Rich State, Poor State: The Accountability and Capacity Gap in Arizona's Public School Policies
By JoAnne Hilde, Arizona Education Coalition Liaison
As Arizona's affiliate of the Learning First Alliance, the Arizona Education Coalition represents many education stakeholders, including representatives of local governing board members, school administrators, educator and other employee groups, support programs, parent networks, accreditation agencies, and higher education. United fundamentally in support of public education, the Education Coalition joins its members as well in celebrating the promise — present and future — of a public education system to the state and in addressing the challenges under which our schools labor.
Currently, Arizona's public schools suffer from a deluge of increased policy demands described by their proponents as increasing accountability for the investment of public funds. But those very funds have dried up in the desert sun, leaving schools and districts scrambling to meet the increased expectations. In short, Arizona is a state with public schools rich in accountability and dirt poor in capacity — with policymakers driven by the former and seemingly oblivious to the latter.
Capacity means having the resources necessary to meet expectations and pursue goals. Adequate capacity for educating a state's students includes human, financial, structural and cultural resources that enable success for all. Included within that capacity should be a powerful accountability system that monitors the success of the entire educational system. Conversely, a state's investment in capacity should be reflected in the accountability system.
Capacity includes both the depth of resources and the flexibility of the education system to determine the best use of resources, as these resource allocations are measured against student outcomes. With sufficient educational capacity, Arizona's students will be highly competitive for the jobs of the future and enhance the state's ability to attract and retain quality businesses and industries. With insufficient capacity we have unattainable expectations. Expectations alone cannot drive the system. In Arizona, expectations are on a collision course with reality.
Over the past four years, Arizona's increasingly conservative legislature has, in the name of public accountability, passed sweeping education policy changes. Student growth, primarily measured by standardized test scores, now determines to an unprecedented level the effectiveness of teachers and principals and is the primary indicator in the formula that rates school and Local Education Agency (LEA) effectiveness. Third grade students must demonstrate grade-level reading proficiency, or they cannot progress to the fourth grade. Finally, Arizona has entered into the consortium of states implementing the Common Core State Standards and in two years will introduce new, more stringent exams as a member of the Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC).
The steep trajectories of student achievement and LEA performance assume that districts have the resources to respond to these and other policy demands. Yet at the same time that Arizona's policymakers have raised the bar of expectations, they have cut public education funding by more than 21%, as documented in a recent report issued by the National Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. According to the report, Arizona's cuts to public education over the last five years are the nation's highest.
Arizona's cuts to K-12 public education funding mirror drastic reductions in other areas of public education, including huge reductions to the state's three public universities and to its network of community colleges, as well as to funding for adult literacy and Career and Technical Education. This multi-faceted divestiture of the state from its own public education system was in part a response to the state's devastating economic downturn as part of the national recession which began in 2009. Indeed, many states made reduced their allocations to public sector enterprises.
Yet Arizona's recent cuts worsened an education funding crisis — and therefore, a capacity crisis — already years in the making. Arizona has recorded some of the largest documented classroom student/teacher ratios in the country, especially at the elementary grade levels. The state's dropout rate is among the nation's highest, and overall NAEP scores have slid significantly in most categories over the past two decades. Despite the claims of some elected officials, Arizona's per pupil spending has been at or near the bottom of national rankings for almost ten years. Thus, regarding investments in our schools and students, Arizona spends the least and has cut the most.
The educational capacity in Arizona has followed suit and become disturbingly limited. Meanwhile, expectations, increased accountability, and systemic demands are being imposed on schools at a rapid pace. Absent careful planning and prioritizing, the necessary capacity to implement these expectations has not accompanied the mandates.
The resources necessary to meet the demands placed on schools must also be established and become part of the policies passed into law. As parents, student, taxpayers and educators who care deeply about Arizona's future, the Arizona Education Coalition will work with other groups to call for adequate capacity for the entire P-20 system. We will encourage strong and coordinated efforts to ensure that our education system includes the necessary capacity to meet competitive international expectations. As partners, we share a sense of obligation to our students and to our state.
Views expressed in this post are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the endorsement of the Learning First Alliance or any of its members.