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Breaking Down Barriers in Education to Better Benefit Students

September 26, 2022

By Kurt Rohrs |

Public education funding accounts for nearly $11 billion of Arizona’s $18 billion state budget. Considering this cost, taxpayers should have a clear perception about the return on this massive investment.

We can define the purpose of public education as the process of producing capable adults who can effectively participate in the economic activity of the community. This puts the focus on developing students who can be productive after they leave our public education system and identifies the return on investment for substantial state spending.

The economic benefit of Career and Technical Education (CTE) should then become the primary objective of each public education institution that is funded by the taxpayers of the state. The goal of CTE should be the attainment of professional degrees and technical certificates that demonstrate proficiency in various career-related specialties that allow students to attain beneficial employment.

There are several public education institutions that share the responsibility for preparing our students to be productive adults.

1. Pre-K-12 District and Charter Public Schools

Some Examples:

    • District Schools: Mesa Unified, Chandler Unified, and Tucson Unified are the largest in the state.
    • Charter Schools: American Leadership Academy, Legacy Traditional, Archway (Great Hearts)
    • Online Schools: Sequoia, Portable Practical Educational Preparation (PPEP), Arizona Connections Academy

2. Community Colleges 

    • Maricopa Community Colleges and Pima Community Colleges are the largest.

3. Technical Schools

    • East Valley Institute of Technology (EVIT), West Maricopa Education Center (West-MEC), and Pima County Joint Technical Education District (Pima-JTED) are the largest.

4. Colleges and Universities

    • Arizona State University, University of Arizona, and Northern Arizona University are the three public universities.

Coordination and Collaboration

Students often use several of these institutions in their educational journey but many of the programs overlap in their requirements. However, many students have also found that their credits earned by completing courses in one institution are not readily transferable to another institution, resulting in a student having to repeat classes they have already passed. This unnecessarily delays their attainment of educational goals and adds additional costs.

There does not appear to be any good reason for this uncoordinated approach to public education. It also serves to harm students and discourage their educational progress.

While some institutions do attempt to collaborate for the better benefit of students, the effort is spotty and uncoordinated. In a recent presentation to the EVIT Board of Directors, Chief Academic Officer Ronda Doolen demonstrated the chaotic approach to the transfer of credits from one institution to another. There is clearly no consistency and no universal process for doing so leaving students, as the clients of the system, to be served poorly.

Universal Portability, Student-Centric Education

One solution is to have state level certifications for certain classes that can be applied to each student’s education transcript and universally accepted by any public education institution in the state. This makes a student’s academic achievements “portable” and shifts the focus from “institution-centric” to “student–centric” in order to better benefit students.

One current model is the Dual-Credit platforms that are now in place between some high schools and local community colleges. However, the programs are usually governed by specific Inter-Governmental Agreements (IGAs) at the school or district level. But the programs are typically difficult to navigate and there is no guarantee of universal acceptance of credits that can be applied at any Arizona public school.

An example would be a basic college level English course (“English 101”) that can be universally accredited as fulfilling any higher education requirement. However, this basic course typically has different course titles depending on the institution and may or may not be accepted at a community college or one of the Arizona universities—depending on the whims of that particular institution. This basic course should have one course title, one course number, and one course description in use by every public education institution in the state of Arizona and be fully portable between them.

Other courses that should have universal accreditation would be Basic History, Civics, Basic Math and Science Courses, Basic Arts and Humanities courses, and Foreign Languages. It would be far more efficient and far less costly to have these courses taken at accredited high school or community college institutions instead of at the university level.

Follow the Money, Institutional Self-Interest, and Territorialism

Many of the roadblocks to a more efficient and service-oriented approach to public education revolve around funding. However, we must first recognize that most education funding is ultimately derived from taxpayers. These taxpayers do not typically have much of an interest as to which institution receives their tax dollars as compared to their more beneficial interest that their funds are spent efficiently and not wasted on ineffective or duplicative efforts.

Unfortunately, there is an institutional self-interest in how funds are allocated to them by the state. No one wants to have their budget cut. This can lead to a bias in how universal course credits are supported that can run counter to the best interests of students, for whom these institutions were originally created to serve.

An example would be that there is little practical justification for our universities to offer general education courses that are also taught at community colleges, and some high schools, at a fraction of the cost to students and taxpayers. Wouldn’t it far more useful to have highly paid university professors spending their time teaching advanced courses that could only be offered at the university?

There does not seem to be any evidence that an English 101 course better serves a student if it is taken at a university as compared to a community college or even a good high school. This one single reform should significantly reduce the cost of education for students and their parents, who help pay their tuition, even though it may threaten the territory of certain institutional “empires” that have built up at taxpayer expense.

Re-thinking Public Education, Some Conclusions

    • The goal of public education should be to develop productive adults.
    • Public education should then be more focused on Career and Technical Education in order to have real value for students and the community.
    • Public education must be re-oriented to be “student-centric” and less institution-centric” to be more efficient and cost effective.
    • Course credits in higher education should be “portable” and universally accepted by all taxpayer-funded public education institutions.

Kurt Rohrs is a candidate for the Chandler Unified School District Governing Board. You can find out more about his campaign here.

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