Update 2/19/20: The House Appropriations Committee passed the Project Rocket bill as amended with a vote of 9 to 2.
The House Education Committee approved Project Rocket on Monday, which would provide low-performing schools with more funding to increase students’ academic achievement, but House Appropriations held the bill two days later until the amendments to it were summarized.
House Bill 2762, also known as Project Rocket, is sponsored by House Education Committee Chair Michelle Udall, (R-LD 25) and received a due pass recommendation on a vote of 9 ayes, 2 nays, 1 present and 1 absent.
Rep. Udall said the bill is a result of stakeholder meetings this summer “to discuss school achievement and how do we both help kids that are growing up in schools that are in poverty that are really struggling, but also how do we address schools that have really been failing our students for decades. This bill is a big piece of that.”
“This legislation addresses a weakness that has been in our formula since the 1980s, in terms of not providing some resources to schools to face the challenges of helping kids in poverty and helping kids to be successful,” said Chuck Essigs, director of governmental relations for Arizona Association of School Business Officials. “We’re very supportive of this legislation.”
House Bill 2762 was among four bills that were held by House Appropriations Committee Chair Regina Cobb, (R-LD 5) during the Feb. 12, 2020 meeting, after she noted that there were several floor votes and committee meetings going on that day as well.
“We have a formula that’s not great and we’re putting $150 on top of the formula. We’re just masking it with a Band-Aid on top of it,” Rep. Cobb said in the Feb. 10 Education Committee meeting. “I felt like rather than putting $150 on top of this, we should have just put money into the B weight which represents ELL learners, special needs and the Title I children, which I think we’re hitting all of the same areas with.”
“I think that means we need to work the formula again and we need to recreate the formula,” Rep. Cobb said as she voted against the bill. “Does this help until that’s done? Possibly, but we’re doing a three-year program here. This is allowing us to kick the can down the road for three more years and see where this goes to.”
Rep. John Fillmore (R-LD 16) voted no on the bill, saying “I think we are rewarding failure again.”
Rep. Isela Blanc, (D-LD 26), said she was appreciative of thought behind the bill, but “the reality is – in order to address our inequity issues – we need to sit down and talk about the system of inequities that we continue to create through testing programs, through private school programs, through charter school programs. I’m going to currently vote present.”
What Project Rocket would do
The Project Rocket pilot program could appropriate $44.6 million from the general fund in fiscal years 2021, 2022, and 2023 so schools that receive a C letter grade and have 60 percent of students eligible for free- or reduced- lunch, or schools that have a D or F letter grade and wish to take part in the project can do so and receive $150 more funding per student to increase academic gains and graduation rates for students who are struggling academically due to socioeconomic factors.
Right now, 550 Arizona schools would be eligible for the pilot program, said Rep. Aaron Lieberman, (D-LD 28), noting “this is probably the most important bill we’ll hear in the education committee this year, because it’s basically saying to them hope is on the way.”
Schools receiving a C or D letter grade must submit a plan to improve student outcomes and identify a mentor who will assist with academic achievement or partner with an approved school improvement expert. Schools receiving an F letter grade must have their governing board establish a committee that will submit an improvement plan and partner with an approved school improvement expert on a list created by the State Board of Education to implement the plan.
Also, each school that receives Project Rocket money must by June 1 submit a report to the State Board of Education that describes how the plan has improved students’ academic achievement.
“I would hope that eventually schools get to be fully funded, so we don’t have to come up with these piecemeal projects,” said Rep. Gerae Peten, (D-LD 4).
Project Rocket would also appropriate $1 million from the general fund and seven full-time employees from the State Board of Education to administer the Project Rocket program for fiscal years 2021, 2022 and 2023.
Rep. Udall’s five-line Feb. 7th amendment added that improvement plans developed by a C or D letter grade school Project Rocket committee may include adjustments of teacher and principal salaries, and her 13-line amendment made earlier that day allows each school that did not receive a letter grade but feeds into a school that receives a letter grade to apply for Project Rocket funding as well.
A Utah plan similar to Project Rocket met exit criteria for 19 of 27 previously failing schools within three years. Five of the other schools met half their criteria and were doing significantly better, increasing students’ proficiency by 30 to 40 percent on English and math assessments, Rep Udall said.
“Project Momentum did a similar thing on a much smaller scale here in Arizona and saw similar results,” Rep. Udall said. “The purpose of this program is to help understand that where there’s poverty, there are additional interventions that need to go into place and in order for those to be effective, we need community buy-in and support.”
This will help turn-around failing schools not just for a year, but long-term, Udall said.
Udall noted that she’s been working closely with Gov. Doug Ducey’s office on the bill, and let Kaitlin Harrier, Gov. Ducey’s education policy adviser answer questions on the bill.
“The seeds for Project Rocket were planted a while ago, really back in 2015 with a pilot project in the Avondale Elementary School District,” Harrier said.
“Between 2015 and today, Deer Valley and Wickenburg have joined the pilot as well, and these results as you’ve been hearing are nothing short of extraordinary,” Harrier said. “All three are seeing academic gains of really impressive magnitudes and significant improvement in teacher retention rates as well.”
The idea was to pick a variety of school districts to show that the project could work anywhere, Harrier said.
In Avondale, 80% of students qualify for free- and reduced lunch, while Deer Valley was in a suburban setting that didn’t have those challenges and Wickenberg is a small, rural school district with 227 students at one middle schools that participated in the pilot, Harrier said.
Avondale Elementary School District’s Executive Director of Business Services Jill Barragan said three keys to Project Momentum were to align practices with strategies that produced the largest gains in student learning; provide the time, training and support for teachers to implement the targeted strategies; and establish well-defined expectations for increasing student learning, monitoring student progress while holding each other accountable for achieving goals.
“From 2015 to 2019, the ELA growth for the state in terms of percentage passing grew by 8%. We grew by 15% so almost double that,” Barragan said. “For math, the state grew by 7 percent and Avondale grew by 21%, by three times that amount.
Additionally, during that time teacher retention grew from 75% to 85%, Barragan said.
“I believe that all students across the state deserve that opportunity,” Barragan said.
Paula Tseunis, director of organizational improvement and professional learning for Deer Valley Unified School District, said, “We were lucky enough to be part of the Project Momentum pilot through the Governor’s office this year so I was going to tell you a little bit about our results.”
“In one year in Deer Valley, we had three schools piloting Project Momentum. The state saw 1% growth in ELA and math and our schools saw 5% growth our Project Momentum schools in ELA and 10% growth in math,” Tseunis said, noting that this legislation is important for Arizona and its students.
The plan for Project Rocket began to take shape several months ago when the governor met with superintendents who shared the success they were seeing with the pilot project and the importance of targeted funding to reduce the achievement gap, Harrier said.
“Based on the results we’re seeing in the initial pilot, the Governor believes it’s time to take this concept and really scale it up and ensure the results we’re seeing in those three districts can be achieved all across Arizona,” Harrier said. “We ask for your support on this bill.”
Arizona Education Association’s Stephanie Parra said the organization has concerns about the bill.
While AEA approves of providing additional resources to students growing up in low-income families, “we do continue to have concerns to tying funding around test scores, and this will do that as well as the concept of results-based funding,” Parra said.
“We would prefer to have a conversation about creating at true poverty weight,” Parra said. “There’s been talk about special education and gifted funding and we don’t tie test scores to those conversations, but we’re doing it here for low-income students and so that’s really where our concern is.”
Charles Siler with Save Our Schools Arizona said, “Funding schools and students who need the most support is one of the most impactful investments we can make, and it’s definitely where we can get the most bang for our taxpayers’ dollars. While the $150 per student proposed in this bill will help, it’s still short of where it should be. If we increased the proposal to somewhere near $800 per student, we could help close Arizona’s graduation gap by about a third or more.”
Rep. Cobb said she appreciated their efforts to move F schools to a better place, but her concern is scaling up a small project that affects 1,700 students in three school districts to one that would involve up to 280,000 students across the state.
Minority Whip Reginald Bolding, (D-LD 27), asked, “How did we arrive at the $44 million amount?”
“We arrived at that number by looking at what the per-pupil amount was at the maximum level in the initial pilot in Avondale which is the $150 per pupil figure,” Harrier said. “Then what we did is we applied that times the number of pupils in every F school, every D school and then every C school that had a 60 percent or greater free- and reduced- lunch rate and so when you add that all up you get to about $42.6 million then we added an additional $1 million to create capacity and oversee the project.”
Rep. Bolding said he was concerned schools would opt into Project Rocket at $150 per student only to find out that the end up paying out more than what they expected, and legislators should consider potentially adding supplemental funding.
“They have to pay the consultant, they have to pay for the professional development, and they have to pay for the substitute teachers while the teachers go through the professional development,” Rep. Bolding said.
Rep. Udall said some of those services could come from schools that get paid results-based funding to help mentor other schools.
Rep. Lieberman said, “I wouldn’t think of the people on these lists as just consultants. Importantly, they’re organizations that have been vetted because they have a track record of improving schools. And part of that is not just investing additional dollars, it’s getting schools to re-prioritize how they’re currently spending their existing funds for professional development and a whole set of other things.”
Rep. Frank Carroll, (R-LD 22), said he was concerned that of the $16 million in federal funding that the Arizona Department of Education receives that lawmakers said schools could tap into to help fund their school improvement plan “some of it is already spoken for.”
Rep. Bolding asked if the State Board of Education will have accountability for improvement coaches as well as for the schools.
Harrier said there is accountability on both sides, “including language that says the school can cancel the contract at any time if their dissatisfied with the results that they’re getting from that partner and it lays out a list of what’s expected of the partner as well.”
“I do think any type of program where we’re paying these experts, that they have some type of skin in the game to protect our taxpayer dollars,” Rep. Bolding said.
Rep. Blanc was concerned about how the plan would work in rural schools with decreasing student enrollment, saying “those schools are severely hurting.”
Educators support bill
“The costs of Beyond Textbooks for small schools starts at around $7,000 for comprehensive services,” Mentone said. “Ash Fork started as a C and is now an A. Bowie started as a D and is now a B, and each school in Morenci has grown a letter grade.”
“Solving the poverty achievement gap in Arizona is the most significant thing we need to do in this state,” Mentone said. “One out of every four students in the state is living in poverty right now and if we do not figure out how to make sure they are successful, then our entire state is in real danger moving forward.”
“The additional challenge we have in the rural areas is that providers are limited, especially for juveniles,” said Mari Jo Mulligan, Thunderbolt Middle School principal in Lake Havasu Unified School District. “We do support the additional funding for our highest needs students.”
Washington Elementary School District Superintendent Paul Stanton spoke in support of the bill.
The Phoenix district serves 23,000 students at 32 schools and 93 percent of the district’s students qualify for free- or reduced-lunch, Supt. Stanton said.
“By helping our schools by adding academic and social-emotional behavioral support, we were able to get four of our schools to jump 14 points in the past few years,” Supt. Stanton said. “Obviously with additional resources, we could help with intervention and other things like that in our district.”
Glendale Elementary School District Assistant Superintendent Mike Barragan said, “In Glendale, 93 to 94% of our students are in poverty. Glendale Elementary is in support of this. We do believe this will help us continue to move that unrivaled academic achievement.”