School districts serving the Scottsdale area earned $3.45 million in bonuses from the state Education Department for their overall performance on last year’s AzMERIT tests.

Paradise Valley Unified School District will receive $2.46 million, Scottsdale Unified School District will get $1.5 million and Cave Creek Unified School District is getting $380,690 – money derived from a 2016 law the legislature passed to encourage higher student performance.

The SUSD schools that got bonuses this year are: Anasazi Elementary, $100,141.44; Cherokee Elementary, $133,065.53; Cheyenne Traditional School, $200,511.73; Cochise Elementary, $119,711.85; Desert Canyon Elementary, $99,433.30; Hohokam Traditional School, $183,453.57; Hopi Elementary, $172,424.19; Kiva Elementary, $98,221.38; Laguna Elementary, $80,259.21; Pueblo Elementary, $102,705.80; Sequoya Elementary, $105,615.25; and Yavapai Elementary, $115,035.84.

Fourteen Paradise Valley schools will receive bonuses, including six in Scottsdale: Copper Canyon Elementary, $134,637.25, Desert Shadows Elementary, $94,434.45; Grayhawk Elementary, $104,405.56; North Ranch Elementary, $109,271.19; Pinnacle Peak Elementary, $129,975.20; and Sonoran Sky Elementary, $147,887.54.

Three schools in CCUSD, all located in Cave Creek, will also receive bonuses.

The law that authorized the bonuses gives districts a wide latitude in how they can use the money, from rewarding only teachers at the schools that earned the stipends to hiring staff to expand programs at any school in their system.

Each district has developed its own plan.

For instance, last year SUSD dedicated about two-thirds of its $1.625 million in bonuses to fund the creation of school-specific plans created with input from principals and adhering to state guidelines requiring monies be spent to sustain and replicate results.

PVUSD, on the other hand, developed a model in which it allocated its funds towards professional development.

The law authorizing the bonuses has been criticized for the way the bonuses are given, with some education advocates saying charter schools tend to be favored.

The bonuses are based on a complex formula that requires higher-income schools to have an overall passing rate of 67.5 percent on AzMERIT and low-income schools to have 44.25 percent of their student body pass the performance test.

High-performing schools in high-income areas get a bonus of $225 per student while $400 per student is awarded to high performing schools in lower-income areas.

Only schools in the top 10 percent of AzMERIT scores qualify for the bonus.

One controversy with the bonus program surrounds how districts allocate bonus funds.

While some districts around the state choose to award the teachers and schools with high test scores that qualified for the bonuses under the state formula, others have chosen to spread the wealth around the district to all schools.

Kyrene School District Superintendent Jan Vesely said the money earned by 10 of its schools will be spread across all 25 district schools in Tempe, Phoenix and Chandler and used as bonuses for teachers who do extra work on their own time, such as develop a new program.

Vesely conceded that some teachers at those schools that qualified for the bonuses feel they’ve already earned some extra pay. But Vesely said school superintendents felt a more equitable approach – and one that would encourage teacher development – would be to spread the money throughout the district.

Districts throughout Scottsdale have taken a mixed approach that, in some cases, awards achieving schools but also spreads some of the bonus money around to the whole district.

In Cave Creek, Superintendent Debbi Burdick said that this year each school earning an A grade would receive an additional teacher and the remaining funds would be spent on personalized learning software and professional development.

Burdick said that last year schools that earned A letter grades from the state received an additional teacher and teachers at those schools received a $1,200 bonus. The rest of the funds were used for district-wide professional development.

SUSD – which saw its bonus total drop from $1.6 million to $1.5 million in the most recent allocation – has in the past dedicated 66 percent of funds towards creation of school-specific performance plans only at schools that qualified for bonuses under the state formula.

Scottsdale also dedicated 17 percent of its funds last year to provide stipends for teachers to attend a training session over the summer.

SUSD spokesperson Amy Bolton said that the budget allowed for 300 seats at the training that “were allocated by the district to schools proportionally based on the number of staff they have. Who attended from each school was determined by each principal.”

The district allocated its remaining bonus money last year towards training expenses and online professional development tools and also set aside five percent to allow schools that earned bonuses to add staff and reduce class sizes.

Though SUSD has not decided how it will divvy up all of its funds this year, it does plan to again allocate 66 percent towards the creation of school specific plans.

“Discussions among district leadership have indicated that the 66 percent allocated for the School Plans will likely remain near the same for FY 2019 fund distribution plans,” Bolton said. “The remaining 34 percent is still under active discussion and is pending the outcome and feedback from the plan we are currently executing.”

Similarly, PVUSD has not finalized how it will distribute its current bonus money but will likely follow the same path as last year when it created a professional development model to replicate results at awarded schools.

“The final plan has not been set for this year’s awards, but will probably be in the same vein as (last year),” said Laura Felten, PVUSD assistant superintendent of Business Operations.

Felten said that previously “All certified staff received two additional days of professional development at the start of this school year. Principals and para-educators also received additional professional development time.”

Additional funds were also provided to awarded schools for additional professional development, she said.

Only 11 of SUSD’s 24 elementary and middle schools received bonuses from last year’s AzMERIT scores, down from 12 the year prior.

PVUSD’s 14 awarded schools matches its total from the prior year but still only accounts for just 38 percent of the district’s 37 elementary and middle schools.

For those who might wonder why so many schools in these districts didn’t qualify for bonuses, consider this: Only 193 public elementary and middle schools out of about 2,000 public elementary and middle schools across Arizona met the guidelines for bonuses at all, according to an analysis by Children’s Action Alliance. Also qualifying were 105 charter schools.

Of the qualifying schools, 79 public and 28 charter schools got a bonus of $400 per student because they are located in neighborhoods where at least 60 percent of all students qualify for federally subsidized free or reduced-price lunches.

The $225-per-student bonus went to 114 public and 77 charter schools of the highest performing schools located in areas where less than 60 percent of all students qualify for the free or reduced lunch program.

And that’s where the broader controversy comes in.

When Gov. Doug Ducey and the State Legislature adopted the $39-million bonus program in 2017, they said it would expand access to high-quality education for all students throughout Arizona.

Ducey also said it would help lower-income students to close the achievement gap.

But critics say most of the money ends up going to schools in higher-income areas.

The Children’s Action Alliance’s analysis showed that two-thirds of the pot of bonus money went to high-income schools and 24 percent went to charter schools – the latter more than twice the percent of public schools that qualified for the bonuses.

For example, state records show that 18 BASIS public charter schools got a total of nearly $3 million – higher than most public school districts received.

Looking at the combined charter and public school beneficiaries of the bonuses, the alliance found that 74 percent of all students attend schools in high-income neighborhoods.

“Nothing in the initiative expanded access to high quality schools or required any expansion of the schools getting the bonus,” the alliance complained, adding:

“The initiative leaves less funding available to strengthen education in all the other schools with AZMerit scores below the top 10 percent.”