interior of a school classroom with wooden desks and chairs. nobody around. 3d render empty

After a year of virtual learning and hybrid instruction, Arizona’s schools are returning to in-person instruction four to five days a week, although some students will continue learning online if parents are uncomfortable about sending their children back to school.

While this year has been rough on students, teachers and administrators, the state is seeing improvements on some fronts, based on the Arizona Progress Meter developed by Expect More Arizona, Achieve60AZ and College Success Arizona. But there are troubling drops in other areas, such as teacher pay and preschool attendance.

On March 9, the education advocacy groups released their latest version of the Progress Meter, scoring Arizona education based on eight goals and indicators.

In order to provide a picture of where Arizona stands, the Arizona Progress Meter looks at quality early learning, 3rd grade reading, 8th grade math, high school graduation, opportunity youth (the percent of 16- to 24-year-olds not going to school or working), post high school enrollment, attainment, and teacher pay.

This year, 3rd grade reading and 8th grade math metrics were not updated as statewide assessments were not administered due to the pandemic.

Senior Vice President of Expect More Arizona Erin Hart notes two metrics that showed a decline this year: quality early learning and teacher pay.

The quality early learning metric measures the percent of 3-year-old and 4-year-old children that are in quality early learning settings, such as preschools. This year that metric dropped to 19 percent, while the goal is to reach 46 percent by 2030.

Hart explains this drop is due to two things.

The first is the pandemic, which Hart said had a devastating effect on childcare across the state with more than half of childcare programs shutting their doors or closing for a period of time.

The second was the loss of the Preschool Development Grant, which brought in $20 million a year for four years, giving over 3,000 students access to quality preschool education across the state, said Hart.

For this reason, the groups are supporting bill HB 2015, which would appropriate $44 million in general fund dollars over the next three years for preschool development grants to fill the loss $20 million. The bill passed through the House and is awaiting a hearing in the Senate Appropriations.

The other metric that showed a drop was teacher pay, even though Arizona made efforts to increase teacher pay with Gov. Doug Ducey’s 20x2020 plan, which would incrementally increase teacher pay by 20 percent by 2020.

But even as Arizona was raising teacher pay, other states were also increasing teacher salaries, meaning Arizona still lags behind, Hart said.

“We can’t catch up, meaning that we can’t be competitive,” Hart said.

She noted that there are teachers in Yuma who can make more than $15,000 more a year just by crossing the border every day to California.

“We want our state to be a great place to attract and keep our teachers and we also want it to be competitive so that they’ll want to come to Arizona too,” said Hart.

Last year, Arizona voters passed Proposition 208, which imposed a 3.5% tax surcharge on individuals earning more than $250,000 a year or couples earning more than $500,000.

But Prop 208 has to take effect, as the funding has to be collected before it can be dispersed, said Hart. And lawmakers are working on ways to undermine the surcharge or otherwise reduce taxes. One key bill is SB 1783, which would create an alternate small business income tax that diverts funding away from Prop 208 education revenues.

According to a fiscal summary prepared by the Joint Legislative Budget Committee (JLBC), the bill could reduce the impact of Prop 208 by as much as $527 million. On March 4, the bill passed out of the Senate and was scheduled for a hearing in the House Ways and Means Committee this week.

But not all metrics went down. Arizona improved its opportunity youth metric that measures the percent of 16 to 24 year olds not going to school or working. This is one of the metrics where a lower percentage is better. The goal is to have only 7 percent of residents aged 16 to 24 not going to school by 2030. Arizona is at 12 percent this year, an improvement from a few years ago, when the state was at 15 percent.

As Arizona works to reopen schools, Hart, a mother of a 6-year-old herself, said this is a great opportunity for students and hopes to see improved attendance after schools reopen.

“It’s a great opportunity for them to re-engage and to have that personal one-on-one support from their teachers, also the social-emotional support the teachers and other school staff can provide in-person,” said Hart.

When students return to school they will have to take several tests, as part of the statewide assessment AzM2, the second version of the AzMerit. Hart said she does not expect to see improvement with a year of virtual learning, but the test will help educators move forward by setting a baseline.

On Feb. 15, Gov. Doug Ducey signed House bill HB 2402, which would exempt Arizona schools from the grading system, which is used to allot funding to schools that performed better.

Gov. Ducey also signed an executive order that directs the Arizona State Board of Education to use the 2020-2021 testing data to evaluate the learning loss caused by the pandemic.

“This helps us know where we are, and it helps us then to direct resources, maybe it’s professional development, maybe it’s extra tutoring opportunities,” Hart said. “It helps us then support the schools and the students and the classrooms that need it the most.”

Reflecting on the effects of the pandemic Hart looks at the positive outcomes.

“I think digital learning in one way or another is probably going to be part of our fabric going forward,” Hart said. “We’ve shown that it’s possible in Arizona.”

Hart also thinks the pandemic offered parents more insights into the classroom and increased parent engagement. Over the past year, parents have been able to see how their children learn and how teachers discipline students, which gives parents a greater understanding of the work, said Hart.

But as schools reopen, Hart said there are still many things to consider.

“We’re on the other side of this pandemic,” Hart said. “How do we continue to engage parents? They’ve had this great window into education in the classroom and how do we help support them in being their child’s best champion?”

With incoming federal funding due to the pandemic, Hart thinks this is a great opportunity as a state to think about supporting equity and using money in innovative ways to support students.

“How can we support all of our students, especially those who are students of color, students who are low income, maybe in new ways and make sure that we can direct the funding towards our students most in need?” Hart said.