Bringing Some Coherence to Arizona State K-12 Policy

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

The Arizona Republic ran a column by yours truly today calling for making the Arizona Department of Education an executive department reporting directly to the Governor rather than having a separately elected position.

Free from the word limitations of columns, I can provide a bit more detail.

Arizona’s student data system typifies what I describe in the column as dysfunctional policymaking. Officials from school districts and charter schools have complained bitterly about it for many, many years as being riddled with errors. It often crashes, and has remained down for months at a time.  I have spoken to district officials who told me that they despaired of the state system ever working and created their own data system as an attempt to cope. All accounts I have heard say that Superintendent Huppenthal has done a good job in making the best out of an awful situation, but one highly placed source described it as getting inaccurate information to you at a faster pace. The whole system, in short, needs to be replaced, as in at least a decade ago.

Okay, so go and get a new data system, right? Wrong. We’ve seen an endless cycle of finger-pointing on the subject. The Department has requested money to fix the system, the legislature has never provided these funds. One can draw the inference that the legislature has collective doubts about the money being put to good use and, well, it is hard to blame them.

Now imagine a world in which former Governor Janet Napolitano had appointed the head of the department. I had my problems with Governor Napolitano philosophically, but I had no doubts about her overall competence. In this alternative reality, a clown car show of a data system reflects badly on her. People that can’t get basic state functions settled don’t win plum assignments like Homeland Security and the University of California system. Moreover, she would have had her own people in charge and the ability to secure the required financing to get a decent system in place during budget negotiations. The means meets motive, problem solved. It would have been a much better and more enduring K-12 legacy for Governor Napolitano than what turned out to be unsustainable school funding increases. Ah, what use we could have made of the aughts…

Back here in the Arizona of the real world, we had, um, this going on during the aughts.  As you might imagine, it did not end well, nor inspire confidence in the legislative branch.

Honk! Honk! Data system coming through!

At some point, a problem goes on long enough to qualify a symptom of a much deeper disease. Your local Target has a data system that can track every purchase and reorder lollipops just as they start to run low. In 2014, a reliable and secure student data system isn’t exactly rocket science, but it continues to elude Arizona. Appointing a Superintendent won’t dry every tear or fix all of our problems. It may be more necessary than sufficient, and we really need to make good use of the next four years regardless of who wins the next set of elections.

In the end it may not happen because it just makes too much sense, but hope springs eternal even as time grows short.

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