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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

    Education regulations ignore lack of funding

    This April, like in every April before it, third-graders across the state of Arizona will sit for their benchmark AIMS test in reading, writing, math and science — but the stakes will be higher this year.

    Starting this spring, any third-grade student whose reading proficiency “falls far below the third grade level” will not be promoted to the fourth grade, in accordance with A.R.S. § 15-701. The Arizona Department of Education estimates that close to 2 percent of all third-graders could be held back.

    The impulse behind the creation of the policy is understandable; third grade often signifies the point at which instructional focus switches from “learning to read” to “reading to learn.” Students who aren’t yet proficient in reading are unlikely to catch back up, leaving them at an increased risk of dropping out of school.

    Arizona has a particularly acute problem in this respect. In 2011, Arizona scored below the national average in every subject on the fourth grade tests used nationally to compare across states. Our high school graduation rates are 43rd in the nation, and only 20 percent of those who do manage to graduate from an Arizona high school have obtained a certificate or college degree within six years.

    But the new law will do nothing to alleviate the problems in Arizona’s public education system. Retention is not a benign policy.

    “While retention seems a logical and simple solution, there is significant experience and research that indicates the many negative consequences related to retention, particularly when the student and family do not support the concept,” said Vicki Balentine, former superintendent of Amphitheater School District, former president of the Arizona School Board of Education and current professor of educational policy studies and practice.

    Low-income students, who are four times more likely to be held back than their more affluent peers, will be most affected by the retention policy, further aggravating educational inequalities.

    Patricia Anders, Jewel M. Lewis Distinguished Professor of Reading at the UA and president of the National Reading Conference, said she would “absolutely not” have voted for the law if given the opportunity.

    “No retention decisions should be made on the basis of one test,” she said.

    Anders also said she was concerned that teachers would narrow their instruction for struggling readers because of the law.

    The Arizona law is based on a similar measure in Florida that has achieved relative success; but, Balentine said, “Our Legislature could study and learn from the major funding infusion that occurred in Florida related to their education reform. In general, our Legislature mimics Florida’s effort while at the same time reducing funding for public education.”

    In fact, Arizona cut K-12 funding by 21.8 percent between fiscal 2008 and fiscal 2013, more than any other state in the nation, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

    The picture of our overall per-pupil spending is similar. Arizona is 48th in the nation in what we spend to educate each student, adjusted for regional cost-of-living differences. The national average was $10,615; Arizona spent only $7,848. In fact, according to the Arizona Legislative Executive Council, we’re currently spending less on education per student than we were in 1986.

    A cornerstone of the new legislation is that students will be tested earlier and more frequently, enabling schools and families of struggling readers to partner on intervention strategies long before April of third grade. But the state is only allocating an additional $132 per K-3 student in schools that submit a plan to do this.

    Our state government needs to make a decision. Only one state in the bottom 20 percent in terms of educational funding per pupil found its way to the top 20 percent in terms of test performance in any subject. We cannot continue to skimp on funds while simultaneously demanding higher standards, especially if the consequences for falling short of those standards will land on the shoulders of under-supported 8-year-olds who come from poor families.

    Politicians in Phoenix should stop looking for easy solutions and manipulable numbers to prove their dedication to education, and instead start putting their money where their mouths are.

    Jaqui Oesterblad is a junior studying global studies, political science and Middle Eastern and North African Studies. Follow her @joesterblad.

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