We are less than a week away from the start of the 2019 legislative session, and Arizona’s reading crisis continues. Currently, only 44% of third grade students read at grade level — this is actually slightly worse than last year. We are addressing this with three legislative priorities this session:
Increase education funding
At Stand, we are open to working with strong collaborators who have ideas for increasing resources that will raise student achievement. However, we want those additional dollars to show a return on investment and be resistant to economic downturns – they should be as long-term, predictable, and sustainable as possible. One-time fixes and gimmicks aren't going to work. We need to do what’s right. To include higher education in the full spectrum of reform and funding, we believe that at a minimum $1.5 billion in state funding is still needed.
That means we are committed to an education funding package being passed this year, through whatever means necessary. This can be accomplished through legislative action, a legislative referral, or a citizen’s initiative. We are working with multiple partners to create and support a viable school funding plan that continues to raise teacher pay.
The market is responding to negative pressures – according to the Wall Street Journal, teachers are leaving the profession at the highest rate ever. New data in Arizona shows figures are worse than last year: 75% of teacher positions remain vacant or not filled with standard teacher requirements compared to 63% one year ago, and 914 teachers resigned or abandoned their job this school year, compared to 866 one year ago.
The market is continuing to demand that we improve the pay and working conditions of teachers. If we don’t respond to that demand, our academic stagnation will turn into an outright free fall.
Modernize our school finance infrastructure
Arizona’s current school finance system is over 30 years old and was designed to support local school districts funded by their taxpayers, with the state providing what could not be raised locally. Since that time, Arizona’s public school system has expanded to include a myriad of choices: open enrollment, charter schools, and Empowerment Scholarship Accounts (ESA). In effect, many students don’t attend their local community school.
The current system is outdated and continues to increase reliance on state funding. State policies, which continue to limit the ability to raise revenue, have resulted in the chronic underfunding of public schools. Short-term solutions and targeted investments fail to address the underlying problem. This practice is inefficient and inadequate for providing the right dollars to the right place at the right time and is wasteful. The saddest part is that we have solutions. The Governor’s Classrooms First task force report contains them. But the report is also clear that in order to make these reforms, we need funding.
Improve outcomes for English Language Learners
For the last four years, we’ve been working to make sure that English Language Learners (ELL) are getting the best education possible. Last year, we got so close, but time ran out during the legislative session — despite our bill passing unanimously out of both the House and Senate Education committees.
Current state policies regarding ELL students were adopted in response to a lawsuit and limited by voter-protected requirements. They have been in place for 12 years. These policies use a one-size-fits-all approach, unlike any other education policy.
That’s why we are so happy and encouraged by the fact that Senator Paul Boyer has introduced SB 1014. This bill allows for flexibility at the local level while preserving voter mandates, and it provides for needed transparency and accountability. We believe this legislation is crucial. According to the state’s report card, ELL students scored below all other sub-groups on the statewide assessment, at every grade level and in every subject area, including students with special needs.
Many lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have either co-sponsored or signed onto SB 1014 already. Representative Michelle Udall is sponsoring a mirror bill in the House, and Senator Sylvia Allen has placed SB 1014 on the Senate Education Committee agenda for next week! Our goal is to get this bill through early to help the nearly 83,000 ELL students who are falling behind in school. Thanks to these leaders, we are on our way!
These three legislative priorities will be at the heart of what we focus on at the Capitol. They won’t be easy to accomplish, but they are necessary and honestly past due.