Douglas: Ducey's education plan shows promise

Posted at 5:07 PM, Jan 20, 2016
and last updated 2016-01-20 21:57:34-05

Arizona schools chief Diane Douglas said Wednesday that Gov. Doug Ducey's plan to tap the state land trust to add $3.5 billion in K-12 school funding over 10 years shows promise but big risks to school funding remain.

Douglas told the Arizona House Education Committee in her State of Education speech that it is too soon to tell if Ducey and the Legislature are taking the first steps toward rebuilding a woefully underfunded state education system. But she said she remained worried that lawmakers and the Republican governor may not follow through.

"Just as in the comic `Peanuts,' Lucy will hold the ball and then yank it away from Charlie Brown at the last minute," she warned. "For education, it is too early to tell if we are only spending enough money to settle a lawsuit and temporarily placate the public, or if we are seriously taking the first step to building the best education system in the nation, right here in Arizona."

Douglas, a Republican who took office early last year, said the state is standing on the cusp of either taking a bold step forward, or stumbling and remaining an underfunded system with too much federal regulation.

"We need consistent funding in our schools," Douglas said. "We can't have a program that comes in place, stays in place for a couple of years or a year and then it's taken away and taken back out."

Douglas pointed to a program championed by former Gov. Jan Brewer that rewarded successful schools. Ducey eliminated $24 million from that plan last year. Half of the $90 million of new K-12 money in the budget plan he released last week is one-time funding. The rest is to cover mandatory increases.

Ducey's land trust proposal goes to voters in May, and if it passes, it will pump about $350 million a year into schools. But that money stops in 10 years, and a sales tax that also gives schools millions of dollars each year ends in 2021.

Douglas also touted a small rise in the state's ranking in Education Week magazine's annual "Quality Counts" report. Arizona remained at a D+ but its ranking improved from 47th to 45th among the states.

She said the boost isn't reason to celebrate but she remains optimistic.

Douglas also touted a state Board of Education vote to pull Arizona out of state-sponsored Common Core standards, although the standards remain in place while the board reviews potential changes.

"The vote was a victory for all Arizonans and returned control of our standards to Arizona parents and teachers," she said.

She didn't mention a long-running fight she's had with the board that is winding its way through the courts.

Douglas said her staff continues to work on a rewrite of the state's education code that she launched last year. She said she's working on possible legislation.

She also said she has worked to tighten security of student data, expanded resources for parents, and will seek approval to license the Department of Education's data system to other states to bring in new revenue.

She also said she backed legislation that would give parents the right to opt out of statewide assessment tests.

"Testing is supposed to be a tool that enhances and measures a child's achievement," she said. "And if a parent wants to opt their child out, parents are the sole guardians of their children."