A bill before the Arizona Legislature has some officials within the Amphitheater School District concerned about losing control of the district to the state.

At the Amphi governing board meeting March 12, board President Ken Smith voiced some of his concerns about House Bill 2658 Accountability for Schools and Pupils, that, if approved, could have a negative impact on the Amphi district.

"They want to treat Amphi as if it were identical to every other school district in Arizona, which clearly they're not," Smith said in an interview after the meeting.

The bill deals with student and school accountability and would amend a current Arizona statute, called Arizona Learns.

That statute was created in November 2000, when voters approved Proposition 301, which also increased Arizona's sales tax by .06 percent for education.

With that approval, voters also called for more accountability for public education, said Wade McLean, vice president of the Arizona State Board of Education and superintendent of the Marana Unified School District.

However, the proposed bill is much more specific as to how a school will be evaluated.

"This is one of our biggest issues," said Janice Palmer, a lobbyist for the Arizona School Boards Association in Phoenix.

If passed, it will be the first time schools would be officially labeled as either an excelling school, an improving school, a maintaining school, an underperforming school or a failing school, Palmer said.

While the bill gives a definition of an excelling school -- one that has least 90 percent of its students showing progress on standardized tests, and, for high schools, has a dropout rate of less than 6 percent and a graduation rate of more than 90 percent -- the bill fails to give a definition for the other categories, specifically for underperforming schools. A school that is determined to be underperforming for two consecutive years will be considered a failing school which triggers an increasing level of state oversight.

The evaluation of a school's performance would be based mainly on the controversial AIMS test, which will eventually be a high school graduation requirement in the state. The test, which students take several times during their academic career, tests students in the areas of reading, writing and math. The test has raised several concerns with parents, teachers and other district administrators due to high failure rates. Its implementation as a high school graduation requirement has been twice delayed by the state.

"Personally, I think the test is uneducational. They are having so many problems with it," said John Lewandowski, president of the Amphi Education Association.

Smith said what concerns him the most about the bill is that if a school is considered to be underperforming, the governing board is in charge of coming up with a plan to rectify the situation. What's more, if the district fails to file the plan in 90 days, the state will stop distributing money to the school until the plan is filed.

If, after two years, the school is still determined to be underperforming, parents will be allowed to select a tutoring program from a state qualified agency to be paid for by the State Failing Schools Tutor-ing Fund.

If a school is label-ed a failing school for two consecutive years, the district could lose control of the school and the state could pick a governmental, nonprofit or private organization to take over.

Palmer said every school in Arizona, except for University High School in Tucson, would be classified as an underperforming school, which could put them in danger of eventually being taken over by the state.

"Think of the turmoil that's going to be created," Smith said.

Rep. Linda Gray, R-Dist. 16, one of the sponsors of the bill, said at this point, it is unclear what would happen after the school is taken over by the state, but said she believes the new organization running the school would show progress.

"If a school becomes successful, why would we turn it back to the school district?" she said.

Gray said she has become frustrated with some school districts that continue to be underperforming, which is why she felt the need for the legislation.

"How long do we allow these children to remain in a school that is failing them?" she said. "It would be criminal to allow those children to stay in that program. Something needs to change."

Gray added that she believes local control over school districts can sometimes be ineffective and, when that happens, the state needs to take over for the sake of the students.

"If they can't do it then we need to do it to bring these kids up to the standards," she said. "Otherwise, the children will just get further and further behind, and then the child sees themself as a failure."

Jaime Molera, Arizona superintendent of public education, who helped draft the legislation, said he hopes state intervention won't ever have to happen.

"This hammer only comes in if there's nothing being done on behalf of the students," Molera said. "I'd be shocked that (the school boards) wouldn't be doing anything. But the public has the right to have us take action on behalf of the students."

Gray also said she sees the AIMS test as a sound evaluation tool, as long as students perform to their potential.

"It does create a problem if students don't try as hard as they can," Gray said. "It could definitely affect the outcome."

McLean said that he wishes the bill would allow for schools to have more time to show improvement, but that, overall, he and the rest of the members of the state board support the measure because it allows for the individual governing boards to come up with plans of their own to improve their schools.

The bill states that schools would be notified of their status in October and then governing boards would be given until April to show improvement.

"It's not enough time," McLean said. "They should be given a year."

Amphi Boardmember Nancy Young Wright said she is concerned about the amount of time it would take for the district to come up with a plan if a school is deemed as failing.

"There is so much complexity," Young Wright said. "It would be difficult to keep up with all of that reporting."

Palmer also said she was concerned about the state taking over the schools because what would happen as a result is not clearly defined in the bill.

"It's very vague what happens," Palmer said. "What happens with staffing? What responsibility does the governing board have?"

Other than the vague language, Palmer said the Arizona School Boards Association supports the bill because it is better than the statute it would be replacing. The only consequence for underperforming schools under the current statute is that it would be reported to the public on the schools' report cards.

That statute also requires schools to use the AIMS test as an accountability tool, but schools are required to show progress. This creates a problem for schools that might already be in the high percentile for passage rates on the AIMS, making it harder for those schools to show progress.

"Heaven help us if we have to go by the old language," said Rep. Marion Pickens, D-Dist. 14. Pickens said, based on the current statute, that it would be more difficult for schools to be constantly required to show progress rather than maintaining their current level of success, which might already far exceed the passage rates for the exam.

Pickens, who sits on the House Education Committee, said the bill would provide much cleaner language for school accountability.

Pickens also said there needs to be some accountability at the state level for schools, but added that school districts should not view that accountability as a bad thing.

"The schools are identified as failing not for punishment, but for help," she said.

Francie Noyes, spokeswoman for Gov. Jane Dee Hull, wouldn't comment on the specifics of the bill, but said that "the governor does support (Molera's) efforts in getting accountability into schools."

Palmer also added that while she believes the new bill would be better than the statute it is replacing, she is also concerned about the state gaining more control.

"More and more we see policy going to the state level," Palmer said. "We want to keep as much local control as possible."

Smith said he would not have a problem with the state assuming control over school districts if he believed the state knew what was best.

"There's nothing wrong if we think the Legislature thinks they know Amphi better than we do," Smith said. "But some of them don't know where Amphitheater is."

The bill passed the House Education Committee, which Gray chairs, Feb. 13 9-1, with only Rep. Debra Norris, D-Dist. 11, voting against it. The bill was scheduled to be heard before the House Appropriations Committee April 1. Results of the hearing were not available at press time.

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