If you ask the group of about 10 Prescott High School seniors who attended an Arizona Town Hall Community Outreach program on Tuesday what the key is to their educational success, they will repeat the same answer: knowledgeable, caring and devoted classroom teachers.
If you ask them their biggest fear about their education, they again repeat the same answer: losing those same teachers to places with more pay.
“A good teacher affects everything,” declared senior Jack Waterhouse.
In a roomful of about 50 district, charter and private school educators and advocates, civic leaders and elected officials, parents, and even a couple candidates for public office, the students echoed their leaders’ beliefs: they want lawmakers to stop paying lip service to education and show them the money.
Or be replaced by those who will.
The 110th Arizona Town Hall just completed its statewide report analyzing funding for pre-kindergarten through 12th grade education. This meeting at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University was a time to let the community talk about next steps and priorities: competitive teacher salaries, new technology, school security, academic readiness and testing, more emotional and mental health staff.
Arizona Town Hall is a non-profit organization that examines statewide issues from diverse perspectives with the intent of bolstering awareness, setting priorities and seeking solution.
Prescott Unified District Superintendent Joe Howard hailed the Arizona Town Hall for shining a spotlight on funding that caught Gov. Doug Ducey’s attention. Ducey proposed a $10.1 billion state budget, 80 percent devoted to education. His plan proposes $100 million for one-time major expenses as well as money to fund 2 percent salary increases for all state teachers. The state Legislature, still in session, will have the final say.
Ducey, too, favors renewal of Proposition 301, a measure voters passed in 2000 to use sales tax revenues to raise teacher salaries.
“But let’s realize the politics here and state the obvious: Not enough. Too little and too late,” said Howard, one of four speakers selected to share views on the report.
Retired Prescott elementary principal Rosemary Agneesens, a leading public school advocate in this region, is clear what Ducey has proposed does not come close to making up for what Arizona has lost over the last decade.
“Our teachers and our communities can’t wait,” she said of efforts to find new revenue streams and eliminate funding inequities between district and charter schools. “We’re not done.”
Two local elected officials, Independent Marty Grossman on the Prescott Valley Town Council and Republican Billie Orr on the Prescott City Council, both voiced support for education, with Orr rejecting the notion that her political colleagues, including those who endorse school choice, are “anti-education.” She does favor choice, but does not endorse use of public dollars for private schools. She encouraged all in attendance to be informed, talk to their legislators and vote their conscience.
In 2017, Arizona’s K-12 operating budgets totaled $9.24 billion, with equalization funds making up nearly 70 percent, federal funds 14 percent and other local money accounting for 12 percent, according to the Town Hall report.
Prescott Unified is one of the few districts in the state that does not receive equalization dollars; its education costs are covered by taxpayers. In contrast, Howard noted, local charter schools are funded through the state’s general fund so all state taxpayers are contributing to those costs.
In 2017, Arizona’s equalization formula funneled $6.33 billion into school districts or about $5,660 per student. Adding in federal grants and local dollars, the total per pupil spending was about $8,257, a 5.6 percent increase from 2009.
In his district this spring, Howard said the Governing Board will vote once again on a “starving budget.” He predicts debate will revolve around paying teachers more or hiring more mental and emotional support staff as a result of the fear prompted by yet another school shooting.
“We should have both. We should have both and we should be adding staff to lower class sizes all over Arizona,” Howard said.
Sad truth: it can’t happen this year, he said.
“To be bold, I will say that Arizona has failed these students here today, just starting the fourth quarter of their senior year,” Howard said. “Arizona funds barely better than half of what some other states provide per student. Are Arizona students worth less?”
The good news for many Arizona students, and certainly those in his district, is that despite pay and working conditions devoted classroom teachers are assuring children are pushed to do their best.
But the toll is showing in empty classrooms, large class sizes and an inability to keep the best of the best because they can’t take care of their own families, Howard said.
“We should not settle for last place again and again, and we should not allow small efforts to quiet us down,” Howard said. “Arizona needs to become the Cinderella story of education in our nation. We should demand the best for our kids.”