Restore Reason

Of the People, By the People, For the People

Is Local Control Important?

As a member of a school board and very active member of the Arizona School Boards Association, I have heard a lot about “local control” over the past three years. Over time, I’ve had many thoughts about “local control” and my thinking continues to evolve. In theory, local control is a highly desirable way to govern. After all, who knows best what each locality needs than it’s residents. In actuality though, we know that local control is only as effective as are those exercising the control.

We have all seen instances of less than ideal governance. We’ve seen legislators working in their own best interests versus those of their constituents, we’ve seen school board members with axes to grind, and we’ve seen people get elected to all levels of governance who are not well equipped to do the job to which they were elected.

All of this has led me to question whether or not I am really a true believer in “local control” for school boards. Ensuring quality education for our children is an incredibly important function and should not be left to those ill equipped or less than committed to make it happen.

In the end though, I have to admit that at its core, local control is just another euphemism for democracy. I definitely believe in democracy, despite the fact it is messy.” Of course, this messiness is caused by a multitude of factors such as the diversity of the citizenry. As one of the world’s great statesmen, Winston Churchill is said to have mused, “The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.”

I don’t care what Churchill said. I am a huge believer is good old-fashion democracy. Messy or not, I love our form of governance and the ideals we were established upon. But, local control is exactly why the on-going assault on public education is really an assault on our democracy. After all, there is no elected position more local and closer to the people than that of school board member. At least in Arizona, Open Meeting Law requires a great deal of transparency on the part of school board members and they are accountable to their constituents. As Franklin D. Rooselvelt said: “Democracy cannot succeed unless those who express their choice are prepared to choose wisely. The real safeguard of democracy, therefore, is education.” This is true whether the choices are being made in Congress, or at the local school board level.

The bottom line is that good governance comes from people who are prepared to govern well. No matter what level, elected officials must be aware of and prepared to carry out their responsibilities, they must understand the laws they are charged with upholding, and they must understand they have a duty to represent, but also lead. Only then, is local control efficient and effective.

AZ Public Education Funding is Far From Fixed!

Unless you’ve had your head under a rock, you’ve probably heard about movement on the Prop. 301 Inflation Funding lawsuit. The plaintiffs (Arizona School Boards Association, Arizona Education Association, and several school districts) on the public education side have agreed to the Governor’s proposed resolution, but now it is up to the AZ Legislature to vote to comply.

As with any compromise, no one got everything they wanted and there is still plenty of concern about various parts of the agreement. One of the more contentious is the Governor’s plan to increase the withdrawal percentage on the State Trust Lands Fund. AZ’s state treasurer, Jeff DeWitt, does not concur with any plan to pull more than 3.75 percent out per year, the Governor’s plan calls for 6.9 and will, says DeWitt, significantly reduce the amount of money available for public education down the road.

Public education supporters would certainly have liked to receive all districts were legally due. But, I’m guessing they think a bird in the hand trumps a bird in the bush. The real harm as far as I am concerned isn’t that the agreement wasn’t as favorable as it could have been. Rather, it is that this agreement has proven to the AZ Legislature they can defy the people’s mandate and court orders with little impunity. I am guessing they will feel emboldened by the compromise reached, which because of all the loopholes they’ve put into place doesn’t really cost them anything in terms of doing whatever they want in the long run.

Secondly, I fear the settlement of the inflation lawsuit will convey to the general public that public education funding has been fixed in Arizona. This is far from the truth, but with 45 districts’ bonds or override requests on the ballot this November, anything that drives doubt in the mind of the voters about the need could be very damaging.[i] Never mind the fact that it was the AZ Legislature that caused the necessity for local funding in the first place. After all, the Legislature made Arizona first in the nation in public education funding cuts since 2008 and these cuts just shifted the tax burden the local level in the form of bonds and overrides.   Unfortunately, this type of funding provides very little stability due to voter whim and is not the solution. An example is the Oracle School District override continuation that failed in 2013 by only 62 votes, costing the District $140,000 in funding the next year. Fortunately, the continuation passed in 2014, but numerous have had multiple years of failed override initiatives.

A big part of the problem is political. The Republican Party of Maricopa County recently announced their opposition to all 28 ballot initiatives in the Phoenix Valley, claiming that districts haven’t been fiscally responsible.[ii]  This allegation just isn’t true, as annual Auditor General Audits prove. Our public districts have also worked very hard to become more efficient and according to the AZ Office of the Auditor General 2014 report, administrative costs continue to decline. Yes, costs for plant operations, food service and transportation increased slightly,[iii] but with only two percent of the funding requirement provided for facility renovations and repairs between 2008 and 2012, increased expenses can be no surprise.

Of course, this is about much more than just our public schools. It is about an assault on our communities, our way of life and our very democracy. As Garrison Keillor said: “When you wage war on the public schools, you’re attacking the mortar that holds the community together. You’re not a Conservative, you’re a vandal.” No offense meant to our GOP brethren who support public education.

Arizona’s school children need your support on November 3rd. Six straight years of state cuts to education combined without success in seeking locally approved funding have led four school funding referendums on the ballot in Pinal County this year. Apache Junction is seeking an M&O Override for 15 percent, J.O. Combs Unified is pursuing a bond measure for $40 million, and Florence Unified and Coolidge Unified are seeking a consolidation/boundary change. Each one of these measures is critical to providing their students the opportunities they deserve. Each of these is in fact, critical to moving our communities, our county and our state forward.

Apache Junction has been forced to operate without override funds since 2010 and J.O. Combs has been unable to pass an override continuation for three years resulting in a loss of $2 million. The Florence and Coolidge Unified consolidation/boundary change will decrease the tax rate for CUSD, provide necessary classroom space for FUSD, provide more efficient use of taxpayer monies. Tax payer monies will be saved because FUSD will accept $16 million in CUSD debt bringing three schools and 40 percent of San Tan Valley area, vs. laying out $60 million for a new high school. These ballot measures make sense, are about our children, and make long-term best interest for the voter.

Now it is up to you. Ensure you are registered to vote, get informed and then actually vote. If not for Arizona’s children, then for yourself. Arizona can’t compete if our students can’t compete. Our students can’t compete if their teachers are underpaid, their schools are poorly maintained and their technology is yesterday’s. Today’s students, are tomorrow’s leaders, whether they are ready or not.   Let’s ensure they are ready!




Plenty of Challenges in Schools Today

I agree the real problem with students being unready for college “starts long before high school.” Not though, with the premise that today’s school day emphasis is not stimulating and challenging. As a school board member, I can attest to the challenges our students, teachers and staff face every single day.

From increased standards, to excessive testing, to underfunding of districts, to the critical shortage of teachers, there is plenty of challenge in schools. As for the assertion that neglecting homework in favor of after school activities is bad, a 2013 study published in the Journal of Experimental Education found too much homework has negative effects on well-being and behavior and the negative effects can extend outside of school, including family, friends, and other activities.[i]

“Cultural mindset” is part of the problem, but it is that of our populace not being engaged enough elect those who truly care about our community public schools, and the 83% of AZ students they nurture.


Taxpayer dollars belong to all of us

It was very interesting to read of the Washington Supreme Court’s recent decision on charter schools. On September 4, 2015, the Court declared the state’s charter school law unconstitutional. As reported in the Washington Post, Wayne Au, an associate professor at the University of Washington Bothell, was a plaintiff in the charter school legal challenge.   At the hear of the ruling Au said, “was the idea that charter schools, as defined by the law, were not actually public schools.” This stems from the provision in Washington’s state constitution that only “common schools” shall receive tax dollars for public education. In Washington State evidently, an appointed board, not an elected one, governs charter schools. The Washington State Supreme court decided the lack of oversight this allowed did not meet the definition of “common schools.”

While reading the article, I found myself thinking of the frenzied march in Arizona, toward the privatization of public education. Arizona has long been a leader in the number of charter schools established and our Legislature has established numerous work-arounds to divert taxpayer dollars into private and for-profit school coffers.

The Post article’s allegation that “ALEC’s influence on Washington State’s charter law is unmistakable”, is no surprise to me. The American Legislative Exchange Council is no friend of public education, the common good, or our democracy. As pointed out by the Post, ALEC is known for promoting a broad privatization agenda, “stand-your-ground gun laws, and anti-democratic voter registration laws.   ALEC’s agenda to privatize public education includes the promotion of charter schools (corporate charters and virtual schools specifically), private school vouchers, anti-union measures, “parent trigger” laws, increasing testing, reducing or eliminating the power of local school boards and limiting the power of public school districts.

Of course, anyone tuned into Arizona education or politics knows that ALEC has also had significant influence in our state. The Goldwater Institute acts, as the ALEC’s Mini-Me in Arizona and AZ Senator Debbie Lesko, as the AZ ALEC chair, has been the organization’s chief water carrier. Half of our state Senators and one-third of our representatives are known members of ALEC and there may be more.  It should be no surprise then that Arizona earns a “B” grade (3rd best) in education policy as the state leads the nation in number of charter school and has a very robust program to divert tax payer dollars to alternatives to traditional public education.

A disturbing similarity between Arizona and Washington State charter operations is that neither is overseen by a locally elected governing board. This fact ensures there is virtually no transparency nor accountability on how our tax dollars are spent therefore, no ability to ascertain the effectiveness of the programs or return on investment in general. This design is not by accident. As Peter Green has pointed out on his Curmudgucation blog, “charter supporters seek to redefine public schools as schools that have public money but without public accountability and regulation.” ALEC likes it this way because this smoothes the path to privatization. It goes like this: 1) drive a market for privatization by selling the story that public education is failing, 2) starve public education of funding to make it increasingly difficult for them to succeed, 3) continuously expand ways to divert taxpayer dollars from public education to private options, 4) sell the idea that public tax dollars for education should follow each child to the school of their choice, and 5) prevent the requirement of transparency and accountability such as is required of community district schools.

That is not the only similarity between the states’ two education systems. Just like Washington State, Arizona’s Legislature continues to withhold funding they owe the school districts. In Arizona, the funding in immediate question is the $300M in inflation funding from the Proposition 301 law. The people voted this issue into law in 2000 and the courts ruled in 2014 that the districts are indeed owed the funding and still, the Legislature refuses to pay up. In 2012, the Washington State Legislature was ordered to fully fund education, but they failed to do so. In August of this year, the WA State Supreme Court ordered fines of $100,000 per day until the Legislature complies. They have yet to do so.

The Washington State Supreme Court said: If a school is not controlled by a public body, then it should not have access to public funds.” We should all agree with this concept and demand full transparency and accountability whenever public funds are involved. Taxpayer dollars don’t belong to any one of us, they belong to all of us. We as the primary stockholder of our government, have the right and responsibility to know how they are spent and what our return on investment is. Anything less is more than suspect, it is un-democratic and un-American.

Ed Feulner and your Heritage Foundation, me thinks thou protesteth too much…

Nothing like some conservative propaganda first thing in the morning to get a liberal’s blood flowing. Yesterday morning, my Google alert on Arizona public education sent me a commentary from “The Daily Signal” which is the multimedia news organization of The Heritage Foundation. I try to be well read, especially on matters of public education, but I also know the source is important. So, I noted this commentary was 1) written by Ed Feulner who for 36 years, served as president of The Heritage Foundation and “transformed the think tank from a small policy shop into America’s powerhouse of conservative ideas”; 2) was originally published in the Washington Times; and 3) The Heritage Foundation (a 501(c)(3) charitable organization, touts itself as “the trusted conservative leader” and probably more telling, has endorsements by Senator Ted Cruz, Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity on its website home page.

Okay, so this is a commentary from a hard-core conservative. That got me thinking about what being a conservative really means. Wikipedia says conservatism is a political and social philosophy that promotes retaining traditional social institutions in the context of culture and civilization. It also says that there is no single set of policies that are universally regarded as conservative, because the meaning of converts depends on what is considered traditional in a given place and time. According to, conservative describes someone who: believes in the value of established and traditional practices in polities and society and is not liking or accepting of changes or new ideas.

It seems to me, somewhere along the line what it means to be a conservative became perverted. Conservatives today seem to be about exploring new ways to do things (when it provides profit), keeping government small and out of business (unless it is the private business of same-sex couples or a woman’s medical choices), and tearing down traditional social institutions (such as public education.)

Mr. Feulner’s commentary makes the point that children deserve more options than just public schools. What our children (all of America’s children) DESERVE, is well-funded, high quality public schools. Thomas Jefferson said, “Educate and inform the whole mass of the people…they are the only sure reliance for the preservation of our liberty.” Public schools have always been what best served to “educate and inform the whole mass of the people” and even today, in a state that leads the nation in the number of charter schools, a full 83 percent of Arizona’s students attend community public schools. Among the reasons for this is that no matter how much school choice is expanded, choice doesn’t guarantee opportunity or availability and, it is hard for the kids to be the priority when profit is the motive.

I’m on the governing board of a small rural district. Of the 410 students in my district, about 150 students living in our District have opted to exercise their school choice options. The other 410 students that attend our District are either happy with their community school, or they can’t take advantage of the opportunity. It is ironic that those who can’t take advantage of the opportunity are often the same disadvantage students those promoting school choice claim they want to “help.”

Mr. Feulner says that Education Savings Accounts (vouchers) enable families to deposit their children’s state per-pupil” funding in an account that can be used for a variety of education options. Since when did the state per-pupil funding belong to each child? I thought it belonged to all Arizonans collectively. In 2014, the average state and local taxes paid were $5,138. The primary funding source for K-12 education in Arizona is property tax, both at the primary and secondary (where approved) rates. The rest of it comes from the state general fund in the way of equalization funding, where required. The average property tax collection per capita in Arizona was $1,052. The amount deposited in ESA accounts is much more however, than parents pay in “school tax.” The range of funding for ESAs is from $2,000 to $5,500 for non-disabled students, and $2,000 to $30,000 for disabled students. The average ESA funding in 2014-15 was $5,300 per student without special needs and $14,000 when special needs students were factored in. As you can see, it isn’t only the parent’s taxes that provide for the per-pupil funding, the rest of us contributed as well. That’s why I don’t buy the assertion that the funding should follow the child, as if it belongs to them. It doesn’t belong to them or their parents, it belongs to all of us and we deserve transparency and accountability for how it is spent.

In addition to questions as to how my tax dollars are spent, I question the education being offered these students. Yes, unlike when you take your child and educate them with your money (not public tax dollars), I believe I have a legitimate say in what children are taught, when my tax dollars are used to teach them. In community public schools, locally elected school boards provide oversight of District operations and parents and community members are welcome and encouraged to stay tuned into what is taught, how it is taught, and who is teaching it. Locally elected school boards even approve textbooks. This process is not always perfect (such as with the Gilbert School Board recently voting to put abstinence-only avocation stickers in their science textbooks), but at least it is done in the light of day and can be addressed by those in disagreement.

Feulner is incensed that the ALCU is suing Nevada to keep its Education Savings Account law from taking affect. The ALCU says the ESA program “violates the Nevada Constitution’s prohibition against the use of public money for sectarian (religious) purposes.” He makes the point that the ESA funds go from the state to parents, not from the state to religious schools as if this makes all the difference. This is the same logic the Arizona Supreme Court used in legalizing Empowerment Scholarship Accounts (vouchers) in Arizona. Sounds like hair splitting to me.

Then, Feulner cites the example of a legally blind student and his parents used his ESA to provide him a great alternate education and save money for his college as well. Sure there are going to be many examples of how ESA’s serve children, especially those with special needs. I’m not against all use of ESAs, just as I’m not against all charter schools. There are special needs and circumstances these alternatives provide well. But, I don’t buy that ESAs are the best way to educate the majority of our children. I also don’t buy the pretense that this is all about parental choice, saving taxpayer dollars, or improving education. I believe this is about 1) making the education of your child YOUR problem thereby relieving legislators of the responsibility, 2) providing more profit opportunities for private business, 3) hiding conservative education agendas, 4) giving taxpayers less say over how their tax dollars are spent and ultimately, and 5) weakening our democracy.

You might think that tying ESAs to the weakening of our democracy is a bit much. Well, as those who desire to, take advantage of vouchers, they reduce the funding available to our community district schools. As the funding is reduced, more parents will be dissatisfied with the quality of educational opportunity in their public schools and more will leave. Those eventually left in our public schools will be those with no alternative and most likely those of color whom, for the most part, live at the lower end of the socio-economic scale. Our public schools are already experiencing the worst segregation seen since the 1960; it will only get worse.

In addition to the downward spiral of funding school choice forces upon community public schools, those who leave these schools also take with them their parent’s support and involvement. These parents are those who have typically worked for improvement in their community public schools and they are missed when they leave. Local governance (as does our entire democratic process) counts on informed and involved community members. Make no mistake. The war currently being waged on public education is a war on our democracy. As for those who would point out our nation is a republic, not a democracy, I say “get over yourself.” In the United States, we each have a voice and a vote. Assaults on those most precious rights are decidedly “un-American” and “un-patriotic”, and must be met head on.  Oh by the way, did I mention that ESAs (whether they are Education Savings Accounts or Empowerment Scholarship Accounts or vouchers) are one of the primary weapons of the American Legislative Council (ALEC) in their war on public education?  Don’t know what ALEC is?  You should.

We need leaders, not politicians

AZ Senate President Andy Biggs claims more funding doesn’t produce better educational outcomes and points to Washington D.C. as proof. Wow, way to deflect Andy. The truth is, places with high poverty, crime and unemployment often require high per pupil funding to try to deal with these various intersecting complications. We have those places in Arizona too. But, I’m not sure how a subpar return on investment in D.C. education excuses Arizona’s ranking for the lowest per pupil funding in the nation. I also don’t buy that more funding doesn’t make a difference.

Bruce D. Baker, a professor in the Department of Educational Theory, Policy, and Administration in the Graduate School of Education at Rutgers University, says we know the strategies that help close achievement gaps: lower class sizes, a broad curriculum, and the attraction and retention of highly qualified teachers. But, he says, “we can’t get there without stable, adequate, and equitable funding” and claims that approach to closing achievement gaps is “one we’ve never really tried.”[i] Too often, he says, promising efforts are abandoned after the next election cycle. Great sounding campaign promises after all, are much easier to make than real results are to deliver.

Governor Ducey and other Arizona GOP leadership claim they have solutions to provide additional education funding. But, tax increases are definitely not among them. Governor Ducey wants to take money from the sell of state trust lands to generate about $300 more per child. His plan, if approved by voters in 2016, would begin to help in 2017, but only for ten years and some fear it will draw down the trust land monies available for future use. Biggs and House Speaker David Gowan propose asking voters to shift funds from early childhood education programs to K-12 education. They claim that could generate an additional $500 per student on top of the $4,300 the state now provides.[ii]

I am open to learning more about Governor Ducey’s idea, but on the surface it seems like a quick fix that we’ll have to pay for over the long term. Tucson education blogger David Safier points out that Ducey’s roadmap for additional education funding has numerous winding roads with plenty of roadblocks built in.[iii] Let’s just say I don’t plan to hold my breath waiting for this idea to come to fruition. But, you have to admit; it does kind of make the Governor look like he really cares about helping Arizona’s K-12 school children.

As for shifting money from early childhood education programs to K-12, that is a dead on arrival idea for me. Arizona has already cut kindergarten funding in half requiring school districts to fund the other half “out of hide” if they want to provide full-day programs. The state provides zero funding for preschool, despite all the evident that shows it is absolutely critical to improving educational outcomes and success in life. Preschool has been shown results in adults with better jobs, less drug abuse and fewer arrests.[iv] In fact, children who attend preschool, are almost 50 percent less likely to end up in jail or prison by age 40. One researcher at the University of Minnesota said the average cost per child for 18 months of preschool in 2011 was $9,000, but his cost-benefit analysis suggested that led to at least $90,000 in benefits per child in terms of increased earnings, tax revenue, less criminal behavior, reduced mental health costs and other measures.[v] Or, put another way, when it comes to funding preschool, you can pay me now, or pay me later. And believe me, the interest is pretty steep.

As for the idea of going back to the voters to approve either of these plans, let’s just review recent history. The Arizona Legislature referred Proposition to the voters in 2001. The voters approved the proposition and the inflation funding that went with it. The Legislature indicated they understood the voter mandate when they initially appropriated the required funding, but when the recession hit in 2008, they decided to opt out of that pesky little part of the law. Now, the courts have told the Legislature that may not opt out and yet…wait for it….the Legislature still refuses to comply. This, despite a voter mandate, despite court orders, and despite surplus revenue.

Mr. Biggs claims that increased funding is not the answer, and asks “how much is enough?” To answer his question, I say I’m not sure, “but I’ll know it when I see it.” Well, I don’t see it in a per pupil funding of $7,208 (from all sources) against a national average of $10,700. I don’t see it in our having made the highest cuts to per pupil funding since 2008. I don’t see it in our critical teacher shortage, and I don’t see it in facility maintenance and renewal fund that provided school districts only two percent of what were due from 2008 to 2013.[vi]

Finally, to Bigg’s claim that “some schools are excelling, doing an incredibly great job, even with current funding”, yes, our dedicated administrators and educators are doing all they can to do more with less. The situation reminds me of our military troops who would do whatever it took, with whatever they had, to accomplish the mission. Make no mistake, there is eventually a price to be paid. Just like a car can run for a long time without an oil change, problems will develop over time and eventually, the engine will seize up. In our Arizona public school districts, that price is now presenting itself in the form of a critical teacher shortage. With a counselor to student ratio of four times that recommended, it could also come in the form of more serious student behavioral incidents. These are just two examples, there are many more.

Governor Ducey and his GOP led Legislature continue to kick the can down the road while Arizona’s students (through the 6th grade) have never been in a fully funded classroom. Every year the funding is denied is one more year our students are not fully equipped to succeed. And if they aren’t fully equipped to succeed, neither is our state. Whether today’s K-12 students are ready or not, they will be leading tomorrow’s Arizona. Well, unless they had to move out of state to get a decent job because quality companies were too smart to relocate to a state that prioritizes private prisons over preschool. None of this is rocket science, we know what to do. The question is, do our elected leaders have the will to do the right thing and will we hold them to it? Maybe we should all remember this quote by James Freeman Clarke: “A politician thinks of the next election; a leader, the next generation.”







Socially Liberal, but Fiscally Conservative

I live in a largely conservative active-adult community where the average age is this side of 65 (I do my part to keep the average on this side.) The other day, for probably the 100th time, someone said to me: “I am socially liberal, but fiscally conservative.”   I’m guessing what she meant was that she supports the idea of “live and let live”, but believes that we (mostly the larger “we”), should live within our means.

What I heard is that she is a nice person, but unlike “real” liberals, she doesn’t believe in giving away the farm. And that, quite frankly, pisses me off. My wife and I are pretty dang liberal, but guess what? We are also retired Air Force Colonels who pay our mortgage, our HOA fees, and our taxes. We, unlike GOP Presidential hopeful Scott Walker, pay our credit card bills off each month because we believe in living within our means.

In other words, we are fiscally responsible. That means we believe in staying out of debt, we believe in saving, and we believe in individual responsibility. At the same time, we are social liberals who believe that some people are born with more advantage than others and that a civil society concerns itself with the common good. Where “fiscal conservatism” is synonymous with classical (or neo-classical) liberalism and advocates small government to allow the exercise of individual freedom, I believe fiscal responsibility doesn’t advocate for smaller government, but an efficient and effective one. Government has an important place in ensuring the common good and it is incumbent upon each of us to ensure it provides what we need at a price we can afford. Isn’t that how we try to manage our personal budgets? We try to get the most “bang for buck” on those things we most need and want.

Many conservatives seem to believe government is evil. The truth is, neither government nor business is inherently good or evil. They each have a role to play in ensuring our right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. But, motive does matter. Business is in the business of making a profit and that must drive their strategy if they are to survive and prosper. Government is in the “business” of providing for the common good.   Its charge in that regard is to do what is right for the common good without total regard for the “bottom line.”

Social liberals endorse a market economy and the expansion of civil and political rights and liberties. The difference between them and classical liberals is that they believe government has a legitimate role in addressing economic and social issues such as poverty, health care, and education. Under social liberalism, the good of the community is viewed as harmonious with the freedom of the individual.

Unfortunately, for those of you who say you are “fiscal conservatives” but also “socially liberal”, I say get real. You can’t legitimately claim you are in support of those in our society who are disadvantaged in some way and yet be unwilling to do what it takes to help them be equal. It is disingenuous and dishonest. I know the people I’m really trying to reach with this post probably won’t like my using Ellen DeGeneres to support my position, but I believe she said it well. She said: “here are the values that I stand for: honesty, equality, kindness, compassion, treating people the way you want to be treated and helping those in need. To me, those are traditional values.”    According to the Dalai Lama, all major religious traditions carry basically the same message, that love, compassion and forgiveness are the important thing and should be part of our daily lives.  Being compassionate is not  a sign of weakness, irresponsible, or unAmerican.  It is the better side of humanity and essential to our harmonious existence and long-term survival.

For the Public Good

Recent news that Arizona is tied for last in the nation for college completion rates and first in student loan default, just added fuel to the fire in the state’s education race to the bottom. But of course, there is more to the story (there always is.) The rest of the story is that Arizona’s public universities actually have a better than national average on graduation rates and loan payback. It is the for-profit and mostly on-line colleges (such as Phoenix University) that see half the average completion rate by their students and there numbers drag our public universities down.[i] This report mirrors numerous stories of late from for-profit K-12 charters around the country where corners are cut and children suffer.

Why do many of the for-profit institutions do so much worse? I believe the problem lies in the “for-profit” motivation. Corporate and legislative “reformers” of education would have us believe that schools should be run more like businesses and that the private sector can do a much better job if we will just unleash the dogs of industry. The truth is though, that business is in the business of making a profit; that is why it exists. Yes, a business may very well provide an important service or product, but in the end, they exist to make a profit.

I realize that increasingly, there are those who believe government is a beast that should be starved until it is a shell of its former self. But, when it comes to providing large-scale services for the public good, government is the answer. If business exists to make a profit, then government exists to serve the public.

In the interest of full disclosure, I am a product of government. I grew up in an Army family, in the Air Force for 22 years, and I have a Master’s degree in Public Administration. I’ve seen government work for people. I’ve seen countless, incredibly dedicated military members and civil “servants.” Yes, I’ve seen some losers too, but then those exist in all walks of life. What I’ve come away with from this lifetime of public service (military brats serve too, just in a different way) is that when it comes to providing for the public good, there is no substitute for a non-profit entity accountable to the people it serves. After all, the people are paying for the service.

By way of example, let’s compare the Army and Air Force Exchange Service (AAFES) and Walmart. AAFES is the Army and Air Force’s answer to Walmart. It provides stores on Army posts and Air Force bases, which sell goods and services to military members at lower than retail prices. The stores aren’t fancy and the selection isn’t super, but they do provide much of what members and their families want and need. AAFES does not exist to make a profit, but it does generate revenue, which then is funneled to help provide morale, welfare and recreation activities for service members and their families. Some of their stores generate a great deal of profit (location, location, location), with others operating at a loss. The Army and Air Force accept this outcome as a “cost of doing business” because the return on investment it seeks from AAFES is happier, healthier service members and their families. Walmart, on the other hand, exists to make a profit. If Walmart has a store that is continuously operating at a loss, chances are it won’t exist for long. That’s because Walmart’s business model is to produce a profit for their shareholders.

When it comes to educating our children, there may well be some for-profit schools that do a decent job. But, when profit is the priority, somewhere, somehow, the public good will suffer. Unfortunately, it is often those most disadvantaged to begin with that lose out. That’s because when your motive is profit, you do whatever you can to ensure efficiency and return on investment. In education, this means you work to ensure the best possible raw product (smart students with engaged, well-off parents.) You will try to avoid accepting English language learners and special needs children. Not because they don’t deserve an education, but because they cost more to educate. Along those same lines, you don’t provide services that are not profitable, such as transportation and food service. Elimination of these services has a side benefit for these businesses by the way, of discouraging students from the lower end of the socio-economic scale.

Until we recognize that the education of our children is the ultimate public good and, that we all have a stake in ensuring it is done properly, we are not going to make progress on improving results. Contrary to recent headlines, our public schools are NOT failing. But, if we continue to allow our education tax dollars to be siphoned off to private and for-profit schools, with virtually no accountability or transparency, we will continue to see our public education degraded and our state winning the race to the bottom.


Water…an issue ALMOST as important as public education

I just finished reading a novel called The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi. The premise of the book is that the American Southwest has been decimated by drought. Nevada and Arizona are fighting over dwindling resources while California gets ready to take the entire Colorado River for itself.   Although a work of fiction, the book really hits home because most of the story takes place in Phoenix, about two hours north of where I live. In the novel, Phoenix has become one large dustbowl where the average person’s biggest concern each day is finding drinking water. Times are so desperate, that people use a product called “Clearsacs” into which they urinate. These Clearsacs have a filtering capability that once again makes the water drinkable.   The entire premise is just too plausible to not be scary.

Living in Arizona, you can’t but help wonder how long the water will last and why we aren’t doing more to conserve it. The average Arizonan uses about 100 gallons per day, with about 70% of that used outdoors (watering plants, swimming pools, washing cars), especially in the summer.[i] One of the driest states in the Nation, Arizona receives a statewide average of only 12.5 inches per year. It is also one of the fastest growing with a population of over 6 million in 2010, which is projected to grow to 9.5 million by 2025. Municipal (including residences) needs account for 25 percent of our water usage with industrial accounting for another six percent and agricultural accounting for 69 percent. We get our water from three major sources: surface water (including the Colorado River), groundwater and reclaimed water. Approximately 43 percent of our water comes from groundwater sources, or aquifers. Unfortunately, we’ve been pumping out these aquifers faster than the water is replenished, creating a condition called overdraft. Although many smart people are working to solve this problem, it won’t be easy or cheap and we haven’t yet found the solution.[ii]

Most people however, are probably insufficiently incentivized to take appropriate action.   After all, the price of water does not correlate to its replacement cost. Rather, rates vary because the cost to provide the water varies, since water rates are set to be revenue neutral.[iii] According to the American Society of Civil Engineers in their 2013 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure, Arizona’s approximately 800 community water systems will need $7.4 billion for upgrades over the next 20 years including: $5 billion to replace or rehabilitate deteriorating water lines, $1.4 billion to construct, expand, and rehabilitate treatment infrastructure, $684 million to construct or rehabilitate water storage reservoirs, and $334 million to construct or rehabilitate wells or surface water intake structures. As the infrastructure ages, pipes deteriorate and break causing street and property damage and leak. In addition, valuable treated water is wasted and steel water storage tanks need to be sand blasted and recoated to prevent rust and deterioration. Equipment such as pumps and motors also wear out and require replacement. In Arizona, that translates to over 2,600 miles of transmission and distribution mains that currently need rehabilitation or replacement.[iv]

Fortunately, (or unfortunately, depending on where you live), the current system of pricing water results in widely different costs to the consumer. For example, in Phoenix’s East Valley, prices for water vary from $33.79 for 9,000 gallons of water a month in Surprise, to $66.57 in El Mirage according to a Surprise study.[v] In SaddleBrooke, an active adult community 25 miles north of Tucson, that same amount would result in charges of approximately $25.[vi]

With only one percent of the Earth’s water being fresh water, it is clear water is a valuable resource. Thomas Fuller, a physician, preacher and intellectual, was certainly prescient when he said back in 1732: “We never know the worth of water till the well is dry.”[vii] Why then, do we not charge accordingly for it? The price should certainly include the cost of providing the water and maintaining the infrastructure to deliver it. It also though, should include a value for the water itself. That is the only way most people will come to value it as an important resource.

Unlike the Greatest Generation, Baby Boomers haven’t done much to ensure future sustainability. It is time we stepped up to continue what our parents, and their parents, started. It is time we stopped just “eating the bread” but started “making it” as well.






[vi] SaddleBrooke Yahoo Group, Sat Jul 11, 2015 5:42 pm (PDT) . Posted by: “Duncan Fletcher” drfletcher1


Competition hurts money in the classroom

Corporate reformers of public education claim schools should operate more like businesses and although that mindset may bring some efficiencies, it can also result in less money in the classroom.

One example is the latest effort by the Education Finance Reform Group who has hired Jonathan Paton to “educate stakeholders” on behalf of participating districts.  Educating stakeholders is not new, the Arizona School Boards Association (ASBA) has been doing it for a long time.  A private, non-profit, non-partisan organization, ASBA provides training, leadership, and essential services to more than 240 governing boards representing nearly 1 million students in Arizona.

What is new however, is the competition for students that both corporate reformers and open enrollment have driven.  Competition in business helps ensure only the strong survive.  Competition in public education pits district schools against charters, private schools, home schools, and even against each other.  It drives the need for districts to include marketing line-items in their budgets such as the $54,000 per year Phoenix Union High School District spends.  It also lures away the very students and parents who if they stayed, could help make a difference for all.

I’m not advocating parents shouldn’t put their children first and foremost.  I understand they want the best for their own children.  But, I also agree with what John Dewey said over a century ago:  “What the best and wisest parent wants for his child, that must we want for all the children of the community. Anything less is unlovely, and left unchecked, destroys our democracy.”  It is natural for parents to care the most about their own children.  But, we’ll all have to live with these children when they become adults, whether or not they are well-educated, productive citizens.

There is a better way.  Arizona lawmakers could acknowledge that: 1) our K-12 per pupil spending (50th in the nation) is linked to our subsequent education performance (49th in the nation), 2) our teacher shortage is a crisis caused by low pay and even lower morale, 3) quality businesses looking to relocate to Arizona care more about an educated workforce than they do about tax breaks, and 4) all schools accepting taxpayer dollars should operate under the same rules for transparency and accountability. Finally, they could acknowledge that despite having open enrollment since 1994 and leading the nation in the number of charter schools, their formula isn’t working for our children!

There are some business practices that make sense for schools to adopt.  Public community schools however, are in the business of educating our children, not turning a profit.  Until we focus our efforts on ensuring all Arizona’s children have every opportunity to succeed, we haven’t addressed the problem.  And, until lawmakers step up to this reality and tackle it head-on, it’s all just smoke and mirrors.



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