Jan. 19, 2005 - Providing quality education for local students has become a war on two fronts for political advocates in the Amphitheater, Catalina Foothills and Marana school districts.
As the Arizona Legislature opens its winter 2005 session, these districts' legislative agenda topics generally fall within the categories of battling for more money and changing state standards.
Gov. Janet Napolitano offered a counterattack with the budget she proposed Jan. 14, offering money for some programs, withholding funding for others and digging into the trenches on some issues.
The governor's budget specifically targets all-day kindergarten, the AIMS test, state trust lands and school construction. Besides these, other district legislative concerns include the state retirement system, desegregation funding and programs for English language learners.
The governor's proposed budget includes $20.9 million to fund the voluntary full-day kindergarten program initiated in fiscal year 2005.
A top priority for Napolitano, all-day kindergarten is necessary, she wrote in her proposal, because "it offers a valuable launching pad for young children, and it alleviates supervisory pressures on parents during their working hours."
According to education lobbyist Sam Polito, voluntary all-day kindergarten is an important issue to the governor. Polito represents the school districts of Tucson, Amphitheater, Flowing Wells, Marana, Catalina Foothills, Tanque Verde, Vail and Northern Arizona University.
"She got it through last time," he said. "Without her leadership it never would have happened."
While Foothills does not have a specific legislative agenda laid out, Superintendent Mary Kamerzell said the district is "definitely supporting the governor" in her support of all-day kindergarten.
The proposal is that the program will be phased into all schools, starting with the neediest.
All-day kindergarten also is among the seven legislative priorities the Amphitheater Unified School District Governing Board members approved for the coming fiscal year at their Dec. 14 meeting.
"With all that's required of kids these days, with all that's required of schools these days, with so much being at stake such as graduation based on whether you passed the AIMS or not, we need as much time with kids as possible," said Todd Jaeger, associate to the superintendent and general counsel for Amphitheater Public Schools.
The program already was in place in some parts of the district even before the last fiscal year, when it was offered to schools where a large portion of students demonstrated great financial need. In some schools, parents can pay for their children to attend all-day kindergarten, though it is an extracurricular program.
"We have for a long time operated all-day kindergarten programs at those schools that were funded by our Title I grants that we received from the federal government. … Studies suggest that they (economically disadvantaged students) benefit from early assistance," Jaeger said.
Title I is the name of the type of federal financial assistance public schools receive for students from low to moderate income families.
Claudia Jensen is teaching her third all-day kindergarten class at Marana's Butterfield Elementary, and is the political action chair for the Marana Education Association and coordinates joint lobbying efforts between the district, MEA and the support professional association.
She said all-day kindergarten is such a priority for Marana that the district and MEA already have sent groups to testify on its behalf before the state Senate education committee. While her testimony as a teacher was helpful, she said, "the most effective advocates are parents. We had a parent who testified before the committee … he got up and he was so articulate and he talked about both of his children going through our program. Those are the people that our legislators listen to."
The Arizona School Boards Association's top legislative priorities also include supporting full funding for all-day kindergarten or preschool.
A shared concern for many districts and educational associations, passing this high-stakes test is set to become a high school graduation requirement for all members of the class of 2006.
Several districts mentioned that the AIMS requirements, as they currently stand, do not exempt special education students, which could make graduation difficult for these students.
Kamerzell said the Foothills governing board may consider making special education students take the AIMS test, provided they do not have reading, writing and math included as areas of deficiency in their individualized special education programs.
"I think everybody recognizes that needs to be fixed," Polito said.
But other aspects of the test also are under fire.
Some say the test is too difficult. In spring 2004, some 42 percent of Marana students and 41 percent of Amphitheater students fell far below state standards in math. That figure was 7 percent for Foothills.
"What we wanted in Arizona with the AIMS test was something that tested what we thought they ought to learn instead of testing what a standardized test tested," Polito continued, "And that was fine, but they've never really quite gotten it right."
The Arizona Education Association supports developing "a coordinated and reasonable student achievement accountability system," according to its legislative agenda. "Extensive energy and time are being directed toward student testing, test preparation and test programs that are sometimes duplicative," it continued. " Limits on the amount of time spent on testing and the development of appropriate alternative forms of student assessment are necessary."
While AIMS is not a specific topic on Amphitheater's list of legislative priorities, it will be affected if the district gets its No. 1 wish: increased funding for kindergarten through 12th graduate education. Among the items that make more money a necessity, the costs of AIMS remediation efforts will be alleviated by increased funding.
The governor's budget outlays $5 million in the coming fiscal year to help students pass the AIMS test and graduate, not mentioning anything about changing the actual test.
"Among high school students in their junior year, the failure rate on AIMS practice tests has been disappointing," Napolitano wrote in her budget proposal.
For Polito, the most pressing issue regarding AIMS is time.
"The Legislature, if they're going to do anything on this, they've got to do it this session because it's very, very unfair for the kids starting their senior year this September not to know what the ground rules are," he said. "It's not fair to tell them 'you might have to take it or maybe you won't.'"
STATE RETIREMENT SYSTEM
The top issue not mentioned by Napolitano in her budget but high on the legislative agendas for Marana, Amphitheater and Foothills districts is the state retirement system.
"The amount that we will have to pay far surpasses any increases," Kamerzell said.
Currently, teachers contribute 5.7 percent of their pay to the state retirement system, which the district matches. When that contribution level increases in the coming fiscal year, both teachers and districts will feel the pinch, even if the district increases teacher salaries.
"If we give people a 3 percent raise, they don't see it, they see nothing," he continued. "In fact, if it would be a 3 percent raise, they would lose because it's something like a 3.26 percent difference."
STATE TRUST LANDS
According to the governor's budget proposal, "For the first time in many years, the executive recommendation provides full matching funding - effectively doubling the state's investment - for the Arizona Financial Aid Trust, adding $2.25 million to the program and bringing the state's share to $4.5 million."
As Jaeger explained it, "When the state was created, the federal government basically conveyed a lot of property that it, to that point, had owned as territory lands, to the state of Arizona. The sale of that land, in perpetuity, is to be for the benefit of the public education system."
For the Amphitheater district, reforming the processes by which this land is leased and sold is a priority.
"In our state in recent years there's been a lot of debate and controversy and a lot of litigation over individual situations that the state trust has been dealing with in terms of management of lands," Jaeger continued. "This growing unrest in various circles that have some kind of interest in what the state trust land is doing will eventually bog down that process, and no one's going to be benefiting."
ENGLISH LANGUAGE LEARNERS PROGRAMMING
One topic not specifically outlaid in the governor's budget proposal but named by two school districts as a priority is funding programs that serve English language learners.
"Research clearly shows that it costs much more to educate ELL students in the way of per-pupil funding," Kamerzell said.
For some districts such as Amphitheater, English language learners programming is related to desegregation orders. But it is a topic for all schools in Arizona because of a lawsuit filed against the entire state alleging Arizona needed to provide extra funding to serve the needs of people for whom English is not a native language.
Jaeger explained that a study showed how much money is necessary to educate an ELL student, and he said the state has fallen far short of funding that amount.
"If we receive that kind of funding then we wouldn't need our desegregation funding," Jaeger said.
According to Polito, the Amphitheater district and Tucson Unified School District have both been faced in the past four years with the elimination of their desegregation costs.
"When you get cited, what happens is if you don't have the resources to use, but you still have to (desegregate)," he said. "So that means you have to take money out of the regular classrooms to put into (desegregation programs) because you can't get out of this, and that's unfair to the other students. So this gives the local district an opportunity to spend."
Maintaining this funding - which amounts to just over $4 million for Amphitheater schools - will ensure these required programs continue to be funded, the district said.
Jaeger explained that Amphitheater's desegregation orders from the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights concerned ELL students not receiving adequate service and also being punished at a more frequent and more severe level than their non-ELL counterparts.
While the first count could be solved by offering more programs, Jaeger said OCR could not determine a judgment on the punishment issue because the district's records-keeping was inadequate. Amphitheater put together a report showing why its desegregation money, spent on ELL programming and record-keeping, remains necessary, Jaeger said.
"As the district changes, as the student population changes, if we don't have the money to help train our staff and to monitor things like discipline to make sure it's applied evenly, then we have a real problem ensuring equal opportunities," Polito added.
Increasing funding for school construction, deficiencies corrections, and building maintenance and repair, the governor reasons in her proposed budget, "will allow thousands of Arizona students to be educated in an environment more conducive to learning."
Polito said, "We're pretty good on the capital side, building buildings. But these are two different issues. On running the schools, hiring the teachers and paying the teachers and all, we're on the bottom end."
For Amphitheater schools, this is a point of legislative contention, Jaeger explained.
He said the school facilities board was created to establish a minimum level of school criteria. The first stage was bringing all schools up to that level, he continued, and now the program is at the phase where it should be funding building renewal so the schools can remain sufficient.
"The problem, however, has been that for the past two years, building renewal has not been funded," Jaeger said. "On a cumulative basis we should have been receiving something like $5 million in building renewal, which goes a long way to maintaining a property. … So if the money isn't (in the general fund) the Legislature just doesn't fund it. So our push … is to find an alternative funding source, to create an alternative funding source."
MARANA & AMPHITHEATER ISSUES
Other topics Jensen listed as legislative priorities for MEA and Marana schools included having Arizona Learns, No Child Left Behind and Elementary and Secondary Education Act work together.
"So that we're not working cross purposes," Jensen said.
She also advocates funding a reliable source of revenue to support Students First.
For Amphitheater, another priority is maintaining Career Ladder funding, a program of teacher enrichment, Jaeger said.
According to Polito, other issues districts are watching deal with the way small businesses have their property values assessed.
"Businesses are assessed at 25 percent of the assessed value; homes are assessed at 10 percent," he explained. "and there are some people that want to level the playing field where businesses have the same assessment ratio homes do."
Those assessments are important, he said, because they are the figures upon which bonding is done. "It just makes it harder to pass overrides or bond issues."
For small business owners particularly, the burden can be high because they have not been granted the same cuts as have larger businesses, utilities and the mines, he said.
Polito said he would like to see a rebate program.
"One of the things I think would be good is, if we have extra funds, they have a thing called the homeowners rebate where on some of the taxes they pay, they get a rebate and it lowers their tax. Maybe that's what they ought to do with businesses."