Legislators say they’re working on plans that could adjust special education funding, affect school safety and workforce development as well as update K-12 funding.
Over the interim, eight separate legislative work groups including teachers have examined and discussed education issues, but it’s hard to tell before the session starts in January which one is going to end up being the major issue, said Rep. Michelle Udall, (R-LD 25), House Education Committee chair and House Appropriations Committee member.
“We’re going to try to talk about a lot of big issues from school facilities to funding to school safety to something called innovation zones,” said Rep. Udall, during a panel moderated by KJZZ 91.5 FM Producer Katie Campbell at the Legislative Workshop sponsored by Arizona School Boards Association on Nov. 15, 2019, in Mesa.
Video by Angelica Miranda/AZEdNews: Legislators’ work on plans for upcoming budget
Legislators will also look more closely at unfunded mandates this session to make sure teachers and principals are getting extra time and fair compensation for what they’re asked to do, Rep. Udall said.
There is a lot at stake, said Rep. Aaron Lieberman, (D-LD 28), House Education Committee member and House Appropriations Committee member.
“There’ll be a lot of activity and a lot of opportunities, especially because of the financial situation that the state is in,” said Rep. Lieberman, during the panel. “Many people feel like this is a great time to actually start making some additional investments in education – getting district additional assistance restored and a whole set of things.”
Those other things might include investments in Pre-K and charter school reform, said Rep. Lieberman, a former teacher.
“It will be interesting to see when we get down there everything that happens,” Rep. Lieberman said.
The Joint Legislative Budget Committee has forecast a $694 million budget surplus, but most of that is one-time money, Rep Udall said.
“While it’s nice to say we’re going to do this in perpetuity, a lot of the things that you’ll see in the budget this year will be one-time,” said Rep. Udall said. “You’ll see some infrastructure things. You’ll see some one-time spending on school repairs and things like that, but you probably won’t see a lot of long-term stuff unless we find a revenue stream that we can agree on.”
What will happen to education funding this session?
While noting that voters approved 75% of school bonds and overrides this year, Katie Campbell, a KJZZ 91.5 FM producer who moderated the panel, said that local funding is not a reliable source for many Arizona school districts.
“How should school funding evolve?” Campbell asked.
A large group of stakeholders came in for discussions about school funding over the interim, said Rep. Udall, who also teaches high school math.
“We’re looking at several different plans. It’s really hard to get all the different advocates for education on the same page on this. They’re all over the board,” Rep. Udall said.
“We’ve looked at everything from sales tax to a statewide property tax that would even out some of the huge QTR discrepancies throughout the state,” Rep. Udall said.
The group’s plans have also looked at limiting bonds and overrides, and “as they go away, students would be put at the charter additional assistance level, which is a little bit above that. Almost a backpack funding model, but not quite,” Rep. Udall said.
“We’re hoping by the time we get into session, we have a single plan that we’ve all decided to stand behind, but that’s where we’re at right now,” Rep. Udall said.
This is a critical issue because “what’s needed is a sort of grand bargain and a lot of people working together who don’t have a great track record of working together,” Rep. Lieberman said.
Lieberman said that if the three of them were high school students attending schools in three different districts, the amount of money spent on them could vary widely for the three of them.
“That just isn’t right,” Rep. Lieberman said. “We need to figure out how to get to something that actually provides a base level that’s fair for everybody.”
Rep. Lieberman noted that most of the tax credits for public schools and the Advanced Placement incentives go to high-income school districts.
“The performance-based funding – which in the initial round went overwhelmingly to our high-income schools – there’s been some progress on that as they moved down and included more of the growth metric,” Rep. Lieberman said.
Then Campbell asked how the legislature could make that happen this session with elections coming up in November 2020.
“What’s been interesting is that you’ve seen even people on both sides come to the conclusion that, you know, we do need more funding, and that’s something that in the past you haven’t had,” Rep. Udall said.
“What we have seen is proposals from people on both sides of the aisle who are saying there are different ways to get more funding,” Rep. Udall said. “In order to get the go to you need on both sides of the aisle to get the funding, you’re going to have to have significant reform.”
Rep. Udall said that many conservatives, herself included, think it would be “really nice to get rid of that requirement to go out to bonds and overrides and have that money built into the formula.”
“If we could see reform that kind of flattens out the state’s property tax, I think a lot of us would be supportive of that,” Rep. Udall said. “That may be where part of that grand bargain occurs, when you say ‘Ok, we’re willing to raise a state property tax, but only if it gets rid of this other thing.’ ”
“I think there is a compromise to be had there that could raise the money needed, but we’ll see,” Rep Udall said.
The interim sessions have educated “everyone in the room on some of these issues, which are very complex,” Rep. Lieberman said. “Especially when the legislative session gets going, you often don’t get that base-level knowledge, so I think it’s been helpful.”
Rep. Lieberman noted that members of the education committee are “people who genuinely are oriented toward getting along and figuring out a good path forward for the state” and he’s “cautiously optimistic that there’s at least some of those middle ground solutions that we can move forward with support on both sides.”
“If you look at what’s happened in the State of Arizona, the reality is we’re just not making enough of an investment in what we need to be in terms of our public schools really Pre-K through 20,” Rep. Lieberman said.
While 36 states in the past decade have moved forward on investing in Pre-K, “Arizona has zeroed out the state contribution to the child-care subsidy and hasn’t put any dollars in,” Rep. Lieberman said.
“If you look at the investment we have in K-12, which has benefitted from some much-needed increases, but that’s like to get the patient off of life support and it’s still in critical condition from a funding perspective,” Rep. Lieberman said.
Workforce development efforts
Arizona needs to increase workforce development and career and technical education, and “I think you’re going to see some bills this year aimed at that,” Rep. Udall said.
“A lot of people have been doing their mission statements and plans for workforce development and career and technical education in siloes, so there’s been an effort to pull everybody together and create a state goal and state plan towards that and tie it in with Achieve60AZ,” Rep. Udall said.
Rep. Lieberman said that when he toured the Boeing plant, they had more orders than could fulfill, “because they don’t have the wiring techs with certificates to get those helicopters out on time.”
Meanwhile, the state contributes zero to community colleges in Pima and Maricopa County where people can get the training to become wiring techs, Rep. Lieberman said.
“The question is at what point do you really change the dynamic around,” Rep. Lieberman said.
“In the last legislative session, we cut $400 million in taxes,” Rep. Lieberman said. “Just think of what that could have done in terms of universal pre-K for every four-year-old. Think of what that could have done in terms of restoring focus in our community colleges and things like that.”
“Right now, if you look at our Achieve60AZ goal of 60% of residents have had some sort of post-secondary work, we’re nowhere close to meeting that,” Rep. Lieberman said. “To set a goal and do very little to make the investments you need to get there doesn’t make any sense.”
“We’re living in a different economy in different times. People need a different set of skills,” Rep. Lieberman said. “More often than not, that’s something after high school that they have to go get involved with and go do. We need an education system that at every level is supporting people to go down that path.”
One workgroup has been focusing on school safety plans during the interim, Rep. Udall said
“I think a safe school means different things to different people, and I think there’s two definitions of a safe school,” Rep. Udall said. “There’s a school where students go and they are actually safe, and the other one is a school where students go and they feel safe.”
“Sometimes, those are two separate things. I think we need to address both, but it looks different in different situations and so I don’t think a one-size fits all approach is appropriate,” Rep. Udall said.
The City of Phoenix has shared that they’ve been doing a vulnerability assessment of each individual school to see what can be done to make the school a safer place.
“We’re also looking at how do we get more counselors, more social workers, more social emotional help in for students so that they feel safe as well,” Rep. Udall said.
While we need to do some things to make our schools physically safe, “the best thing we can do is actually give our schools the resources so that there’s the counselors, there’s the social workers, there’s the people there who can help kids who are really in need and really struggling” Rep. Lieberman said.
“In almost every one of these tragic school shootings that we’ve seen, there’s been a really troubled kid on the other end and one that almost everyone in the school knew was dealing with a lot of issues,” Rep. Lieberman said.
The Department of Education received more than $100 million in applications from schools all over the state for the $20 million in school safety funding it received from the Legislature, Rep. Lieberman said.
Campbell asked if either of them would advocate for more school safety funds.
“Even if we were to put $100 million in, we don’t have enough people to fill those positions right now,” Udall said.
Arizona doesn’t have enough people who have the qualifications to be school counselors or school resource officers or school social workers right now, just like it has a shortage of teachers, Rep. Udall said.
“It’s not just a matter of making the resources available, we’ve got to increase the pipeline for those jobs as well,” Rep. Udall said.
That gets at actually supporting the community colleges and other higher education institutions who produce those graduates, Rep. Lieberman said.
“It’s one of those challenges that when you have higher and higher tuition, it’s hard to take a job as a social worker when you’re on the other side of it,” Rep. Lieberman said.
“We need to look at things that make opportunities available for people who are willing to go into that with a similar approach to what they did with the Teachers Academy to make that a viable pathway,” Rep. Lieberman said.
“We have had preliminary talks about expanding the Teachers Academy to include social workers and school counselors, if they would then commit to working in our schools for the next three to five years,” Rep. Udall said.
Special education funding
Both Reps. Udall and Lieberman agreed that it’s time to reconsider the decades-old formula for special education funding for programs and services mandated by the federal government that schools aren’t funded for at cost in most cases.
Sen. Sylvia Allen, Senate Education Committee Chair, has been working on a plan to increase special education funding during the interim, said Rep. Udall.
“I think what we’re going to see is a bill that will put an additional $60 million in for special education funding,” Udall said. “$55 million of that would go to raise the rates on that lowest multiplier, which is the other health impaired – some of those who need a lot of the speech therapy, some of the more expensive things that we’re doing.”
Also, the plan would fix an issue where special education students who are in a self-contained classroom are funded at a lower level than students in a general education classroom, “which doesn’t make a lot of sense,” Rep. Udall said.
The goal would be to go in a couple years to something that’s like the Florida model, Rep. Udall said.
“Currently, in Florida, the funding is based on the services provided rather than every student with this special need gets the same funding,” Rep. Udall said. “It would be based on what services are determined to be needed in their IEP so it would be funded on a service-tier model.”
“That’s what we’re looking at going to, but it’s a little bit more difficult to get there,” Rep. Udall said. “We want to make sure we do it right and not too quickly that we mess things up. Sen. Allen is working very hard on that over the interim and I think that will be her biggest policy push this year.”
Rep. Aaron Lieberman said he thinks “there’s a lot of promise in Sen. Allen’s approach for the short term, just to help schools deal with this.”
Arizona’s funding formula was designed for when most children went down the street to their district school, and there was a relatively stable incidence of students with special needs at each school, Rep. Lieberman said.
“Now we have so much school choice and so many specialized schools and lots of other options that you can have wildly variable incidences at each school of students with special needs,” Rep. Lieberman said.
“We’re in a situation here where we haven’t quite aligned the most efficient way to get revenue and the best way to spend it,” Rep. Lieberman said. “There’s a lot of different pieces that have to happen that put a lot of complexity into the system that is more than I think we need.”
“It kind of gets back to that need for a grand bargain that could better fund things,” Rep. Lieberman said. “I would advocate for it at a higher level and it would help support schools with the things they need to do.”