Arizona’s three universities no longer form a pipeline of teachers for the state’s public schools. Half the freshmen in the state’s university system come from only 11 percent of Arizona’s high schools. Arizona’s expanded school voucher system did not include expanded oversight.
Those disclosures came in remarks by three educators to the Chandler Chamber of Commerce Public Policy Committee and business owners and executives last week.
The presentations by Kyrene School Superintendent Jan Vesely, state Board of Regents President Eileen Klein and state school Superintendent Diane Douglas on April 28, came on the eve of a big week for the state Legislature and education in Arizona.
Lawmakers are hoping to wrap up their session this week by completing budget negotiations with the chief topic being education – particularly more money for K-12 teachers and a $1 billion bond issue for research and infrastructure for the three universities.
“Much of the focus this week will center on our K-12 schools, particularly raising salaries for our teachers,” Ahwatukee Sen. Sean Bowie told constituents Monday. “This is shaping up to be the most important policy discussion of the week – Governor Ducey’s original proposal called for a 0.4 percent increase for the upcoming year.”
“We are losing some of our best teachers we have because they simply can’t afford to keep teaching – many can make more money in different professions, and that’s a huge problem moving forward for our students and for our state,” Bowie added.
“Expect a lengthy floor debate in both the House and the Senate around this topic, and expect plenty of parents and teachers to visit us at the Capitol,” he said, calling funding “a huge, huge problem that has been impacting our public school districts for years.”
Though Bowie wrote his letter independent of the speakers, all three made remarks that in one way or the other were related to funding and other education matters in Arizona.
While all three officials gave progress reports on what they and their respective officers were doing to improve education, they also sounded various alarms about the state of education in Arizona.
Vesely briefly discussed some of the changes she and the board are implementing to make the Kyrene School District more competitive as school districts scramble for new students from outside their boundaries.
But she then disclosed that Arizona’s three state universities no longer feed new teachers into the state’s public school systems, and remarked:
“The universities are telling us, ‘We do not have a pipeline of teachers for you anymore.’ You don’t know how scary that is for we educators to hear.”
While education students from other states still flock to Arizona State University, the University of Arizona and Northern Arizona University for the weather as well as the academics, they return home after graduation because of the dismal salaries for teachers, she said.
But Kyrene’s problems go deeper, Vesely said, noting that the district is projected to suffer continuing enrollment decline for the next five or six years.
District enrollment has declined by 600 in the past decade, she said.
That represents a loss of millions in state funding, which is based on the number of pupils enrolled in a district.
“The problem is that our neighborhoods haven’t turned over,” Vesely said, referring to the relatively stable housing market in Ahwatukee and those parts of Tempe and Chandler that are within district boundaries.
Even many empty-nest households aren’t moving, shutting out an influx of young families with children who could replenish the enrollment rolls.
And Vesely said the expansion of Arizona’s school voucher program “may be very impactful for a district like Kyrene” because it threatens to siphon more students.
Klein discussed how the Board of Regents is working with K-12 school systems to improve students’ readiness for college.
She stated that while there has been a slight increase in the number of high school students from Arizona who are going to college, “fewer than half can do work at a college level.”
But Klein also pointed to an equally significant problem that the board is trying to address – the number of Arizonans who obtain no skill training or higher education after graduating from high school.
She said 35 to 40 percent of adults in Arizona have only a high school diploma, meaning that more than a million residents “need meaningful credentials” for today’s jobs.
Klein outlined the board’s Achieve60AZ program, which is trying to ensure that 60 percent of all Arizona adults have a college degree or a professional certificate by 2030.
She also insisted that teacher pay had to be improved in order to improve college- and work-readiness among K-12 students.
“We have to address what happens in the classroom and compensation for teachers,” she said.
Douglas sounded the same refrain in her presentation, noting that she will seek a voter referendum next year for a full-cent sales tax devoted exclusively to education. Currently, there is a half-cent tax that is due to expire next year.
A full cent would generate $400 million in new revenue – and could fund a $5,000-a-year, across-the-board pay increase for K-12 teachers, she said.
Douglas said that in her frequent “listening tours” around the state “overwhelmingly I hear from people that they want our teachers to be paid better.”
Douglas also said that while “I absolutely support parental choice in education,” she was critical of the Legislature’s expansion of vouchers, noting they originally were implemented in Arizona so that parents of special-needs children could find the most effective educational programs available.
“One of the big problems is that the oversight for this program never grows,” she said. “There needs to be better checks and balances.”
Douglas also declared, “I support our public education system” and said “we have to tread very carefully” on expanding school voucher programs.