ARIZONA'S EDUCATION SYSTEM IS READY FOR REFORM SCHOOL

FOR ONCE, BIG BUSINESS AND EDUCATORS ARE IN CONCERT. BUT WILL LAWMAKERS FACE THE MUSIC

"We had a vision of what we wanted to do with the kids," says Machan principal Lynn Davey. "The extra money gives us the resources do it. The money has been invaluable."
@rule:
@body:Invaluable dollars are addressed in SB 1101, and likely will be part of whatever reform that emerges from a special session. But almost everybody who has followed school reform says Arizona's system of school funding--districts tax property holders; state tax funds equalize differences between poor and rich districts--needs an overhaul. Though it's similar to funding plans used by most states, critics say the system leaves poorer districts unable to pay for capital improvements such as new buildings, gyms, et cetera.

During the weeks following the most recent legislative session, rail birds were guessing that the legislature would hold off on reform until the next full session, in January 1994, but appoint a committee to study school financing in the interim. Some observers hoot at the prospects of this legislature reworking Arizona's school-funding formulas. After all, this is the body that has failed to fully fund the costs of inflation in Arizona schools for the past several years, and for the last two years has played accounting tricks with school funds to offer cranky citizens mostly meaningless tax cuts. As this story went to press, speculation about a special session doesn't mention school finances at all. The legislature will find some money--nobody's saying where--to ante up the $170 million or so educators want for their programs at the special session. For now, a systemic examination of the state's school-finance structure, including a look at Title XV requirements that state government places on schools, is nowhere to be seen.

Well, not exactly nowhere.
"It's an entirely wealth-driven system," says Tim Hogan, director of the Arizona Center for Law in the Public Interest, which has filed suit against the state in hopes of forcing a more equitable funding formula. "I don't think any serious reform of this system is going to get done without the courts telling the legislature that the laws are unconstitutional." Ironically, also suing Arizona on a school-related issue are key members of reform-minded ABLE. In 1990, the legislature created a special tax for mines and utilities--typically large landholders in rural areas--to raise more money for schools statewide. ABLE stalwarts Arizona Public Service Company and Phelps Dodge are parties to a lawsuit claiming the tax is unfair. The tax reportedly costs APS about $70 million a year, most of which goes to schools.

APS spokesman Marty Shultz sees no irony in his company suing to lessen its own contributions to public-school funding while at the same time reaping the considerable public relations benefits of participating in a big-business group of school-reform activists.

"We have always been champions of funding equity," says Shultz, adding that APS favors a revamping of Arizona's school-funding mechanisms. "We shouldn't be singled out because we own a lot of property. We're a utility. Our taxes eventually bear a cost to our customers." @rule:

@body:Discussion of tax overhaul, however speculative, finally explains a lot about the keen interest big business shows in school reform. Social altruism and work-force needs are the marquee motivations for the efforts of ABLE and others, but, as one participant in this round of reform put it, "It's naive to think that businesses will discharge themselves of their own pecuniary interests to forward education."

Redesign of the school-funding mechanism in Arizona--at least the kind of sweeping changes promoted by muckraking author Jonathan Kozol--are not likely to occur in Arizona anytime soon. Only a small percentage of this state's voters have school-age kids. And an even larger bloc--the elderly ensconced in places like Sun City--traditionally disfavors contributing anything to public education. Meanwhile, Arizona's per-pupil spending languishes in the bottom half of American states. Some 30 percent of Arizona's children don't finish high school. Closer to home, about half of the students who enter the Phoenix Union High School District as freshmen don't make it to graduation day four years later. Among the residents of Arizona's state prisons, more than 80 percent are high school dropouts.

If you've read this far, you can do the math. Still, school reforms that would be discussed in a special legislative session this summer go far, in Arizona terms. ABLE will be able to say that its time and money hasn't been wasted; its leaders' political stock will rise. Education interests will not be viewed as obstructionists. The coalition of the two groups will be rightly hailed as historic--as long as some reform passes soon. Legislators and the governor--ever more aware of the looming political presence of grocer Eddie Basha, an education advocate since his service on the Chandler School Board in 1968 and a possible candidate for governor in 1994--will be able to say they reformed Arizona education. But do these reforms go far enough?

Forget, for a minute, the at-risk kids who have all but overrun public education here. Consider instead the other 400,000 students, the economically and intellectually gifted students who will be the ones to compete in the world marketplace with hypereducated kids from Japan, Germany and, lately, Indonesia.

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