A controversial results-based funding program for Arizona public and charter schools is expected to be expanded in the state’s 2020 budget, despite opposition from many educators.
If approved, the expansion would raise funding for the program by $59 million to reward schools that received A or B letter grades from the Arizona Department of Education, according to a department spokesman.
The program, currently worth $39 million, has awarded a collective $6.9 million to 37 Tucson-area schools since it rolled out in 2017, data from the state Education Department show.
But many leaders from local school districts have raised concerns about the program’s fairness and its effectiveness in boosting student achievement.
This academic year, the department awarded traditional and alternative schools that received A letter grades, which were largely calculated based on how students scored on AzMerit, the state’s accountability assessment. Last year, the department awarded schools whose AzMerit scores ranked in the top 10% statewide.
Both years, schools received $225 per student if fewer than 60% of its students qualified for free-and-reduced lunch. They received $400 per student, if 60% or more qualified for the program. Qualifying alternative schools received $400 per student.
Out of Tucson’s nine largest school districts, Catalina Foothills High School has received the most results-based funding since the program’s inception — nearly $377,000 in 2019 and $374,000 in 2018. Those years, 13% and 12% of the school’s population qualified for free-and-reduced lunch.
Sentinel Peak High School, an alternative high school in Flowing Wells, has received the least amount of results-based funding — roughly $43,000 in 2019 and $41,000 in 2018. Those years, 75% and 74% of Sentinel Peak’s students qualified for free-and-reduced lunch.
The funding disparity between Catalina Foothills and Sentinel Peak illustrates an issue many educators have raised about results-based funding: The program tends to benefit mostly wealthier schools.
“It’s not how I would support additional funding for public schools,” Flowing Wells Superintendent David Baker said. “I’d rather see it in something like a poverty weight or a distribution of (funds) where the need is ... to ZIP codes and schools that are more at risk.”
Baker says he supports rewarding schools that perform well, but is bothered by the way funds are distributed under the results-based program.
Baker says he thinks the program would be more equitable and accurate if it compared schools that are “demographically similar.” They are currently categorized into two large groups: schools serving higher percentages of students who qualify for free-and-reduced lunch and those that don’t.
The 60% cutoff doesn’t distinguish schools enough, Baker said. A school where 60% of the student population qualifies for free-and-reduced lunch is going to face vastly different challenges, as far as academic achievement goes, than a school where 20% or 90% of the student population qualifies.
Pima County Schools Superintendent Dustin Williams agrees that results-based funding, in its current form, disadvantages students from lower-income backgrounds who might struggle with extenuating life circumstances that inhibit their ability to perform well in school.
“In education, we have to figure out how to make everything equitable,” Williams said. “And this type of program, you can clearly see this is not affecting all kids.”
Williams said he is also concerned that the Arizona Department of Education hasn’t provided the county with data outlining how individual schools and districts are utilizing results-based funding — and if that funding is directly improving student outcomes on assessments like AzMerit.
Locally, schools in the Amphitheater, Catalina Foothills, Flowing Wells, Tucson Unified, Vail and Sunnyside school districts received results-based funding this school year.
Since the program’s inception, Vail, TUSD and Catalina Foothills have received the most funding, according to data from the Education Department. The department has awarded Vail nearly $2 million, TUSD roughly $1.9 million and Catalina Foothills roughly $1.8 million over the last two years.
Flowing Wells and Tanque Verde received the least funding, about $436,000 and $245,000.
Two local districts, Marana and Sahuarita, haven’t received any funding over the last two years. Tanque Verde didn’t receive any this year.
State law requires awarded schools to put “the majority” of results-based funds they receive toward teacher pay in whatever way they see fit. The rest of the funding has to go toward developing “replication” programs that could boost academic achievement across the school’s home district.
Amphitheater schools, for example, use 60% of the results-based funds to give teachers a one-time stipend, Superintendent Todd Jaeger said.
It uses the rest to fund summer professional-development programs for teachers, which could benefit students across the district and potentially boost academic performance. The district will pay teachers to attend the summer trainings, Jaeger said.
To remain eligible for receiving funding, schools must show “steady improvement” for three years after receiving initial payments. The Department of Education has not determined how schools can show they are steadily improving, though.
The guise of results-based funding is deceptive, Jaeger said. Gov. Doug Ducey lauds the program as a successful, sustainable school-funding mechanism. However, Arizona still faces fundamental school-funding issues — like capital funding cuts and low teacher salaries — that existed before the Great Recession.
“It’s got jazz hands all around it, (but) it’s a distraction from the bottom line fact that we are still receiving less per student than we did before the recession started,” Jaeger said. “While I think it has value and merit, we gotta take care of sticking with the basics first.”
Some local districts view the program more positively.
“This is a very positive program for districts that get the funding,” said Denise Bartlett, the assistant superintendent at Catalina Foothills.
This year, all but two Foothills schools received results-based funding. The year before, only one didn’t receive funding.
Foothills puts half of its funding toward teacher pay, Bartlett said. Teachers have to develop curriculum products meant to boost academic achievement to secure the pay.
“There’s work associated with it,” Bartlett said. The rest of the funds go toward school and district-wide professional learning opportunities.
When asked if she thought Foothills had a leg up getting results-based funding because of its relative affluence compared to other local school districts, Bartlett said the “idea of Catalina Foothills being exclusively affluent is really not accurate.”
Between 9% and 17% of the student populations at Foothills schools receiving results-based funding qualified for free-and-reduced lunch, the last two years — far below the statewide average of 56%, according to ADE data.
Renee Weatherless, TUSD’s executive director of financial services, likes the program because it opens up revenue streams for schools that wouldn’t have additional funding otherwise.
“Some of the schools that got results-based funding are schools in our district that don’t have other funding sources,” Weatherless said. “They’re not Title I schools or they don’t have other programs. So, for them, it was a great opportunity.”
Sahuarita Superintendent Manny Valenzuela said he hopes the program’s expansion opens the door to a more diverse range of schools and students.
“It just seems like maybe we need to think about it a little more methodically and really try to make it something that’s a little more comprehensive and a little more valid for everybody,” Valenzuela said.