Four years ago, a literal Who’s Who of education and business groups, along with cities and counties, touted a new “roadmap of achievable education goals” that would make a “direct, positive impact on Arizona’s students and teachers and strengthen local communities.”
This new roadmap was known as the Arizona Education Progress Meter.
The meter measures eight key indicators of student achievement, including third-grade reading proficiency and eighth-grade math, against long-term, attainable goals.
A long list of organizations, including many of the state’s chambers of commerce signed on as partners, claiming a shared vision with the groups who created the tool, Expect More Arizona and the Center for the Future of Arizona.
But fast-forward to 2021, and most of the partner organizations have remained silent on the progress meter’s latest findings.
Why? Because there’s not much to celebrate.
Those “attainable goals” are looking more and more like pie-in-the-sky wishes. One goal — teacher pay — is so far from reality, it doesn’t even have a colorful pie chart to track its progress.
In fact, we’ve actually gone backwards on teacher pay. The original goal was to reach the national median by 2022. But despite teacher pay raises, we’re still as far away as ever from the median: 50th in the nation.
We’ve edged up slightly on a couple of goals on the progress meter and edged down on a couple others. Overall, we’ve remained fairly stagnant.
But there is a small glimmer of hope to this story.
Despite the pandemic, Arizona is facing a revenue surplus. In addition to the surplus, the state has $1 billion stashed in its rainy day fund and more than $4 billion heading our way in federal COVID relief funds from the American Rescue Plan.
Arizona voters also recently approved Proposition 208, the Invest in Education Act, which will add hundreds of millions of dollars to K-12 public schools via a surcharge tax on high-income earners.
Now is the perfect time, with surplus revenues and plenty of cash in reserves, to fund the goals in the progress meter.
So why are the state’s business groups — the ones who write about the necessity of closing the achievement gap and have phrases like educational excellence splashed across their websites — not clamoring to do just that?
These same business groups that want quality schools also want more tax cuts. And tax cuts always win out over investments, regardless of how dire the need.
But imagine if these groups found just a wee bit of courage and banded together in opposition to tax cuts until the attainable goals of the progress meter were met. Imagine if those business leaders put the needs of Arizona students over the expansion of their profit margins .
The state could finally get serious about funding disparities between wealthy and poorer districts and follow the lead of 41 other states in implementing poverty weights.
We could fully fund services for our special education students who are cheated out of more than $100 million in funding every year.
We could boost teacher pay — maybe even get to 40th place — and invest in guidance counselors and capital improvements.
But none of these things will happen so long as our leaders choose to embrace the status quo.
Republican legislators are hyping a billion-dollar tax cut plan along with another scheme that will upend the will of the voters and drastically reduce the revenues from Prop. 208.
Congress has promised a dollar-for-dollar reduction in federal aid should states choose to implement tax cuts, but that hasn’t dissuaded Gov. Ducey. He’s already said he’s on board with the cuts, even though it’s still unclear if that will mean less money for Arizonans hurting from the pandemic.
But certainly all those chambers of commerce and business groups who signed on to the progress meter will interject, right? After all, many claimed there was a better way to meet long-term goals than through tax increases. They said a strong business economy, which would produce higher state revenues, was the best route.
But now that we have higher revenues, where are the demands from these groups to invest our surplus in education?
They don’t exist. And sadly, those organizations who have the ability to hold these groups to account continue to give them a pass.
When the latest progress meter results were released this month, Expect More Arizona acknowledged the state isn’t on track to meet its goals. And “to get there will require meaningful conversations about the opportunity gap that prevents many students from reaching their potential…”
To which I ask, haven’t we already had plenty of meaningful conversations? Weren’t meaningful conversations the precursor to the progress meter?
I’d suggest we need less talking and more pressure, particularly pressure on the very groups and individuals who claim to support quality public education but remain mute when the governor forwards budgets that slash revenues and prolong our state’s same, shameful trajectory.Business groups have the leverage and relationships to do so much more than provide lip service on education. It’s far past time they do so. And if they refuse, it’s far past time we call them out by name.