Gov. Doug Ducey plans to use hundreds of millions of dollars that schools will lose from declining enrollment for programs to help students who have fallen behind during the COVID-19 pandemic, which left many schools relying on virtual learning instead of in-person education.
Enrollment in district and charter schools dropped by 37,000 students during the current school year, which will cost them about $389 million in per-student funding, according to the governor’s office. Ducey’s executive budget proposal, which he released on Friday, calls for that money to be used instead for a grant program to fund things like summer school, one-on-one tutoring, longer school days and other things to help students who have fallen behind.
Ducey spoke in his State of the State speech about the students who have struggled with distance learning during the pandemic, which he said has been especially difficult for low-income students.
“Distance learning has not been good for these students, who often don’t have WiFi or a laptop available. So starting now, let’s direct resources to helping these children catch up,” the governor said. “It should be our goal that every student graduates high school on time and at grade level.”
Of that $389 million, Ducey’s budget calls for $298 million to go toward grants for schools that provide at least 50 hours of instruction between the end of the current school year and the start of the next one for students who need extra help. The funding would provide $500 per pupil for an estimated 595,500 students who receive free or reduced-price lunch in all grade levels.
Another $91 million is set aside for nearly 279,000 students who need additional in the “priority grade bands” of K-3, 8th grade and 11th grade. That money would provide an estimated extra $327 per student at schools that provide at least 80 additional hours of instruction.
The governor’s office said the funding is not just limited to students who receive free or reduced-price lunches, and that schools are free to include other students in the program if they’re able to.
“Kids have lost out on learning,” Daniel Scarpinato, the governor’s chief of staff, told reporters during a briefing on Friday. “We’ve structured this in a way that does provide these dollars to schools, but that does it in a way that helps the kids that have been impacted through this pandemic.”
The governor’s office said it’s not entirely clear exactly where those estimated 37,000 students went. Matt Gress, the governor’s budget director, said some were likely from families that moved because they were hard hit by the economic downturn caused by the pandemic, while others have likely shifted to homeschooling. Gress said the enrollment decline in public schools was most pronounced in grades K-3.
During his State of the State speech, Ducey railed against schools that continue to use online-only models and warned that the state “will not be funding empty seats or allowing schools to remain in a perpetual state of closure,” which many public education advocates interpreted as a threat to withhold funding from schools that didn’t provide in-person education.
The governor and members of his administration later clarified that he was simply referring to the loss of funding that schools lose when students go elsewhere, though schools will continue to receive 95% of their per-pupil amount for students who use remote learning, if the pandemic still necessitates that during the 2021-22 school year.
The Student-Focused Acceleration and Support program, as the governor dubbed it, is part of a record $6.1 billion K-12 education budget that Ducey is proposing, which includes $250 million in new spending. Nearly $106 million of that new money will go toward funding for enrollment growth, inflation and other annual adjustments, while almost $68 million will be used to restore a pool of funding, known as Additional Assistance, that was cut in prior years.
Among the other programs funded by that new money is a “driving equity” program that will provide $9.5 million in grants for schools to provide transportation options for their students, a frequent problem for parents who want to send their children to charter schools outside of their neighborhoods but have no way to get them to class.
Chris Kotterman, a lobbyist with the Arizona School Boards Association, was buoyed by the governor’s plan to restore the final installment of additional assistance funding. And he said ASBA appreciates the $389 remediation program.
“This is the first time that we’ve seen the governor actually come out and put resources behind something that we would consider an equity-focused program. And that’s significant,” Kotterman said.
But Kotterman said the governor may be operating under some faulty assumption about ongoing K-12 enrollment, meaning some of the $389 million may not be available for remediation programs after all. Some of the students who withdrew from public schools during the pandemic likely won’t return, he said, but many others will.
“I would maintain that a lot of those kids will come back,” Kotterman said. “I think this idea that so many parents have seen the light on school choice because of distance learning is a little bit oversold.”