Restore Reason

Of the People, By the People, For the People

Socially Liberal, but Fiscally Conservative

If I had a dime for every time someone has said to me: “I’m socially liberal, but fiscally conservative”, I would almost qualify for the 1% club. I know the person who makes that statement thinks it proves they are enlightened and responsible, but I find it somewhat insulting.

A big part of the problem is labels. Labels we are marked with it seems, increasingly define us. All one must say is that they are a Republican, Democrat. Tea Party type, Libertarian, or Green Party, and we think we know everything we need to know about them. If they are Republican, they are for guns, God, and limited government. If they are Democrats, they are for gays, giveaways, and the environment. This stereotypical labeling prevents people from finding middle ground as both sides retreat to their highly partisan corners.

Typically, the conversations that cause non-Liberals to claim they are socially liberal have to do with sensitive issues such as gay marriage rights. The non-Liberal wants to make it clear they are not bigoted, but as tolerant as the next guy. At the same time though, they want to make it clear they are not real liberals because they are don’t believe in wasting money.

That’s the point at which I get a little peeved. After all, I was a Colonel in the Air Force. I grew up in a family that never owed any money; my parents paid cash for everything. I know how to maintain a budget, I believe in not spending more than I have, and I learned a long time ago to take care of my belongings. I don’t believe it is anymore appropriate for conservatives to claim fiscal restraint than it is for them to claim patriotism and religion as their own. After all, since World War II, Democratic presidencies have created more than twice the number of jobs than Republican presidencies. As for deficits, they have been more than twice as large under Republican presidencies, contributing early $4 trillion more to the national debt than their Democratic counterparts. Growth has also excelled under Democratic presidencies with business investment growth 165% higher and GDP growth 52% higher than under Republican presidencies. Finally, the need for social welfare programs has been higher under Republican presidencies with unemployment 23% higher than under Democratic ones.

I know, I know, don’t confuse us with the facts. It is so much easier just to listen to the talking heads spewing forth rhetoric that incites fear and hate. The problem is, that those who do not remember the past are destined to repeat it. If we ever want to move beyond extreme partisanship and failed policies of the past we must know the truth, look beyond labels, and be willing to make the tough calls. We must model this behavior ourselves and demand it from our leaders.

At the table, or on the menu?

I don’t think the average American begrudges wealth, not even great wealth. What we don’t like is when the wealthy get that way by ignoring the rules and playing unfairly. After all, the American Dream said that if you worked hard and played by the rules, you could end up better than where you started. With the deck increasingly stacked against the average Joe though, that dream is no longer a reality for most.

One example of the deck being stacked is the full-steam-ahead drive to privatize public education in Arizona. Oh sure. The “reformers” try to claim this is about giving parents choice and helping the most disadvantaged children. Just a little digging though uncovers it is really about helping the rich get richer.

Arizona has been a leader in school privatization since 1997 when the legislature first began pushing personal tax credits and “voucher” workarounds. Now, there are Empowerment Scholarship Accounts (ESAs), Student Tuition Organizations (STOs), and individual tax credits. An attempt to expand ESA eligibility from approximately 20 percent to over 70 percent last year was thwarted at the last minute, but you can bet the proponents will be pushing it again this year.

Why the big push for privatization in Arizona? Mostly, because Arizona is one of the leading water carriers for the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC.) ALEC is comprised of both corporate and legislative members who work in tandem to create and then legislate laws favorable to business. ESAs are an ALEC sponsored initiative, as are STOs. “ALEC-member legislators are unabashedly continuing to push legislation straight from corporate headquarters to Arizona’s law books,” said Marge Baker, Executive Vice President at People For the American Way Foundation. “Well-heeled special interests are circumventing the democratic system and bypassing Arizona’s citizens, who can’t match the level of access that ALEC provides. As a result, Arizonans are facing an endless assault from laws that serve the interests of the rich and powerful instead of everyday people.”

As Paul Horton writes in Blogs.EdWeek.org, “toward this end, public schools and public teachers have been subjected to a relentless barrage of negative propaganda for almost thirty years. Many corporations want to force open education markets, Microsoft and Pearson Education to name two of the largest, demand “free markets,” “choice,” and “free enterprise.” Public schools are defunded and closed, so that parents can choose among competing charter schools supported by city, state, and Federal policies. Politicians of both parties at every level are funneled campaign contributions from charter school investors for their support of “school choice.””

Of course, it all comes down to money. Money to be saved by the state, and money to be made by profiteers. Unfortunately, when profit becomes the driving factor, children become collateral damage. Already in the United States, students in the top quartile of family income have an 85% chance of going to college, compared to 8% of those in the bottom quartile. Although it used to be true in America that your children would likely end up better off than you had been, that is no longer the case. In Arizona, children have an uphill battle as evidenced by the state’s ranking of 46th in child well-being by the Annie E. Casey Foundation in its 2014 Kids Count Data Book. On top of that, Arizona has seen the nation’s highest percentage increase (77 percent) in college costs in the past five years, brought about by the most drastic cuts to higher-education funding.

Now, ALEC is poised to muddy the water even more with an assault on public universities in the form of their Affordable Baccalaureate Degree Act. This model legislation will require all four-year public universities to offer bachelor’s degrees costing no more than $10,000. To get there, the universities would need to capitalize on efficiencies provide by web-based technology and competency-based programs. If ALEC members endorse the bill, they will begin circulating and promoting it in state legislatures while, no doubt, continuing to starve the schools of funding.

These policy directions aren’t about making things work better for the citizens of Arizona and other states, they are about making money for corporations. In fact, “deep cuts in funding for schools undermine school quality in part because they limit and stymie the ability of states to implement reforms that have been shown to result in better outcomes for students, including recruiting better teachers, reducing class sizes, and extending student learning time.”

Out of one side of their mouth, the politicians say we must send everyone to college so we can be “globally competitive,” but out of the other, they vote for continued cuts in education funding which almost assuredly ensure only advantaged kids will get there. Diane Ravitch asks: “How will we compete with nations that pay workers and professionals only a fraction of what Americans expect to be paid and need to be paid to have a middle-class life? How can we expect more students to finish college when states are shifting college costs onto individuals and burdening them with huge debt? How can we motivate students to stay in college when so many new jobs in the next decade–retail clerks, fast-food workers, home health aides, janitors, construction workers, truck drivers, etc.–do not require a college degree? (The only job in the top ten fastest growing occupations that requires a college degree is registered nurse.)”

These are big questions that demand serious solutions, not single dimensional responses designed to benefit a fortunate few. The only way to ensure the right outcome, is to ensure the right players are in the game. Educators, administrators, school board members, parents, community leaders, and business people must all engage to help us change course before the promise of education as a great equalizer becomes ancient history. As Michael Enzi , senior U.S. Senator from Wyoming once said, “if you’re not on the table, you’re on the menu.

Our Brother’s Keeper

I find myself these days, thinking about how America seems so less kind than when I was younger. Am I’m just less naïve now? Or, as Charles Pierce recently wrote in Esquire, is the system really “too full now of opportunities to grind and to bully? We have politicians, most of whom will never have to work another day in their lives, making the argument seriously that there is no role in self-government for the protection and welfare of the political commonwealth as that term applies to the poorest among us. The rising rates of poverty no longer surprise us. The chaos of our lunatic public discourse no longer surprises us. We make policy based on being as tough as we can on the weakest among us, because cruelty is seen to be enough, seen to be the fundamental morality behind what ultimately is merely the law of the jungle. We do all these things, cruelty running through them like a cold river, and we call it our politics”.

I see cruelty at work in the corporate reform movement. Not only are teachers not properly valued for their contribution to society, but the corporate reformers have managed to vilify them as a blockage to improvement. Not only have they spread the message that public schools are failing, but they’ve also managed to push budget cuts and competition for resources intended to make their allegations a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Yes, the national corporate reform of education movement claims public education is failing and the only solution is to privatize our system to let market forces produce better results. What they fail to acknowledge though, is that it is not the schools that are failing, but our social policies. Poverty is the issue, not public education. When we compare apples with apples in the area of developed world education performance, we are very near the top. The problem is that we educate and test all comers, not just the best performing ones as the countries at the top do. We will never get our public education where it needs to be until we address the affects of poverty on public education success.

Open enrollment is not the answer; it only serves to create competition amongst public schools for precious resources. School choice is not the answer; it only shifts the responsibility from the state to the parent. Parents shouldn’t have to make a choice; every public school should be a good school. Vouchers for disadvantaged students to attend private schools aren’t the answer. Very few of those students will have access to take advantage of the opportunity and those that can’t, will be left in schools sucked dry by the privatization movement. The only real solution is to buckle down and address our real issues.

None of this is complicated, but neither is it easy. For all to have equal opportunity, all must start at the same place or, have access to a “bridge” to cross the divide. Building the “bridges” is hard work and will take serious funding. There isn’t a quick fix politicians can claim with sound bites on the evening news. But, it also takes commitment from the voters as well – to hold their representatives accountable, to be willing to provide funding, and to be patience to let the real, good work be done. It also takes the outlook advocated by John Dewey 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.”

Survival of the fittest is the law of the jungle, but it shouldn’t be the law of a civilized, democratic republic that considers itself the “city on the hill.” Contrary to what our talking heads spew forth, concern for the common good is not socialistic or communistic. It is patriotic, it is democratic, it is, some might even argue, quite Christian-like. What would Jesus do? I suspect he would be kind and tell us that yes; we are our brother’s keeper.

Proud to be a Democrat…and a Patriot!

Tonight, while I attended the Arizona Dems Heritage Dinner in Phoenix, I was reminded exactly why I’m a Democrat. It was a great evening, and the keynote speaker, Jennifer Granholm, (former two term governor of Michigan) was definitely the highlight. She talked about her passion for job creation, about family values, about opportunity and she talked about suiting up for the fight and being prepared to earn some battle scars in the fight for what we know is right.

With regard to job creation, Governor Granholm relayed a story about trying to save a refrigerator plant in Greenville, MI during her first term. She said they offered Electrolux the best deal the company had ever seen to get them to stay but the company refused saying they couldn’t pass up the $1.56 per hour wage they’d pay when they moved the plant to Juarez. Of course, closing the plant employing 3,000 was devastating to the town of 8,000. That’s what happens when profit is more important than people.

She pointed out how ridiculous it is that Republicans claim they are the job creators? The real truth is that for the past five decades, Democratic presidencies have created more than double the amount of jobs than Republican presidencies have. More recently, 1.5 million jobs were created during George W. Bush’s time in office while President Obama has created three times that many thus far during his presidency.

As for family values, Governor Granholm reminded us that we believe in family values, but our family is the human family. We believe diversity makes us stronger and is American exceptionalism. Candidate for AZ Governor, Fred Duvall who spoke earlier in the evening, had also talked about how talent comes in all shapes, forms and colors and for Arizona to compete for that talent, we must embrace diversity.

Of course, it is hard to compete for anything without real opportunity. She told us a story about a girl named Brittany that she mentored during her time as both Attorney General and Governor. Brittany came from an extremely disadvantaged situation and yet, due to people in her life that cared enough to intervene, she is now a successful adult and not just another statistic. Republicans love to talk about how everyone should just “pull themselves up by their bootstraps.” We know though, that not everyone arrives in boots. Democrats recognize this and we issue boots stamped “opportunity.”

Democrats believe in not only opportunity, but in fairness; not only in fiscal prudence, but in being “not being mean while being lean”; not only in job creation, but in paying a living wage. We are the party of yes, the party of optimism, the party of solutions.

Governor Granholm finished strong with an impassioned plea for us to “suit up for the fight.” She relayed a story from Nancy Pelosi that made the point that if we had no wounds, would it be because there had been nothing worth fighting for? We have plenty to fight for; are we willing to suit up and go into battle? We are fighting not only for Arizona, but our entire Nation. Not only for the present, but also for every future.

Yes, I am reinvigorated. I am a proud Democrat and I will not apologize for my “liberalism.” According to Wikipedia, it means I believe in liberty and equality. It means I support ideas such as free and fair elections, civil rights, freedom of the press, freedom of religion, free trade and private property. Dictionary.com defines it as “a political or social philosophy advocating the freedom of the individual, parliamentary systems of government, nonviolent modification of political, social or economic institutions to assure unrestricted development in all spheres of human endeavor, and governmental guarantees of individual rights and civil liberties.” The definition I like best though, comes from Merriam-Webster who defines it as “a political philosophy based on belief in progress, the essential goodness of the human race, and the autonomy of the individual and standing for the protection of political and civil liberties.”

If the worst that can be said of me is that I believe in progress, the essential goodness of mankind and the protection of political and civil liberties, I guess I think I’m on pretty solid ground. I am excited and hopeful this election year because as Governor hopeful Fred Duvall says, “a new day is dawning and change is coming.” It is coming because it must come if there is to be a positive future for Arizona. It is coming because the policies and supposed solutions Republicans have touted for decades just don’t work and they won’t work, no matter how often and loudly they repeat them. It is coming because the people of Arizona are tired of representatives that embarrass them, disregard their desires, and push ideology over real solutions. Finally, it is coming because we have an incredible slate of Democratic candidates who have suited up, entered the battle and are incurring wounds because we are worth fighting for. I’m with them, how about you?

Definition of Insanity

I recently found myself thinking about the whole idea of “trickle down” economics. Aside from the discussion about whether or not it works, I wondered how the American public ever bought into the idea that we would be satisfied with the crumbs that drop from the table.  Of course, when the term was coined, we were in a time of general economic well-being. In other words, we were all living the good life, so it was easy to convince us the theory worked.

But it doesn’t work. It hasn’t worked in the past and it won’t work in the future. According to Wikipedia, this theory, (also referred to as supply-side economics to make it more palatable to the masses), was referred to in the 1890s by economist John Kenneth Galbraith as the “horse and sparrow” theory. This name came from the idea that “if you fed the horse enough oats, some would pass through to the road for the sparrows.” In other words, forget the crumbs from the table, the masses will only get what’s leftover after processing, and it doesn’t smell good.

Politico Magazine recently published an article by Nick Hanauer called “the Pitchforks Are Coming… For Us Plutocrats. Mr. Hanauer is one of those very wealthy one percenters who calls himself a proud and unapologetic capitalist. He credits much of his success to “a tolerance for risk and an intuition about what will happen in the future.” That intuition served him well when he invested very early on with Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon.com. The crux of his article is that rich people don’t have any “divine” right to all the spoils and that if they don’t recognize that severe wealth inequity is bad for all, revolution may be inevitable.

Hanauer makes the point that today, the wealthiest are “thriving beyond the dreams of any plutocrats in history” and the “divide between the haves and have-nots is getting worse really, really fast. Since 1950, CEO-to-worker pay ratio has increased 1,000 percent with CEOs earning 500 times the median wage as opposed to 30 times back then.  Robert Reich’s movie Inequality for All points out that since 1978, 1 percenters’ earnings have gone from eight times that of the average male U.S. Worker to 33 times more. Reich also points out that the “wealthiest 400 people in the country today have more money than the bottom 150 million Americans combined.”

Hanauer goes on to say that “these idiotic trickle-down policies are destroying [his] customer base and that the model for “rich guys” like him should be Henry Ford who figured that if he raised the wages for his employees, they’d be able to afford to buy his Model Ts. Yes, employees are also customers, what a concept! The CEO of COSTCO realizes this and that’s why he pays his employees a living wage as opposed to Wal-Mart who expects the rest of us to pick up the tab for their employees who don’t make enough to live without government assistance. When Hanauer wrote an article called “The Capitalist’s Case for a $15 Minimum Wage in June 2013, Forbes called it a “near insane proposal.” Now though, an analysis at the Center for Economic and Policy Research reports that states that raised their minimum wages are experiencing faster job growth. Business people may “love our customers rich and our employees poor” as Hanauer quips, but a growing economy loves more people with money to spend.

Instead of the failed trickle-down theory, Hanauer advocates “middle-out” economics which refers to the “much more accurate idea of an economy as a complex ecosystem made up of real people who are dependent on one another.” Rich business people aren’t the true job creators he says, but rather, middle-class consumers. Unfortunately, trickle-down economics has shrunk the middle-class so much now that there just isn’t enough purchasing power out there to move our economy forward at a reasonable pace. Rich people just can’t buy enough clothes, cars, houses, etc. to make up for the lack of purchasing power in a robust middle-class.

Honing in on what’s been going on in Arizona over the last several years, it is obvious our political leaders are advocates of trickle-down. The GOP has been in control of the legislature for the past 40 years and their approach has resulted in regressive tax policy or what I’ll refer to as trickle-down budgeting. Yes, instead of the “riches” trickling down to the little people, our legislature has worked hard to ensure the bills do. This is what happens when the state relies heavily on sales tax. This is what happens when the state underfunds public education so that locally controlled funding and contributions must try to make up the difference. This is also what happens when the state sweeps Highway User Revenue funds (HURF) to give corporations tax breaks instead of fixing roads. In the case of bad roads, we pay a double tax. We first pay a tax to maintain the roads and when the money is siphoned-off to be used for other reasons, we pay to get our cars fixed.

AZ Daily Star recently reported that Aruna Murthy, director of economic analysis for the state Department of Administration, called the state’s projected job growth “stagnant, slow, and subpar.” Yet, the 51st Legislature bragged about balancing the budget. Maybe so, but at what cost?  What they really did, was rob Peter to pay Paul, such as when   “they took $53 million from other accounts, like gasoline taxes and vehicle registration fees normally earmarked for road construction and maintenance, to help fill the gap. That money will be gone by the end of the coming fiscal year, but the looming budget hole did not stop lawmakers from cutting taxes in the name of economic development.

This, at a time when Arizonans are earning less than they were prior to the recession. Yet, under Governor Brewer, lawmakers voted to cut corporate income tax rates by 30 percent. The full impact of those cuts won’t even hit until 2018, when, according to budget analysts, the net loss to the state will be $270 million a year. Economist Dennis Hoffman, of the W.P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State University, said “if tax cuts were the key to prosperity, we would be swimming in a pool of prosperity right now.  We have clearly maximized on the tax-cut train.” Someone please relay that message to the current pool of AZ GOP governor candidates who are vowing to do away with state income tax if elected.

Albert Einstein once said that “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” It is way beyond time for us to demand better than the tired old ideas that don’t work. Two candidates for the Arizona Legislature in LD 11, Jo Holt for the Senate and Holly Lyon for the House, understand we need a new direction. They believe we must begin to invest in Arizona’s long-term health in areas such as public education and infrastructure. These are critical investments that will pay off over the long-term for both Arizona’s citizens as well as quality companies who would consider bringing good paying jobs to our state.

In my experience, if it seems to good to be true, it probably is. Arizona simply cannot continue to cut its way to prosperity. In its 2013 Kids Count Databook, the Annie E. Casey Foundation ranked Arizona 47th in the nation for our children’s welfare which included factors such as economic well-being, education, health and family and community. Not only is it obvious that going down the “trickle-down” rabbit hole is keeping our economy from recovering, but is also ensuring our next generation is handicapped from the get-go.

This November, we’ll get the chance to once again weigh in on what direction Arizona heads. Let’s make informed decisions with the long-term health of our state in mind. You owe it to yourself and to all future generations of Arizonans.

Why Huppenthal’s gotta go

OMG! Where do I begin? I’m going to assume most folks reading this have already heard about Arizona’s Superintendent of Public Instruction and his racist rants on various blogs under psuedonyms Thucydides and Falcon9.  I’m not going to list them all again, but suffice it to say he hates Hispanics, he thinks those on welfare are lazy pigs, and he is a coward for not posting under his own name.  Then, when he was caught in the act, he uttered a faux apology before breaking down crying in a news conference but refusing to resign.

I’ve thought long and hard about this issue and have come up the only reasonable conclusion that he must resign. After all, what John Huppenthal has done is share his true self with us, albeit under another name. He said he used another name to encourage an open dialogue. Really? Doesn’t seem very open when someone is hiding who they are. Furthermore, although he is trying, it’s not like he can “take back” his comments. After all, he compared the Mexican-American studies program in the Tucson Unified School District to the KKK and said it was similar to what Hitler did to coalesce the Germans against the Jews. Sorry, but that’s not the kind of thinking for which you can say “oooops, I misspoke”.  That’s the kind of thinking that comes straight from the heart…or lack thereof.

John Huppenthal tried to justify his robocalls encouraging parents to put their children in private schools by saying he is the Superintendent of Public Instruction, not the Superintendent of Public Schools. That didn’t fly then, anymore than his claim that he didn’t really mean all those nasty things he said will fly now. Since at least 2009, he has spewed hatred toward the poor and Hispanics. One in four children in Arizona is living in poverty and the percentage of Hispanic children in K-12 education has now surpassed that of White children. Huppenthal wouldn’t be the right guy to chart the course for any state’s education program, and especially not in Arizona. Not to mention that he doesn’t even begin to set the example for our students.

He has systemically been trying to turn back the clock to those great ole’ “Leave it to Beaver” days while privatizing public education so private enterprise can profit. He needs to step down so we can move forward and he needs to do it now!

Survival of the Fittest Mentality Won’t Keep Our Nation Great

Properly educating all Arizona’s children isn’t just important to parents, it is important for all of us. Our state simply won’t progress if we don’t start focusing on improving the educational outcomes for all children, 85 percent of whom attend our traditional public schools. These schools are where we should be focused. The bottom line is that parents shouldn’t have to make a choice. Every public school should be a quality school that offers a complete curriculum that will ready our students to be productive citizens of our state and country.

School choice is not a magic panacea and it will not ensure more accountability. No school choice option provides more transparency and accountability to both taxpayers and parents than traditional community school districts overseen by locally elected school boards. The Arizona Auditor General performs and publishes an independent appraisal on public schools, looking at variety of factors such as operational efficiency, student achievement, teacher measures and financial assessment. In addition, public schools are subjected to state and federal audits of financial data, all matters of public record. That level of transparency and accountability just isn’t available when it comes to vouchers paying for private school. “A recent article in the Arizona Capitol Times[i] reported parents with ESAs have saved up roughly $2.5 million of taxpayer dollars over the past three years causing many to question the program’s accountability. “One tight-fisted parent” writes the Times, has “hung onto $61,047 while spending only $825.” I have to ask how this can be in the child’s best interest?

It seems we’ve always been reluctant to admit the role socio-economic states plays in educational outcomes. Improving our public education system ultimately means making headway on Arizona’s opportunity gap where one in four of our children live in poverty and we are ranked 46th in overall child well being[ii]. This will take more than testing, it will take political will and hard work and it won’t happen overnight. The well funded, hard charging push to “throw the baby out with the bathwater” in privatizing public schools obfuscates the real problem and is designed to turn huge profits for those who already have plenty.

I get that parents want to ensure their child has the best they can provide. Our state legislators and education officials though, are supposed to ensure that every child has an adequate education, taxpayer dollars are well spent and, the educational needs of our state workforce are met. This isn’t happening. Instead, our nation has the highest rate of segregation since the mid-1960s and the “idea of social responsibility for the common good[iii]” seems all but gone. While families with the wherewithal to avail themselves of options are leaving public schools to pursue options they perceive as better, educational opportunities for the middle and low-income students left behind continue to decline. In the end, this gulf between the haves and have-nots serves to “defeat the goals of a democratic society, which does best when there is integration across class, race and ethnic lines.”[iv]

The survival of the fittest mentality isn’t one I think we should be proud of. I always thought the American dream was that if you applied yourself in school, “kept your nose clean” and worked hard, you and your children would wind up better off than where you started. America was the land of opportunity…and a free public education was both a driver of that opportunity and of our rapid ascension to greatness as a nation. I believe it is key to keeping us there.

[i] http://azcapitoltimes.com/news/2014/04/15/millions-remain-unspent-in-school-choice-program/

[ii] http://www.aecf.org/KnowledgeCenter/Publications.aspx?pubguid=%7B68E8B294-EDCD-444D-85E4-D1C1576830FF%7D

[iii] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/arthur-camins/why-god-bless-the-child-t_b_5118915.html

[iv] 50 Myths & Lies that Threaten America’s Public Schools, The Real Crisis in Education, David C. Berliner and Gene V Glass and Associates, Teachers College, Columbia University, 2014

A Familiar Recipe for Disaster

I recently came across an August 2013 report by Lindsey M. Burke from The Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice titled: The Education Debit Card – What Arizona Parents Purchase with Education Savings Accounts. The report makes many claims begging to be refuted. In the executive summary, the author credits Arizona with creating “a model that should be every state policymaker’s goal when considering how to improve education: funding students instead of physical school buildings and allowing that funding to follow children to any education provider of choice.” The model referred to here are Empowerment Scholarship Accounts (ESAs).

In September 2011, Arizona’s ESA program started with a modest enrollment of 153 students with special needs. In 2012, enrollment had grown to include more than 300 children with special needs.   Expansion continued that year with eligibility granted to more than 220,000 Arizona students, including 125,000 children with special needs, 87,000 children in underperforming public schools (rated D or F), 11,500 children of active- duty military families, and any additional foster children.Currently, according to AZ Ed News, more than 250K students are eligible to apply.

Although I totally “get” a parent wanting the very best for their own child, I am also brought back to a quote by John Dewey’s (possibly the most significant educational thinker of the 20th century): “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.”

The real truth is, the majority of children (for a multitude of reasons) will simply not be able to avail themselves of the ESA opportunity. So, I find myself asking what are the real reasons Arizona legislators and other leaders are pushing vouchers as the solution for educating our children? Color me cynical, but let me offer some thoughts:

1. A voucher by any other name. The ESA bills are model American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) legislation. As reported by education activist and blogger David Safier: “The Goldwater Institute came up with the idea for ESAs as a second workaround (the first is our tuition tax credit law) to make vouchers legal in a state where the constitution prohibits the use of public money for religious instruction. (Did you know over 70% of Arizona’s private schools are religious?) The term of art for this kind of legislation is “backdoor vouchers.” The conservative’s ultimate goal is vouchers for all.”

2. What can parents afford with an ESA? AZ Senator Al Melvin (who is running for Governor this year) likes to tout vouchers for every child at $9,000 per child is either ignorant or disingenuous. First of all, if every child in Arizona were given that much funding, it would cost as much as entire budget of the state of Arizona ($9.054B vs. a budget of 9.18 billion.) Secondly, the ESA base rate this year is only $5,400 per child, not $9,000. So, what private school can parents send their children to for $5,400? The website Private School Review shows the average tuition at Arizona’s private elementary schools as $5,465. Please note, this is not the total cost. Private schools do not typically offer free transportation to/from school or like public schools do, nor is a free/reduced fee lunch program offered. Additionally, parents are often expected to donate time, or in the case of at least one school, get charged $10 per hour when they don’t donate the requisite amount. Finally, please note the $5,465 cost is just tuition. What else is not included in this cost – books, athletics, extracurricular activities?

3. Despite claims to the contrary, competition is not the answer for everything. Whereas public school districts should be collaborating with each other to ensure the most effective use of taxpayer dollars, open enrollment and school choice encourages just the opposite. Marketing campaigns and intra-district bussing is now the norm to boost enrollment numbers. Additionally, where engaged, caring parents would once get involved as part of the solution in their community public schools, now they vote with their feet and take their talents to private options versus applying them to the common good.

4. There is little accountability or transparency in the use of the ESA funding. A recent Arizona Capitol Times article reported parents with ESAs have saved up roughly $2.5 million of taxpayer dollars over the past three years causing many to question the program’s accountability. After all, these unspent funds equal 21 percent of the almost $12 million handed out since 2012 and represent 68 parents holding onto amounts from $10,000 to over $61,000. A representative for the Arizona Department of Education (AZ DOE) said they have no authority over how much of the quarterly disbursements must be spent, only that the receipts for the expenses reflect allowed expenditures. The AZ DOE administrator of the program said the department is aware of the growing accounts, but has no authority over how much of the quarterly disbursements must be spent. Obviously though, money held onto is not money spent on a child’s education. As a vivid case in point, one “tight-fisted parent has hung onto $61,047 while spending only $825.” How can this be in the child’s best interest?

5. But wait, weren’t ESAs supposed to save the state money? ESAs were supposed to save the state money, but now they will cost Arizona more than educating children in the public school system. Despite the legislature’s unwillingness to change the law to allow it, John Huppenthal, the AZ Superintendent of Public Instruction has unilaterally moved to provide all ESA students funding at 90 percent of the charter school funding level, which is currently higher than the district school level. This translates to all students on ESAs getting the charter school amount, an additional $1,684 to $1,963 over what was given for students transferring from traditional schools. Additionally, according to the AZ Joint Legislative Budget Committee, the newly expanded availability to kindergarteners that might have attended private schools anyway at parental expense drives up the cost as well.

6. Superintendent of Public Instruction, not public schools! Superintendent Huppenthal recently shilled for The Alliance for School Choice recording a robo-call that went out to 48,000 qualifying families and referred families to a Goldwater Institute website for more information. His$250,000 marketing campaign evidently produced results with applications for the 2014-15 school year doubling from 2,479 from 1,100 the previous year. When questioned about his actions, he said “he is the Superintendent of Public Instruction, not public schools.

Given the facts surrounding the push to expand ESAs, one must ask why? I suspect politics is largely responsible. “Arthur Camins, a teacher and director, center for innovation in Engineering and Science Education, Stevens Institute of Technology” posits the corporate reformers believe (or want us to believe) that “Improving all schools is hopeless. Poverty will always be with us.” That’s why he says, they believe they need to offer privately governed schools to serve the “best among the unfortunate.” They know not all children will be successful, they just need a system for sorting through those who can be. “This is the cold hard truth. Only we (the best and smartest) have the guts to act on it.”

Camins goes on to write that, “in-school tracking and magnet schools have long served to mediate dealing the hard truth that poverty undermines children’s readiness and ability to engage in and sustain learning.” Now though, the new well-funded partnerships trying to provide a systemic alternative to public schools is more “explicitly elitist and anti-democratic” than ever before. “As long as the only seeming rational choice is self-preservation, people who can, will choose it.” What is new now is “the scale of the effort and resulting damage, the ever-widening disparity in income and differential life chance opportunities and the erosion of the very idea of social responsibility for the common good.”

Dr. Tim Ogle, Executive Director of the Arizona School Board Association writes that “allowing some selected children to “opt out” of public education to go to schools with unknown aims and objectives removes incentives to develop new creative solutions to education’s toughest challenges. Let’s call these accounts what they are: government subsidies for private enterprise using children as the currency.”

Voucher programs aren’t about offering parents a choice, they aren’t about ensuring special needs children have every opportunity, and they aren’t about improving the educational outcomes for our students. What they are about is making money…lots of it. Big money, lack of transparency and accountability, and legislators collaborating with big business…sound like a familiar recipe for disaster to anyone else?

Arizona Legislature’s 3S Formula to Make the Education of Your Child, YOUR Problem

Arizona Legislature's 3S Formula to Make the Education of Your Child, YOUR Problem

A Moment of Reason in the Arizona Legislature – Voucher Expansion Bill Defeated

Somewhat unbelievable, but reason prevailed today in Arizona. Against all odds, the latest grand attempt to expand vouchers failed 31 to 27. HB2291, as amended, would have expanded eligibility for vouchers to any student living within qualified zip codes (as defined by the average household income is below 185% of the federal poverty level for a family of four) regardless of family income.  If passed and signed into law by the Governor, this bill would have expanded eligibility to 112,000 and exponentially increased costs for the program.

I watched a live feed of the Arizona House Committee of the Whole discuss this bill, HB 2291, Empowerment Scholarships Accounts; Expansion, sponsored by Rep Debbie Lesko (R). Some great points were made on the part of those against the bill and the same Rep. Ontondo (D), a former teacher said that in her legislative district, there are people who earn $300,000 and others who make $15,000. If you average this out, she said, it probably is about 40,000 so those who don’t need the “vouchers” to afford the private schools will get taxpayer dollars anyway. She also expressed the concern about the lack of transparency and oversight and referred to the fact that 21% of the ESA funding has been banked by parents and therefore not used for the education of their children. She said that taxpayers deserve to know how their dollars are being spent. Another representative (D) said that if we want great outcomes, we need to keep money in public education and stop choking our public schools. Another (D) said we’ve had choice in Arizona since the early 1990s and what has it done to improve our public education. If we can’t get everyone a voucher, we shouldn’t be doing it.

Rep Hale (D), from the Navajo Nation, asked Rep Lesko (the AZ Chair for the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC) several questions to subtly make his points. The first was whether she was aware of the income levels on the Navajo Nation and whether she knows how many private schools there are on the Navajo Nation. She said she did not know the answer to his questions. He replied that there are no private schools. She said ESAs don’t only offer funding for private schools, but for on-line learning or tutoring as well. He then asked if she was aware of how few people had access to the Internet on the Navajo Nation and she said she was not. I was impressed with how he led her down the path to divulging how ignorant she was about some of the state’s most needy children.

Rep Wheeler (D) provided information about the funding issues of this bill. He said recent changes to ESAs ensure funding at 90% of charter versus public, to the amount of $1007 per pupil more. He said that under the current basic state funding, a non-disabled student gets $5,400 as opposed to $5,800 per student (90% of $6,400 for vouchers.) This alone, according to the AZ Joint Budget Legislative Committee (JBLC), will increase costs of this program by $950K this fiscal year. He also said that if there were 600K students on ESAs, it would cost $3.6B and if there were 800K, it would cost $4.8B. Currently he said, there are 150K students eligible. With this bill, and addition of free or reduced, the increase in 2017 would be by 485K and cost another $2.19B. He also said that the cap of 5,400 per year meant nothing as it could easily be raised.

In a surprise to me, Rep Goodale (R) said she voted no because 100K expansion is too much at this time for the ESA program to absorb.

Finally, I’m quickly becoming a fan of Rep Heather Carter. She is a Republican, but first of all, she is a rationale representative of the people and, a strong advocate for public education. She was an articulate advocate for public education today and made some great arguments. When Rep Kavanaugh (R) referred to the district charters as faux charters, she called him on it. She pointed out that the laws allowing districts to convert their schools to charters had been on the books for 20 years. If the districts followed the rules, why change the rules now? All Kavanaugh could say was that “the timing was suspect.” When the bill proponents praised charters, she pointed out it is the 20th anniversary of charters and how the AZ Legislature just voted to remove the option of charters from the toolbox of our school districts. She pointed out how this is entirely against the purported goal of offering competition to improve achievement. She also said that the choice policies not going to help rural districts if we don’t put local options of choice in place.

In explaining her vote, she said she supported ESA accounts the way they were originally marketed, which was to provide academic opportunities who had unmet needs in our public schools. She said there were good public policy reasons why certain students’ needs were not met and it was marketed that ESAs would save the state money. Recent changes to allow ESAs to get additional charter assistance however, changed all that and now, ESAs cost more. She eloquently discussed what choice means to her: the choice of whether to send her daughter to public, charter, or private school, or to home school her. What this bill was really talking about though, was putting the AZ public education budget on a debit card. She pointed out that we lead the country in choice policy and have had open enrollment since 1994. If parents really want to send their children to another school, they can do that. Choice is different than the funding issue. This bill confuses the dollars we spend in AZ with school choice. It is the job of the legislature to fund public schools and they need to do it!

The last speaker before the vote was Rep Lesko, the sponsor of the bill. She made one last-ditch effort to get her colleagues to support her bill, but her arguments just weren’t compelling. She said the bill gives low-income students the opportunity to improve their situation and yet, Rep Hale had already pointed out it won’t help those on the Navajo Nation. She pointed out that although the bill would make 112K students eligible, the current cap in only about 5,400 per year so what is everyone worried about? Rep Wheeler pointed out during the debate that the cap means nothing because it can always be raised. Lesko also claimed that the program will actually save over $3,000 per year per student, but as the AZ JLBC noted, costs are now higher for ESAs than for educating a student in public schools.

Yes, the bill was defeated today, but I’m not going to rest easy because it is crazy (okay, craziest) time at the AZ Legislature. In addition to Rep Mesnard (R) changing his vote for a likely reconsideration on HB2291, there are several other anti-public education bills working their way to the Governor’s office. Here’s a quick rundown:

  • HB2139 (sponsor: Rep. Petersen) – Expands the ESA program to any sibling of a student who has an ESA and any preschool special education student. This will significantly grow the ESA program, and the money to fund all of these students will be placed directly on the state’s General Fund. Money out the door with zero accountability.
  • HB2150 (sponsor: Borrelli) – Removes the 100 day requirement for students to attend a public school before getting an ESA for students who have parents in the military.  Thus, students with parents in the military will be eligible for ESA private school vouchers without ever having attended public school.
  • HB2328 (sponsor: Rep. Livingston) – This bill amends the eligibility for the corporate tax credit STO program for students with special needs and foster kids.  It eliminates the current requirement that these students must attend a public school for at least 90 days to be eligible for an STO. This means that students who are already in private schools will now be eligible to get STO monies under this corporate tax credit STO program.
  • SB1237 (sponsor: Sen. Yee) – This is the Arizona Department of Education’s ESA administrative bill.  One provision of the bill clarifies that all ESA students get 90% of the base support level funding + the charter school additional assistance.  This means that students who leave a traditional school district to attend private school using an ESA will actually be given more funding to go to a private school then the public school would receive to educate them.
  • SB1236 (sponsor: Yee) – This bill is identical to HB2291, expanding the ESA program to any student living in a zip code where the federal poverty rate is 185% (family of four making $46,000). Because this bill is identical to HB2291, the bills can be switched out during a third read vote in each chamber so they will not have to go to the other chamber.  If passed in the Senate, the bill gets transmitted to Governor Brewer.

People often ask me what the hell the AZ Legislature is thinking with regard to the actions they are taking against public education. I tell them they know exactly what they are thinking and doing. I believe they are out to destroy public education and turn over tax payer dollars for such to the privateers to expand their profits. We must remain vigilant and keep up the pressure. For our students, for our public schools, for our communities and for our future!

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