Your primer to Arizona education
Arizona Daily Star
Feb. 11, 2007

People and entities that shape it

Opinion by Sarah Garrecht Gassen

Tucson, Arizona | Published:

Education is big picture public policy that is lived out in the individual classrooms and homes of Arizonans.

While education is experienced on a personal level, many hands shape how public education is funded, what is taught, who teaches the material and how to measure student progress. Elected and appointed officials and their staffs each play an important role in your child's school day.

For many families, it is sufficient that the child likes his or her teacher and the parents are satisfied with the level of learning and the classroom environment. However, if there's a problem, trying to figure out where to go for answers can require navigating a complicated maze of district, state and federal regulations, elected officials, administrators and boards.

We're taking a look at the people and entities that shape public education in Arizona. The easiest way to visualize the entities is to picture a funnel beginning with the federal government, then the Arizona Legislature and governor at the next level and ending with your child's classroom.

The Arizona Legislature and Governor and

The Legislature in Arizona decides how much taxpayer money to allocate to public K-12 schools, as well as community colleges and universities. The Legislature also has the power to make changes in the law that directly affect public education.

Schools operate using taxpayer money, plus state and federal funding for specific programs like full-day kindergarten and special education. Much of the legislative allocations are driven by funding formulas designed to help pay for increasing expenses. In fiscal 2006-07, the Legislature appropriated $4.1 billion in taxpayer funds to public K-12 education.

Legislative candidates talk about education when they run for office, and during every legislative session members will propose bills that would have an impact on students and schools. Because of legislative action, students pass the AIMS test in reading, writing and math or show they tried to pass the test every time it was offered, got good grades in class and had good class attendance to graduate from high school.

Legislators also hold hearings on more specific matters. For example, when labor activist Dolores Huerta told a Tucson High Magnet School student audience last year that "Republicans hate Latinos," the House Select Committee on Government Operations, Performance and Waste called in Tucson Unified School District administrators to testify on the situation. That incident did not result in a new law, but legislators were able to make a public point.

The State Board of Education

The State Board of Education sets education policy and the Arizona Department of Education carries it out.

The 11-member board, outlined in the Arizona Constitution, is charged with setting education policy for the state. Unlike local school districts, members of the state board are not elected to their positions, but are appointed by the governor.

The superintendent of public instruction, Arizona's top elected school official who heads the Arizona Department of Education, is on the state board, as are representatives from community colleges, universities, teachers, charter schools, a county superintendent and the public. The board has a staff of two, plus an investigative unit of five, which looks into complaints of unprofessional conduct against certified school employees.

Board meetings are usually held in Phoenix, although the board occasionally travels to other parts of the state. Like other public boards, its agendas are posted and its meetings include a call to the audience.

The state board oversees teacher and administrator certification, the school accountability system, academic standards and the design and rules of the state standardized tests, such as AIMS. It sets minimum graduation requirements and, with the state auditor general, monitors school district finances.

The board is considering whether to allow students to use calculators on the high school AIMS math test, for example. The group also sets the minimum score to pass the tests.

"The fact that we have AIMS, the Legislature laid that out by saying 'We shall have that test,' " said Vince Yanez, state board executive director.

"The framework, the Legislature has created. But the test itself its content, development, test standards are determined by the state board," Yanez said. "Once the state board makes those determinations, the Arizona Department of Education carries those out. The nitty-gritty, the department takes care of."

The superintendent of public instruction and Arizona Department of Education

Tom Horne is beginning his second term as Arizona's top school officer. He oversees a department of 500 to 600 employees statewide that is responsible for everything from ensuring the food the school serves in the lunch line meets federal and state nutrition guidelines, to making sure AIMS tests are taken correctly and results issued promptly.

The department also is responsible for ensuring that schools comply with federal laws, such as special-education rules and No Child Left Behind.

The department labels schools each year through Arizona Learns school accountability system, which evaluates schools based largely on year-over-year progress on standardized test scores and bestows a label of excelling, highly performing, performing plus, underperforming or failing.

The department sends teams to schools that are in danger of failing to help them improve, and it has the power to intervene and make changes like replacing a principal at failing schools.

And schools also are measured by the department under the federal program, No Child Left Behind. This system uses strict measurements of test scores, percentage of kids taking the tests and school attendance. But because students are grouped by grade and race and each subgroup must meet the bar or the entire school is listed as not making "adequate yearly progress," this is often seen as a distorted picture of a school.

Horne and the State Board of Education do diverge on occasion. For example, Horne is against increasing graduation requirements to four years of math. But if the board were to vote for that requirement, it would be his job to make sure school districts comply.

However, the superintendent of public instruction can go around the board by getting a legislator to sponsor a bill that would create a new statute, with which the board would then have to comply.

State Board for Charter Schools default.asp

Arizona families have choices. School districts have open enrollment except Tucson Unified School District, which is under a federal desegregation court order which means that students can attend school outside their neighborhood or district. And if dissatisfied with the traditional school district offerings, families can select a charter school that offers a specialty curriculum, smaller classes or a more convenient location.

The State Board for Charter Schools issues the charters for some schools and oversees their administration, while the State Board of Education and the Department of Education handle others. Local school district governing boards can also approve the creation of charter schools. The individual school operator chooses from which entity it will seek a charter.

The charter school board must follow the policies set by the State Board of Education, and it has the authority to cancel charters for the schools it oversees, which closes the school, for academic or financial mismanagement.

The state school superintendent, or designee, sits on this board, too. The meetings are open to the public and usually held in Phoenix.

School district governing boards and superintendents districts.asp

Governing board members are elected to their unpaid posts. The boards set policies for their particular districts that must comply with federal and state rules.

Governing boards officially hire and fire district employees, but usually a board's only direct hire is the superintendent, who reports to the board. Other employment decisions go through administration and then to the board for approval.

Board members set policy, and the superintendent carries it out. Board members who get too involved with individual staff members, other than the superintendent, or the implementation of policy can cause confusion because school employees don't know whose direction to follow.

Governing board meetings generally include a call to the public during which audience members can address the board. But state law prohibits boards from discussing issues that aren't placed on its agenda 24 hours prior to the meeting, so members can only listen to concerns. Board members hear about everything from bad teachers to complaints about graduation requirements.

While the board's power is limited to policy setting, the members are also elected officials serving a constituency, and they hear of problems administration may not be aware of, said Vicki Balentine, Amphitheater Public Schools superintendent and vice president of the State Board of Education. "If it's something that's been referred to me by board member, from a community person, I close that circle," she said. "The goal is to get them to call me first."

here are the players

Here's an example of how the players in Arizona's public education system affect your child's classroom:

State statute requires districts to provide free textbooks to students

State Board of Education working with the Arizona Department of Education votes on the academic content students must learn at each grade level.

Local governing boards and individual charter school operators, working with their administration, decide which textbooks to buy.

Contact editorial writer Sarah Garrecht Gassen at or 573-4117.