Opinion: Results-Based Funding will accelerate academic gains

Since last year’s teacher walkouts, leaders from across all fields have shone a spotlight on the issue of education – and policymakers have taken notice.  Survey data consistently suggests that public education remains top-of-mind for a large portion of Arizonans, and Arizonans are seeking solutions from the state’s leaders to combat the inequities that came to light – including in terms of resource allocation.

Much attention since then has focused on the continuing negative aspects of Arizona’s education landscape.  And while there is certainly much to be done, there is also much to celebrate.  Governor Ducey’s 20×2020 Initiative has led to an almost across-the-board increase in teacher pay, and Arizona students continue to post best-in-the-nation academic growth results according to The Nation’s Report Card.  Both policymakers and educators deserve commendation for these increases.

Arizona has also continued to lead the nation not only in academic growth outcomes, but in educational innovation.  While recent decisions from the federal government have placed a hurdle in the way of the Menu of Assessments, other innovative practices – including public funding for needy students taking rigorous Advanced Placement exams that can qualify them for college credit; school-based budgeting across numerous districts; and a plethora of school-choice options across the education landscape, including district magnet schools and public charter schools – still thrive in Arizona.

One such innovation is the Governor’s commitment to “fund what works.”  This performance-based funding approach has increased each “A”-rated school’s per-pupil funding by approximately $250 – and for such schools serving predominantly low-income students, by $400.  Critics may claim this approach increases disparities in public education funding; however, its rationale is clear, and supported by research: reaching, and maintaining, high levels of student success takes more time, more energy, more resources, and yes, more money – and performance-based funding recognizes this to be true.

Schools qualifying for performance-based funding have used it for multiple purposes: increasing teacher salaries, investing in additional professional development or curricula, or granting performance-based bonuses, to name a few examples.  In short, these funds – amounting to a less than 10% increase in the state’s per-pupil funding for qualifying schools – provide a direct injection to schools and classrooms in recognition of those educators’ incredible successes.

Long-distance runners will tell you that last mile in any race is the hardest.  In an educational context, the same principle holds true: it’s much harder to move that last level from an “A” to a “B” than it is to move that same one level from a “C” to a “B.”

With this in mind, and in Arizona’s continued spirit of educational innovation, policymakers are considering expanding the performance-based funding program to provide $250 per student to “B”-rated schools serving predominantly low-income students.

As the principal of such a school, I can speak firsthand to how such a comparatively-small investment would pay extraordinary dividends.  We would spend an additional $250 per student on innovative professional development and best-in-class curriculum for our teachers – tools they will use to accelerate, and then sustain, our increasing academic outcomes.

Remember, $250 per student is less than 10% of the state’s per-pupil funding for our school – but this small, surgically-targeted infusion of capital would be a difference-maker in our ability to run that last mile.  By increasing our support for high-performing schools in our most underserved communities – those that have already demonstrated their ability to grow students academically and that are tantalizingly close to reaching absolute levels of academic excellence – we will take significant strides to close the stubbornly-persistent gaps in educational achievement that exist between our low- and high-income communities – all while achieving value for Arizona’s taxpayers.

Peter Boyle is the Founding Director of Western School of Science and Technology.

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