Same sad story: TUSD's deseg battle a result of lousy Az school funding

They’re fighting over scraps at TUSD.

The Governing Board of Tucson’s largest school district got a briefing Tuesday night about tapping desegregation funding to maintain rapid academic interventions that have helped students recover academically after the COVID pandemic.

However, a contingent of the community that fought to force the district through the court-ordered desegregation process doesn’t want to change how deseg money is spent. But in September, TUSD will run out of the federal coronavirus relief that pays for the teachers providing the post-pandemic academic catch-up.

Superintendent Gabriel Trujillo wants to keep that program going but needs to find the money. This being Arizona, it’s not like the Tucson Unified School District has many options.

So administrators provided the board a plan to use desegregation money now that the district is out from under a 44-year-old federal court order aimed at providing equitable opportunities to Black and Hispanic students.

Wait, wait, wait, wait. How does the district still get to raise
deseg money if there’s no longer any court-ordered desegregation?

Because the deseg tax on local property owners doesn’t go away.

That’s not to say TUSD
has a new pot of gold to pay for whatever it wants. The tax revenues
would put the district over a state spending cap and couldn’t be spent,
unless they pay for a program that helps students of color and was in
place prior to a U.S. District Court judge releasing TUSD from decades of deseg oversight.

The deseg money isn’t so much a “fund” as much as it is a series of programs protected from the spending cap.

intervention programs were ramped up during the coronavirus pandemic to
help recover “learning loss” experienced when students were out of
school and the job of teacher fell on moms, dads and family members.

out, engineers, waitresses, call center workers, accountants, cops and
nurses weren’t great English and math teachers. Their kids fell behind
when schools were shut down as a pandemic precaution. 

Let’s take a quick detour into something that’s been bugging me for about four years.

schools were closed at all has undergone some revisionism about the
reasons we shutdown in-person schooling in the first place. Our knowledge
was catching up to the virus at the time and we had to take precautions.
Not every Londoner who retreated to a bomb shelter during the Blitz had
their homes destroyed by German bombs. It was rightly done out of

As far as learning loss goes, well, there’s been a hell
of a lot more I imagine in Ukraine and Gaza, while a lot fewer people
died. Sometimes history happens and we all have to adjust to less than
ideal conditions. A million people died. The tragedy wasn’t that the
people were inconvenienced to prevent 5 million deaths.

I digress…

Recovering losses

The point is that a lot of kids didn’t make the same progress in
learning that they could have in normal circumstances, and TUSD has
found learning loss to have hit Black and brown students harder, for a
variety of reasons. Of the 1,298 TUSD students who were helped by
intervention, 85 percent were students of color.

So the district
will move $3.5 million around. It’s moving more programs into
desegregation budgets and moving programs that were paid for with deseg
out and into other areas. For instance, the cost of Advanced Placement
tests can be paid with state grants, professional development can be
done in-house without sending teachers out of state, and advertising for
magnet schools can be more affordable.

Federal pandemic cash
helped pay for programs that recovered some of the loss. District
administrators want to keep that trend going. The federal money is about
to run out, so they have to find more cash somewhere, and this is where
the TUSD community gets smacked in the face with reality.

Arizona spends less on K-12 funding than 47 other states, including ones not exactly known for their academic chops. So Superintendent Gabe Trujillo
has few other places to look for funding. Were Arizona to spend 50
percent more per-pupil on schools, he would have 50 percent more places
to look. When we consider that about 40 to 50 percent of school budgets
goes to fixed costs like heating, cooling, food service and
transportation, he would have even more options were Arizona to spend
the national average on public schools.

someone’s ox is going to get gored. In this case, it’s the champion
bird-doggers who have long been agitating the fight for desegregation
who are afraid they’re on the business end of the goring.

brings me to Syliva Campoy. Campoy was one of the original plaintiffs in
the case that forced desegregation and she’s been a local raiser of
Cain for decades. She’s not happy. To be fair, she rarely is. On this
issue, I’m not willing to go toe-to-toe with her because she’s forgotten
more about deseg in the last five minutes than I’ve learned in 20

Specifically, she took issue during a public hearing on the
matter last week to point out how a study proving intervention
specialists work failed to control for any number of factors. Her
concern is that the same old students are going to be left behind now
that the court order is gone.

“With court oversight there was the
belief that TUSD would move faster in knocking down institutional
barriers in raising the standards of academic achievement for Black and
brown students,” Campoy told the board Tuesday. “TUSD is no where near
where it should be on quality education for every student – particularly
students of color.”

OK, fine. I hear that. 

However, TUSD
has shown progress in the last year or two. The state Department of
Education gives out letter grades to all Arizona schools based on
achievement. A third of TUSD’s schools improved a full grade. None rated
an F. Two-thirds were graded as A’s and B’s.

That ain’t bad and
Trujillo credits intervention, which means students who start to lag are
dealt with immediately by specialists who fill in the gaps of
knowledge. The old practice was to rebuild the foundation of knowledge,
which takes longer and proved to improve grades little.

broader argument is that the district didn’t account for a whole bunch
of stuff, like whether teachers were trained as interventionists, what
the student achievement level was and whether those results could be
tracked and verified over time.

Do these interventions work? This brings us into a rolling fight over longitudinal studies versus regression analyses.

not that bad. Say, for instance, I’m depressed. A wealth of evidence
exists that says exercise will help that. I work out and feel better. A
regression analysis would say “working out helped.” However, not
addressing the root causes of my depression (I feel fine, actually)
could come back and bite me, make the dark cloud return over time. A
longitudinal study would control for all my issues over a longer time
period. It may conclude therapy may be required in addition to hitting
the gym.

TUSD did a short-term study that found an expected
connection between intervention and achievement. Compoy is talking about
a longer-term study that would determine if those results held.

cool is it that there’s an argument over using legit science to direct
funding to evidence-based outcomes? There’s not a podcaster in sight. No
“Jewish bankers.” No “Italian space lasers.” No “bamboo ballots.” Awesome.

Not a lotta Benjamins 

Another plaintiff in the case, former Santa Rita High School
Principal Lorraine Richardson, suggested the budget problems with TUSD
had more to do with the district operating too many schools. Boy, has
this come up before and boy do parents hate the idea of closing “their”

“At some point,” she told the board, “you will have to
acknowledge that there is not enough desegregation money to keep this
district going through declining enrollment.”

And that seemed to match other concerns about tapping deseg money. Don’t use it as a cash cow.

the district can’t. Remember, it must spend the money on specific
programs for particular students meant to be helped by the desegregation
court order. Otherwise, that money will count against the
constitutional cap and then become an illegal expenditure.

I’m not nitpicking. Her bigger point is the salient one. 

just isn’t enough money to teach Arizona’s kids when anything goes
wrong. The state spends barely enough to pay for schools during good

Arizona struggled in the mid-10s
because word had gotten out how bad the K-12 crunch here was and the
young people required to move here to pump up the economy stayed away.
Then the state made a splash about fixing the funding issue. It didn’t
but that was the splash and the economy improved (Causative? Maybe not.
Correlative? Looks like it).

Still, Arizona started the decade ranked 48th among the states and finished with the same ranking.

economy is predicated on population growth and not just retirees. It
needs working age people to move here. Now we’re telling half the women
they can’t control their own bodies, we’re promising not to spend any
money on schools for young families and letting migrants know they
aren’t welcome.

Arizona had better hope the world simply isn’t
paying attention to what lawmakers are telling them or the state is in
for trouble. Low taxes only gets us so far. The state’s economy depends
on Arizona importing a high-skilled work force not providing one.

That’s big picture.

picture is that education advocates are always going to be fighting
over thin financial pickings whenever it has to choose between this and
that or play catch up after a pandemic.

And even Trujillo agrees with them on this point. The question is does TUSD keep doing deseg like it’s always done deseg or does it change with new approaches in policy.

However, the board is allowed to change priorities whenever it chooses. The only catch is that deseg funds are basically invisible against the spending cap. Move those expenditures anywhere else, they suddenly reappear and move the district’s top-line spending toward that threshold. So when moving existing programs elsewhere in the budget, those expenditures suddenly need to be offset. 

Trujillo told the board the vast majority of those shifted funds could be paid for either by cutting the budget elsewhere or by making changes to the programs themselves. 

And that’s the question going to the board on April 9. Boardmembers lobbed some questions at the administrators after a long public hearing. They mostly kept their resigned frustration behind poker faces.

Boardmember Sadie Shaw did sum up her fears (and my point here) when she said in a low, exasperated tone that she wanted to protect certain programs like cultural studies while paying for more interventionists, frustrated that the board is forced to choose between the two. 

“We should have always had these positions and we should have been funding them with other sources,” she said.

That’s true. But this is Arizona. School funding options are thin.