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Brewer’s plan for education performance funding advancing

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PHOENIX – Supporters of Gov. Jan Brewer’s performance-based education funding model for school districts and charter holders say concerns about the formula’s effects on schools in low-income areas don’t take into account the bigger picture.

“Are they completely unfounded concerns? No. But are they blown way out of proportion? Yes,” Dale Frost, Brewer’s education policy adviser, said in an interview.

Critics including the Arizona Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, suggest that the model could hinder the improvement of low-performing schools. That’s because some of the funding would come from money reallocated from all districts and charter holders.

“I think that any time you talk about a funding model that takes away resources from a school that’s already having problems you’re not going to have a solution that actually works,” said Rep. Chad Campbell, D-Phoenix, the House minority leader.

The governor’s proposal is contained in SB 1444, authored by Sen. Kimberly Yee, R-Phoenix, which was awaiting action by the Senate Rules Committee after winning endorsements from the Education and Appropriations committees.

The bill calls for phasing in the performance-based education funding model for kindergarten through 12th grade over the next five years.

The formula used to calculate performance funding for each school district and charter school would be based on both achievement and improvement. Each component would be measured on a 200-point scale based on the A-F letter grades districts and charter schools already receive from the state Department of Education.

All schools and districts earning a letter grade of C or higher would qualify for achievement funding, while only those that improve on their previous year’s score would receive improvement funding.

Of the $56 million the governor’s budget allocates for performance funding, $38 million would be new funding and $18 million would reallocated from all districts and charter holders under a formula that works out to about $17 per student in the first year.

The maximum amount of performance funding per student would be $500 for achievement and $500 for improvement. In the first year, the amount would be capped at 20 percent of the total minus reallocated funds, for a maximum of about $180 per student.

A school that would qualify for neither achievement nor improvement funding would still be liable for the reallocation part of the equation. That money would be cut from the district or charter’s per-student funding.

Craig Barrett, chairman of the Arizona Ready Education Council, called the performance funding model “a pretty symbolic effort” as a start for reform. In the first year of the program, the total amount of performance-based funding would constitute about 1 percent of a school district or charter school’s budget.

“It’s easy to craft lot of emotion about of this,” he said. “But it’s still a small percentage of the budget.”

But David Garcia, an associate professor in Arizona State University’s Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College, said the formula wouldn’t achieve the goal of funding based on performance. He said the structure of the funding model actually ties funding to student demographics.

His research, which looked at the correlation between the percentage of students on free and reduced lunch and expected performance funding, found a moderately strong relationship between the two variables. He said districts and charters serving low-income students and families will receive significantly less money than others.

“I think the idea here is you want to reward districts for what they do,” he said. “But what you’re doing is you’re penalizing districts for the kind of students they enroll.”

Garcia said his research, which used data from the largest school districts, found that those with less than 25 percent of the student population on free or reduced lunch would receive an average of $42 per pupil. Districts with greater than 75 percent of the student population on free or reduced lunch would receive an average of $18 per pupil.

“Those two extremes are really where there is an issue,” he said. “Our richest districts are going to get twice as much per pupil.”

A model created by the governor’s office used data from all districts and charter schools that would be eligible to receive performance funding. That found little to no correlation between free and reduced lunch and performance funding.

Campbell said there are better ways to improve education.

“I think a better formula is to just fund schools,” he said. “That’s the better formula.”

Jennifer Laredo, director of government relations for the Arizona School Boards Association, called the bill and funding model a work in progress. She said performance funding for schools wouldn’t be a cure-all for the education system but would be a powerful tool at the local level.

“The system just can’t be looked at as one size fits all that’s going to fix everything,” she told the Senate Education Committee. “It’s a tool in the toolbox of reform.”