Ted Simons: How did the state leverage handle education issues this session? We ask that question tonight to a panel of Arizona education leaders. Stacey Morley is the state Department of Education's policy director. Pearl Chang Esau is president and CEO of expect more Arizona, a group promoting world-class education for Arizona students. And Andrew Morrill is president of the Arizona education association. Good to have you all here. We have a lot to talk about here. Let's start with just basically, what did the Legislature do this session to help education?
Stacy Morley: Well, we are grateful that the Legislature did provide us additional funding to put out an RFP for a new assessment and also provide the additional funding we need to start completing our data system. And they also added some money in for performance funding. Some of the best things that they did were things they actually didn't do, which is pass legislation that would eliminate the use of the new standards in the schools today.
Ted Simons: What did you see as far as helping education?
Pearl Chang Esau: Yeah, very much along those same lines. The Arizona career ready standards have been an absolutely critical step for Arizona in having high expectations for all of our children in preparing them to be ready for college and career. And we have been implementing these standards for three years. Teachers are very enthusiastic about it. And despite widespread bipartisan support from business and parents, teachers, all across the state we had multiple attempts to roll back those standards this session. And together I am happy to report that we were able to either defeat or stall all of the bills. And like Stacey said, secure some funding for the transition to a new test that's long overdue.
Ted Simons: As far as pluses, I know you got some minuses here, but what did the Legislature do to help things?
Andrew Morrill: Everybody always looks to me to be the tough one. Why do I have this reputation as the tough grader? Look, the Legislature paid attention to some very strong, very emphatic business leaders and educational leaders that said these standards are great for students. I think most of the successes are close to that issue, upholding standards. In many ways the session kicked the can down road about some deeper conversations. I congratulate Legislature on obeying a court order to fund inflation, something they were having trouble doing for four years prior. And that issue is not done yet. So they kind of kicked that one down the road. But, yeah, there were small bits and pieces of little victories. I would attribute those mainly to powerful voices that influenced some of the legislators.
Ted Simons: Let's get to this common core. We will start with that since that seems to be on top of mind. What is the reason for much divisiveness regarding this test? What's going on with this?
Stacy Morley: I believe that most of it is rooted in a very big misconception that the standards were developed by the Federal government, that are being imposed on us by the Federal government they were, in fact, starting to be developed far earlier than this presidential administration took office by the state and the Governors. And we had all looked at being spurred by business, by saying that we are not seeing graduates from our high schools and from our colleges that are able to fill the jobs of the future.
Ted Simons: The idea that this is a nationalization of Arizona education, saying it should be more local? There's some sort of Socialistic atmosphere going on here? How did that get there into the conversation? How do you respond to it?
Pearl Chang Esau: Well, I think there's a couple of really big pieces of misinformation that have occurred. And the one is that it's a Federal mandate. Like Stacy mentioned is simply not true. I think the part where people may have gotten confused there was a point in which the Obama administration offered incentives in the race to the top applications to adopt standards that were preparing kids to be college and career ready that were common across states, but common core standards were not named in that but there was an incentive. And the other issue is there's a misperception between standards and curricula. Local districts continue have as they always have local control over what curricula and strategies they use to implement these standards.
Andrew Morrill: Who knew? Turns out Obama is a bit of a lightning rod. I didn't see that one coming. Look, the real issues around the common core standards, Arizona's college and career ready standards, they have the right bearing. They have the right intent in mind. Leave students well prepared for when they leave school, whatever their path may be. We have some conversations we ought to be having and the misinformation campaign is kind of pulled us off the mark. I credit Expect More Arizona and frankly aspects of the Department of Ed, the business community for trying to stay on track. Education leaders, if people were listening to teachers they would be hearing teachers say the standards are good, the standards are good for students. Now let's figure out how we are going to make all of this successful. And that's the conversation we haven't had yet.
Ted Simons: We don't always hear that the tests are good for students. There's a lot of teachers out there that say you are teaching to a test. You are too focused and not getting a well-rounded education. Talk about that dialogue.
Pearl Chang Esau: We have to be honest and say nobody really likes tests. But the reality is that good teaching is good teaching, you know, with the old standards and the new standards. Which means you don't teach to a test. We shouldn't be teaching to a test regardless. With the aim standards because of some of the Federal requirements around no child left behind, we had a low-bar assessment graduating our students with more of a tenth grade proficiency which is why we have a 60% remediation raid in our community colleges. Everyone was teaching to this low-bar test. I think the opportunity we had with the new assessment that the state board is currently selecting is that this is a test that will move us away from rote memorization into more critical thinking and students being able to apply the learning they have to different situations.
Andrew Morrill: Ted, really, we can talk about teaching to the test and we don't want to do that but in Arizona we policy to the test. We have created enormous consequences for our schools, our individual teachers, and our districts that are tied to the measurement of a test score. This is happening at the state level. It's happening at the national level. So what's happened is the assessment is in danger of becoming more important than the education system itself.
Ted Simons: With that idea in mind the Governor's performance funding plan, good for Arizona?
Andrew Morrill: Not right now. Not well thought out yet and not the priority that we needed. In the face of years of deep cuts to education, $1.5 billion in cuts to K-12 in the last five years, the lowest per pupil funding before the cuts, the biggest cuts in the country over the last five years, how do we go and look at a very small sum of differentiated funding that not everyone district is going to receive? Again, driven by a test score. And call this game changing. Game changing would be to fund schools.
Ted Simons: Your thoughts on the Governor's performance funding plan. And performance funding plans in general.
Stacy Morley: Performance funding is a definitely very complicated issue. And the superintendent feels very strongly that if you don't have multiple measures, it's very hard. If you link it only to performance on one thing, it becomes very easy to focus on that one thing. So when you have multiple measures in a measurement system, it makes it harder and makes it a true reflection of the school's performance. I think the Governor's plan is a very good start but I think it's something we continue need to look at and see what those unintended consequences can be for incentivizing behavior.
Ted Simons: A good start?
Pearl Chang Esau: The number one job is to make sure schools have what they need especially struggling schools, to make sure every child in our state has a chance to graduate from high school. That's the first thing you have to do.
Ted Simons: There was a big push in the Legislature to expand these voucher-like programs, these empowerment scholarship accounts. Your thoughts on the effort to get more, one of the plans would get a lot more, Arizona school kids involve in this program.
Pearl Chang Esau: Yeah. I think on that one we have to start with the vision for what we want for our children. We believe that vision is that every child should have, regardless of their back ground and income or zip code, should have the opportunity to obtain some kind of college degree, certificate, or industry credential because most jobs require it now. And for that to be the case, for every child to have the chance to succeed, they really, we really need to have a strong public education system. We need a public education system that's well-funded, well-supported teachers where every child has that kind of access.
Ted Simons: Does this program take away from that public school?
Pearl Chang Esau: It certainly has the potential of undermining that because it could potentially undermine high expectations for all children. It could undermine the accountability and transparency, apparently we need to make sure we have high-performing schools.
Ted Simons: Your thoughts?
Andrew Morrill: I think Pearl does a really articulate job of representing the fact that a lot of community and opinion leaders weren't looking for voucher expansion and these can be called ESAs. They're vouchers. It was a clever ploy to slip them under the legal radar. You weren't hearing business leaders calling for expansion of vouchers. You certainly weren't hearing educational leaders calling for them. And we are creating a two-class system. We are increasing accountability measures for our K-12 traditional district schools. We are increasing taxpayer accountability, academic accountability and at the same time not funding that system, but draining funds away into a black hole, debit-card scheme of zero accountability for academic, zero taxpayer transparency really and this isn't by any means the priority area. It's mystifying that the Governor chose final days of the session to expand voucher programs with no public call for them.
Ted Simons: Expanding these voucher-like ESAs, call them what you like, is it good for Arizona's public school system?
We definitely have a robust school choice environment here in Arizona. And the department feels that as many choices are available to parents they will be able to choose the best option for their kids. This program is very small. Currently there are about 700 kids on it. Even just this year we had about 2,500 applications, and if that is if the prior years go on, only 50% of those people who actually apply accept the scholarship. Because they see the funding amount and it may not be capable. The expansion is who is eligible. There's a cap on the program. The cap cannot grow.
Andrew Morrill: There is a cap now. It goes away.
Ted Simons: It goes away.
Stacy Morley: And the superintendents favor a permanent cap. The fact is, you have to look at the whole system rather than just one program.
Ted Simons: You mentioned robust school choice in Arizona. Arizona has had robust school choice for many years now.
Stacy Morley: Right.
Ted Simons: And a lot of lawmakers at the Legislature, they think this is a good thing. If it is such a good thing, why aren't education results in Arizona getting better?
Andrew Morrill: Very good question.
Stacy Morley: Actually, in some ways the, our results are getting better. But, in fact, we are start, from behind -- if you look at us, we have had better growth in some grades than other states. But everybody keeps moving. So when you start at bottom and everyone else is moving along, too, it's very hard to have our academics grow. I think the standards are a big, big step in the right direction. The fact is that when examining our standards and examining what we call proficiency on aims with other states, our proficiency is actually much lower than what it would be in another state.
Ted Simons: If those are the results and, again, if we are supposed to celebrate school choice, and we have had school choice for so long, why aren't we celebrating better results?
Pearl Chang Esau: I think it's a little bit of misplaced emphasis. We need to focus a lot more on quality of educational choices as opposed to quantity of educational choices. And I think the environment in which we set up choice, which we very much support public school choice, but the environment was one in which we were more focused on creating lots of options as opposed to making sure they were all really great option. So you see the charter school association and others advocating for the shutdown of low-performing charter schools because they realize this is a disservice.
Ted Simons: We have about a minute left. Again, I am asking you. Why aren't we -- why isn't the public school system in Arizona overall doing better?
Andrew Morrill: Because we speak identity of both sides of our mouth about the value of choice. Number one choice made by parents in Arizona overwhelmingly, 92%, is to send their students to local district community neighborhood schools. That's a choice the Legislature has yet to catch up with. Long on rhetoric, short on investment strategies, we are not honoring the choice that parents are making when we want to get serious about how we invest in the schools we need, we'll see the results.
Ted Simons: We have to stop it right there. Great discussion. Good to have you here.
Andrew Morrill: Thank you.