The most recent state budget provides $38 million to help Arizona’s highest performing schools sustain and grow their impact. This includes mentoring peers who want to learn from their success and serving more kids in schools with high demand.
But since the program’s adoption, some in the education establishment have questioned the wisdom in recognizing and expanding excellence.
That’s too bad. This first-of-its-kind program is busting myths and changing the education funding model for the better.
TO BREAK THE CYCLE OF POVERTY, A QUALITY EDUCATION IS ESSENTIAL
Why is recognizing excellence so important? According to the National Center on Child Poverty, 25 percent of school-aged children are poor. For many reasons, these are the students who have the largest achievement gaps when they start school. They also have the biggest challenge catching up to grade level and staying there.
To break the cycle of poverty, a quality education is essential. This is hard work for students and their teachers. So hard in fact that it was once thought to be nearly impossible for schools to get our poorest students to grade level by graduation and assure them equitable opportunity. How well economically disadvantaged students performed was handicapped like a golf score, and graduation rates in these schools were frighteningly low.
Research and a new generation of education warriors have busted these crushing myths. Unfortunately, schools with old beliefs about what is possible for these students still exist and we fund them the same, and sometimes more, than great schools. Giving these failing institutions more money – something we still do – has seldom solved the problem. And yet tragically, when these schools do manage to achieve excellence, the extra dollars given to them for having low academic achievement are slashed, and then they struggle once again to sustain their impact.
RECOGNIZING GREAT TEACHERS, GREAT OUTCOMES
Since states all over the country, including Arizona, started holding schools accountable for student outcomes, we’ve had the transparency needed to see who can do this work and who cannot. These students have the same potential and drive to learn as any student. They simply need educators who know how to move the academic needle and who have a fundamental belief that every student can learn.
Interestingly, teachers who serve alongside leaders who know how to do this work stay in these schools at a very high rate. Results funding is, by law, to be used to help great schools sustain the work that they’re doing, to serve more students if feasible, to pay and reward teachers who come to these schools and who stay, and to help others who want to improve.
RICH OR POOR, ALL KIDS DESERVE ACCESS TO GREAT SCHOOLS
Critics argue that only rich schools get this money. As explained, this isn’t true. Truth is, Arizona is a state with many families who live paycheck to paycheck. This income diversity is represented statewide in Arizona schools. Almost half of the schools receiving funding have 40 percent or more of their students who qualify for the federal free lunch program.
More than a third of funded schools are provided a substantially higher per-student amount because they serve the highest poverty neighborhoods where most, if not all, kids are low income or live in poverty. Another smaller chunk has about a fifth of their students who are poor or low-income. Finally, there is a grouping of schools that simply do not report their students’ income status. Critics inaccurately refer to these undesignated students as rich to bloat their argument against the program.
That being said, students in high-income neighborhoods deserve good schools too. Every child does. There is plenty of evidence that schools in upper and middle-income neighborhoods are not immune from mediocrity. There are wide variances in school quality across all income types. This is why we need to have a transparent school rating system and incentives to expand what works.
RURAL ARIZONA AT THE HEAD OF THE CLASS
Probably the oddest criticism is the claim that most of the money has gone to Maricopa County schools.
The money provided to the highest performing schools was allocated based on results, not county. But it’s worth reminding critics of the obvious: Maricopa County gets most of the money because that county has most of the schools and most of the students. Our largest county has nine of the states 10 largest cities and is home to large urban districts serving as many as 20,000 students or more.
And yet, the rural counties mostly outperformed their share of the population! Maricopa County actually receives slightly less than its share of the state enrollment. According to our calculations Yuma, Yavapai, Santa Cruz and Mohave Counties all have a higher share of schools that outperform their peers than Maricopa County.
FOR THE FIRST TIME, WE’RE RECOGNIZING EXCELLENCE
The critics of expanding excellence also dust off their old, tired argument that we ought to give every school more money with no strategic funding.
There are plenty of initiatives to provide more dollars to every school. The passage of Proposition 123 put $300 million in new annual funding into schools, while the improving economy has increased the Proposition 301 education sales tax revenue to more than $500 million. During the recession, the K-3 weight was increased to fund improvements to early literacy, and the governor and Legislature just added another $8 million grant for very high poverty schools.
I don’t disagree that there’s a need to do more. The business community, education stakeholders, and policymakers are examining how to add revenue to the Proposition 301 reauthorization ahead of its expiration in 2021. But not including a focus on excellence as part of this effort would be a mistake. There is no such thing as an education excellence silver bullet, so we must multi-task our way to excellence.
Some school leaders are able to build a learning culture for students and teachers that has a positive impact – environments where students learn, teachers stay, and the community benefits. We know these superstars want to serve more students and support others who want the same results. For the first time in education funding we see and recognize these teachers and principals and students. Let’s not put them back in the shadows.