Unification offers chance to reinvent public schools
September 6, 2007
Author: BOB SCHUSTER, The Arizona Republic
Estimated printed pages: 3
Earlier this summer, about 50 interested individuals from Tempe, west Chandler and Ahwatukee took on the daunting task of studying unifying the area's three school districts. Their recommendation, in a nutshell, was to combine the districts if several conditions were satisfied that hinged largely on getting additional state money to cover transitional costs and to equalize teachers' salaries.
Unfortunately but not unexpectedly, some critics began picking apart the ad hoc group's final report. As of this writing, two of the three school districts' governing boards voted against unification. None of this is unexpected because entrenched institutions almost always opt for the status quo over change that might diminish their power and turf.
Essentially, their argument is: If it isn't broken, don't fix it. Yet just about everywhere in today's highly competitive, fast-changing world, that argument has been thoroughly discredited. In the corporate world and in government at every level, standing still means falling behind. And that is especially true in education, where change is no longer an option; it's a necessity.
It's fair to ask at this point whether our three school districts can accomplish the necessary improvements in education demanded by state academic accountability laws and competition with the increasing numbers of charter and private schools. The answer: possibly, with the right leadership and painstaking coordination.
But a better question is: Can we reinvent public education in a K-12 unified district that incorporates all the essential ingredients of top-notch education on today's dynamic educational landscape? The answer to that: yes.
I suggest that former Tempe Union High School board member Dick Foreman, who led the unification committee's effort this summer, reconvene the group, along with anyone else interested in quality education in this area, and set about the task of creating a framework for a state-of the-art school district. One that draws on best practices not only from throughout Arizona but the nation; one that not only builds in quality on the ground level but institutionalizes improvement as education continues to evolved to match changes in higher education and the workplace.
A unified district would be able to better handle the challenges of declining enrollment in our three districts. But sights could and should be set far higher than withstanding the fiscal hit. The goal should be nothing short of creating a "mainstream" K-12 curriculum that would meet and exceed the needs of most students, while also creating magnet schools and specialized programs within schools that would attract students throughout the region.
Given the huge battle fought in the Kyrene School District a couple of years ago over cuts in the arts, an obvious place to start would be creating a K-12 performing arts magnet school complex -- or perhaps several -- that would be the best in the Southeast Valley. It would be a powerful draw.
Other magnet schools or programs might focus on high technology, global economics and foreign language. The district's cultural diversity could be capitalized on by, say, launching a magnet school in the Guadalupe area that immersed students in Spanish language as well as Hispanic and Native American culture.
Critics will say that all of this -- and more -- is possible while retaining the current three-district structure. Sure, but it would be very difficult. A single board with clear channels of communication with parents, a single advisory committee structure and a unified K-12 approach to curriculum and enrichment programs would be far superior.
Trying to accomplish all of this with the fragmented political and administrative structures would be enormously difficult. A unified policy-making and administrative structure just makes sense if the aim is to reinvent public education in a 21st-century model that would serve the unique educational needs of every student in our area -- and some from neighboring communities.
This is an exciting opportunity with infinite possibilities. The next step is to begin exploring those possibilities so voters in the three districts will have a clear choice come November 2008 when this issue hits the ballot.
Otherwise, the status quo and the lame "if it isn't broken" argument will triumph. And that would be a shame.
Bob Schuster is Southeast Valley Editorial Page editor for The Republic.
Edition: Final Chaser
Section: Chandler Republic
Column: REPUBLIC COLUMNIST
Index Terms: ARIZONA
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Record Number: pho174960299