Gov. Jan Brewer is proposing what she said is a first-in-the-nation plan to tie state aid for education to academic performance and improvement.
The measure would reduce the amount of state now available to school based on attendance. Those funds, along with new dollars, then would be reallocated based on the grading system that has applied to all public schools for years.
That means the best-performing schools could get up to an additional $500 a year on top of the $5,244 in basic aid. And the plan also is geared in a way so that even schools rated D or F on the scale, who are ineligible for this achievement bonus, could get some extra dollars if their overall performance improves.
But schools that are low performing now and cannot do better would actually end up with less money than they have now.
Initially, that funding cut would be small -- one-third of 1 percent, or about $17 a year. But when fully implemented, the cut to schools that do not qualify for either bonus would be five times as much.
The plan was immediately panned by Andrew Morrill, president of the Arizona Education Association.
"Right now that plan is more of a reshuffling of resources that are already too little,'' he said. "Simply rearranging the structure of insufficient funds doesn't really help anything.''
More to the point, Morrill said it is built backwards, mistaking cause for effect.
"Under that scheme, if you improve the effect is you get more money,'' he said.
"That doesn't mean that having a performance-based funding system is somehow going to make districts magically work harder when they're working as hard as they can or do something they're not already doing,'' Morrill continued.
"That's necessarily the way we see it,'' said gubernatorial press aide Matthew Benson. "This is just one more way to encourage improvement and innovation in the schools,'' he said.
Morrill said none of that means anything without basic funding.
"There really hasn't been any investment strategy to back up all the increased expectations and standards.''
The lone exception, he said, was the $40 million lawmakers allocated last year to implement a requirement that students read at third-grade level before being promoted to fourth grade.
John Arnold, the governor's budget director, said the plan is built on the current system of grading schools.
Each school is evaluated on a 200 point system, with half the score determined by the percentage of students passing the Arizona's Instrument to Measure Standards tests given at different grades. Bonus points are available for graduate rates, reclassification of students as English proficient and improvements in graduate rate.
The other 100 points are awarded based on academic growth, both of all students with emphasis on growth at the bottom 25 percent.
If a school scoreds138 points, that earns it a grade of B. If it gets the same score next year when the new standard kicks in, that would translate to an additional $206 per pupil.
"They would receive that every single year they maintain that level of achievement,'' he said.
But there's no improvement and therefore no extra funding under that side of the equation.
Using a different example, Arnold found a district with just 80 points which improved to 90 points. That still is a D grade and ineligible for academic bonus.
"But they have improved,'' he said. And that 10-point improvement for a school at that level translates to an extra $375 per student.
Arnold said the funding plan is structured so that most of the improvement money is available to schools that start out at the low end of the spectrum.
"We want to really reward our low performers for any improvement they make,'' he said.
Benson acknowledged the cuts that have been made to state aid to education in the wake of the deficits of the past few years. And he said while $18 million of the first-year funding for the plan would come from existing state aid to schools, Brewer's plan would add another $36 million in new dollars.
"Is it everything we'd like to do? No,'' he said. "The state doesn't have unlimited resources.''