Several important education bills are gaining traction in the Arizona Legislature

Arizona legislators cover a lot of education-related issues for the state, and sometimes it’s difficult to keep track. Chamber Business News took a closer look at some of the bills currently making their way through the state Legislature.

Senate Bill 1161

Arizona school districts often have vacant and unused buildings at their disposal, and this bill is meant to put those properties to better use.

Senate Bill 1161 would require the state School Facilities Board to list empty and partially-used structures suitable for school operations. It also establishes guidelines by which those properties can be sold or leased for school use.

The idea originated from a Goldwater Institute and Arizona Chamber Foundation report “exploring the benefits of district-charter co-location partnerships.” Rep. Vince Leach (LD-11) first sponsored the bill in the House, but it later became attached to S.B. 1161, which is sponsored by state Sen. Sonny Borrelli (LD-5).

The main purpose of this bill is to create a way to use vacant space owned by schools and the state, as empty buildings do not benefit the community in any way. Leach said education leaders including the Arizona School Boards Association and local school administrators were supportive of the idea.

“Most of the educational groups were in agreement with what we were trying to do, and it’s simply a reporting system so that we know what’s out there,” Leach said. “We spend a considerable amount of money on new schools and repairing schools, but we have a fairly sizable amount of school space that is underutilized or not utilized at all.”

If S.B. 1161 passes, school districts will not be allowed to pick and choose who can buy or lease their buildings. Instead, it encourages the district to enter a partnership with an entity — a charter school, a private school, another school district or even a military base — to operate a school or otherwise offer educational services on the property.

Under this new system, school districts would not be obligated to auction or lease the vacant property but would have more flexibility to do so if the governing board decided to put the buildings to better use. The partnerships that can result from this proposed law would allow high-performing schools to expand or new charter or private schools to form.

“There are plenty of opportunities to use these buildings, and it is an asset, whether the local taxpayer paid for it originally many, many years ago, or whether now state taxpayers are paying for it through… School Facilities Board money,” Leach said. “It is an asset that should be utilized, should be recognized. And if it’s not going to be utilized, then people should know about it and be able to utilize it in another way that would provide an [economic benefit] to the community.”

S.B. 1161 passed the state Senate on March 6 with a vote of 19 to 11. On March 12, it passed the House Education Committee with a vote of 10 to three and is awaiting a vote by the full state House.

Senate Bill 1318

Dyslexia is a learning disorder characterized by difficulty reading and decoding. Children with dyslexia often have trouble recognizing words, spelling and deciphering mathematical equations.

According to the Arizona Department of Education (ADE), dyslexia affects five to 10 percent of children, although some experts believe the number is closer to 20 percent. The disorder can affect children from all backgrounds and intellectual levels, and it often goes unnoticed until later in life.

Senate Bill 1318, sponsored by Sen. Paul Boyer (LD-20), would require the ADE to develop a plan to screen students for dyslexia risk factors and provide specialists, support and resources to school districts and charter schools to better serve students with dyslexia.

The new guidelines would help teachers identify the disorder early and use educational strategies that have been proven to improve academic performance among students with dyslexia. It would also offer resources and services to students, teachers and parents.

SB 1318 passed the state Senate unanimously (30 to zero) on March 4, passed the House Education Committee (13 to zero) on March 6, and awaits review by the full state House.

House Bill 2176

Advanced Placement (AP) and International Baccalaureate (IB) classes allow students to complete college-level coursework while still in high school, often advancing them ahead of other students and freeing up their college and university course load for more specialized studies.

House Bill 2176, sponsored by state Rep. Jeff Weninger (LD-17), increases the number of teachers eligible to receive incentive bonuses when students pass a qualifying exam and receive college credit while still in high school.

Right now, teachers only receive bonuses for students earning college credit if they are the ones teaching the AP, IB or dual-enrollment class. But in most cases, several teachers have contributed to the student’s success and advancement into these programs, even if they weren’t directly involved with the class that offered college credit.

The current law provides larger bonuses for schools in which students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, which tend to be schools in lower-income areas with a higher number of underserved students.

The bill is intended to encourage teachers and school districts to help students better prepare for the workforce and their future careers. Bonuses to schools can even be used to subsidize the cost of the exams for students and their parents.

“We’re incentivizing the teachers, who are helping prepare that student for when they take the test in the freshman and sophomore years, giving them a bonus, or part of a bonus,” Weninger said. “Then we’re also incentivizing… the ability for schools to use part of this money to pay these students back, or the parents of the students back, who took the test.”

H.B. 2176 passed the state House with a vote of 52 to eight on February 14 and passed the Senate with a party-line vote of 17 to 12 on April 10. It is now awaiting action by the governor.

House Bill 2657

This last bill, also sponsored by Rep. Weninger, furthers the state’s efforts to create a well-equipped workforce by providing additional opportunities to students through a Technology and Innovation Workforce Fund.

The fund would receive money from legislative appropriations, gifts, grants and other donations and would be administered by the CEO of the Arizona Commerce Authority (ACA). It would offer grants to community colleges that provide workforce development training for competitive-wage jobs in high-demand industries, as determined by the ACA using labor market data.

“It allows the colleges and the ACA and the host cities to work together to see what are those emerging technologies, or is there a specific new… business near that college that would greatly benefit from this workforce training and a direct pipeline of talent into their company,” Weninger said.

Under House Bill 2657, grant money would fund startup costs for the community college programs, including curriculum and tuition for students. It would be available to students in both urban and rural areas.

“Instead of just throwing things up against the wall and hoping, we’ll be able to really look at these emerging technologies and then have the money to stand up a curriculum,” Weninger said. “That curriculum, then, is shared — and has to be shared — with all different community colleges around the state.

“If it’s an emerging technology in and around Chandler-Gilbert, but then Pima Community College has businesses that can use the same thing, then they can just take that program and institute it there as well and not have to reinvent the wheel.”

H.B. 2657 passed the state House with a vote of 52 to eight, unanimously passed the Senate Higher Education and Workforce Development Committee and passed the Senate Appropriations Committee with seven Yes votes and two senators not voting. Next, it must be addressed by the Senate Rules Committee before appearing in front of the full state senate.

Senate Bill 1073

Sponsored by state Sen. Sylvia Allen (LD-6), this bill is focused on the consolidation of school districts with regards to Career and Technical Education (CTE), a state program intended to bolster workforce development and introduce high school students to viable careers.

If passed, Senate Bill 1073 would make it so that when a district participating in CTE consolidates with one or more districts, the newly-created district would continue to participate in CTE in the same way as the former district.

In his State of the State address in January, Gov. Doug Ducey lauded the CTE program for its ability to expand the state’s workforce and prepare students for future career paths.

“These programs we plan to build, expand and align with the jobs of tomorrow,” Ducey said in his speech.

According to Ducey, 99 percent of students in CTE classes graduate high school — a much higher rate than for non-CTE students.

S.B. 1073 passed the state Senate on March 14 with a vote of 17 to 13 and passed the state House of Representatives on April 11 with a vote of 53 to seven. It is now awaiting action by the governor.

Graham Bosch

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