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AZ schools superintendent angry over ‘school choice’ policies

Finch’s allegations come as the legislature is debating details of two critical education-related issues.

PHOENIX — School superintendents typically don’t air their political grievances in public. They prefer to work behind-the-scenes with lobbyists on issues that affect their schools. But the superintendent of a prominent Arizona district is not holding back.

Curtis Finch – a blunt-talking veteran superintendent who works on policy issues with other education leaders – says misinformation on cable news and social media chatrooms is eroding trust in Arizona’s public school system. He says voters have a false impression of public schools and he accuses Republican legislative leaders of choosing to believe “false narratives” while making critical decisions.

“I’ve never been in an environment like this before, where it’s so politically driven and there is so much misinformation,” Finch said.

Finch’s allegations come as the legislature is debating details of two critical education-related issues: a new general budget for the 2024-2025 school year and a November ballot proposition involving an increase of school funding.

Arizona’s two highest Republican legislative leaders declined requests for comment about this story. However Republican Senate Education Committee Chair Ken Bennett spoke with 12News and said he disagrees with Finch’s characterizations.

“Education is our top priority,” Bennett said. “I don’t think it’s a matter of leaders of the legislature not caring or not wanting to admit the facts.”

“They’re out to destroy public ed”

Finch is finishing his seventh year as superintendent of Deer Valley Unified and was previously a superintendent in Michigan and Alaska. DVUSD serves nearly 35,000 students and is the state’s fourth-largest district, spanning portions of Glendale and Phoenix.

He worries misinformation in recent years about what’s being taught in classrooms has created animosity against public schools. During the last election, voters in DVUSD’s boundaries rejected two proposals to extend bond and override funding measures even though the district has a history of passing most of them.

“What I watch on my cable channel is not necessarily what is happening in the local school district,” Finch said. “Before you drink that Kool-Aid, you need to go find out if that’s in your school.”

Finch said culture wars are damaging public trust. Since the pandemic, activists have descended on school board meetings to protest issues related to COVID, LGBTQ policies and race.

Finch points to an example in his district. A school board member publicly complained about “Critical Race Theory” and Finch says he asked the board member to find an example in a district school of a controversial CRT teaching. After several months the board member found nothing, Finch says.

“It didn’t matter. It’s all about creating doubt in the public. That’s all these critics are doing. They’re out to destroy public ed.”

Fighting misinformation about public schools

Finch says districts face more pressure than ever to cover funding gaps through local bonds and overrides. At one point during the last election, he personally met volunteers who were distributing flyers that he says contained falsehoods about the district spending.

“I tried to correct one of them, and she’s like, ‘who are you?’ I said I’m the superintendent! I would know this,” Finch said.

“We called the elections officials. It was a misinformation campaign. They said there wasn’t really anything they could do about it.”

The district will have another bond and override election this November.

“We’re going to need all the help we can get,” Finch said. “The message we want people to know is we have one of the most successful K-12 district in the state, if not the best. It’s all about culture. We work on retaining good people. It’s about their mental and physical wellness. It’s about excellence in academics, the arts and athletics. This culture is what keeps me floating and competing against those around me.”

Finch: Districts are falsely accused of misspending

How districts manage their money is another myth, Finch said.

State legislators routinely question why current per-pupil funding levels (between $10,000 and $13,000 per student) are not sufficient and they cast doubt about how Arizona school districts manage money.

The answers are complicated. K-12 education in the U.S. has become increasingly expensive the past 25 years, due in part to advances in technology demands, rising health care and retirement costs, and increased bureaucracy related to the passage of the 2002 No Child Left Behind Act.

Taking into account those trends, the data suggests Arizona schools are doing more with less. State audits show they spend 10-11% of their budgets on administrative costs. Those costs amount to about 50% of the national average.

“Legislators don’t talk about that. They aren’t interested in the facts. They aren’t interested in the data. They like to just keep repeating the storyline, the one they believe in,” Finch said.

Arizona also dedicates less tax revenue to public schools compared to the nation.

According to statistics compiled by Arizona School Boards Association consultant Anabel Aportela, revenue collected by Arizona in 2002 for the purpose of K-12 per-pupil funding amounted to 75% of the national average. In 2022, that amount was 66% of the national average. Recent U.S. Census Bureau data shows the state is 49th for per-pupil spending.

Bennett: Legislative leaders working for K-12 education

Senate Education Committee Chair Ken Bennett of Prescott tells 12 News Finch’s allegations about legislators is “not true.”

“For the leaders of the caucuses in both the Senate and the House, Republicans and Democrats, education is our top priority,” Bennett said. “We do think about the facts and we do work to get every dollar we can into K-12 education.”

Bennett noted the average per-pupil spending amount in Arizona is about $13,000. That data point includes costs for new school construction, maintenance, federal poverty funding, lunch programs, transportation and COVID funds.

Bennett said he believes the state can “do a better job” of making sure more dollars go to “high priorities” of schools.

“I think we might need to have a fundamental look at the state formula for K-12,” he said.

Asked if he was aware of ways districts are misspending, Bennett said it’s not the legislature’s role to single out individual districts.

“I’m sure there are some districts that spend their money well and there are some that could do a better job,” Bennett said.

Bennet represents Prescott and Prescott Valley and said he speaks with school district leaders from those areas on a weekly basis.

“They tell me they have challenges and anything we can do to increase the pool, or the pie, is welcome,” Bennett said.

Funding by the legislature

Finch, a member of a legislative committee for superintendents at the Arizona School Administrators Association, alleges lawmakers ignore concerns of school leaders about funding levels.

“We constantly give them good information on what is happening in our local school districts and what we need. We work three months on the legislation, bring it to them, and then the leadership says, ‘No, we’re not going to do that. Thanks for sharing. Have a nice day’,” Finch said.

He recently told 12News about how private school voucher recipients are costing his district valuable resources by getting special needs evaluations from his staff. Public education lobbyists asked legislative leaders last year to find a way to reimburse districts for those costs but lawmakers have declined to propose a solution.

Finch singled out Republican State Representative Beverly Pingerelli for not responding to his concerns. Pingerelli’s legislative district covers DVUSD. Pingerelli did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

House Speaker Ben Toma also represents DVUSD boundaries. Toma shepherded the universal ESA expansion into law and is in negotiations on the current budget with Democrats and Senate President Petersen (R). Petersen and Toma did not respond to requests for comment.

Right now many Republican legislators want a school funding extension, known as Prop 123, to be limited for teacher raises only. Democrats and public school advocates want the measure to be applied to all school employees.

Finch says “school  choice” mantra is deceptive

After passing universal ESA vouchers nearly two years ago, Arizona became the first state to operate three separate systems of public education: ESAs, school districts and charter schools.

Legislators have defended charters and ESAs as promoting “school choice” and have falsely claimed they save the state money. In reality, as 12News has reported, the only scenario in which an ESA saves the state money is if a charter school student transitions to obtaining a non-special needs ESA. For all other scenarios, a student obtaining an ESA results in an added cost to the state’s annual budget.

Finch echoes criticism of other public school advocates who allege state leaders are giving charter schools and ESA recipients priority over public school districts regarding policy decisions.

“Everyone knows if you can walk and chew gum at the same time you can open up a charter school, private school or ESA micro-school. They don’t face the same restrictions or regulations,” Finch said. “I have 44 charters in my zone. That is not efficient. That is a waste of taxpayer dollars. You have all these extra buildings, all these extra administration costs. And charter schools spend twice the percentage on administration as school districts. Legislators don’t talk about that.”

“Meanwhile we have to go door-to-door to our neighbors, to our constituents, to get them to pass a bond or override so we can stay competitive,” Finch said.

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