Special Report

Arizona Council Carves Out Solid Niche in Rocky Ground

By Michele McNeil — May 30, 2008 10 min read
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One education issue—high school graduation requirements—may best illustrate the successes of Arizona’s P-20 council and the obstacles that this high-powered panel faces in trying to bridge the gap between the state’s precollegiate and higher education systems.

Faced with a disappointing graduation rate and calls from the business community for schools to do a better job of preparing students for college and the workplace, the potentially unwieldy group of 39 of Arizona’s most powerful political, business, and community leaders set out in summer 2006 to stiffen the requirements for earning a diploma.

It took nearly two years, but the P-20 council managed to do just that. Beginning with the high school freshmen of 2009, students will need four years of math and three years of science to graduate. Just two years of each are required now.

And the council choreographed that change without any explicit policy-setting authority under state law—managing to do so over the initial objections of Tom Horne, the outspoken state superintendent of public instruction and a member of the council.

Fresh from that success, members of the panel that Gov. Janet Napolitano formed in 2005 are asking themselves: What next?

That’s the question facing an ambitious, bipartisan group that—despite a broadly defined mission and no formal regulatory power—has found ways to turn what might have been a mere advisory board into an influential policymaking body.

“Since 2005, it has grown enormously into, really, the driving force behind education policy in the state,” says Darcy R. Renfro, the governor’s policy adviser for higher education, tourism, and the economy.

Susie DePrez, an assistant superintendent in the 74,000-student Mesa public schools, who joined the council this year, says “nothing would be happening” if there were no council.

Systemic Problems

Yet the panel continues to struggle with its identity and the implementation of its mission, amid the competing agendas brought by members representing the K-12 community, higher education, and the private sector.

As Intel Corp.’s Carlos Contreras sees it, the P-20 council needs to focus. “What is the priority, and who owns it?” asks Contreras, the company’s Arizona education manager, who is new to the council this year.

The P-20 council’s creation can be traced to the concerns of former Mesa schools Superintendent Jim Zaharis, who joined the Greater Phoenix Leadership Council in 2002 and recognized the systemic problems with the state’s education system.

Like most states, Arizona is striving to improve its education system, specifically zeroing in on graduation rates and better preparation of students for college and the workforce.

Arizona's P-20 Council

Year Established: 2005
Number of Members: 39
Governor Regularly Chairs Matters: Yes
Voluntary Convening or Permanent: Permanent (Executive Order)
Supported by at Least 0.5 Full-time Equivalent Staff-Position: Yes
Equivalent Staff Position: Yes

SOURCE: ECS Database on P-16 and P-20 Councils

In 2006, only two states spent fewer dollars on each student than Arizona, where the level of support came to $6,472 per pupil, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. By comparison, the national average for per-pupil spending was $9,138 that year—some 40 percent more. The state’s 2004-05 graduation rate, according to the Editorial Projects in Education Research Center, was 73.3 percent.

Zaharis came to believe that it wasn’t simply that too many students were dropping out of school. The overarching problem was that “our system existed in silos,” he says. “We competed for resources. The loser in that was the student and family.”

He brought the concept of a more unified P-20 system—spanning preschool through graduate school—and an advisory council to deal with those issues to the candidates for governor and state superintendent in 2002. It was Janet Napolitano, then running for her first term as governor, “who picked up the idea and ran with it,” Zaharis says.


As a result, Napolitano is a guiding force on the council, which she uses as her team of education advisers. Besides setting aside staff members and devoting money from her office budget to the endeavor, she helps the panel set priorities.

The council’s work has been guided by the outcome of a summer 2006 meeting in Tucson, which produced 32 recommendations. One by one, starting with the graduation requirements, the council is working to carry out the recommendations.

And that gets tricky.

Because the council has no formal authority, it must find those who have such power if its recommendations are to become reality.

In the case of the graduation requirements, the council turned to member Karen Nicodemus, who is the president of Cochise College, a community college in rural southern Arizona. More important for advancing the effort, she also is a member of the policymaking state board of education. Nicodemus steered the initiative through to approval by the state board in December 2007.

The very structure of Arizona’s P-20 council has proved to be a challenge. It is unusually large for such a panel; its 39 members include university presidents, leaders of multimillion-dollar philanthropic organizations, and top officials at large companies such as Intel.

Members come from both major political parties, practically a necessity, given that Republicans control the state legislature and that the governor is a Democrat.

The council functions like a legislative body. Work such as the vetting of proposals, discussion, and debates happens in one of seven standing committees. Ideas or proposals then go to a steering committee, which comprises the leaders of those committees. Finally, the idea goes before the entire council.

Council members receive more than symbolic backup from the governor’s office. Napolitano has hired a full-time executive director for the council, plus another staff member who devotes a majority of her time to it. In addition, Napolitano’s two chief education policy advisers staff the committees. The level of staffing is highly unusual for a P-20 panel.

In the legislative arena, the council itself doesn’t lobby—members see that activity as outside the council’s mission. Instead, individual members empower their own lobbyists to represent their particular interests, such as those who typically represent universities.

And the council likely won’t get involved in politically polarizing issues in the legislature, such as illegal immigration, even if they affect education, members say.

In part, that caution is a bow to practical politics in dealing with the legislature, which holds the state purse strings for K-12 education generally, and for individual schools and universities.

“We don’t want to tick anybody off,” says Rufus Glasper, the chancellor of Maricopa Community Colleges, who co-chairs the P-20 council.

Although legislators occupy two nonvoting seats on the council, they rarely attend meetings.

K-12 Takes Back Seat

Though the council’s biggest achievement so far came with the boosting of high school graduation requirements, the K-12 system has been noticeably lacking in influence over the council’s work.

That deficiency in clout is partly rooted in partisan disagreements between two separately elected officials: Horne, the Republican state schools chief, and Napolitano, the Democratic governor.

Horne and Napolitano have squared off on such issues as funding for the state’s growing population of English-language learners. And when it came time for the full council to vote on requiring an additional year of math and science, Horne, who was concerned that the new mandate could lead to more dropouts, was the lone “no” vote.

Horne did not respond to repeated requests for an interview.

But council members say that while Horne might be expected to be the chief architect of the state’s education vision, he’s not. Instead, the P-20 council has taken on that role as a board of directors for the public education agenda, says philanthropist Don Budinger, who is the chairman of the Scottsdale-based Rodel Foundation of Arizona.

And even if a precollegiate issue has the council’s backing, that doesn’t mean Horne will support it in the legislature. In addition to opposing the graduation requirements, the schools chief lobbied against a P-20 council initiative that would track teacher performance in the classroom to better judge how teacher education schools are doing in preparing them for their jobs.

“I don’t see how [K-12] can be a driver when there’s a conflict between the state superintendent and the governor,” says John Haegar, the president of Northern Arizona University and a member of the panel.

Still, members say that Horne’s involvement on the council is critical.

“That’s what gives this council credibility,” says Paul J. Luna, a council member and the president of the Phoenix-based Helios Foundation, which focuses on education reform.

Governor’s Role

The tensions have done nothing to lessen Napolitano’s central role in guiding the P-20 council’s agenda.

For example, motivated in part by the governor’s desire to double the number of college degrees awarded in the state, an ad hoc committee of the council is scheduled to present recommendations in June of this year on how to transform the higher education system. Its proposals may include the idea of a governing board to oversee the state’s disjointed network of community colleges.

And Napolitano has asked governing bodies that represent the universities, early-childhood education, and the K-12 system to make regular reports to the council.

“The role of the governor was critical in creating a positive movement. Any strategic activity that actually has an impact requires leadership,” says Luna. “Any new governor could say, … ‘It’s not my thing.’ ”

Indeed, when such a council is so closely identified with one particular governor, the risk is that it could disappear with the election of a new governor. Napolitano, now in her second term, can’t run for re-election in 2010.

Like most states, meanwhile, Arizona is grappling with a budget deficit, so most of the council members agree that now is not the time to establish the panel by statute as a permanent agency. Nor do members necessarily think that would be a good idea.

“If it had the authority of a state agency, it would be looked at with less respect,” argues Glasper, who says that the council’s clout is rooted in the amalgamation of powerful community leaders.

One option the governor is considering is spinning the council off into a separate nonprofit organization, similar to what the state did with some economic-development duties by creating the Arizona Economic Resource Organization.

To help focus its mission, the P-20 council has turned to local philanthropies for money—and Napolitano is particularly effective at extracting money from foundations. Since 2005, the council has garnered $2.5 million in grants, including from the state’s Commerce and Economic Development Commission, a quasi-government entity—money that has helped pay for, among other activities, research into best practices in educational management and academic reform.

“We can’t wait any longer for the state of Arizona to help,” says Glasper, the council’s co-chairman.

Glasper says another big challenge for the council, especially given the size of its membership, is focusing the work and getting business and education advocates in local communities engaged.

To help do that, the council is launching a public relations campaign dubbed “Expect More Arizona,” which seeks to persuade state residents that education is a birth-through-adulthood process, and encourage them to get involved in improving public education.

Luna, of the Helios Foundation, who is leading the communications committee, says that separate public-awareness campaigns on higher education and prekindergarten threatened to compete with each other. “We couldn’t afford the public to disengage,” he says. The council’s communications committee got $50,000 each from four foundations to launch the public relations campaign, which could start in earnest this summer.

The campaign is setting as its goal nothing less than a cultural shift. In a fiscally conservative state, says Budinger of the Rodel Foundation, some legislators interpret rankings that place the state near the bottom in per-pupil spending as getting a good “bang for your buck.”

Changing the public will is probably one of the council’s biggest tasks, he says.

“That’s a very complex and difficult thing to do,” Budinger says. “It’s [about] an ugly word called t-a-x.”


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