Illustration from Photospin image
A few days ago I wrote that I'd try to suspend my disbelief and cynicism regarding the education proposals in Ducey's State of the State address until Friday when he releases some budget numbers. Couldn't do it. The generally positive reception of his ideas in the press has left a major hole in the analysis of his speech. I wrote that I liked most of what Ducey proposed, adding there are a few exceptions, but I didn't discuss the exceptions. Those bad ideas are either cost free or can be accomplished by rejiggering the current education budget—specifically his ideas to relax teacher certification rules and to give more money to "high achieving" schools—which means the worst of his education plans can be implemented on the cheap. It's time to look at them more closely.
Ducey laid out something like ten separate education-related proposals in his address. That leaves the impression that he's given the topic considerable thought and has laid out a comprehensive package of changes and reforms, but it also means he can pick and choose which items he plans to emphasize and implement. After all, who expects him to tackle all ten items during this legislative session?
While making his grandiose education proposals, Ducey said we shouldn't expect him to spend a lot of new money on education this year.
“Now, I’m not promising a money tree. There’s no pot of gold or cash hiding under a seat cushion."
Realistically, for him to be serious about enacting some of his most important proposals, like increasing the funding of schools, raising teacher pay and expanding full day kindergarten, the cost would begin at $100 million and move upwards toward $400-800 million. Meanwhile, most budget projections agree the governor has about $24 million in loose money to play with — the rest is accounted for—with lots of places those dollars can be spent. I suppose Ducey could free up a few more dollars with draconian cuts to other government agencies. But $100 million? $400 million? $800 million? Hardly.
We'll find out Friday, but I suspect Ducey will put a bit of money into the big ticket items as a down payment to show he's serious, then he'll push less expensive items he can enact with the willing support of Republican legislators.
The cheapest proposal in the lot is relaxing teacher certification rules. Ducey suggested the state should leave it to individual districts to decide what qualifications someone needs to be hired as a teacher. That can be implemented without taking a penny from the general budget. If anything, it could save the state a few bucks. Where the line would be drawn is unclear—would a teacher need a bachelor's degree?—but Ducey made it clear, he thinks people without a teaching credential should be allowed to teach if a school district wants them. The idea of quickie certifications, even getting rid of the necessity of certification entirely, has been a conservative dream for years. It's a terrible, destructive proposal for public education. It de-professionalizes the teaching profession. People with little or no knowledge of teaching philosophy and practice could walk into classrooms filled with the most challenging, difficult-to-reach students. It opens up the possibility of giving non-certified teachers a lower salary. And it could further weaken Arizona's teachers union, which works to protect both teachers and students. In other words, relaxing teacher certification plays beautifully into the conservative world view of Ducey and his anti-regulation, anti-union, anti-"government school" cohorts.
The second funding-lite item is Ducey's proposal to increase funding for "high achieving" schools. It sounds like that would take extra money, but it doesn't have to. All it takes is a little creative financial shuffling to give more money to those "high achievers" and less to everyone else. After all, the faulty logic goes, why reward mediocrity or failure when you can reward success? This terrible idea has been knocking around Arizona for years. It's been repeatedly studied and condemned. You might as well substitute "high parent income" for "high achieving" since they're generally the same thing. Schools with a state grade of "A" are concentrated in the high rent areas, as are schools with high achievers around the country and around the world. No matter how many criteria you add to grading schools, those schools will always come out on top, with a few schools in lower income districts defying the odds, though usually only for a few years before they slip out of the "high achieving" category. The result of this plan will be to spend more money on privileged students and less on those who most need the extra enrichment, adding greater educational inequality to our increasing income inequality. In virtually every other industrialized nation, the opposite is true. Extra money and resources flow to schools where students are struggling and academic achievement is below average.
Ducey's Friday budget release may not indicate that he wants to relax teacher certification rules and increase funding for schools with students from high income families. Both of those can be introduced later since they don't have much budgetary impact. But if he low-balls his other proposals—and given the current funding situation and his aversion to tax increases, that's likely—watch for those ideas to sneak their way into legislation later in the session and be promoted, of course, as ways to "invest in K-12 education."