National Public Schools Week prompted 20 Arizona lawmakers of both sides of the aisle to tour public schools in order to get a better understanding of what teachers are most proud of as well as what they are struggling with due to restricted state funds.
On his March 29 tour of Zaharis Elementary School, Mesa Sen. David Farnsworth caught a glimpse of what the future of education in Arizona could look like through first-grader Kash Oldham.
His teacher at the Mesa school and friends call him “Senator Oldham,” because of his dream to one day grow up and be an elected Arizona lawmaker.
Kash brings clips of current events to school to share with his class regularly, and documents his personal thoughts on the state of US politics through diary entries and poetry – serving as an avenue for his writing, reading and public speaking skills.
Standing up straight and speaking clearly as a senator would, Kash read Farnsworth a poem as well as a diary entry on world peace.
Farnsworth was so moved by the experience, he invited Kash, his family and the rest of his class to visit his office.
“You see, Senator, this is a great example of what students can do when our teachers have agency and are innovative with the curriculum. The sky’s the limit for these kids,” Zaharis Principal Mike Oliver told Farnsworth.
“This is the living vision of what school could be in more places,” he added. “I think we need to focus on how we spread this model of learning, and how we can combine our skills to lift schools into higher places.”
Farnsworth said he was “truly impressed and absolutely blown away” by the school’s use of the student agency learning model, but was turned off when he was told by teachers and staff that providing unique educational experiences require more funds than currently allocated by the state.
The model allows students to learn through activities driven by their interests that are commonly self-initiated.
Rigorous and intriguing projects – such as creating solar-powered robotic cars, experiencing firsthand what it is like to emigrate to America as a family and spending a day making butter and learning about the Oregon Trail – allow students and teachers to be co-contributors to the learning experience.
But it doesn’t come cheap.
The panel of teachers told Farnsworth that a large portion of funding for Zaharis comes from parents, and to spread an improved culture of teaching across Arizona would require real changes on a state level.
Farnsworth strongly disagreed.
“They don’t want to talk about where the money is going, they just want more money,” he said.
“Money is important, but it doesn’t solve everything,” he added. “The big frustration for most of us in the legislature is no matter how much money we give to education, it’s not finding its way to the classroom.”
Farnsworth said changing his mind on the subject would require a detailed copy of spending throughout all Arizona schools that displayed exactly where funds are ending up because there is “no doubt in my mind that there is waste and fraud in public schools. In order to change my viewpoint, I need information.”
Farnsworth said it makes no sense to allocate more funds for education when there is not a clear understanding of where the money is being spent.
Teachers countered Farnsworth’s point, expressing concerns about charter schools operating under far fewer restrictions and given ample funding to maintain high academic success.
One teacher said many charter school owners are making more money with each passing year while Mesa schools are “running lean.”
After the roundtable with the teachers, Farnsworth said what started as an informative experience at Zaharis took a sharp turn.
“I was absolutely thrilled – until there was this hatred for charter schools. Talk about a wet blanket on my enthusiasm. It wasn’t about the money, the money was OK. But you pick an enemy and you blame someone else for the problems, and public school enthusiasts spend a lot of time blaming the charter schools instead of talking about the positives,” he said, adding: “I am not enthusiastic about giving more money to public schools until I see clearly where it’s going.”