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Rural schools are struggling, and Ducey’s budget won’t fix it

PHOENIX – Gov. Doug Ducey’s proposed $5 million in his budget and $8 million in state matched funds by the corporation commission to bring high-speed internet to Arizona schools — most of them rural — will only serve a portion of the schools and must be reauthorized for the next few years before those facilities are on equal standing.

That issue, along with a proposed pay raise deemed mediocre at best, will do little to fix problems in Arizona’s rural school districts, experts say.

Moreover, Arizona doesn’t have the teachers to utilize the increased internet access.

“It’s kind of a joke as far as teacher retention money,” said Don German, executive director of the Arizona Rural Schools Association (ARSA).

Without better high-speed internet and more teachers, rural school districts could continue struggling to improve test scores.

The definition of rural schools varies from statute to statute, which makes tracking their progress difficult for advocacy groups and the government alike. The ARSA classifies rural schools as any school district not directly connected to Phoenix or Tucson, which encompasses over half of the school districts in the state. According to census data, though, the classification is more narrow than that, with any school district in an area with a population of less than 2,500 people.

 

Map created by Chrisitanna Silva/ Arizona Sonora News Service. Red dots are districts with below average scores. Green dots are districts with above average scores.

Utilizing data from the census and the Arizona Department of Education, of the 222 districts in Arizona, 70 are considered urban and 152 are rural.

Map created by Mackenzie Swaney and edited by Christianna Silva. Green percentages indicate the percent of rural districts in each county that are below average performance.

How are they struggling?

Rural schools are in a unique position – while their needs tend to align with that of schools in larger districts, they don’t have the political power or geographic proximity to receive the help they need.

“None of [Arizona schools] have nearly enough money to operate efficiently,” German said. “We’ve tried to make every issue as broad as possible.”

German said there are two main reasons rural schools are struggling: they don’t have high-speed internet and they don’t have enough teachers. This has contributed to lower test scores across the board for rural schools.

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With the governor’s $5 million and the corporation commission’s $8 million, the ARSA can leverage it through federal e-rate grants and bring that $13 million up to $130 million, which they can make work for one year. The money will go based of off needs to the most isolated rural schools. But, according to German’s estimate it will take that $13 million over the course of four or five years to bring all Arizona schools up to speed.  The bottom line is that if this a one-time drop in the bucket, it will cover a little bit more than half of Arizona school in need of high speed internet.

“All [Arizona schools] have some internet, just most do not have enough bandwidth to do all the testing and reporting necessary,” German said.

With better internet connectivity, schools can use alternative learning techniques like blended learning to make up for some of the teacher shortage through computer programs, and can increase testing scores through online training programs for the students.

Blended learning involves the students working online, learning from educational videos, sharing their work through Google Docs. This learning style teaches students techniques to learn for themselves and from their peers. This helps school districts alleviate some of the pressure on teachers who often have too many students due to the teacher shortage in schools across the state.

“They find that they have internet, but with the state’s reporting requirements, they have to time everything they do but they don’t have enough broadband to do it,” German said. “Ideally there’d be enough broadband to bring technology into the classrooms.”

Step 10 of Gov. Ducey’s 18-step education plan was to connect rural schools to high-speed internet, coupled with a statewide computer science and coding initiative.

“This session, let’s break the firewall and get these kids connected,” the governor said in his state of the state address.

This money is a start, German says, but it won’t cover what they need to give every school in the state high-speed internet. And on top of that, there’s maintenance, which is virtually untouched by Ducey’s new budget.

“The only thing people are happy about is that he isn’t proposing any cuts,” German said. “It doesn’t even come close to what we need.”

To reach high-speed internet across the board, German says it will take a minimum of five years – not including the indefinite amount of maintenance.

“What everyone would like to do is eventually go completely online,” German said. But with this kind of funding, that might not be possible any time soon.

Where are the teachers?

There are over 4,400 open teacher positions in the state, and teachers are leaving their jobs in Arizona faster than they can be replaced, according to an Arizona School Personnel Administrators Association survey. And it’s even more difficult to get teachers engaged and willing to teach in isolated rural districts.

It’s a largely held opinion by educators across the state that the only way to increase teacher retention is to increase teacher pay or offer monetary incentives for teachers to go to a rural district in Arizona in the first place. But neither of those solutions are being taken seriously.

“Lack of funding not only prevents hiring more qualified teachers, but schools aren’t able to afford for additional training for new employees hired into the system,” Eva Dickerson, Sierra Vista district public information officer said.

The average teacher salary in Arizona is around $43,000, and according to the National Education Association, that salary has decreased by over seven percent in the past decade.

Gov. Doug Ducey is offering two percent over the next five years.

Average teacher pay in the US compared to Arizona under Gov. Ducey’s budget. Graph created by Christianna Silva / Arizona Sonora News Service

Testing

This lack of technology and teachers has contributed to lower test scores. The data show that urban districts earned, on average, 127 points for the 2013-2014 school year, whereas rural school districts earned an average of 118.

Urban school districts averaged a “B” on measures established by the state Department of Education, while rural school districts fell just short of earning a “B” average, according to an analysis by Arizona Sonora News. To earn a “B,” districts must earn between 120 and 139 out of 200 points in their evaluation.

Of the 152 rural schools, 49 percent score below the rural average.

“The No. 1 obstacle is the lack of funding to do all the things that we would like to see done,” Dickerson said.

SVUD feels one of the biggest obstacles they are trying to overcome is having all staff trained properly. When new employees are hired into the system, it can be challenging to get that member trained properly about school and district policies. Additionally, many teachers who are hired are not as qualified or experienced as desired because districts cannot afford to pay for better quality teachers. With more funding to spend on proper faculty training, students will have much more consistency in their classrooms, which can heavily influence student performance.

As with most schools, especially in Arizona, the PED feels additional funding would go toward increased and improved resources on campus for students. Having the ability to buy more textbooks could improve student performance because students would have a textbook to bring home and study from. Another resource would be additional academic help services on campus available for students to see if they are struggling with an assignment or class.

67 percent of the schools in La Paz score below the rural average, compared to only 11 percent of the schools in Graham, for example. There is clearly a greater need in some counties than others, but as a whole, Arizona is ranked No. 49 in the country in education and needs incredible help in improving the system.

However, included in the other 51 percent that meet or score above the 118 average are two districts in Southeastern Arizona – Sierra Vista Unified and Palominas Elementary. These districts each scored a “B,” with just one point separating them.

The 15 lowest scoring rural schools in Arizona. Graph created by Mackenzie Swaney / Arizona Sonora News Service

The worry is that, without an increase in funding to rural schools to work towards an increase in teachers, teacher retention and high-speed internet, the education of the children at these schools will continue to be subpar, and their standardized tests will continue to reflect that.

Christianna Silva is the Don Bolles Fellow covering the Legislature for Arizona Sonora News, a service provided by the school of journalism at the University of Arizona. Reach her at christiannaj@email.arizona.edu.

Mackenzie Swaney is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact her at mackenzieswaney@email.arizona.edu.

This story was corrected after first publication to reflect the state $8 million funding from the Corporation Commission toward high-speed internet access for rural Arizona schools.