PHOENIX - Arizona’s top education official on Tuesday said sustainable, long-term funding is critical for public schools to make sure students thrive during and after the coronavirus pandemic that has seen schools close and reopen for virtual learning and in many cases offer both in-person and online classes.
Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman, a Democrat, praised some of Republican Gov. Doug Ducey’s budget proposals, including his plan to provide funding for early literacy programs. But she slammed his plan to enact tax cuts instead of fully funding schools and safety net programs.
"When the state sits on a billion-dollar rainy day fund and projects a two-billion-dollar surplus, there is no excuse to not fully fund every school," Hoffman said in her annual State of Education address to members of the Arizona Senate education committee. "There has never been a more urgent time to tap into our safety net and provide for Arizonans. Anyone who thinks it’s not raining in Arizona right now needs to check their privilege."
She said that schools stand to lose $500 million in yearly funding because the state pays 5% less for distance learning and noted that the state still has a major teacher shortage due in part to low pay, overcrowded classrooms, and burnout. And she said schools need much more money for counselors and mental health staff.
It is not just schools suffering, she said, noting that many parents lost their jobs and struggled to pay rent or mortgages on Arizona’s maximum unemployment benefits of $240 per week. That’s the second-lowest in the nation.
"It is absurd to think and to talk of tax cuts when there are so many families with basic needs our state can help meet," Hoffman said.
Hoffman, in her third year in office, praised educators for stepping up to teach and support students during the pandemic, noting that public schools were among the first hit by closure orders when the pandemic struck in March.
"Our schools have gone above and beyond to deliver instruction safely, and to desperately fill the gaps Arizona families are facing — to offer everything from food boxes to counseling services to a sense of stability in their children’s rapidly changing worlds," Hoffman said. "The pressure on our schools has been immense, but they have risen to the challenge, transitioning to new learning models and a reality with innovation, quick-thinking, and adaptation."
Hoffman also noted that many schools that have switched to virtual teaching models may want to keep them operating once the pandemic ends, and that will require more funding.
"The costs of providing hybrid or virtual models will come in addition to the cost of keeping facilities open, recruiting and retaining staff, and serving students on campus," she said.
Hoffman noted the large infusion of federal funds to help schools weather the pandemic, but said that was emergency relief money.
"As we plan for the next school year, many public schools will not be able to stretch federal relief dollars to cover long-existing gaps in their budgets," she said.
Leaders in the Black community voice concerns
Leaders in the Black community voiced concerns in front of the state capitol Tuesday pushing for Senate Bill 1452, sponsored by Arizona Senator Paul Boyer.
It would fund "empowerment scholarship accounts," ESAs, or vouchers for low-income students by taking funding from public schools for better educational opportunities.
Those pushing for the passage say low-income students could be up to 16 months behind in their education because of COVID-19 school closures.
On Tuesday, Feb. 2, the bill was approved.
A local pastor says students in his district are stuck in their local schools and not thriving. "So what we're fighting for here today is to make sure that every child that comes from a low-income home has an opportunity to attend a school that's gonna work for them," he said.
The bill will allow students who receive services for free or reduced-price lunches to be eligible for the program and allow for funds to be spent on transportation.
Low-income students would have the opportunity to get an education where they choose, not where they live. This would give them a chance at private schooling paid for by public tax dollars.
"ESAs help pay for nearly all education options outside of district schools: online schools, homeschooling, private schools, and tutors. They also help ease the burden of out-of-pocket education expenses, for books and curriculum," read a portion of a statement from Mike Philipsen, Director of Communications with the Arizona State Senate Republican Caucus.
"We are in a battle. Not of Republicans, not of Democrats. But, we're in a battle of young souls," says Pastor Drew Anderson at Legacy Church Arizona.
Sheila Ellis is a mother of eight who was not happy with her children's school district. She says she pulled her kids out and homeschooled them.
"They thrived. They flourished and when I did allow them to return to public school, they were ahead of the game," Ellis said.
In her state of education address, Hoffman didn't mention the bill but echoed the issues for indigenous, Latino and Black communities, saying they're seeing the highest rates of COVID-19 in the state.
"Our state must make sure that communities hit hardest by this virus get all the support they need to recover and that starts with academies which used socioeconomic indicators and public health data to determine schools most severely impacted by COVID-19," Hoffman said.
The Arizona Department of Education is partnering with Ducey to launch "acceleration academies" to help students and families bounce back from the pandemic.
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