Monday, September 21, 2015

Ducey's School Finance Reform Council Will Announce Findings Tuesday

Posted By on Mon, Sep 21, 2015 at 3:30 PM

Tuesday is the day we hear how Gov. Ducey's Classrooms First Initiative Council wants to change the way the current school funding is handed out. I have no inside information about what they'll be presenting, but, at the risk of making a fool of myself, let me predict the nature of the group's approach and proposals.

Three things you have to know before we play the proposal guessing game. First, the council's task isn't to recommend more education funding. It's to take what's already out there and redistribute it. Since every school is a loser right now with our bottom-of-the-barrel per student funding, re-dividing the pie will mean some schools and students will be even greater losers and others will be in a bit better shape. Second, the board appointed by Ducey is evenly divided between charter and school district people, even though charters educate less that 20 percent of the state's students. You can be sure that the charter school complaint that they get less money per student than districts, a complaint that doesn't hold water if you look at the numbers carefully, will get careful and thoughtful consideration. Third, the groups offering "technical and policy assistance" to the council lean heavily toward the "education reform"/privatization end of the spectrum, including: the libertarian Reason Foundation, the conservative/libertarian Goldwater Institute, Jeb Bush's Foundation for Excellence in Education and the Arizona Charter Schools Association. There are also some less privatization-friendly groups offering assistance, but they're in the minority.

Here are two things I expect from the council's recommendations: (1) They will do their best to make it sound like the funding changes are designed to help the lowest achieving students from the poorest families; and (2) More money will flow in the direction of districts with students from high income families, and to charter schools.

Right now, Arizona has a complex education funding formula where a basic amount of state money flows to each student, then more money is added for students who have needs beyond those of most students. That means extra money goes to districts with more ELL students, special education students and other students needing more educational attention and enrichment. It's likely that, say, TUSD and Sunnyside get more of that extra funding than, say, Catalina Foothills. That's the funding formula the council wants to change.

Ducey says he wants to "assemble one funding formula that every school can use and understand." That's a deceptive way of saying he wants to cut back on all those complicated formulas for giving more money to districts with high needs children. Think of it as a funding version of the flat tax, where its proponents say it's a way to make paying taxes simpler and fairer but the result is that the rich end up paying less while the poor and middle class pay more.

Part of the group's mission is to send more money to schools that are "achieving" or "successful" and less to schools that are "failing." If you look at our school grading formula, you'll see the "A" schools are concentrated in high income areas and the "C" and "D" schools are in low income areas. The council may try to tweak the definition of "success" and "failure" a bit to make it look less obvious that it favors districts in wealthier areas, but it's not going to change things that much. Rewarding "success" means sending more money toward the high rent districts and a few standout schools in lower rent areas. The rest of the schools will suffer.

Ducey also favors the idea of having money follow the student. What that means, basically, is that Title 1 funding, which now goes to schools with a high proportion of students with low income families, will be given out on a per student basis, so the money will follow low income students who attend schools with higher income students. The effect will be to dilute and diminish the programs in the current Title 1 schools and add funding to schools in higher income areas with a lower proportion of low income students. It's another money transfer of funds from schools in lower income areas to schools in higher income areas.

I could be surprised when I hear the Classrooms First Initiative Council's recommendations, but I expect it to follow the lines I've laid out here. These ideas have been knocking around the state for years. Unless I miss my bet, the purpose of this council is to formalize them so Ducey can push for a package of funding redistribution next legislative session.

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