PHOENIX (AP) - 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.”
Gov. Doug Ducey says Arizona schools that have closed because of the pandemic must end virtual learning and return students to the classroom or lose money.
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.
Hoffman also threw her support behind several bills currently in the Legislature, including SB 1376, which would require that all health education instruction include mental health. Briana Ochoa says learning about mental health in high school helped her cope with the anxiety and depression she felt in middle school.
"It taught me that the way that I was feeling wasn't weird or wrong," she said in defense of the bill. "That it was completely normal and that I wasn't always going to be stuck in this hole."
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.
“We will not be funding empty seats or allowing schools to remain in perpetual state of closure,” the governor said in his address.
“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.”
Chandler High School teacher Katie Nash agreed with pretty much everything Hoffman called for. Nash rearranged her schedule Tuesday just so she could watch the address.
“Never has there been a bigger time to be listening to what’s going on to education," she said, noting that funding has been the major issue in education since 2008. “It seems like every step forward that we take in funding – passing Prop 208 – we take about 10 leaps backwards in terms of everything else that’s happening."
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. “When we use a patchwork approach to funding schools, our students lose out.”