Making Advances Toward Equitable Funding in Arizona

It was on my holiday wish list that the Arizona governor and legislature would take steps toward equitable funding this year so that our students could get what they require to be successful regardless of their unique needs. Teachers like me know that different populations of students have different needs and require different kinds or amounts of resources to learn. It gives me hope to see that some policymakers in Arizona are starting to understand that too.

To create equity, Arizona must revise the antiquated funding formula weights for special populations of students. Weighted student funding, which differentiates funding based on the demographics that each school serves, could finance quality programs that have the greatest impact on the unique student population. Students in poverty need more from their schools than their more affluent peers. Therefore, we must increase funding for low-income schools to create equity. 

Arizona Governor Doug Ducey seems to have acknowledged that there is a connection to community poverty and learning. In his State of the State address, he announced “Project Rocket,” providing support, strategies, and funding for a program created by local school superintendents to boost schools’ performance by closing the achievement gap for struggling schools. His budget provides $44 million annually over the next three years. The program started in 2015 and provides an additional $150 in per-pupil resources designed to assist students, teachers, and staff members in meeting the goal of increasing student achievement. 

In three years, the local pilot district improved its standardized test performance by 13% in English Language Arts and by 18% in math, beating the statewide average of 7% growth in English and 6% growth in math. The following year, Arizona added two more districts to the program, both of which are experiencing similar results in test score achievement.

The program is based on Arizona’s school letter grading system. Schools rated “D” or “F” may opt into the pilot program to receive grants aimed at supporting the implementation of proven strategies to close achievement gaps. Schools with a “C” rating that serve 60% or higher free and reduced lunch students may also opt-in to the program. Project Rocket monitors success three ways to close the achievement gap: moving up a letter grade, earning at least 50 percent of growth points, and improvement in student attendance.

There’s potential for more good news for equity for Arizona students. Some Arizona policymakers are receptive to educators who say that we must increase funding for students who require more intensive supports and services. We need to consider the costs of educating students with speech and mild learning disabilities and the costs of educating students with moderate and severe learning disabilities – the number of whom is increasing rapidly. Inadequate funding creates a burden on districts and denies full opportunity to all students.

An Arizona senator announced a bill acknowledging that some students cost more to educate due to their unique needs. The bill would create the Extraordinary Special Education Needs Fund which would allow districts to request additional funding for students whose education costs more than three times the statewide per-pupil average. It also proposes tweaks to the special education weights by providing more funding for students whose needed services break the bank for schools and school districts.

So my holiday wish may come true, in a small way. We are shining a spotlight on a few pieces of the larger puzzle of how school funding can create equity, which is great news for the students and schools in Arizona.  If the Arizona Governor and legislature continue with this momentum and work with educators who have first-hand experience, we will achieve the goal of equitable school funding in Arizona and beyond.

Beth Maloney is currently in her twentieth year of teaching and enjoys every minute of her time in the classroom teaching fifth grade. Beth holds a doctorate in higher and post-secondary education, is a renewed National Board-Certified Teacher, and serves as a Candidate Support Provider for other teachers undergoing certification. She is the co-founder and past president of the Arizona National Board-Certified Teachers Network and a blogger on Stories from School Arizona. Beth is the founder and president of the Arizona chapter of the National Network of State Teachers of the Year and was honored to be the 2014 Arizona Teacher of the Year.