a degree in a STEM field. The positive effect was twice as large for poor and minority students, and thus narrowed the achievement gap.
The finding that small class sizes most benefit poor and minority students isn't surprising. Students who are less likely to succeed in school due to socioeconomic factors are more likely to benefit from increased academic and emotional attention from teachers than students who have stronger economic and educational support systems in their homes and communities.

According to one researcher, the improvements are both significant and cost effective.
[Alan] Krueger noted, as have many others, that class size reduction most benefits minority and disadvantaged students, and would be expected to narrow the racial achievement gap by about one-third. He also estimated that the economic gains of smaller classes in the early grades outweighed the costs two to one.
Class size in upper grades haven't been studied as closely as in the lower grades, but indications are that smaller classes lead to short term and long term gains there as well.

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Monday, June 20, 2016

Ducey 'Next Step' Watch: Day 32. A No-More-Funding Side Step

Posted By on Mon, Jun 20, 2016 at 4:00 PM

  • Illustration from Photospin image
  • Courtesy of PhotoSpin
Finally, something to report in the continuing Ducey "Next Step" Watch. His Classrooms First Initiative Council will be meeting June 21 to discuss "school funding proposals." Note the word "new" is missing from the phrase "school funding proposals." This isn't about proposals for new funding. It's about ways to shift around existing dollars.

That bears repeating. The "school funding proposals" are a zero sum game. They're either manipulating education funding in the current budget, or the budget plus Prop 301 funding if that makes it through the court challenges. I have no doubt the governor will try to sell the proposals coming out of this meeting as the next step he was talking about. And actually, that will be accurate, in the sense that his plan for a next step has always been to step away from the issue of adding any more money to our near-bottom-of-the-barrel per student funding. Call this Ducey's "Face it, you're not gonna get any more money from the general fund, so get over it" next step.

After Prop 301 passed on May 17, education and business interests submitted funding proposals to the Classrooms First Initiative Council. Basically, they're all asking that their favorite pieces of the funding pie be saved or increased. Virtual/online schools want to make sure their funding isn't cut. Urban schools are asking that the poverty level of students be figured into the financing formula. Rural schools want their extra costs be considered. And so on.

Here are a few things you can be reasonably sure will come out of the June 21 meeting—unless it delays its decisions as it has in the past.

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Thursday, June 16, 2016

Charter Groups Want More Regulations for Virtual Charter Schools

Posted By on Thu, Jun 16, 2016 at 4:00 PM

  • Courtesy of PhotoSpin
Now this is an interesting development. Some prominent charter school organizations have published a report advocating stricter regulations to improve the performance of virtual charter schools, also known as on-line schools. This isn't an entirely new development. Charter school organizations have been trying to weed out poorly performing schools from the charter ranks, and this is their latest effort. More at the end of the post about the positives and negatives of this push.

Three organizations, National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, National Association of Charter School Organizers and 50CAN, joined together to publish A Call to Action To Improve the Quality of Full-Time Virtual Charter Public Schools. The organizations support virtual charters, but they've read the reports about how poorly students at those schools perform compared to students at other public schools and believe the schools should be more carefully regulated.

The facts about the virtual schools in the report look to me to be accurate. A vital bit of information is that 70 percent of the schools are run by for-profit organizations, directly or indirectly, which means the profit motive is going to trump education whenever the two are in conflict. Some other facts: there are 135 full-time virtual schools in the country; 79 percent of their students are in virtual schools with more than a thousand students; virtual school serve more students in poverty and fewer English language learners than traditional public schools.

The report's recommendations are specific and, if implemented, could doom one of the biggest players, K-12 Inc., a publicly traded corporation (Arizona Virtual Academy, or AZVA, in one of its schools) whose many sins I've written about over the years and whose failings are being subjected to increasing scrutiny. The proposal is that enrollment be limited to hundreds, not thousands of students, and if the schools want to grow, they need to meet performance goals. That would be a stake in the heart of K12 Inc. whose profits are based on continual growth and whose stockholders are growing increasingly skittish (its stock is currently trading at about 11, down from a 2011 high of 36). AZVA has over 4,000 students. Another branch, Ohio Virtual Academy, has over 10,000 students. The corporation would crumble if it had to cut its schools' student populations dramatically.

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