Reward plan leads to school district rift in Arizona

Low-income, well-off schools at odds over Brewer-backed bill
2013-03-25T00:00:00Z Reward plan leads to school district rift in ArizonaJamar Younger Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
March 25, 2013 12:00 am  • 

A proposed change in state school funding that would give extra money to high-achieving and improving school districts has caused a rift between school officials in poor and middle-class districts.

The performance funding proposal included in SB 1444 was created to reward districts that consistently receive high marks in the Arizona Department of Education's A to F grading system while giving an incentive to struggling districts to improve.

Gov. Jan Brewer is pushing the proposal, which is sponsored by Sen. Kimberly Yee, R-Phoenix.

Opponents say the measure would take money away from already-struggling school districts in poorer areas, which tend to receive the lowest grades from the state and already lack resources.

Supporters, however, contend the bill will not only give low-performing districts an incentive to improve, but it would also give more money to wealthier districts that don't receive as much federal money for poor students.

State officials are working on an amendment to the bill that would allow the state to provide support to struggling districts to help them improve, said Dale Frost, Brewer's education policy adviser.

The initiative has drawn strong reaction from local school districts, with two superintendents opposing each other in letters written to state lawmakers.

Vail School District Superintendent Calvin Baker wrote an email to Frost supporting the proposed initiative.

But Tucson Unified School District Superintendent John Pedicone asserted, "What will happen if (SB) 1444 goes through is it will increase the gap between rich and poor. And it will take resources away from poorer districts."

About two-thirds of the money for performance funding would come from new revenues allocated in the state budget. The rest would be reallocated between school districts, Frost said.

"If you are moving up the scale or maintaining high performance, that's when you'll get your money," he said.

Funding shifts

The initiative would cost about $36 million of new money in the first year, along with $18 million of money reallocated from school districts.

By the fifth year, those costs would increase to $180 million from the state and $90 million from school districts, Frost said.

The state would divide the money and reward the districts with the highest marks and most substantial improvement.

The money would get divided into two categories: achievement funds and improvement funds.

A highly rated district could get money for achievement and improvement if the district increases its points within the grading system or its overall grade.

For example, a B district has to score between 120 and 139 points to receive that grade, so a district with 120 points could get improvement money if it raises its score to 139.

In that scenario, the B district would receive $121.04 per student, according to a performance funding calculator on the governor's website.

A C district with similar improvement would be awarded about $103.

Every district would contribute $17.26 per student to the reallocation fund in the first year.

A lower-rated district could get a lot of money for improvement if it raises points or overall grade, but would still receive a minimal amount for achievement.

However, if that district doesn't improve, it would lose money to the reallocation fund.

"It's not only rewarding improvement, but heavily rewarding improvement at the low end," Frost said, referring to the fact that poorer districts that make great improvement could receive the most money.

But that scenario is unlikely because the state's largest districts showed minimal gains in improvement points, said David Garcia, an associate professor at Arizona State University's Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College.

Garcia conducted an analysis of performance funding using grades from the 2011 and 2012 school years.

According to his analysis, the state's largest districts, which account for 75 percent of all students, improved by less than a point from 2011 to 2012. Garcia's analysis also concluded that the poorest districts - those with at least 75 percent of students receiving free or reduced-price lunch - would have received only $18.65 per student in performance funding.

Districts where 25 percent or less of its students receive free or reduced-price lunch would have received $42.72 per student, according to his analysis.

"Those A-F grades are correlated to poverty," he said. "The problem with this bill is that it doesn't change the system: It reinforces the system we already have."

Different perspectives

Baker, the Vail superintendent, supports the bill because the proposed measure is one of the few options to increase funding for K-12 education in the state, he said.

In the email, which he sent to the state on March 13, Baker wrote that Vail's per-student funding is about $1,100 lower than the state average, $500 less than similar districts and $1,600 lower than its "largest neighboring district," which would be TUSD.

Baker cited a recently released Arizona auditor general's report in describing the student funding discrepancy.

As a result, teacher salaries in Vail are about $8,000 less per year than the state average, he wrote.

Vail doesn't receive as much funding because it has fewer disadvantaged students than other districts, he wrote. Just 30 percent of its students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.

Since poorer school districts get extra money for disadvantaged students, districts with higher-achieving students should receive more money for succeeding, he said.

"I understand and appreciate the difficulties of educating 'disadvantaged' students and do not begrudge those districts for receiving a higher level of funding," he wrote. "However, some reward for results is also justified."

Pedicone disagreed with Baker's rationale, saying the numbers in the auditor general's report do not provide a valid comparison.

Pedicone acknowledged that TUSD receives extra money for disadvantaged students, as well as English-language learners, but he said the money is not enough to meet student needs.

"Affluent school districts tend to perform much better because districts like Vail tend to have students who are well-fed, have stable households and have support at home," he wrote in a letter addressed to state legislators on Monday. "By contrast, students in poor districts don't always have stable environments."

In TUSD, 70 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.

The state should provide more money to struggling districts instead of potentially taking some away, he said.

"You don't do it to districts that are struggling with issues outside their control," he said.

On StarNet: Find education-related resources and special reports at azstarnet.com/education

Contact reporter Jamar Younger at jyounger@azstarnet.com or 573-4115. On Twitter: @JamarYounger

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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