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Lawmakers consider education

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Posted: Wednesday, January 28, 2004 12:00 am | Updated: 7:48 am, Thu Mar 24, 2011.

Local schools may begin offering full-day kindergarten as a result of this legislative session but if state Sen. Toni Hellon has her way, that will be the extent of the sweeping changes, she said.

Hellon, R-Dist. 26, who chairs the Senate's Education Committee, promises to nix any expansion of school tax credits, as well as mandatory character education.

Nixing the last item should be a relief for teachers who have had much to adjust to in recent years with the introduction of the AIMS test, she said.

"My goal is to leave teachers alone as much as possible and let them teach our children," she said.

While Hellon said it's unlikely Arizona's legislators will bolster education funding during this session, which convened Jan. 12, she expressed confidence that Gov. Janet Napolitano will make sure the funding is not cut.

"I'm so pleased that we don't have to sing the education funding song," she said. "It's pretty clear to everyone that if it gets to that point, the governor will not undercut" education funding.

Hellon said she would try to pass a full-day kindergarten plan that the governor introduced in her State of the State Address on Jan. 12.

In the address, Napolitano proposed that all parents in Arizona should have the option of sending their children to full-day kindergarten within the next five years.

The governor's five-year plan would cost an estimated $25.5 million for fiscal year 2005, and would fund full-day kindergarten in about 250 Arizona schools that have at least 90 percent of students participating in the federal free or reduced-fee lunch program.

The program would be phased in for all schools during 2006 through 2009.

Patty Clymer, a governing board member for Amphitheater Public Schools and a former kindergarten teacher, said full-day kindergarten would help teachers meet lesson goals.

"What I was teaching 14 years ago was really hard to fit into a day," she said. "Now that we have stricter requirements and state standards, it really would be helpful to have all-day kindergarten."

Jan Mitich, a governing board member for Marana Unified School District and former teacher, said she approves of the governor's plan, but wonders how it will work logistically.

"My only concern is that all our schools may not have the room for it," she said. "Some of our schools are at capacity today."

Mitich said the Tucson Unified School District had to move sixth graders from elementary school to middle school when they started full-day kindergarten.

She added that new classrooms might not be available to schools in the governor's timeframe.

"With the Arizona School Facilities Board taking so long to get school rooms built, and with funding being threatened in that area, "it might be a while before we'd have classroom space without building modulars," she said.

In addition to supporting the governor's plan for full-day kindergarten, Hellon said she is backing Arizona Department of Education Superintendent Tom Horne's plan for attracting good teachers.

In his State of Education Speech on Jan. 6, Horne said one of his major goals is to focus on increasing Arizona's stock of highly qualified teachers and administrators.

Horne recently met with Hellon to propose a bill that would allow teachers from other states to teach in Arizona without passing the subject knowledge tests for their subjects, if they passed them in other states.

"When teachers come in, sometimes they have to wait and wait," Hellon said. "But what we need them to do is teach."

The "teacher reciprocity" plan, which would require no additional state funds, may not require a bill, Hellon said. If it does, she said, she will sponsor it.

"It is something I would like to see," said John Lewandowski, the president of the Amphitheater Education Association. "Obviously there would have to be many stipulations on the way it was written. I don't think a person could just walk from one state to another without some kind of background, but if we could shorten the process - it takes too long right now."

While meeting with Horne to discuss teacher reciprocity, Hellon refused to support his additional proposal to change Arizona's school tax credit law.

In Arizona, taxpayers are allowed to designate $250 of their taxes for a specific student activity at specific schools. For example, a parent may put the tax credit toward a son's or daughter's out-of-state band trip.

Horne told Hellon he wants tax credits to go toward other education expenses as well, including curricula expenses.

"I won't support or sponsor anything that expands tax credits," Hellon said.

Tax credits take money from the general fund, which is where education funding comes from, she said.

"We need all the money we can get in the general fund," she said.

Lewandowski said he agreed that tax credits should not be expanded, adding that neither the Amphitheater Education Association nor the association's state chapter supports tax credits for private or for public schools.

School tax credits give money to private schools that otherwise could go to public schools, he said. Also, they raise fairness issues because they create a situation in which public schools' income is based on community members' ability to donate.

"It's widening the gap between the haves and have nots," he said.

At the same time, schools welcome tax credit money because it supports much extra-curricular programming.

Mitich said she would like to see tax credit money go into a central district fund and be divided equally among the district's schools, though she said that could cause problems.

"I don't know that people would donate the money, then," she said.

While meeting with Horne, Hellon said she also heard a pitch for mandatory character education in schools, which she will not support.

With all the requirements placed on teachers connected with the AIMS test, schools have enough structure to deal with already, she said.

"If school districts want to include it, that's great, but I don't believe we should mandate anything where schools have to change the

curriculum to include another thing," she said.

Richard Lesko, superintendent of Marana Unified School District, said he would be in favor of formalizing character education in the curriculum, but only if money existed to back it.

"My concern would be the funding sources for that," he said. "Any type of mandate should come with adequate funding to implement the mandate."

Mitich said schools don't need a mandate from the state to teach character education, because it's already implicit in the job.

"When I worked with Peace Builders, I worked with every district in this county, and they all had forms of character education in them," she said. "That's what teachers do. We teach kids to share and not call people names. We all do that."

Another big education issues likely to come up during this session that Hellon won't support is consolidating school districts, she said.

"I'm not supporting it until we get this other stuff out of the way," she said.

Arizona's system for funding new school buildings is another big issue, but Hellon said she doesn't expect to see major changes to it. She hasn't heard any talk floating around about proposed bills, probably because no one knows how to change the system, Hellon said.

"Everybody was talking about how 'I'm going to have a plan for this,'" she said. "I haven't seen anything like that come through, and you'd think I would have heard of something."

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