Saying schools have proven they can do better, the state's top education official said Monday it's time for lawmakers to provide more cash — or at least settle the lawsuit over withheld inflation funding.
John Huppenthal boasted that 20 percent of schools in the state improved their academic performance last year, and another 63 percent managed to maintain their ratings in the state's A-F grading system.
Those grades are based on everything from results on standardized tests and the number of “English Language Learners” who become proficient to simply the fact that students are improving, even if many are still performing below standards.
He also said the number of third graders who were in danger of being held back because they were not reading at acceptable levels fell from 1,152 in 2013 to just 602 this past year.
“It's incredibly positive when you consider the stress that Arizona schools have gone through for the last three years,” he said of the results.
Some of that is implementing new standards, like “move on when reading” requiring third graders to show they can read. But he also noted the cuts to state aid to schools, including the failure of lawmakers to follow a voter-approved law to boost funding to account for inflation.
Huppenthal said there is now proof that schools can — and have — done better. He said it's time for lawmakers to take notice.
“The message we are taking forward is that an investment, another dollar in education, unlike many other states, another dollar in education, we're going to give you $10 worth of value,” he said.
The report comes as legislators continue to fight a court order to reset basic state aid to education to the level it should have been had they not in 2009 started to ignore the requirement to make annual inflation increases. That alone totals about $316 million a year.
Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Katherine Cooper also may order the state to repay $1.7 billion the schools did not get in the past.
Huppenthal said people are willing to support education.
“But they are in a desperate sense that, in the past, that investment in education hasn't seemed to pay off,” he continued.
He said, though, the record of what schools have done here — and with less — shows it's time for legislators to recognize that money does matter.
“We're willing to make that case, not only how to shape that potential $300 million (in inflation funds) but also to make sure we get our fair share out of the general fund,” Huppenthal said.
He conceded the second half of that goal could prove difficult.
“We're in the greatest recession since the Great Depression,” he said. “There's not much money over there to lobby for.”
But what there is, Huppenthal said, is that inflation money he believes schools are owed — and need.
“The local school districts know best where to apply that,” he said. Huppenthal said it is clear that classrooms need to be resupplied with books and other teaching materials that were not purchased.
The message that money matters was underlined by Seth Staples. He is superintendent of the Ash Fork school district which this year was rated the highest public school district in the entire state.
Staples noted that just four years ago Ash Fork was a “D”-rated district. One thing that did, he said, was qualify the district for special grants and other help, beyond what the state normally provides, so the school could purchase the teaching materials it needed.
Lindsey Popa, a teacher in the district, said that made a difference.
“It gave teachers the tools we needed to be as effective as possible,” she said.
“Before that, we had really good teachers,” Popa said. “But it just took us up to that whole next level.”
While crowing about the 20 percent of schools that improved performance and the 63 percent that maintained, Huppenthal was less interested in talking about the 17 percent of schools which actually slipped in their academic ratings.
“What we see with the 20 percent improvement here is the net over the decrease,” he said. “That's the critical thing.”
Huppenthal said one thing that has spurred academic performance is the state's open enrollment system and variety of options for parents.
Arizona law allows a student to attend any public school in the state that has room.
But there are other forms of competition, including an extensive network of state-funded charter schools as well as various scholarships and vouchers available to pay for private or parochial school.
“If a school doesn't create more value with the resources that it has in the classroom, those students, those parents have 20 other choices,” Huppenthal said.
He was dismissive of a report released Monday by WalletHub which ranked Arizona education 43rd overall in the nation. That study by the financial advice firm looked at a variety of factors ranging from dropout rate and test scores to student-teacher ratio and how often students say they are bullied.
Huppenthal said that was an example of “second-rate research that comes out, that's popularized” and gets a lot of media attention. He said academic research studies put Arizona above the national average, even if per-pupil funding here is near the bottom.