Raising Arizona’s children — a newcomer perspective

As a newcomer to Arizona since June 2014, and with an absorbing job that has been my focus for the last 15 months, I have largely stood back and watched the state’s education politics. For a small (-population) state such as Arizona, it has been an eventful 15 months:

  • The (former) incumbent state superintendent was overthrown in the 2014 Republican primary because of racist comments he wrote on the internet.
  • The woman who beat the incumbent state superintendent in the primary won the general election in the closest statewide race of 2014, by approximately one percentage point, or 18,000 votes — which I would consider a Florida landslide.
  • The new state superintendent has been in regular political battles with the state board of education, including several trips to state court over who has the authority to hire/fire a handful of board employees.
  • The state’s testing system switched to a new vendor and coverage, like many other states.
  • The legislature and local public school districts have continued a multi-year battle in court over school funding.
  • The first-year governor has both appointed a panel to propose a new education funding system for the state and (semi-separately) proposed to tap into a land trust to pump additional funding into K-12 schools on a temporary basis.
  • The first-year governor has been opposed in this last proposal by the state’s first-year treasurer, who is from the same party as the governor.

To all the major actors in the state: I am a political junkie who spent almost two decades in Florida, but you really didn’t need to do this just so I would feel at home.

More prosaically, I have also been trying to grasp the political and organizational structure of K-12 schooling here. Arizona has all of the following:

  • An elected state superintendent who is one member of a state board of education that is neither entirely elected nor entirely appointed.
  • Some elementary-only and high-school only school districts, in addition to K-12 unified school districts.
  • Elected county superintendents (but no county boards of education).
  • 21 federally-recognized Native American tribes, which have the authority to operate their own school systems.
  • One of the earliest and loosest charter-school laws in the country.
  • A complex educational tax-credit structure that contains both an implicit voucher system plus other options.
  • An open-enrollment policy for local public schools.
  • A statutory school funding measure approved by state voters, overlaid on constitutional requirements and an historical legislatively-approved funding formula.
  • A law prohibiting K-12 courses that “promote ethnic solidarity,” a mechanism that has been used primarily to attack ethnic-studies courses in high school.
  • A voter-approved policy prohibiting bilingual education of almost every sort.

If you moved to Arizona wanting a clean organization chart for how things worked, you would quickly be driven crazy by this. If you are an historian interested in the complex behavior of neighbors, this is absorbing. We have a state where many of the education reforms of the past 25 years have been tried in at least partial fashion here, from charter schools and tax-credit policies to open enrollment, statewide curriculum standards, prohibition of bilingual education, third-grade reading promotion gates, and I could go on. You would be forgiven if you said that everything has been thrown against the wall to see what stuck. To this newcomer, the energy is palpable; what is not clear is whether many of these policies have served the state’s children well.

Because there is no dominant urban school system in the state, and the state’s population is relatively small, Arizona has gotten little national education press apart from symbolic battles over ethnic-studies courses in Tucson and the political spats at the state level this year. We have plenty of children, diversity, poverty, and ambition, and I am still wrapping my head around all of it.

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