Chairman Boyer, Vice-Chairman Shope, members of the committee, thank you for having me here today.
Before beginning, I’d like to start by acknowledging the different Native lands that we occupy today. The Department of Education building sits on O’odham and Hohokam lands.
When I stood before you last year, I had no idea of the challenges awaiting us. In a few short weeks, our world, our expectations, and our daily routines changed drastically.
As I stand before you this year, I am compelled to make clear that these hardships have been felt more deeply by our students than by any other segment of our society, and that we as educators, parents and community members have a duty to support them in every way possible.
At this time, COVID-19 has infected nearly 756,083 people in our state. We have lost 450,000 Americans, with Arizonans representing 13,362 of those deaths. Each loss is a tragedy affecting valued members of our communities, and in many cases, our schools.
Our students have been at the center of this crisis and were some of the first to feel the impact of this pandemic.
In March, students left their classrooms for spring break, and did not return to their campuses for months. In some cases – on the Navajo Nation, and even in our metro areas – many students have yet to return to in-person learning.
It breaks my heart that so many students could not return to their classroom because the community spread of COVID-19 was too high. As Dr. Fauci and the CDC have clearly stated: opening schools safely also requires controlling the virus's spread within communities. When Arizona closed bars and restaurants last summer, we were able to reduce our numbers to a place where most schools could safely open for in-person learning.
For us to achieve our goals for in-person learning and a return to stability for our students, teachers, and families, we must ensure that school communities are safe for students and staff alike.
Our students have experienced too many of the pandemic’s hardships firsthand. Many have stood in line with their families to receive meals, struggled to learn over unstable internet connections, or watched their teachers take on the burden of leading instruction in-person and virtually at the same time. Many have coped as their parents and loved ones lost a job, struggling to make ends meet with some of the lowest unemployment benefits in the nation, often unable to pay their rent or mortgage. In the absolute worst cases, our students have had to muster the resolve to continue learning while grieving the loss of a loved one, a teacher, a coach, or a friend – each is one too many Arizonans lost to this virus.
But throughout this pandemic, while many of our school facilities have been closed, teaching and learning have not stopped. Our schools have gone above and beyond to deliver instruction safely, and to desperately fill the gaps Arizona families are facing – to offer everything from food boxes to counseling services to a sense of stability in their children’s rapidly changing worlds. The pressure on our schools has been immense, but they have risen to the challenge, transitioning to new learning models and a new reality with innovation, quick-thinking, and adaptation.
If you ask me where to find the best and brightest – the most innovative and forward thinking – I’ll tell you to look to the classrooms of our Pre-K through 12th grade teachers.
But what is devastating is that despite the services our schools deliver, despite the obstacles they have overcome in this last year, our state continues to deny them the long-term, sustained funding that any company, business, or agency needs to thrive.
Our public schools – like us all – have navigated this once in a century pandemic without a blueprint. And, like each of us, they have faced enormous challenges and unexpected expenses to keep their students and staff safe.
Between March and January, two federal relief packages delivered our schools one-time fiscal support as they faced enormous changes in their enrollment and budgets. While federal relief will allow our schools to enact targeted supports for students, it is one-time funding specific to pandemic-related expenses. As we plan for the next school year, many public schools will not be able to stretch federal relief dollars to cover long-existing gaps in their budgets. More importantly, these dollars are intended for relief.
What's more, in the time of the pandemic, public schools are projected to lose up to $500 million in formula funding because state law funds distance learning at 5 percent less than in-person school. The state’s promised solution to that problem – the Enrollment Stability Grant – fell short by $247 million. That’s why I fully support the Senate Republican leadership’s proposal to fully-fund distance learning this year.
Without predictable, on-going state funding, many public schools, particularly small, rural schools will not be able to sustain their operations and provide a full range of services to students and families in their communities. When the state sits on a billion-dollar rainy day fund and projects a two-billion-dollar surplus, there is no excuse to not fully fund every school.
There has never been a more urgent time to tap into our safety net and provide for Arizonans. Anyone who thinks it’s not raining in Arizona right now needs to check their privilege. It is absurd to talk of tax cuts when there are so many families with basic needs our state can help meet.
That is why, today, I ask you to join me in being the leaders our students and communities need. Seeing the future through our students’ eyes means seeing the value and need for a high-quality public education system and enacting pro-family policies that help students thrive.
By focusing on science and facts and leading with empathy and kindness for the struggles Arizonans are facing, we have an opportunity to choose hope, to see our students as the future of our state and collaborate on solutions that can uplift every family and every student in Arizona.
There is a light at the end of the tunnel. So far, 671,513 individuals have been inoculated with the COVID-19 vaccine, including some educators. But the bumpy, uneven rollout in some areas has left people even more concerned about how they will protect themselves – and ultimately affects how and when students will return to the classroom. We have a long road ahead until all Arizonans are protected from COVID-19 – and the vaccine alone cannot solve the economic and emotional scars this pandemic continues to leave on our state.
As we move through and beyond the crisis of the pandemic, we have the chance to transform our classrooms and schools to create an education system that is mindful of historical inequities and responsive to the needs of every community.
With sustainable, and equitable education funding, our public schools can meet the academic, social, and emotional needs of all students -- at a time when they need us more than ever.
Those who have heard my last two State of Education addresses will not be surprised when I say the key to our students’ success is supporting the talented, highly qualified educators that lead their classrooms. Students rely on the expertise and support from the wide range of education professionals we employ in our schools - from classroom teachers to reading specialists, behavior interventionists, speech therapists, psychologists, arts and music educators, nutrition workers, and many more.
Supporting all our educators has been among our top priorities during COVID-19. Using one-time CARES Act dollars, our Department partnered with the Governor’s office and organizations like Helios to ensure educators could add necessary skills to their toolbox to thrive in a virtual teaching environment. With this investment in training our teacher workforce, 7,726 teachers took courses through ASU’s Virtual Teacher Institute to enhance online student engagement. In addition, last week, over 1,400 teachers from all fifteen counties participated for free in the annual Math Educator Conference organized by the UofA’s Center for the Recruitment and Retention of Mathematics Teachers.
Investing in our education workforce is essential to keeping our educators in the classroom, at a time when the demands of the classroom have never been higher. For too long, Arizona has been in a crisis with a shortage of educators, not because we lack the talent, but because too many exceptional teachers have burned out from overcrowded classrooms, non-competitive pay, and a lack of essential resources for students. We could not afford to lose a single educator at the start of 2020 – but the demands of navigating a classroom in a pandemic has exacerbated the strain on our workforce.
In periods of distance or hybrid learning, I have had teachers tell me they were working 15 hours a day, and weekends, to create engaging lessons for students learning at-home while also supporting students learning in-person. This workload is unsustainable, and we already know of teachers who have either bought themselves out of their contracts or are planning to not renew their contracts for the next school year.
In the absolute worst cases, educators have tragically died from COVID-19. In Arizona, this includes Kimberly Byrd, Ash Freiderich (Freed-rick), Jane Kelly, Nawai Kalai (Na-v-i-a Ka -li -a), and Coach Kerry Crosswhite. While their loss is felt preeminently by their families and loved ones, our students are also mourning their loss.
Just last week, a principal reached out to me to share how traumatizing it was to tell a class of young students that their teacher had passed away from COVID-19 - that this educator was not the only teacher in her district to die that week, and that she herself was recovering from COVID-19.
It is devastating for a school community to lose multiple educators in one week. These stories reflect the heartbreaking ways in which COVID-19 has and continues to bring trauma to our communities. I’d like to take a moment of silence to remember each of the educators, school staff, and community members we have lost to this virus.
Getting the virus under control is the very first step to easing the burdens on our educators and the impact on our students. Thankfully, our numbers are beginning to improve, but with all fifteen counties in the red, we must continue to work to get this virus under control, so we can fully focus on policies and investments to retain and grow our educator workforce.
To start, predictable, sustainable funding would allow our schools and districts to plan their budgets to hire and fairly compensate every professional their students need, from principals to physics teachers. Last election, the voters made it clear that they share this vision when they passed Prop 208 to supplement our current funding levels.
And while I strongly support Governor Ducey’s much-needed budget proposals around early literacy, one-time grant funding simply doesn’t cut it for staffing our schools. When we use a patchwork approach to funding our schools, our students lose out.
To take us in the right direction, bills like Senator Marsh’s SB1227 will provide a needed evaluation on the impact of overcrowded classrooms. I am thrilled to see another passionate educator join the state legislature, and I urge you to support this bill.
And common-sense policies like paid family leave would provide educators with a long-overdue system of support. In times of sickness, we care for each other by ensuring that we can take time off and still make ends meet. Those assurances are important not just for our educator workforce, but for all workers, which is why I urge you to support Senator Quezada’s bill – SB1756 – to offer this support to families and businesses across the state.
The truth is that family-centered policies support our schools and benefit all communities.
And in 2020, we learned just how deeply tied our schools are to our communities.
I am inspired by the relationships built and strengthened between families, teachers, and administrators this past year. And I have been moved by the way countless organizations stepped up to support our students and their families.
During the two periods that our state became the national hotspot for COVD-19, the Arizona Department of Education provided federal recovery funds to the Boys and Girls Club and the YMCA. This helped them provide extended hours and a safe learning environment for the children of essential workers and families in need. Their efforts supported our schools – and the parents working tirelessly on the frontlines of this virus.
But those were one-time dollars intended for relief and recovery – and access to childcare and pre-school was essential even before the pandemic. That’s why bills like Representative Sierra’s HB2015, which provides sustainable funding for pre-k programs, are vital as we look toward the future of what we want to provide our families in this state. I was pleased to see the House Education Committee advance that bill, and I urge you to pass it in the Senate as well.
Community investments like these are essential to lifting up the communities most impacted by COVID-19 – which are disproportionately home to families of color.
Indigenous, Latino, and Black communities have seen some of the highest rates of COVID-19 in Arizona. Multiple times over the course of last year, the Navajo Nation and the White Mountain Apache tribal nations had the highest rates of COVID-19 in the entire country. Across the state, Indigenous, Latino and African American students are overrepresented in schools that have not been able to open for in-person learning due to the disproportionately high spread of COVID-19 in their communities.
Our state must make sure the communities hardest hit by this virus have all the support they need to recover -- and that starts with investing in and supporting their schools.
To start, the Arizona Department of Education has partnered with Governor Ducey’s office to launch Acceleration Academies, which use socio-economic indicators and public health data to determine schools most severely impacted by COVID-19. By providing these funds to schools most impacted, we can help students and families recover from the devastation of this virus.
And with the newest federal recovery package, our Department is committing $1 million dollars to our Office of Indian Education, which is dedicated to serving students from all 22 federally recognized Tribal Nations.
While the Department is statutorily required to support an Office of Indian Education, it has never been funded by the state. With many Tribal Nations facing the worst effects of the pandemic, this funding is critical to building a strong foundation to provide students with culturally responsive resources, increase pathways for Indigenous educators, and strengthen the communication and collaboration between districts and sovereign tribal nations.
Perhaps no investment has proved more necessary during a pandemic than the need to connect our communities – for work, for school, and for socializing.
This is a multi-pronged effort that includes access to affordable, high-speed internet and devices – especially for our rural communities. While schools have done their best to create valuable distance learning opportunities, too many families and teachers do not have access to reliable high-speed internet at home, preventing them from accessing online work and school.
This is why I encourage you to support and expand on Governor Ducey’s vision for broadband access as it will be critical to bridging the opportunity gap for students and families. And that’s why I support the use of grants through Arizona’s Final Mile Project, which bridges the divide between school and home internet accessibility.
Even for our schools where internet is reliable, the cost of virtual learning is staggering. From ordering expensive devices, to hiring additional IT staff to manage the issues that arise on digital platforms, to training educators on new digital tools, I cannot overstate the impact distance learning has had on schools’ budgets.
As we look to the future, many districts and charters recognize that these online programs are in-demand and worth sustaining. But the costs of providing hybrid or virtual models will come in addition to the cost of keeping facilities open, recruiting and retaining staff, and serving students on campus.
While access to reliable internet helps connect students to learning, strong social-emotional supports help students get the most out of learning.
Just as adults feel the mental and emotional strain of living through these unprecedented times, so do our students. The events of this past year have ignited calls to support student mental health and wellbeing from communities across our state. Many parents and caregivers have made clear that our students need the social-emotional supports offered by public schools. I completely agree with them.
From feelings of depression and anxiety to worrisome isolating behavior, everything that our nation has endured in the last year has taken a toll on our youngest community members. These feelings may be particularly heightened for students who tragically are not safe in their homes, including many LGBTQ students.
I urge parents and caregivers who are worried about their child and students experiencing mental distress to seek caring professional help. It’s okay not to be okay and more importantly, it’s okay to ask for and get help. The mental wellbeing of students is critical to their ability to learn successfully – to engage in their academic studies authentically - without the preoccupation of other critical needs.
Knowing that these types of supports are necessary, the Arizona Department of Education worked with the Center for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning to release Social and Emotional Learning Competencies for intentional integration into schools’ curricula and everyday learning. With our CARES Act funds, we’ve offered trainings in trauma-informed instruction with plans for additional trainings this spring. To take this a step further and ensure that all youth are empowered with knowledge and understanding of mental health, I urge you to join me in supporting Senator Bowie’s bill, SB1376, which needs your vote today.
As an educator, I know that implementing these critical supports into the school day takes time and professional guidance, which is why I supported the State Board of Education in revising counselor certification requirements, which created a pathway for individuals with their master's degree in counseling to receive a certification to work in public schools. Since the change was implemented in December 2019, an additional 488 counselors received this certification – significantly more than in prior years. Their expertise and training are critical to ensuring that we are meeting students’ social-emotional needs, so they can continue to focus and grow in their academic learning.
In such a tumultuous year, I am grateful for all who centered student wellbeing. This includes Lizette Monge (Mon-hay), a school counselor at Coatimundi (kuh·waa·tee·muhn·dee) Middle School in the Santa Cruz Valley District. As a first-year counselor hired through the School Safety Grant Program, her expertise in mental health has been critical for her school community. Through weekly lunches and monthly guidance sessions with students in each grade level, Lizette provides structured support for students to build their coping and emotional regulation skills. This helps her students reduce stressors and manage their mental wellbeing.
As we work to help students overcome the challenges of this year, counselors like Lizette are essential to helping students get on track socially, emotionally, and academically. This is why I'm advocating for bipartisan support in providing $43 million to the School Safety Grant Program, which would fund the remaining first choice positions on our waitlist – potentially adding 355 counselors and social workers to our school communities.
While the support offered by adults is critical, it is oftentimes peer-to-peer support which offers our students some of the best insight into themselves and their classmates. Arizona School for the Arts Senior Claire Novak showed the power of student leadership when she coordinated with the ADE’s Project AWARE team to bring suicide prevention training to her teachers.
But she didn’t stop there. Claire went on to create a 6-lesson wellness curriculum for middle school students and, with the support of her schools' Life Skills teacher and administration, has taught this curriculum to more than 200 middle schoolers. She offers her lesson plans at no cost to educators.
However, it’s not just students who need additional help – many times adults in our communities are also experiencing mental health challenges. This can be particularly true for educators who can experience secondary trauma as they take care of their students’ emotional needs.
In such a challenging year, educators and school leaders have felt the weight of those collective burdens. I know how challenging it can be to watch a student or colleague endure unfathomable tragedies, which is why our Department is partnering with AHCCCS and the Arizona Department of Health Services to provide free, direct peer support to all Arizona teachers and administrators. This program aims to reduce barriers to care, increase mental wellbeing and prevent burnout among teachers and administrators.
As Superintendent of Public Instruction, it is my pleasure to serve as the chief advocate of our public schools. And so, it has been important to me today to underscore the challenges our schools face.
But it is also important to share with you our schools’ tremendous achievements and innovation in response to the challenges of this past year. When we speak of resiliency in the face of this pandemic, there are no greater examples than our students, teachers, and families.
I have seen school principals and superintendents continue leading through profound pressure, even leading instruction for students on days when substitutes could not be found.
I have seen staff across our schools take on new responsibilities, learn new skills, and find purpose in their roles to serve their students and families in whatever way possible.
And I have seen our students step up and lean into this moment, showing us the leaders that they already are.
For example, last spring, while the White Mountain Apache Tribe in the Pinetop-Lakeside community was facing a serious COVID-19 outbreak, teachers Kevin Wooldridge and Eric Fogle worked remotely with students from their Physics and Engineering Club and CAD Design and Robotics classes to design and develop life-saving PPE for medical workers. In one week, students made hundreds of PPE, creating 471 face shields for seven healthcare institutions in the Show Low, Pinetop Lakeside, and Whiteriver communities.
In some of the most difficult moments of the last year, our students and educators have shown us how they can transform their communities for the better – especially when they are equipped with the resources and supports to do so.
That is why I am more concerned than ever before that we provide our schools with equitable, sustainable funding. Our schools can be the backbone of our state’s recovery from this virus. In fact, they must be.
Because the recent traumatic events our country has faced – the virus, the economic fallout, an attack and insurrection on our U.S. Capitol – happened while our students watched. History books will have much to say about this era. That when our country most needed leadership, collaboration, and unity, many elected officials promoted lies and disparaged our democratic election processes. For generations to come, our youth will be the ones asking the critical questions about the traumas we endured and what steps we took to overcome them.
After a tumultuous start to this new year, it is of utmost importance that elected leaders commit to lifting up our students. We must see public schools as stewards of our future - not as institutions that can be shortchanged for ideological and political purposes. And it is imperative that the lessons we have learned over the course of this tragic pandemic are put into action. When we see human suffering and division, we must choose to look for solutions based in empathy and mutual respect. In the words of our first national youth poet laureate, Amanda Gorman, “For while we have our eyes on the future, History has its eyes on us.”
I sincerely look forward to beginning a new era with you, one that our children can be proud of – one rooted in our history, in collaboration, in honesty and in kindness. A future rooted in support of our communities and their public schools.
To view a recording of the address, visit: https://www.azleg.gov/videoplayer/?eventID=2021021007.