What do you call it when a gathering on the state Capitol lawn creates such a “buzz,” and garners so much attention, that members of the Legislature and a statewide elected official are compelled to come out of their offices and address the crowd?
When the gathering consists of charter school and virtual school students and parents, you call this a “political hot potato.”
Such was the case two days ago, when about 500 bannercarrying moms, dads and kids gathered for the third annual “Distance Learning Day” and “Charter School Day” at the Capitol. And — to carry out the metaphor even further — making the potato “even hotter” was the sense of urgency brought about by the state government’s current budget crisis, and threats of funding cuts for these more contemporary educational programs.
When the state government’s deficit runs to more than $1 billion, it’s most certainly time to cut spending. And that’s why so many kids and parents who participate in the contemporary, distance learning programs — programs that provide educational instruction via the Internet, regional study groups, Internet conferencing groups, and audio and video recordings — are concerned.
Under the statutes of Proposition 301, a statewide ballot initiative passed by Arizona voters in 2000, old-style public schools are not at risk for funding cuts. But the contemporary educational programs, the ones that don’t require the usual “brick and mortar” buildings and all the facilities and administrative staff that go along with the buildings, are not protected from funding cuts and are, thus, left vulnerable.
Contemporary public education programs, collectively known at the Capitol as TAP (Technology Assisted Projectbased programs), are fairly new. The teachers and administrators involved in the programs are held accountable for the outcomes they produce, every bit as much, if not more so, than teachers and administrators in old-style public schools. Students in the TAP programs are subjected to the AIMS test, like all other Arizona students, and are graded by a master teacher on their various assignments.
But parents and teachers in the TAP programs know that what they do is almost always threatened by an ever-persistent political ideology that resists innovation, especially educational innovation, and clings desperately to the old and familiar. They also know that, with a budget deficit as big as Arizona’s is right now, that threat is only increased.
Mary Gifford, founder of the Arizona Virtual Academy, has been dealing with this resistance to change for years. After addressing the crowd on the Capitol lawn Tuesday, she told me, “We’d like for them (the legislators) to leave our funding alone, don’t mess with our ‘inputs,’ and evaluate us on the ‘outputs’ that we produce, in terms of academic performance, just like they would with any other school.”
Are TAP programs being targeted for budget cuts in ways that old-style schools are not? They are vulnerable, Gifford admits. So how likely is it that the Legislature will treat the TAP programs the way she is hoping?
“I’m optimistic,” Gifford said, “but parents and kids need to let their voices be heard.”
Tom Horne, Arizona’s superintendent of public instruction, knows the “resistance to change” phenomena as well. Since first taking the statewide office in 2003, Horne has consistently tried to innovate the ways in which Arizona educates kids, and has consistently faced opposition from the old-style holdouts.
Streamline the process for retired adult professionals to get credentialed so they can start a second career as a teacher? Horne once proposed this, and the anti-innovators balked. He’s accustomed to such opposition, but continues to press forward with fresh ideas anyway.
As for charter schools and TAP programs, Horne explained that he has no knowledge of legislative proposals that would specifically cut funding for them. He was, however, quick to point out that the Legislature is responsible for such funding, and he has no hand in it.
So how about those legislators? Several of them attended the event Tuesday. I caught up with Senate President Tim Bee, R-Tucson, who voiced his support for charter schools and TAP programs, and went so far as to say that he believed it would be “extremely unlikely” if there were any “significant cuts” in funding for them. Sen. Thayer Verschoor, R-Gilbert, voiced similar support for the contemporary approaches to education, but in a moment of honorable candor, admitted that he cannot guarantee that there will be no funding cuts for them.
The Legislature and the governor will likely produce a state budget within the next month, and it would be naïve to think that any particular state funding project is not being considered for cuts.
So the parents and kids who participate in contemporary educational programs in Arizona are right to be concerned about their funding, and were wise to rally at the Capitol. But whether the kids and parents were actually heard will be determined shortly — probably about a month from now.