East Valley lawmakers Mark Anderson and Karen Johnson believe local control is the solution to many of the problems in the state’s education system.
Both think the federal government has overstepped its authority when it comes to education. And in some cases, they don’t think the state should make all the decisions either.
For instance, they both oppose the federal No Child Left Behind Act and want parents to have the choice of sending their children to private or parochial schools.
Those views aren’t the only similarities between Johnson, a state senator, and Anderson, a state representative.
They’re both Republicans. They both were elected from the same west Mesa district. And this year, they were chosen to head the education committees in the House and Senate.
As chairs of the education committees, the pair of Mesa lawmakers hold a strong grip on education issues that come before the Legislature. They decide which education bills will be heard in their respective committees and, perhaps more importantly, which ones won’t get a hearing.
Johnson didn’t allow a hearing on a measure that would have allowed the state to borrow money for new school construction. Same goes for a proposal that would have required tutors to meet higher standards.
Anderson, meanwhile, decided against a hearing on a measure that would have raised the state’s dropout age to 18.
They did team up, however, to provide more money for schools to buy computer equipment and to offer more technological training for educators.
They also agreed on a plan to set aside some additional cash to help third-graders who are not reading at grade level.
But Johnson acknowledged she failed to rally enough support to pass one of her top legislative priorities — allowing schools to opt out of the federal No Child Left behind Act.
The act, which was passed by Congress in 2001, requires public schools to ensure through testing that all students — regardless of ethnicity, language, gender, income level or disability — can meet academic standards. The federal law emphasizes research-based reading programs.
Right now, some Arizona schools don’t receive money tied to the program. Johnson introduced legislation allowing those schools to opt out of the standards set by the act.
While a version of her bill is still alive, it’s not as strong as the original. Right now, lawmakers have changed it to say those schools can opt out only if it doesn’t threaten the other federal education money they receive.
“It’s sad, because I’m a firm believer that the federal government has no business in state education,” Johnson said.
Johnson and Anderson are back in lockstep when it comes to providing more options for parents who want to send their children to private or parochial schools but can’t afford the tuition. They hoped to offer more tax credits for individuals and businesses that donate to private and parochial schools, but those plans didn’t work out.
“With less money in the budget we knew it would be a slim year for that,” Anderson said.
So, instead, Anderson looked at successful education programs across the state and country to find ones that should be expanded or copied.
Improving reading for third-graders was among the plans he aggressively pushed for this year. The proposal aims to set aside $1 million to help thirdgraders who are not reading at grade level.
At the end of the third grade, any student not reading at a satisfactory level would have to take an intensive summer reading program.
Both Anderson and Johnson supported the measure, which was not passed by the Legislature but is still part of the ongoing budget negotiations.
Despite the many legislative similarities, Anderson and Johnson were worlds apart when it came to creating schools focused on teaching foreign languages, as well as international history and culture to students.
“I don’t think people realize what’s happening,” said Johnson, who rejected a plan by Anderson to create schools with an emphasis on international studies.
That proposal called for about $1 million to create a grant program to distribute money to 10 schools offering international studies in various areas.
Supporters of the idea argue the schools prepare Arizona students to compete in a more globalized market.
Johnson said she was concerned it pushes an anti-American agenda.
“They’re for a one-world government, a one-world army and a one-world tax,” she said Thursday afternoon. Johnson has been known to comment in public meetings about her concerns that international institutions such as the United Nations threaten American sovereignty.
Not everyone was pleased with the way education issues have been handled so far by this year’s Legislature.
Mike Smith, a lobbyist for the Arizona School Administrators, said lawmakers turned their backs on the larger problems such as performance-based raises for teachers and funding for students struggling to learn English.
“These were the big issues that were completely ignored,” he said.
Nonetheless, lawmakers from both sides of the aisle had kind words for Anderson and Johnson.
“There were bills for smaller class sizes, for example. Additional funding for science and math grants that had the support of the governor that we would’ve liked to have had a hearing on,” said Rep. David Lujan, D-Phoenix. “But overall I think (Anderson) tried to hear as many democratic bills as he could.
“But obviously we’re always going to think he could have done more in terms of hearing democratic bills.”