Lawmakers aim cuts at funding for a quarter million students
Sections    Tuesday March 21st, 2023

Lawmakers aim cuts at funding for a quarter million students

What Desegregation Funding Pays For In This Holbrook Unified School District Classroom. Photo Courtesy Holbrook Unified School District

Update 2/11/16: On Wednesday, the Arizona Senate Finance committee passed Senate Bill 1125 on a 3-2 vote, which means it next goes for a vote before the full senate. The bill would phase out desegregation funding for districts with Office of Civil Rights agreements over five years and 10 years for court ordered districts that are in unitary status.

Local funding that today provides more equitable services and opportunities for nearly a quarter of a million low-income and minority students in Arizona public schools has been targeted by Arizona legislators for reduction and eventual elimination.

Christine Busch, the superintendent of the 11,800-student Tempe Elementary School District, which utilizes the desegregation funding, says the cuts, which would amount to nearly 10 percent of the district’s budget, “would just devastate us.”

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What desegregation funding pays for in this Holbrook Unified School District classroom. Photo courtesy of Holbrook Unified School District

The Arizona Senate Finance committee meets Wednesday morning to consider SB 1125, one of two bills that would reduce and eventually eliminate desegregation funding. Education advocates, as well as leaders from the Arizona school districts who are using those dollars to implement strategies that they say are resulting in improved academic outcomes for their students, are seeking to prevent those cuts.

Desegregation funding  allows the 19 Arizona districts who have been ordered by the federal government to provide equal educational opportunities for minority students to levy higher local property taxes to pay those costs. The amount is limited, but does not require the approval of local voters.

Today, desegregation funding affects 246,384 students in those 19 districts statewide, or 23 percent of the 1.082 million Arizona K-12 students. Arizona school districts have budgeted $211,258,390 in desegregation funding this year, which is unchanged since about 2009, said Lyle Friesen, deputy associate superintendent of school finance for the Arizona Department of Education.

Click here for related story: Dollars to equalize opportunities a civil rights issue, Holbrook district leader says

Eliminating desegregation funding would be a game-changer, said Dr. Chad Gestson, superintendent of Phoenix Union High School District. The largest high school district in the state, with 27,242 students.

For Phoenix Union, the estimated $53 million would likely require closing four high schools that are almost entirely funded by desegregation dollars and the loss of 702 teaching and staff jobs, Gestson said.

The proposed elimination of desegregation funding is “simply a huge tax cut on the backs of our poorest students,” Gestson said.

“This is a $200 million tax cut to public education, in an era where we in Arizona are trying to recover,” Gestson said. “But the ramifications are even greater in what it means to the Phoenix urban core, property values, crime rates, less attractive job market, a depleted and under-educated workforce and resulting reduced tax base, more burdensome on city, county and state services and lower quality of life.”

“Desegregation funding is vital to our district,” said Dr. Robbie Koerperich, superintendent of the 2,600-student  Holbrook Unified School District in Navajo County. “This specific funding provides additional assistance that our students need to close the achievement gap and propel them into college- and career-ready students.”

How it came about

Lawmakers aim cuts at funding for a quarter million students ArizonaDistrictsReceivingDesegregationFunding-Calibri-9In the 1960s and 1970s, some Arizona school districts had high-socioeconomic schools and low-socioeconomic schools, with different and inadequate services for students in the low-socioeconomic schools, Busch said.

“What happened in our district is that full-day kindergarten was offered only to the affluent schools and students were assigned to schools based on their ethnicity and they were racially isolated,” Busch said.

“The schools that were racially isolated didn’t have nurses, librarians, and educational services that the more affluent schools had. It’s shocking,” Busch said. “ELL students were assigned to special ed disproportionately, and minority staff were assigned to minority schools. There were so many inequities.”

The desegregation agreements the 19 Arizona school districts entered into with the federal government has helped districts provide all students access to equal educational opportunities through local, community support, Busch said.

“With our desegregation funding and all the work we’ve done, our district came into compliance in 2000,” Busch said. “We’ve come into compliance because of our desegregation funding.”

The districts currently using desegregation dollars predominantly serve low-income and minority students, and “these dollars are a source for a lot of the innovative engagement programs that these students benefit from,” said Paul Luna, of president and CEO of Helios Education Foundation.

Ensuring adequate and equitable funding for all Arizona students is an important topic right now, “not just for these districts and not just for low-income students,” Luna said.

“At the end of the day, we want to make sure that we’re using our investment in education to eliminate the achievement gaps and the degree completion gaps that do exist between low-income, predominantly minority students and high-income, non-minority students in our state,” Luna said.

Legislators’ bills

But Arizona Sen. Debbie Lesko (R, D-21), who sponsored Senate Bill 1125, which would reduce and eliminate desegregation funding in five to 10 years, said desegregation funding gives the school districts who receive it an unfair advantage over those who don’t.

When desegregation districts go over the state cap on property tax rates, Lesko said “the state’s general fund must make up the difference, ‘to the tune of $23 million’ in 2015,” in a CBS 5 KPHO story. Lesko also said she thinks the districts should be asking voters to approve budget overrides, which also are funded by local property taxes, instead of receiving desegregation funding.

Another bill seeking to reduce and then eliminate desegregation spending is House Bill 2401, sponsored by Representatives Vince Leach (R, D-11), Mark Finchem (R, D-11), Anthony Kern (R, D-20), House Majority Whip David Livingston (R, D-22), Darin Mitchell (R, D-13), House Majority Leader Steve Montenegro (R, D-13), Justin Olson (R, D-25) and Bob Thorpe (R, D-6).  This bill which has identical language to SB 1125, is being held right now, because the Senate bill will be heard on Wednesday morning in the Senate Finance Committee.

“Desegregation dollars are a very important historical revenue stream for many districts and it needs to be thought about in a very thoughtful and comprehensive manner,” Luna said.

Busch said she is urging legislators to postpone acting on desegregation funding until the governor’s Classrooms First Council releases its plan in eight months or so to simplify and make more equitable the state’s education funding formula, especially since the council is “talking about weights for poverty.”

The funding’s impact

Legislators are receiving political pressures from select tax watchdogs, who do not see the enormous impact desegregation funding has on districts, Koerperich said.

“It is because of desegregation funding that our district is thriving, growing, innovation, achieving and attracting top teachers, interested business and community partners, and preparing all students for success in college, career and life,” Gestson said.

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Students in Phoenix Union High School District’s Communication Arts magnet program. Photo courtesy of Phoenix Union High School District

Desegregation funding lets Phoenix Union provide 11 magnet programs and a highly successful magnet school – Metro Tech, funds English as a Second Language, transportation and re-open closed schools and open new schools, such as Cesar Chavez and Betty Fairfax, to address overcrowding in the South Phoenix and Laveen areas.

“Desegregation funding accounts for one in every five dollars in our budget,” Gestson said. “The infusion of desegregation funding has allowed us to do more for a population that needs it most … whether it is academics, safe schools, innovative programs, new small schools, affordable or free extracurriculars, top teachers.”

With the loss of $13.8 million in desegregation funding, “Tempe Elementary wouldn’t look like it does now,” Busch said.

Tempe Elementary would lose 257 teaching positions, full-day kindergarten, probably have to close more schools, reduce the number of social workers and find another way to fund them, Busch said.

Preparing students in need has been a huge community effort with local taxpayers’ support, help from the City of Tempe through Experience Corps and the large number of volunteers who work directly with students in the district’s highest poverty schools, Busch said.

“We know that if we didn’t have it (desegregation funding) that we would really struggle to meet the basic needs of our students,” Busch said. “I really feel like we would easily, very quickly fall out of compliance in some areas if we weren’t able to support those basic needs.”

Koerperich said, “It is estimated that 90 to 100 percent of the desegregation funds are being spent in the classrooms, which is Governor Ducey’s initiative for school funding.”

Also, any cuts to desegregation funding will dramatically impact employment in the field of education, Koerperich said.

“It is estimated that approximately 2,500 jobs are currently linked to desegregation funding,” Koerperich said. “Those jobs will be impacted in a time when teacher shortages are already negatively impacting Arizona.”

Koerperich said he hopes legislators will let communities with unique circumstances – such as Office of Civil Rights letters –continue to provide high-quality services to students paid by the local funds generated by desegregation funding, Koerperich said.

Improved educational opportunities

The districts are helping legislators understand that they have used these funds for over 20 years to improve students’ educational opportunities for students under Office of Civil Rights findings, Koerperich said.

Shifts in Phoenix Union’s student population “have made critical the need to focus more on providing robust instructional programs and essential student support services” to best serve the district’s low-income, language-minority student population, Gestson said.

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Students in Phoenix Union High School District’s law magnet program interact with a judge as they would in court. Photo courtesy of Phoenix Union High School District

“We believe that it costs more to educate some children, and rather than cut our funding – which is near the national average per student – we should raise the level of support for all districts and students,” Gestson said.

“After 20-plus years of using these funds to build a strong educational foundation for the City of Phoenix, why penalize this by cutting 20 percent of Phoenix Union High School District’s budget at a time when all schools in Arizona need more?” Gestson asked.

Holbrook began receiving desegregation funding 25 years ago after an Office of Civil Rights investigation concerning the identification and services provided for language minority students, Koerperich said.

“The needs do not go away. Annually, we enroll language minority students, and without desegregation funding, the next generation of language minority students will not receive the same services as years past,” Koerperich said.

What it looks like

Desegregation funding has kept class sizes manageable and teacher salaries competitive, as well as providing student services, community liaisons, social workers, interventionists, counselors, nurses and psychologists Gestson said.

It also “funds safety and security personnel critical to maintaining a positive school climate and culture, often markedly different from urban high school environments found in other large cities,” Gestson said.

In Tempe Elementary, desegregation funding also pays for a portion of English Language Learning, bilingual, speech, and gifted education, safety mentors, assistant principals, people who communicate with parents about services and opportunities, community liaisons, attendance officers, the Native American program for the 68 tribes represented in the district, counselors, nurses, Busch said.

Eighty-eight percent of the Tempe Elementary School District students are minorities and about 73 percent of students receive free- and reduced-lunch, Busch said.

“It’s all the services that help our kids be successful when they come from backgrounds that they need that extra support,” Busch said. “There are so many challenges our children in poverty bring to the table, that in order to prepare them for learning we have to make sure that they have clothing, food and medical services.”

For example, some children in the district live in homes with dirt floors, no lighting or running water and many don’t have Internet at home they can access to do their homework, Busch said.

“We’re changing the world for children, because education is going to help them be successful,” Busch said. “It’s the great equalizer”

Return on investment

Desegregation districts are working with legislators “to dispel the myth that these funds are not needed in our school systems and are not producing a return on the investment,” Koerperich said.

The graduation rate at Phoenix Union has increased to 80 percent today and equal to the state average from 55 percent about 15 years ago, Gestson said.

“For example, our four-year graduation rates for Hispanic and African-American students are higher than the state average,” Gestson said.

The district has also reduced dropout rates to 3.4 percent today, which is lower than state average and greatly reduced from 15 percent more 20 years ago, Gestson said.

In addition, Phoenix Union graduates are going to college in greater numbers and earning more scholarships – $50 million now, much higher than $13 million six years ago, Gestson said.

“What we ask of legislators is to find ways to properly fund all districts in Arizona to ensure all students have the opportunity to receive a high quality education, not defund districts to equalize services,” Koerperich said.