Here’s what Lake, Hobbs want for education in Arizona
In the coming year, Arizona schools face key challenges.
A newly minted school voucher program will steer millions of taxpayer dollars to lightly regulated private schools. A major staff shortage has left schools across the state scrambling for teachers, bus drivers and kitchen staff. Total public school spending is nearing a limit that could force massive budget cuts if the Legislature doesn’t act.
The governor has significant sway in shaping the future of education in Arizona. They can propose priorities for legislative action, choose bills to sign, call special legislative sessions, appoint members to the State Board of Education and issue executive orders.
Arizona’s candidates for governor offer voters a stark choice on education policy.
Democrat Katie Hobbs supports repealing the new universal school voucher program and putting more public dollars into public schools. Republican Kari Lake wants all education funding tied to students, not schools, which could send even more public money to private schools.
Here’s what else we know about where they would try to lead Arizona’s education system if elected.
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At the core of Lake’s education plan is a proposal to allow families to decide where state money allocated for their children’s education will go. The funding that would typically go to their local district public school to support their children’s education could be spent at a public district school, a public charter school, a private school, or for “alternative learning arrangements, such as neighborhood pods.”
“Parents and students can mix and match the best educational opportunities available to them,” Lake said on her campaign website. “As parents, you decide where you want your kid to go to school, send them there, and their state funding will follow them. No waitlists, no applications, no hurdles or hoops to jump through, period.”
While district schools usually are expected to welcome any student zoned to the school, some charter schools reach capacity and institute waitlists. Private schools routinely require families to apply for a spot.
That “backpack funding” approach would significantly shift how public school funding works in Arizona. Currently, public schools get a mix of funding from federal, state, and local sources. State funding depends on the number of students in a school and students' specific needs. High-performing schools can also get additional funding, and many schools qualify for grant funding or other special financial support.
The recently expanded education voucher program shifted the funding dynamic by allowing any family with a school-age child in Arizona — regardless of whether they previously attended a public school — to apply for about $7,000 in public education funding to put toward education-related endeavors, including private schools, tutors and homeschooling.
If elected, Hobbs said she would work to roll back universal vouchers.
On school funding, Hobbs said she wants to direct more of Arizona’s budget surplus, $5 billion in fiscal year 2023, to education. Right now, Arizona ranks near the bottom nationally in per-pupil spending, which educators said accounts for crumbling classrooms, outdated books and low-paid staff.
Hobbs also wants to ensure Arizona schools receive matching federal dollars for early childhood education. “To say that increased funding of schools does not result in better student success is willful ignorance of the needs of Arizona children and families,” said Hobbs’ plan.
Both Lake and Hobbs said they want to increase the number of new teachers and retain current teachers by boosting pay. But they have different ideas about how to go about it.
Hobbs' promises to support educators and tackle the teacher shortage are at the forefront of her platform. Among her positions are increasing educator annual salaries by an average of $14,000, expanding a state program that subsidizes tuition for college students studying education, promoting mentorship programs and ensuring teachers can access affordable healthcare.
Much of Hobbs’ plan relies on existing systems for low-cost teacher training, including the Arizona Teacher Residency at Northern Arizona University and the Arizona Teachers Academy, a scholarship program that subsidizes tuition at public, in-state higher education institutions. Hobbs said she would also work to convince the Legislature that more base funding for schools is needed.
Lake challenged the connection between more money for schools and higher student achievement. She said Arizona teachers deserve better pay, but any raises should be performance-based. She blamed stagnating teacher salaries on administrators taking ever-larger earnings. “Government-run school leaders appear to be deliberately keeping teacher pay low so they can be used as sympathetic figureheads in a quest for additional funds,” Lake said.
An Arizona Auditor General analysis of instructional spending in the 2021 fiscal year found that the percentage of money spent on instructional spending had fallen to 55.3% from its peak of 58.6% in 2004. While administrative spending is part of what districts spend their non-classroom dollars on, those costs also include food service and transportation.
Instead, Lake said she would provide bonuses for educators whose students perform well and show improvement. She would fund that through Proposition 301, an education sales tax first approved in 2000 and renewed in 2018. “We cannot trust school districts to direct allocated funds to teachers,” she said, explaining her support for performance-related raises. “I want our best teachers to be recognized and to be the highest paid in the country.”
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The aggregate expenditure limit is a constitutional cap put in place in the 1980s on how much all Arizona district-run schools can spend. Last year, schools hit the limit, and the Legislature temporarily lifted the cap. This year, schools are on track to hit it again, and if lawmakers don’t act, school districts will collectively have to cut billions from their budgets.
Hobbs wants to eliminate the constitutional limit. “Each year our school districts are held hostage by political gamesmanship,” she said.
A constitutional fix could take various forms. The Legislature could increase the spending ceiling or exempt from the limit the money that comes in from the Proposition 301 sales tax. An end to the limit altogether would require a public referendum.
Lake did not respond to The Republic’s questions about her education plan, including a question about her position on the spending limit. In a social media statement earlier this year, Lake was critical of efforts to lift the cap. In a February tweet, as lawmakers voted on a bill to temporarily lift the spending cap, Lake encouraged her followers to vote in favor of legislators who did not support raising the aggregate expenditure limit.
Lake called charters the silver lining of Arizona education and said Arizona charters outperform district-run schools “in nearly every metric … despite lower per-student funding.”
The latest state standardized English test results for third grade, a critical juncture for student reading progress, show that 48% of charter students passed the exam, compared to 40% of district students. Critics claim some charter schools encourage low-performing students to enroll elsewhere, which boosts scores.
Hobbs has promised to increase funding for the Arizona State Board for Charter Schools — so the board can better investigate impropriety — and minimize how charters could profit from the sale of land and buildings purchased with the help of tax dollars.
She also promised to increase charter school transparency. She is interested in requiring charters to be part of the Auditor General’s annual classroom spending report, making all charter school corporate boards subject to open meetings laws and compelling them to be responsive to public records laws.
Across Arizona, there is significant variation from high school to high school in student access to career and technical education.
Lake and Hobbs both want to increase career and technical education opportunities, making it an area of education policy where they have broad agreement.
Hobbs said she would lead a statewide task force of education and business leaders to identify workforce needs and plan training programs. She also proposed a refundable tax credit for Arizonans pursuing career and technical education opportunities and more grants and scholarships for science, technology, engineering and math educators.
Lake said she would work with colleges and business leaders to allow every student in the state to choose from a dual-track education after 10th grade that would prepare them for either college or a technical degree.
Lake wants to prohibit several ideas from being discussed in schools.
She’d like to strengthen Arizona’s ban on a college-level theory that teaches people of different races experience aspects of U.S. society differently, restrict teaching systems that aim to improve interpersonal skills and decision-making, and eliminate diversity, equity and inclusion programs. Lake said on the campaign trail that she would consider putting cameras into classrooms to keep these programs from being taught.
Lake also said she would align state standards to the Hillsdale 1776 curriculum, a history and civics program of study created by a conservative private college in Michigan that has been criticized as taking a too rosy view of the U.S. past.
In response to a question from The Republic, Hobbs’ campaign said she opposed using the Hillsdale 1776 curriculum in Arizona schools because it did not offer a comprehensive understanding of civics and history. It would “ultimately be a disservice to Arizona children,” the campaign statement said.
Hobbs’ education plan doesn’t take an explicit position on the teaching of race and history or other political questions that have riled both the Legislature and some Arizona school boards.
Both candidates put forward proposals on topics that the other did not address.
Lake said she would eliminate the Arizona-specific standardized test in favor of the National Assessment of Education Progress. This would reduce the number of student progress assessments each year and offer a consistent measure. The national assessment has been around for decades; the state test has changed repeatedly in the past few years.
Lake also said she would bar sex education before fifth grade and give parents broader access to what students are being taught.
Hobbs promised to help bring more counselors and social workers into Arizona schools to support students. She said this would allow teachers to focus time and energy on teaching rather than filling in for emotional and psychological support roles.
Expanding access to early childhood education is another goal for Hobbs. She said she would incrementally phase in universal preschool and kindergarten, funded by winning back federal grants and lobbying for more money from the Legislature. Hobbs said she would keep these two programs voluntary for families.
Yana Kunichoff is a reporter on The Arizona Republic's K-12 education team. You can reach her at email@example.com or follow her on Twitter @yanazure. Join the education conversation on the Republic's K-12 community Facebook page.