‘Project Rocket’ is a great idea, but it values struggling students less than successful ones

project rocket school funding

We live in polarized times, when almost every issue has turned into a wedge issue. Immigration. Climate change. Gun violence. Voting rights.

But one area where there seems to be unity – at least on the surface – is the desire to close the achievement gap in education.

From nonprofits to business chambers to cities and counties, a Who’s Who of Arizona influencers have signed on as partners with Expect More Arizona and the organization’s Arizona Education Progress Meter, which serves as a tool to measure the academic gaps that exist between minority and white and low- and high-income students and to demand our state take concrete steps to address it.   

I’ve long been a critic of Gov. Doug Ducey’s role in giving lip service to closing the gap while actively promoting efforts that expand it. Case in point, his test-based funding scheme, which allocates additional monies to schools with high test scores and generally, higher levels of wealthier and white students.

But this year, the governor has proposed something radical: funding for a program that’s actually been proven to help close the achievement gap.

The grant-based program is dubbed Project Rocket and gives additional, targeted resources to low performing schools with a high percentage of students who live in poverty.

A pilot of this program started in Avondale Elementary School District a few years ago through a partnership with Fairfax County Public Schools in Virginia. The program has had astounding results, improving student achievement growth in math and reading by double digits.

It only makes sense that Ducey would want to expand this program and that all of the organizations who have signed on to the Arizona Education Progress Meter would support this expansion, as well.

But what doesn’t make sense is that Project Rocket, with its demonstrated results in closing the achievement gap, is designed to receive significantly fewer dollars in the governor’s budget proposal than his controversial and unproven test-based funding scheme.

Schools approved for grant money from Project Rocket will receive an additional $150 per student, while schools that qualify for test-based funding receive $225 or $400 per student based on whether they serve a large or small percentage of low-income students.

In total, the governor is proposing less than $44 million for Project Rocket, and more than double that amount – $107 million – for test-based funding. As Arizona Mirror reported last month:

Ducey’s office did not explain why students at struggling or failing schools should receive less new funding than students at schools that are already excelling. Patrick Ptak, the governor’s spokesman, said the Project Rocket schools will get only $150 because that is “consistent with levels provided to schools that participated in the pilot program and produced successful results.”

Why would the governor double-down on a program that has shown no success in closing the achievement gap and, in many cases, actively expands the gap?

Politics, of course.

Some of the biggest beneficiaries of test-based funding include the governor’s closest allies, such as the operators of charter chains Basis and Great Hearts, which tend to serve wealthier students, as well as the schools that Republican politicians have personally profited from, such as the Benjamin Franklin charters.

The winners and losers in these two programs are clear. Project Rocket serves struggling students with multiple challenges, such as high rates of poverty, homelessness and language barriers. In other words, it is a needs-based funding approach.

Test-based funding, on the other hand, serves students in schools who are already performing well, giving them even more money to further outpace the students left behind.

Care to guess which program has been enthusiastically promoted by Arizona’s business leaders and chambers of commerce? I’ll give you a clue… it isn’t the one that promotes equity.

Democrats and pro-education Republicans have an opportunity to turn this around. They can work together to end funding for wasteful programs that widen achievement gaps while increasing funding for proven programs such Project Rocket or for the implementation of poverty weights, which close gaps.

Expect More Arizona has a role to play as well. For years, the organization has remained silent when its partners – those listed on their website as supporters of their vision and the Arizona Education Progress Meter – push schemes that negate the organization’s mission. 

If Expect More Arizona cannot leverage its relationship with partners to promote the policies that align with the Progress Meter, then they should stop giving those organizations cover and instead sever ties.

Project Rocket and test-based funding are diametrically opposed. The groups that line up in support of and in opposition to each program will tell us all we need to know about who is truly serious about closing the achievement gap in Arizona.