Education Advocates / Legislature

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We’ll talk to education advocates to see what education priorities they would like to see the legislature work on this coming session. Arizona Education Association president Andrew Morrill and Chuck Essigs, director of government relations for the Arizona Association of School Business Officials, will tell us more.

Ted Simons: This week we're hearing from various leaders and advocates on what they want to see from the upcoming legislative session. Last night we spoke with business interests. Tonight those from the education community get their say. Joining us now is Arizona education association president, Andrew Morrill. Chuck Essigs, director of government relations for the Arizona association of school business officials, and Jennifer Johnson, the executive director of support our schools Arizona. Good to have you all here. Thanks for joining us.

Ted Simons: Andrew, we will start with you. What do you want to see from this legislative session?

Andrew Morrill: Legislature pay close attention to what Arizona's voters and citizens are saying in a border state, conservative state. We have moved public education funding to the number one issue that everybody is talking about. The need to retain our excellent teachers. Far too many of whom have left already. But we still have thousands of great classroom teachers and other committed folks working in our schools. Let's take voters at their set of priorities and do what we can to make prop one, two, three, inflation settlement, first meaningful step in addressing education funding, certainly not the last.

Ted Simons: Chuck, what do you want to see?

Chuck Essigs: We want to see the business community continue to support education. I watched your show last night. And that's the first time I remember in many, many years where there was no talk about tax cuts. The whole conversation was about education. Because I think they realize how important that is to economic development in this state. So, we want to see, as Andrew mentioned, prop one, two, three is so important to school districts around this state. We want to -- and charter schools. We want to see the effort that the legislature continue to support that effort, and realize that it is a first step, it is a good first step, but that doesn't solve all of the funding problems in Arizona, but it is a great first step.

Ted Simons: Jennifer, what do you want to see?

Jennifer Johnson: Parents in Arizona want to see three things. One, they want to be listened to as Andrew indicated. Repeatedly statewide polls indicate that Arizonans say education is the top issue to be dealt with. Parents want to be heard. They want to be listened to. They want to be taken seriously, and they want that to be acknowledged. Secondly, they want the legislature to address school funding issues. They want stable, sufficient, and sustainable school funding beyond prop one, two, three. As Chuck indicated, it is a great first step, but it is certainly not going to solve the challenges that our schools face. And, third, we want concrete action related to the teacher retention issue, because we know that at the end of the day, a great teacher in every Arizona classroom is the key to our economic prosperity as a state.

Ted Simons: I want to get to teacher retention in a second. Prop 123, what happens -- I mean, first of all, the vote is going to happen relatively late in the session, if not after the session. What can the legislature do regarding school funding prior to knowing whether or not 123 passes?

Andrew Morrill: The settlement terms of prop 123 allowed a great deal of money to stay in the general fund. This is money that the joint legislative budget committee says is replicable year after year. That money is available. That can be -- a portion of that can be used to deploy toward other education funding needs. We have a host of them. There have even been reports that have said prop 123 will add a great deal of money, but by no means makes up for all of the deficits and cuts that have happened over the last few years. We can look at high priority areas. I think the big thing is to keep that money coming into districts so that those decisions about what to do with revenue are made closest to students.

Ted Simons: The idea of getting the money into districts has been talked about in a variety of ways. Some are saying reward the high performing schools. Get more kids into those schools. Others are saying, high performing schools are the last ones that need the extra help. It is the lower performing --

Chuck Essigs: First, I think there is a lot of movement in the state and people realize how important it is to have some funding or some support for students who are at risk. Those are the student population that really needs the additional support and the additional help. And to follow-up on what Andrew talked about for the legislature, there is about $70 million in new cuts that will go into place if the legislature doesn't make some changes this year in this legislative session on how they fund career and technical education and how they count students. There are some things that the legislature needs to do so that they don't undo some of the good from prop 123 by having new cuts come into the schools.

Ted Simons: That goes back to the question I asked Andrew, obviously this vote is going to happen. It is going to be up or down. And it seems by all -- most folks think that 123 is going to pass, but, still, how much can the legislature do before that vote?

Jennifer Johnson: Well, I think there are two critical issues. Chuck alluded to one of them. That is restoring cuts that are on the table for career and technical education. It's proven to be successful in district and districts across the state. I think they need to take a hard look at that. And address that issue. I think they need to look at this issue of a move to current-year funding, which is going to be detrimental to schools.

Ted Simons: What does that mean? Define that for us?

Jennifer Johnson: It is about taking the student count as it sits today as opposed to this current system, which is schools receiving money this year for the student population they had last year. And the move to current-year funding is going to take resources out of the classroom and out of the schools and away from their discretion. It is not a step in the right direction.

Andrew Morrill: It compounds problems that Arizona has already tried that have done nothing but add to chaos. And that is really what it does. It removes some of the stability of funding. It challenges districts trying to do strategic planning and look ahead and be able to budget for their priorities and it challenges that very badly. It is very difficult to scale up. By the department of ed's own admission, we don't have the data system in place. Differentiated funding -- what parents is saying is not we want some of our schools funded. What parents are saying very clearly is we want our students to be more than test takers. We want our schools to be well funded. We want our teachers to be happy in what they do so they stay and we know they are capable of better work than just administering standardized tests.

Ted Simons: As far as testing, AZ merit, your thoughts on that, common core, whatever they're calling it these days. Are we moving forward? Is it at risk at the legislature?

Chuck Essigs: I think certainly some people who are against certain testing programs that we have in place. Andrew and I were talking earlier, and a lot of people are taking the wrong tact, especially with how they look at evaluating teachers and standardized test scores and that manner. I think it needs to be looked at. We need to have different programs in place in the state.

Andrew Morrill: Relatively speaking, AZ merit test is a good assessment. It is really not the design of the assessment. It is the policies attached to them. We have joined a nation across the United States, in putting too much on standardized test scores. This was a centerpiece of the reform camp for a number of years that did nothing to lessen achievement gaps, really didn't move the academic bar in Arizona, and the overuse of standardized tests is not only something that parents are pushing back against, but leads to differentiated funding and ultimately the money flows to students of schools of higher socioeconomic background and in short, ends -- you end up creating winners and losers and folks in the education community simply don't see the world that way.

Ted Simons: How do you get accountability? How do you know who is doing something that needs to be repeated and who is doing something that needs to be corrected?

Jennifer Johnson: Well, I think there is a couple of different answers to that question. One, I don't think any of us are advocating that we not have a way to measure the academic progress of our children. We know that our children are more than a single test score and teachers are more than a single test score. It is about creating an accountability formula that takes into account a variety of facets. There is lots of data out there that paints a very rich picture of what's happening in classrooms so that we have accountability, we know that the public investment is being spent wisely.

Ted Simons: Teacher retention, as we mentioned a couple of times here, what can the legislature do to keep teachers in the classroom?

Chuck Essigs: They can -- main thing they can do is provide districts with additional resources so that they can provide adequate compensation to their teachers. One of the reason that people leave the profession is that they can't live comfortably on the money they're being paid. First thing is to put additional resources in schools so we're not near the bottom in terms of what we have for pupils so that teachers can be paid more so that they can be retained.

Andrew Morrill: We put teachers on a very shaky three-legged stool over the last three years. Paid them flat or decreasing salaries. We have created a toxic testing environment that we have already discussed and we have an evaluation system for teachers and principals because it is so reliant on test scores is dysfunctional. Opportunity now with the federal reauthorization, going from the no child left behind to the every student succeeds act which returns a great deal more authority to the states, we can get a lot of this right and we can begin this legislative session.

Jennifer Johnson: I agree it is about addressing basic compensation. Providing resources, textbooks, materials, professional development that teachers rely on to do the job that we as Arizonans have asked them to do. I think it is also about eliminating the negative rhetoric about teachers and demonstrating visibly our respect for teachers and stop this notion there are thousands of people waiting in line to be a teacher and anyone can be a teacher. Our rhetoric is very powerful in terms of how we describe what teachers do.

Ted Simons: But that rhetoric is very strong at the legislature and has been there for a while. Do you foresee any changes along those lines?

Chuck Essigs: Well, I hope so. And, again, I think what I see as optimistic is that the business community is with us more than they have ever been. Hopefully they need to express to some legislators that we need to do things to keep our good teachers, we need to pay them more. We need to have them respected in their jobs that they are doing, which they do very well.

Andrew Morrill: Another positive sign, that you have legislators on both sides of the aisle, both chambers saying we have gone too far with the test scores. That we need to come back to what voters and parents are telling us work. Again, educators who want to stay in their profession and feel that they can be successful. Students, a nice broad curriculum that is far beyond just the tested subjects. Schools that have the resources, equipment, technology to move students forward so that they're prosperous after the leave the K-12 system. And it is really, I think, a good sign that you have got folks in both parties that are saying enough. We need to -- we need to change course.

Ted Simons: We have had, though, folks from the legislature, we have them on the show all of the time, and often some folks will say, more money does not equate to better education. The concern out there, critics writing in saying it is the alpha and omega for the education folks, it is money, money, money. Is that a valid criticism?

Chuck Essigs: Depending on what the dollars are used for. Any business bringing in more revenue, it is what you do with the revenue to increase your business activity or whatever. One thing that -- we have a different tone, when you have a governor in the state of Arizona now who is saying that we need more money for schools. We need to increase compensation for teachers. Hopefully some of that filters down to the legislature. Just more dollars, but if the money is used to compensate teachers, used to reduce class size, used to provide additional services to students who need special services, that is going to make a difference.

Andrew Morrill: We should ask an athlete if oxygen is important to performance in a sport, or if proper nutrition impacts athletic performance. A state that has cut more from the education in five years than any other state in the country, some of the lowest indicators of education investment, for folks who have been responsible for some of the cuts to say gosh, we just don't understand why it is always about money with you folks.

Ted Simons: Well, and they don't. They don't understand. That's why I'm asking the question.

Andrew Morrill: We are educators and we will take that challenge up this session.

Ted Simons: We had business folks on last night. They were saying that, you know, Arizona schools aren't so bad. Some of the best schools in the country are here in Arizona. With that in mind, define public education and do you think that some folks at the legislature are a little confused about that? The concept of public education as opposed to private schools?

Ted Simons: Not necessarily genuinely confused, but the concept that public education serves perhaps folks that aren't necessarily in their neighborhood or in their sphere?

Jennifer Johnson: I think a fundamental American principle is access to quality education by all children so that all children have an equal opportunity to experience the American dream. And that means that every Arizona classroom has to have a quality teacher, adequate resources, strong direction, and leadership.

Andrew Morrill: I think the confusion extends to ownership. Who owns the district public schools in Arizona? Taxpayers do. And they elect a governing board out of their local community and that governing board is accountable to them and accountable for what they do with that taxpayer money. We also have a publicly funded system called charters, right or wrong, does not operate that way. The notion of a governing board is very, very different. The notion of ownership and what happens to those taxpayers dollars is very, very different. A call for charter reform would be an order if it increased academic accountability and financial transparency of publicly-funded but privately-run charter schools.

Ted Simons: Last question. How do we get the schools among the best in the country and that business leaders can't wait to tell people look at these very high performing schools. Some of the public schools, very well done. How do you get that across the board?

Chuck Essigs: Well, I think we're moving in that direction, but the one thing that I find interesting is both charter schools, traditional districts now across the state, even the high-performing schools that people are touting all are saying we need additional resources to do our job. I think if we put additional resources in our schools, that word gets out to the rest of the country that we have good schools in Arizona, adequately funding good schools in Arizona, that will help economic development and bring more businesses and more tax revenue and will help pay for those additional resources for schools.

Ted Simons: All right. Quickly.

Jennifer Johnson: I think we're getting better at identifying what makes a great school a great school and so to replicate that, they're going to need the resources to make that happen.

Ted Simons: All right. Very good. We have to stop it right there. Good to have you all here. Wednesday on "Arizona Horizon," advocates for local government discuss what they want from the legislature this year and we will talk about what some see as the increasing militarization of the local police force. That's on the next "Arizona Horizon." That's it for now. I'm Ted Simons. Thank you for joining us. You have a great evening.

Video: "Arizona Horizon" is made possible by contributions from the friends of Arizona PBS, members of your PBS station, thank you.

Morrill and Chuck Essigs: Director of government relations for the Arizona Association

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