Lawmakers: Better pay, relevance are top education priorities

PRESCOTT - Paying teachers more and creating a comprehensive education plan in Arizona were some of the top state education priorities five Arizona legislators described Monday afternoon.

State Senators Tom O'Halleran, R-Sedona, and Linda Gray, R-Phoenix, and State Representatives Mark Anderson, R-Mesa, Andy Tobin, R-Paulden, and Rich Crandall, R-Mesa, spoke to a group from the Arizona Association of County School Superintendents during that organization's retreat.

Yavapai County Superintendent of Schools Tim Carter said 13 of the 15 county school superintendents came to Monday's "legislative roundtable" session, as did representatives from the Arizona School Boards Association, Arizona Education Association, and the League of Cities and Towns, among others.

After the meeting, a Daily Courier reporter asked all five lawmakers what they believe is the most pertinent issue in Arizona education.

Gray believes paying for quality teachers is by far the most important issue. She wants to see entry-level instructors begin at a minimum salary of $38,000.

"We need to attract quality teachers to Arizona by increasing teacher salaries," she said.

In addition, Gray said she currently is working with the state universities to prepare teachers better coming into the work world.

O'Halleran believes "a comprehensive plan for education in Arizona for the kindergarten through university system" is vital, adding that the state needs to identify better what levels of curriculum students need to enter college. For example, one component of this plan may be increasing high school graduation requirements to include three or four years of math and science.

On a similar note, Tobin said lawmakers need to think outside the box to run education more efficiently. He spoke about Senate Bill 1069, called the "Early Education Scholarship Program." This bill will allow the state to continue providing a school district with money for a student, even if that student graduates high school early. However, the district must give some of that money to the student to begin his or her higher education.

In addition, Tobin stressed the importance of parents taking an active role in their child's

education.

"Parents have got to step up," he said about the brunt of responsibility in a classroom. "They can't just turn it on some stranger and say, 'You're not teaching my kid.'"

Anderson emphasized the need to make school more relevant for kids.

"What do we want kids to be when they graduate?" he said, answering his question by saying "successful in life."

To do this, Anderson said, students need to learn character skills, such as communication, goal setting and time management. Currently, he said Arizona's whole focus is basic academic skills; and while public schools are graduating students who pass the AIMS test, the university drop-out rate in Arizona is 50 percent.

"That tells me these kids didn't learn something in high school," he said.

Therefore, Anderson suggested high schools create "life skills" classes and offer these courses as electives rather than mandates.

Crandall wants to improve the academic performance of the "middle group" of kids - not the high achievers or low achievers, but the average students. He plans to do this by working with various programs that target children who will be the first generation in their families to attend college.