T and A: #1 Benefit of Public Schools

I’ve no doubt raised a few eyebrows with the title of this post. Get your mind out of the gutter people, I’m talking about transparency and accountability!

Let me be clear…I believe America’s public schools are what made our country great. They ensured all children had the opportunity to learn and they coalesced our communities and all the different types of people within them. But, in terms of today’s school choice landscape, the number one benefit offered by public district schools over all other choices, is transparency and accountability.

Of course, in this alternate universe the GOP has created, up is down, left is right, black is white, and private school choice options (private, religious, and home schools) are the more transparent and accountable schools for parents and taxpayers. Nothing could be further from the truth. District schools, with publicly elected school board members and the requirement to follow Open Meeting Law (at least in Arizona), are by far the most transparent and accountable. Yes, our charter schools are also public schools, but they don’t have publicly elected boards. Rather, charter school board members may not even live in the same state, let alone in the same town. But as public schools, both district and charter schools have myriad transparency requirements private school choice options don’t. These include the need to follow Open Meeting Law, ensuring the public’s right to witness the discussion, deliberation, and decision-making done in its name. They also must: accept all students; comply with stringent requirements for reporting, procurement, and auditing; and allow parents the right to review all instructional material and intercede in their child’s education where they believe it is necessary. There are many more differences in transparency and accountability, but you get the idea.

And yet, those advocating for school privatization have managed to convince many parents (especially in today’s highly partisan environment), that public schools (especially district schools) are trying to indoctrinate their children with values and ideology that are different than their own.

What it is really about though, as pointed out by fellow education blogger Jan Resseger in her recent post, is money and power. After all, the total bill for K-12 education in the U.S. in 2018-2019 school year was already $800B. In Arizona this year, K-12 education constitutes almost 44% of the state budget. Privatizing public education is a lucrative triple-play for the rich and powerful and those lawmakers they keep in office. Privatization allows the reduction of the need for taxation, it offers the opportunity for corporations to profit directly from the education industry, and it reduces the voice of the people making it easier to ignore their will. As Resseger points out, Gordon Lafer, in “The One-Percent Solution”, said,

(F)or those interested in lowering citizens’ expectations of what we have a right to demand from government, there is no more central fight than around public education. In all these ways, then, school reform presents something like the perfect crystallization of the corporate legislative agenda.”

The brilliancy of packaging school privatization was convincing parents that their “right to choose”, was what was important. Resseger also quoted Benjamin Barber, in his book “Consumed”, who deftly makes the point that this ability to choose, however, is not the real power.

We are seduced into thinking that the right to choose from a menu is the essence of liberty, but with respect to relevant outcomes the real power, and hence the real freedom, is in the determination of what is on the menu. The powerful are those who set the agenda, not those who choose from the alternatives it offers. We select menu items privately, but we can assure meaningful menu choices only through public decision-making.

In other words, you are either at the table, or on the menu. In fact, I previously wrote a post with this same title back in 2014. With public schools, parents, voters and taxpayers are at the table (if they exercise their rights the way they should). Unfortunately, it takes work to exercise our rights and hold our elected officials accountable. But then, that’s what is meant by “of the people, by the people, and for the people”. “We the people”, must do our part if we want our government and its institutions to reflect our values. At least in public schools, we have that opportunity.

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Tom Horne: An Old Dog with a CRT Bone

AZ Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne is the living embodiment of the saying that an old dog can’t learn new tricks. His campaign gave us a preview that he was not going to change his ways. After all, he didn’t tout plans to improve our public schools (he was vying for the position overseeing “public” instruction after all), but rather, posted countless campaign signs shouting, “STOP CRITICAL RACE THEORY”. Never mind that actual CRT, (which rests on the premise that racial bias – intentional or not – is baked into U.S. laws and institutions), is not taught in elementary or secondary schools, but at the university level, most often in law schools. For Republicans, however, the term became synonymous with being “woke” and their focus on “owning the libs” carried Horne back to his old office.

This isn’t a new fight for Horne. After his recent election, MSNBC called him,

a pioneer in the right-wing crusade against school teachings centered on nonwhite people and social inequality.

As evidence, MSNBC cited his fight against “ethnic studies” which led to a ban on such instruction in Arizona schools in 2010. He also banned bilingual education services that same year which the Justice Department found illegal. The ban on ethnic studies held until 2017, when a federal judge overturned it, finding that it had an,

invidious discriminatory racial purpose, and a politically partisan purpose.

At 77, it is no surprise Horne hasn’t changed his spots. After all, it mostly works for him as evidenced by his previous elections to serve as State Superintendent from 2003 to 2011, as well as his election to a term as AZ Attorney General. Now, he’s swept into office on his STOP CRT broom, promising to,

eradicate teaching on diversity and equity and eliminate the use of social emotional learning in Arizona schools.

He’s off to a running start, canceling previously approved diversity presentations at the education conference hosted by his department and wrapping up today. Michaela Rose Classen, an education consultant originally scheduled to speak, expressed worry to the AZ Daily Star about excising social-emotional learning from schools saying,

When students enter the classroom, I think the assumption by some folks is that they just enter ready to learn. But there are different levels of experiences and often trauma that students are bringing into the classroom with them,’ Claussen said. ‘And they’re not quite developed yet emotionally, like we are as adults, to leave it at the door. So we have to really be cautious about how are we paying attention to student needs.

Horne doesn’t believe this type of learning has any place in the classroom. A 2022 Pew Research Poll, however, showed that about two-thirds of parents believe it is important their children’s school teaches social-emotional skills. These skills, in a nutshell, are:

  • Self-Management – managing emotions and behaviors to achieve one’s goals
  • Self-Awareness – recognizing one’s emotions and values as well as one’s strengths and challenges
  • Responsible Decision Making – making ethical, constructive choices about personal and social behavior
  • Relationship Skills – forming positive relationships, working in teams, dealing effectively with conflict
  • Social Awareness – Showing understanding and empathy

As a school board member in my 11th year of service, I can unequivocally say that many of our students need help with social-emotional skills. Should parents and communities teach these skills? YES, ABSOLUTELY!! But, in many cases, this isn’t happening and the global pandemic exacerbated difficulties with students trying to learn and interact with friends remotely. In fact, I’m guessing most would agree that our society in general needs help with these skills more than ever.

Horne, no doubt, thinks our kids just need to “man up” and stick to learning “readin’, writin’, and ‘rithmatic” with his stated focus on improving academics and increasing test scores. Unfortunately, the narrowing of curriculum and “teaching to the test” are making our students less prepared for the real world. And speaking of that, I noted he allowed presentations on suicide prevention at the education conference. Does he not understand the relationship social-emotional learning has on student mental health relating to not only suicide prevention but also the mass shootings plaguing our schools?

Another of Horne’s first acts was to eliminate the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Department at ADE, stating that in the context of CRT “equity has come to mean equal outcomes by racial groups”. That may be how sees it, but Google’s Dictionary defines equity as “the quality of being fair and impartial”. Doesn’t this mean we recognize not every child is born with the same opportunities to succeed and we should do what we can to make the opportunities available for those who are willing to apply themselves?

There will no doubt be many battles to fight with Horne, (with his “politically partisan purpose”), leading Arizona’s public schools. The inefficiency of jerking our teachers and students around with policy reversals is frustrating. But it is the potential for setting back another generation of our students that really worries me. As the slogan for the United Negro College Fund states, “A mind is a terrible thing to waste.”

How $200M Could Have Been Better Spent

Although the real total costs will likely never be known, the Arizona Republic reported yesterday that Governor Ducey’s

five-month effort to close gaps along the U.S.-Mexico border with shipping containers will cost Arizona taxpayers more than $200 million.

I’m not writing to debate the wisdom of Ducey’s actions, (okay, just for a second, it was a stupid political stunt). But rather, I’d like to make a case for how that money could have been better spent.

Regardless of what you’ve heard from GOP lawmakers, or have read in right-leaning media, Arizona schools are not flush with cash. Rather, much of what’s been added recently just reinstates part of what was taken away since 2007 and leaves Arizona still at 48th in the nation for per-pupil funding. Additionally, our schools are still hemorrhaging teachers with almost 9,700 vacancies at the start of the 2022-23 school year and about 4,900 filled with alternate teaching requirements or long-term subs.

Another statistic that should also raise alarms, is Arizona’s student-to-counselor ratio. The American School Counselor Association recommends schools maintain a ratio of 250 to 1. The nationwide student-to-school-counselor ratio in the 2021-2022 school year was 408 to 1. Arizona’s ratio that same year was 716 to 1. Although this is down from the 905 to 1 Arizona had in 2019, it is still approaching double the national average and keeps us last in the nation in yet another dismal education statistic.

Superintendent Kathy Hoffman focused on this issue, tweeting in 2022,

Since 2019, I’ve successfully lobbied for the funds to add hundreds of school counselors, lowering our student to school counselor ratio by 20%

The AZPBS’ CronkiteNews verified her claim citing “an increase of 290 counselors in three years” for an improvement of 21%. This was one of Hoffman’s priorities because, as she said,

In an era of balloning classroom sizes, teachers feel unequipped to manage a class of 30 children while also finding the time to provide individualized attention to their students, especially those facing depression, anxiety, or suicidal thoughts.

And that was in 2019, before the global pandemic which according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, and the Children’s Hospital Association declared in November 2021,

pandemic-related decline in child and adolescent mental health has become a national emergency.

Hoffman was right to focus on this issue. What’s the chance “Stop CRT” Horne will do the same? (Yes, that is a rhetorical question.)

Before I start down that rabbit hole, let’s get back to the $200M. Based on what I’ve written thus far, I’m betting you can guess it has something to do with school counselors.

According to a SOSAZNETWORK.org report, 135 of Arizona’s 223 school districts are rural and serve 35% of the state’s students. More than 23% of these rural children live in poverty, the second highest poverty rate in the nation. They also have one of the lowest high school graduation rates in the U.S. These kids need the additional help a qualified counselor can provide.

So, what if instead of using OUR $200M for a stupid, partisan, political stunt, Ducey had bought more school counselors with it?  The average salary for school counselors in Arizona is about $55K. To be safe, let’s add 30% for benefits which brings the total cost to $71,500. Let’s see, $200M divided by $71,500 average counselor salary and benefits buys 2,797 counselors for one year. That number of counselors divided by 135 school districts, would give us 20.71 years of one counselor per district. Think of the lives this could impact.

Okay, I know this math is VERY rough, after all, I’m a writer, not a statistician. We know that salaries would increase and it would be difficult to find enough counselors willing to go to some of these rural areas, even if we could fund them (that’s the case in my rural district). Maybe we would need to contract with companies to provide the professional support we need and this likely would cost substantially more. Maybe even then we couldn’t find them and we’d have to start a program to grow our own?

The point isn’t to solve this problem in this article, but rather to show that there were much more important priorities for the $200M than Doug Ducey’s personal erector set project. This is just one example, don’t even get me started on the needs in our rural animal shelters. I’ll save that for another post.

Let’s hope Governor Hobbs can find a way to work with the Arizona Legislature to make headway on fixing Arizona’s major problems. So far, she seems focused on education and water. That sounds about right to me. Nose to the grindstone Governor!

Drowning Public Education in the Bathtub

Those of you who’ve been around a while will remember lobbyist Grover Norquist, who founded Americans for Tax Reform in 1985. This was during the Reagan years when government was seen as a drag on the free market. Norquist is probably best known for this quote in 2001: “I don’t want to abolish government. I simply want to reduce it to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub”

It has been obvious for many years that Arizona Republican lawmakers want to drown our district schools since the budget for K-12 education makes up almost 44% of the state budget. But then, the predominant responsibilities of the AZ state government are to provide for public safety and public education, so…it stands to figure that education would comprise a large portion of the budget.

If you’ve listened to the AZ Republican lawmakers’ talking points over the last few years, you’d tend to believe that public education has been showered with funding. The truth however is quite another story. In fact, adjusting for inflation, K-12 funding per public school student hasn’t increased in 21 years and leaves us still 48th in the nation. In 2001, districts were provided $8,824 per student, and now, only $8,770. The high-water mark in 2007 of $10,182 per student was under Democratic Governor Janet Napolitano. This was actually $1,412 more than in 2022.

You see, pretty much all the GOP has been doing over the last few years is to reinstate funding they took away to begin with. And to add insult to injury, they’ve been chipping away at the amount available to district schools by the continuous expansion of privatization options.

Guess you’d have to be living under a rock to have missed the battle over vouchers (Empowerment Scholarship Accounts) during the past decade. ESAs were enacted in 2011 and GOP lawmakers have been steadily expanding these vouchers over the years. In 2022, (I’m really cutting to the chase here), they were finally successful in enacting a universal expansion. Not only are students no longer required to have previously attended a district school to qualify for a voucher, but there are no guardrails or caps and no transparency or accountability for private schools. And, only two months into the new law, AZ DOE had received nearly 30,000 filings for the vouchers, totaling an immediate hit to the state fund of $210M. The Joint Legislative Budget Committee only budgeted $33M for the program for the 2022-23 school year, but some now estimate the bill could approach as much as $500M.

Student Tuition Organizations (STOs) are another vehicle to poke holes in the district funding life raft. They allow taxpayers to take a dollar-for-dollar reduction in their state taxes when they give to an approved STO which provides scholarship funding to children attending grades K-12 at qualified private schools in Arizona. These STOs basically serve as a pass-through for tax credit donations to private schools while keeping 10 percent for themselves. STOs have also seen tremendous expansion over the years with the individual tax credit amount now at $1,306 which is over six times that which taxpayers can give to district schools. There are also two types of tax credits corporations can take and the combined cap for those is now up to $141M.

Just introduced last week by Representative Livingston, is HB 2014 which seeks to expand the aggregate dollar amount of STO tax credits from $6M in 2021-22 to $10M in 2022-23, to $15M in 2023-24, and to $20M in 2024-25. It also would eliminate the need for recipients of a corporate, low-income scholarship to have attended a district school prior to receiving the scholarship. Keep in mind that removing the requirement to have first attended a district school prior to receiving STO or ESA monies, accommodates students already in private school or being homeschooled, at their parent’s expense. In fact, that was the case for 80% of the filings for the universal expansion last year. And, when a student taking an ESA or STO scholarship was never in a district school, there is zero reduction in cost to that district school and ultimately, taxpayers.

These schemes are chipping away at the foundation of our district (community) schools so that eventually, they can be “drowned in the bathtub”. This is not by accident, but rather, by design. There are those in the Legislature, who do not believe in equal opportunity to learn and thrive, but rather, in survival of the fittest. And, they are hell-bent on deciding who the “fittest” are. Privatizing public education primarily serves those who “have” at the expense of those who “have not”. This continued war on public education will continue to weaken our communities and our democracy as it solidifies power and influence with those at the very top.

Want to fight back? Go to SOSArizona.org.

Fighting for the Soul of Our Nation

Diane Ravitch published a great update on her blog yesterday, about Save Our School Arizona’s latest fight against universal vouchers and their urgent need for additional resources. Please read the post and then help support the effort by donating at, http://sosarizona.org/donate. If you live in Arizona and haven’t yet signed a petition, please go here to find out where you can do so tomorrow: https://teamsosarizona.com/signature-slam/

If you need any additional motivation, allow me to pass on the latest efforts of the voucher proponents I just heard about from my friend Tamar Rala Kreiswirth. Led by the Goldwater Institute and Betsy DeVos’ American Federation for Children, pro-voucher protestors are heckling volunteers at petition signing events at libraries and business locations. They are also,

  • Calling local businesses that have historically welcomed SOS AZ petition circulators;
  • Emailing iloveschoolchoice@gmail.com to report signature gatherer locations;
  • Taking a photo if a petition is left unattended as you must be present to witness each signature;
  • Taking photos of the petitions to verify whether they have the dates correct, have been checked “volunteer” and have the county names written on the page.

They are relentless in their efforts to find any reason to challenge the petitions. If you want to learn more about the Goldwater Institute and American Federation for Children’s support of the effort, check out the respective websites they fund at DeclinetoSign.com and Power2Parents.org.

As Beth Lewis, the director of SOS AZ so astutely wrote to Diane Ravitch,

Universal voucher expansion is the KEY issue driving right-wing politics in the US, and hardly anyone is talking about the well-moneyed, dangerous forces driving it. The AZ legislature’s myopic focus on pushing private school voucher expansion over any other piece of legislation for the past 6 years is enough to tell us that — not to mention the massive focus FOX News has placed on vouchers since the bill’s passage here in Arizona. Recently, Christopher Rufo admitted he created the CRT furor in order to advance universal vouchers.

If you live in Arizona, support public district schools, and haven’t yet signed the voucher, DO IT NOW! We still have a voice and a vote in the USA, but we must act now before it is too late. Think we can’t lose our right to vote, our right to free speech, our right to self-govern? Just look at the “pledge of allegiance” Diane Ravitch also posted about yesterday. A North Carolina charter school operator requires his students, faculty, and staff to recite at each of his schools every morning:

I pledge to be truthful in all my works, guarding against the stains of falsehood from the fascination with experts, the temptation of vanity, the comfort of popular opinion and custom, the ease of equivocation and compromise, and from over-reliance on rational argument. I pledge to be obedient and loyal to those in authority, in my family, in my school, and in my community and country, so long as I shall live.

Read that pledge again and let it sink in. Don’t listen to experts, don’t rely on rational argument. Just OBEY! Make no mistake, we are in the fight for the very soul of our nation and so far, at least at the state level, we are not winning. The fight is here, the time is now. We must be as relentless as our adversaries. Will you step up?

“Deeply Embarrassed and Frustrated”

My last blog post was an evisceration of the Pinal County Board of Directors for their September 2021 refusal to accept almost $3.4M in Federal funding to hire a vaccine equity employee and distribute COVID-19 vaccines to underserved communities. Two months later, they reversed their decision with an amendment that, “the public health department or designees shall not assist the U.S. government in the implementation or enforcement of federal orders related to quarantine and isolation”. I don’t why they reversed their decision, but I suspect public outcry was a factor.

Nine months later, Pinal County is big news again. Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock on Mt. Lemmon, you probably heard about the election fiascos in Pinal County (home to over 425,000 residents). According to the AZ Daily Star, hundreds of voters said they were “unable to immediately vote at the polls because the county had run out of some ballots”. One polling location also opened hours late because the keys to its doors were not available.

Polling locations tried to print new ballots to meet the surge in demand, but old printers were limited and delivery of ballots to the sites was slow. These problems were on top of about 63,000 incorrect mail ballots sent out in July, (missing city races), forcing the county to send out supplemental ballots.

Officials believe the contributing factors to the shortage of ballots were the unanticipated Independent voters who came in-person to polling stations and requested Republican ballots. Another, was the 10% increase in the county’s population since the last election. Other factors surely came into play however, such as Elections Director David Frisk being the third director in the position in only two years and initially having a staff of only one in a department that should have had five full-time employees. Officials said the mistake was caused by a staff member’s programming error that pre-election checks by inexperienced staff didn’t catch. Whatever the cause, there can be no doubt as AZCentral.com stated, that, “Pinal became the poster child for Election Day problems in Arizona, as only a smattering of problems were reported throughout the state”.

In the end, it is impossible to know how many people were unable to vote, although “about 25% of the county’s 95 precincts reported running out of ballots or running low and needing help”. These snafus, of course, did nothing to restore people’s confidence in our voting system. And that, and it’s impact on our democracy is the real danger.

The one silver lining is that the Pinal County Board of Supervisors, recognized the seriousness of the problem and did not try to downplay it or shift blame. At a news conference the day after the election, Chairman Jeff McClure blamed the problems on “human error”, and called it “a major screw-up”. In a statement provided later, he said the Board of Supervisors was “deeply embarrassed and frustrated” by the mistakes made and was taking immediate action to fix the problems prior to the general election. The Board of Supervisors then replaced the county Elections Director, David Frisk, appointing Recorder Virginia Ross to that position. Chairman McClure also said that, “elections experts are being sought to review election procedures and operations” and went on to say that, “I have not seen any evidence of a nefarious act. I have seen mistakes made on a grand scale.” In other words I suppose, there was no fraud.

I am a firm believer that many of the problems our country and yes, even the world, is experiencing today, have to do with the lack of accountability. The Board of Supervisors did not obfuscate and I remain hopeful (for now) they will fix the problems. I believe Virginia Ross is right person to build back the department, but she will need Board support to ensure the department is sufficiently funded, staffed, and trained. Will that all come to pass? We’ll certainly find out in November. For our democracy’s (or republic if you must) sake, let’s hope so.

#1 Way to Build Back Better

I am a currently serving school governing board member of nine years and the past president of the Arizona School Boards Association (ASBA). As such, I have been closely following the stories of school board meetings, especially in Arizona, that have become especially contentious.

The ugliness probably shouldn’t be surprising in the uber-polarized environment we now find ourselves. As Michelle Cottle (editorial board member) points out in the New York Times,

while the drama may feel bound up in the angry, ugly, polarized politics of the moment, it is nothing new. Public schools have long been an irresistible battleground for America’s culture warriors. On issues ranging from sex education to desegregation, public prayer to evolution to the Pledge of Allegiance, cultural cage matches are frequently fought on the backs of local schools, with board members, educators and students too often caught in the fray.

And that my friends, is the saddest part of what we see being played out – students caught in the fray. Even those who have never been parents understand that children learn from our actions, as well as our words. What does it say to our students when parents show up to their school to threaten, harass, and vilify teachers, administrators and school board members? Director of ASBA’s governmental relations, Chris Kotterman, described it well when he said,

Threatening public officials for advancing policy you don’t agree with is fundamentally opposed to the behavior we expect from our students. It sends the message when we aren’t getting what we want or we disagree, the thing to do is to try and intimidate the opposition into compliance. That’s a terrible example to set.

Cottle gives plenty of examples of school board meeting protestors around the country being incredibly ugly and scary, screaming profanity and threats like ““You will never be allowed in public again!” one raged. “We know who you are,” another warned. “You can leave freely, but we will find you!” and after another school board passed a mask mandate, another saying, “you made Dr. Mengele proud” (while giving the Nazi salute). Even locally though, we’ve had protestors in Vail try to elect a new school board outside the board meeting and blocking staff members from leaving the building shouting obscenities at them and saying, “You’re surrounded. You can’t leave.”

It is not okay to treat each other this way and the lack of respect shown each other at the most fundamental level – as human beings – is sorely lacking these days. I personally know of an administrator who was called a “cunt” by a grandmother of a student. And again, this shouldn’t surprise me when we just suffered through four years with a U.S. President who normalized all sorts of actions and words that wouldn’t have been acceptable before his time.

Let me just point out though, that at least in Arizona, school board members don’t get paid for their service. In fact, this is true for most school board members around the country. And yet, during my travels all around Arizona and to national conferences with ASBA, I met countless dedicated school board members who really care about their students and work hard to improve their educational experience. Yes, just like in every other endeavor on the planet, there are those few who either have agendas that aren’t focused on the kids or don’t take their roles seriously enough, but they are the rare exception, not the rule.

And although I can understand how the current climate would discourage good people from wanting to serve on school boards, it is exactly the time that they must. Otherwise, the bad guys win. What we’ll end up with is school board members who thrive on hateful discourse and self-destructive environments. We’ll end up with an exodus of good school board members, good administrators, and good teachers. Eventually, we’ll end up with a system of public education that is circling the drain.

I don’t think of myself as a conspiracy theorist, but neither do I think we should be so naive, to think that all this is happening organically. Of the April Vail protests for example, Superintendent Carruth said,

“There was a handful of people – I don’t know exactly how many – who either don’t have kids in the school district, don’t live in the school district, don’t live in the county, who came with the express purpose of whipping up that group.”

Yes, around the country, administrators and school board members have suspected outsiders of coming in to school board meetings to wreak havoc for political purposes. This is not a new strategy, as conservative strategist Ralph Reed, (former executive director of the Christian Coalition), once said he would “exchange the presidency for 2,000 school seats”. But the current political climate and ease message spreading via social media has whipped it into a frenzy.

For those who are shocked at how low we’ve sunk at a country, and are committed to do their part to “Build Back Better”, there is almost no better place to start than to serve on your local school board. Ensuring our students are prepared to build a better future is why I first ran for the school board in 2012, and why I continue to serve. I can assure you that the other side is feverishly working to ensure they win this battle for hearts and minds and they’ve been very successful thus far in using school board seats as stepping stones to higher political offices.

Elections happen every two years and the paperwork to run is usually due in the summer of election year. Our kids need you, will you step up in 2022? For more information about running for school governing boards, please contact the office of your County Schools Superintendent (Pima and Pinal), or the Arizona School Boards Association.

WTF Pinal County Board of Supervisors?

In a 3/2 vote on this past Wednesday, the Pinal County Board of Supervisors voted to reject a $3.4 million federal grant for improving vaccine equity. Supervisor Kevin Cavanaugh (District 1), led the charge to deny the funding, questioning whether Pinal County had a need for a “vaccine equity coordinator”, which the grant mandated be established. The grant also funded vaccination efforts like mobile vaccine clinics. County Public Health Services District employees were stunned by the move with the director, Dr. Tascha Spears, saying “I just simply would like to note that our public health team is deeply disappointed”.

According to The Arizona Republic, the grant would have come from federal COVID-19 relief funds provided to the state health department. County health services employees commented that the $3.4 million would have funded efforts (over three years) to educate underserved populations about the COVID-19 vaccine and help provide vaccines in underserved communities.

During the hearing this past Wednesday, Cavanaugh asked Spears whether or not her office sought the grant or did they see the grant available and look for a problem? He went on to say that “The questions I’m getting from my constituents are, you know, we have Walgreens, Walmart, (uh, no…don’t believe there is a Walmart in your district Kevin), everybody knows that there are free vaccines”. Dr. Spears responded that Pinal County has many rural areas where folks are farther away from bigger chains like Walmart. Of course, Cavanaugh was not however, swayed by this logic, nor did he obviously care about how the homeless or disabled might access these commercial providers.

Although appearing surprised by Cavanaugh’s move in the hearing, supervisors Jeff McClure and Jeff Serdy voted with him to reject the funding. The chairman of the Board, Steve Miller and vice chair Mike Goodman voted against the rejection.

“It made no sense to turn this down” was the response former Arizona state health director Will Humble (now executive director of the Arizona Public Health Association), provided when asked about the Board’s action. As both Spears and Humble pointed out, the county qualified for the grant due to its social vulnerability index which included factors such as “the proportion of people with disabilities, unemployment rates and the number of single parent households”.

Cavanaugh though, was set on making this about disdain for the federal government saying, “The federal government, the best job they do, is wasting money”. He went on to say that, “this $3.4 million dollar grant would have provided one public health official here in Pinal County, a nurse. And the rest largely would have largely gone to some as yet unknown unnamed contractor”.

Well, let’s hope Kevin, that the the contractor is yet unknown and unnamed because I would expect government procurement rules would have been followed had the grant been accepted. Per A.R.S. 41-2533, that contracts must be decided via competitive sealed bidding (those under $100,000 in value have exceptions). Per A.R.S. 41-2561, Bid specifications are required to “promote overall economy for the purposes intended and encourage competition in satisfying this state’s needs and shall not be unduly restrictive”. Furthermore, under the competitive sealed bidding procedures, a state governmental unit must award a contract to the “lowest responsible and responsive bidder whose bid conforms in all material respects to the requirements and evaluation criteria” set forth in the invitation for bids. There are similar rules in federal procurement.

As a county supervisor, Cavanaugh should be very familiar with state procurement rules and therefor know it is disingenuous to make it sound like there would be no accountability for the grant funding if the Board had accepted it. There would of course be, unless Cavanaugh and his buddies didn’t properly fulfill their duties.

Speaking of fulfilling their duties, what were Supervisors Jeff McClure and Jeff Serdy thinking in voting with Cavanaugh to reject the $3.4 million? In an email afterwards, Serdy told AZFamily.com that he voted to reject the funding “in order to retain local control.” He went on to write “I’m not too concerned that our citizens don’t have access to the vaccine if they want it because it is now widely available for free”. McClure did not respond to the Arizona’s Family request for comment, nor did he respond to an email I sent him on the matter.

I should mention here, that I served on a school board with Jeff McClure for eight years and although there was much we didn’t agree on, I thought he was concerned about doing the right thing for our students and staff. His decision to reject this funding to improve Pinal County’s vaccination rate however, is definitely not doing the right thing for the people of Pinal County, which lags the state, at 56.3% and national at 61.5%, averages for vaccination with only 48.1% of those 12 and older fully vaccinated as of the Board’s vote.

And, according to former state health director Dr. Cara Christ, some of the federal vaccine dollars could go toward encouraging the continuance of routine school vaccinations that declined during the pandemic. “While we’re using that funding to ensure we are vaccinating in an equitable manner, we can use that funding to improve health equity in other arenas as well”, Christ told The Arizona Republic in July.

I don’t for a second believe Supervisors Cavanaugh, McClure and Serdy rejected the $3.4 million because it was the right thing to do for the people of Pinal County. Rather, I believe it was a purely political decision meant to appeal to their voting base. After all, when booster shots are authorized, or children under the age of 12 are approved to receive the vaccine, where will the money come from to help implement those additional protections?

Again, Pinal County Health Services District Director Dr. Tascha Spears said,

In Pinal County there are some communities who are underserved, who don’t have access to COVID-19 vaccines. So this is specifically to facilitate that, so that communities everywhere truly do have a choice about whether they would like to receive the vaccine or not.

That’s the thing see. If you don’t know what your choices are, or you can’t access the choice you’ve made, you have no choice at all.

Groundhog Day

We held another petition signing event at our house over the past couple of days and it occurred to me what long shots citizen driven ballot initiatives are. And, that they are often, reactive, not proactive. It may feel as though we are in the driver’s seat when pursuing ballot measures, but just as in Vegas, the “house” always wins, it seems that no matter what statutory changes we can force, the Legislature will always figure a way to fight back.

The real answer of course, is that we MUST take back the Legislature, or at the very least, one of the chambers. We do that by building a bench of qualified candidates through training them, supporting them with funding and ground game, and then winning seats on school boards, water boards, fire boards, city councils, and in county government.

Unfortunately, it takes time to be strategic and we are running out of that time. While the Democrats were focused on the White House during President Obama’s time, Republicans were busy taking over state governments. In fact, 29 state legislative chambers in 19 states flipped from Democratic to Republican during Obama’s presidency. Of course, Arizona Democrats lost control of our Legislature way back in 1966 and haven’t won it back since.

And although Arizona is one of the 13 states that use independent redistricting commissions to exclusively draw electoral districts boundaries, Democrats can’t necessarily count on that effort to help us. Yes, if the district boundaries are fairly drawn, demographics could deliver wins for Democrats. But, those who would vote for Democrats have to actually show up to vote and the Legislature is working hard to put even more roadblocks in their way. A good example is the July Supreme Court decision that gave states more latitude to impose restrictions on voting. The Arizona laws that drove the SCOTUS decision were that 1) voters who vote in the wrong precinct, will not have their vote counted and 2) it is a crime for any person other than a postal worker, an elections official, or a voter’s caregiver, family member or household member to knowingly collect an early ballot – either before or after it has been completed. Adam Liptak, for the New York Times, wrote:

[A]mong the most consequential in decades on voting rights, and it was the first time the court had considered how a crucial part of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 applies to restrictions that have a particular impact on people of color.

This SCOTUS ruling, no doubt helped clear the way for Texas to recently enact a slew of new voting restrictions, “including limits on early voting hours and other measures opponents say will raise new barriers for marginalized voters, especially voters of color, who tent to vote Democratic, and those with disabilities”. Where Texas (and Florida) go, can Arizona be far behind?

So, Democrats can win in Arizona if we can get liberals and left-leaning (or maybe just reasonable) independents to vote. Unfortunately, that’s a huge “IF”. Many of the people we need to vote are people of color who already feel disenfranchised or don’t trust the system, and the GOP’s incessant attack on those same people’s ability to vote, just makes it that much harder to persuade them to step up.

Of course, we can’t give up. We just have to be focused and strategic. That’s how Stacey Abrams and a network of activists, ten years to flip Georgia. In an interview with Politico before the 2020 election, she said,

“When you’re trying to not only harness demographic changes but leverage low-propensity voters, you cannot simply hope that they’ll hear the message. You have to treat them as persuasion voters. Only the message is not trying to persuade them to share Democratic values.  Your message is to persuade them that voting can actually yield change.”

So, Arizona Democrats need to focused, strategic, cohesive and demonstrate where we have the power, we know what to do with it. We need to use every opportunity to demonstrate that we know how to make government work. We also need to develop a bench of candidates to move up through the system. We do this by not leaving any seats unchallenged without Democratic candidates. And, we ensure those candidates receive training and support before they hit the streets. At the same time, we’ll need to continue to pursue whatever means we have to push back on the terrible laws our Legislature enacts. For now, at least, those means are initiatives, referendums and recalls which have been a part of Arizona’s governance from the beginning with women’s suffrage, passing by a margin of greater than two to one in 1912.

Both referendums and initiatives are processes for collecting and verifying signatures. According to the Arizona Secretary of State’s Initiative and Referendum Guide, “An initiative is the method by which voters may propose new laws or amend existing laws”, and a referendum is “the method by which voters may veto a law (or part of a law)”. A petition refers to the physical piece of paper used to collect signatures in order to qualify for the ballot. Recalls are a way to remove office holders who weren’t responding to their constituent’s wishes. 

The process for initiating initiatives is fairly simple, consisting of gaining clearance from the AZ Secretary of State to circulate a petition and then gathering the required number of signatures from registered voters. “If the signature requirements are met, (statutory changes require a number of signatures equal to at least 10 percent of the last gubernatorial vote, 15 percent for a constitutional initiative), the measure is placed on the next general election ballot for voters to decide by a simple majority.

But bringing an initiative home is another matter entirely. According to Dr. David R. Berman, Senior Research Fellow at the Morrison Institute for Public Policy, 425 initiative petitions had been “taken out” between 1970 and 2013, but only 67 (16%) made it to the ballot. And, less than half of those (32) were approved by voters, “making for an overall success rate – from petition to passage – of just 8 percent.” In fact, Berman writes that a “commonly employed rule of thumb is that one out of four gathered signatures will be rejected – often because the signee is not officially recorded as a registered voter.” 

And although Arizona has led the nation in using the Internet for voting-related matters such as online voter registration, to include gathering signatures for candidates, our Legislature has not supported making the initiative signature gathering process simpler. They’ve effectively ensured the signature gathering process is cumbersome (as in requiring that petition signers may not touch any part of the box lines on the petition as they fill them out) and expensive (upwards of $1 million for a statewide effort).

And sometimes we are our own worst enemy when we run numerous ballot measures in the same election. Of course, the Legislature doesn’t help by placing multiple ballot measures of their own on the ballot.

In his 2013 report titled, “Initiative Refore in Arizona: Exploring Some Ideas”, Dr. Berman expressed concern about a large number of ballot measures appearing on the ballot at the same time:

“[W]hen faced with a large number of initiative propositions, voters are less willing or able to examine each individual proposition in detail. In this situation, many decide not to vote – in any given election, 10 percent to 25 percent of those who vote for candidates at the top of the ballot fail to vote on one or more of the proposition measures. Others play it safe by simply voting “no” on all or most of the propositions. Those who plunge ahead and vote on numerous initiatives may wind up voting for something they do not like or against something they do like. In either case, they may later regret their decision.”

It gives me pause then, to have had six petitions lined up for signature at one time. Three, seeking to repeal voter suppression laws and three to repeal laws designed to circumvent Prop 208 (to raise more funding for schools), by implementing a new flat tax rate. The final petition in circulation at this time is a Voter’s Right to Know initiative to stop Dark Money from influencing our elections. This is our third try for this one. And according to Ballotpedia, there are six other ballot measures that were filed with the Secretary of State’s office, as well as three Legislature driven referendums that will be on the ballot.

What are the chances voters will take the time to understand these laws and then vote to repeal them? Isn’t there already a problem with voters taking time to vote down ballot even when they do show up to vote? I am concerned about the viability of these efforts. Yes, Arizonans have had some recent success with initiatives such as Props 123 and 208, but seven initiatives (plus whatever else comes) are a lot for voters to get behind.

And although signing petitions makes voters feel like they’ve taken real action, in the end they may just feel even more discouraged when yet again, we are unsuccessful in driving change. If we really want things to change, we must be laser-focused on gaining seats in the Legislature. Otherwise, we’re just watching Groundhog Day on automatic replay.  

Protecting Children Violates Parental Rights?

Okay, let me get this right. Governor Ducey is threatening to withhold federal COVID funding from Arizona districts who have mandated masks. Where do I begin with all the things wrong with that?

First of all, a Maricopa County Superior Court judge has already determined the school districts are not breaking the law, because it does not go into effect until September 29, 2021. Secondly, COVID funding ($163 million) was provided to the school districts by the Federal government, to mitigate the effects of…wait for it…YES, COVID relief!! Thirdly, according to all the real experts, masks have been proven to reduce transmission of COVID, even the Delta variant. Fourthly, when COVID first hit in 2020, Ducey and the AZ Legislature, were more than happy to initially leave mitigation strategies up to district school boards. It was a heavy responsibility, but school board members shouldered it because they cared about their students, their staffs, and their communities.

Now that school boards have proven their ability to ensure the safety of their students and staffs, Ducey has taken away their right to local control, just to appease his base for political gain.

As reported in today’s AZ Daily Star, Ducey said,

there’s nothing wrong, legally or otherwise, with his decision to provide new education funding only to K-12 schools that don’t require students and staff to wear masks. He said those dollars are reserved for schools interested in teaching, which for him, includes obeying state law.

For Governor Ducey to infer that districts worried about the safety of their students aren’t interested in teaching is absolutely ludicrous. Has he never heard of Maslow’s Hierachy of Needs which stipulates that before human beings can focus on love and belonging, esteem, and self-actualization, their basic physiological and safety needs must be met. These physiological needs include things such as food, water and breathing while the basic safety needs are are financial security, health and wellness, and safety against accidents and injury.

The school districts he’s threatening of course, are those who believe in science and facts, not political talking points. After all, the latest Center for Disease Control (CDC) guidance for masking in schools says, “Due to the circulating and highly contagious Delta variant, CDC recommends universal indoor masking by all students (age 2 and older), staff, teachers, and visitors to K-12 schools, regardless of vaccination status.” Likewise, on July 18, 2021, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), issued a universal school masking recommendation which said, All students older than 2 years and all school staff should wear face masks at school (unless medical or developmental conditions prohibit use).

When asked point blank whether he believes schools that require masks aren’t serious about education, Ducey responded with another GOP talking point, “I’m saying a parent can make that choice and I believe we ought to trust parents.” This, my readers, is where I really start to lose it. What part of (according to CDC research) “wearing multi-layered masks keeps around 95% of aerosols that may be infected from spreading” doesn’t he understand? Thing is, I’m sure he does understand it, he just doesn’t care because it doesn’t fit his political messaging.

The fact is,(yes, there are still facts) there have been multiple studies showing that when most people in a community mask up, rates of transmission slow down. According to the CDC, community masking leads to fewer diagnosed cases and reduces contraction likelihood by over 70% in high-risk areas. It just makes common sense that masks lessen the virus-laden particles people can transmit to other people. Isn’t that why parents teach their children to cover their mouth when they cough or sneeze? And, although the CDC was first promoting mask wearing to protect others, there is new evidence that wearing even a cloth mask can “reduce the amount of infectious droplets inhaled by the wearer”, thereby protecting them as well.

But enough with the facts already, we know that’s not what Ducey’s threats are about. They are rather, about Ducey’s personal political future as well as that of the AZ GOP. I mean come on…even Walmart, (whose net favorability leans GOP) has mandated masks for their employees. The science is good enough for Wally World employees but not for our children?

And for those who say it should be up to the parents? Following the logic (I know, I know, that’s a four (five)-letter word), makes me want to ask what about seat belts and child car seats? We don’t leave the decision to use these up to the parent. Why? Because their proper use saves lives. So does vaccination and masking for COVID.

Then there are those who claim they just don’t know who and what to believe anymore. They cite the changing guidance from the CDC as validation of their doubt. Yes, the CDC is due some of the hits it has taken. But keep in mind that Trump was hell-bent on discrediting them from the start and, instantaneous updates on the latest research results from both legitimate sources, and speculation from those not so much, keep us guessing about what’s real. Remember, the only thing that can refute science, is new science. Not opinion, feelings, hunches, etc. What we know about COVID continues to evolve — as it should — and smart people respond to the new science accordingly.

The Biden Administration is now looking at the launching civil rights probes to fight back against governors banning mask mandates. They should also be looking at clawing back the funding those states were given for COVID relief if that funding is going to used for political retribution. Here in Arizona, a group of education and children’s advocates including the Arizona School Boards Association (ASBA), Arizona Education Association and Children’s Action Alliance filed a lawsuit this week against the state law prohibiting school mask mandates. The lawsuit claims the Legislature violated the legislative process laid out by the Arizona Constitution whereby laws passed can cover only one subject and their contents must be properly noticed in the title of the bill. This process wasn’t followed to pass legislation prohibiting school mask mandates. In speaking on the lawsuit, Dr. Sheila Harrison-Williams, executive director of ASBA, said, “ASBA stands for local control; we do not want to mandate masks for all Arizona school districts; we simply want those districts and their locally elected school board to be able to decide what’s best for their students and staff”.

You would think that’s what the majority of Arizonans want. Local control over decisions that affect him or her, not being told what to do or think by some big city politician in Phoenix or Washington D.C. But, I continue to be surprised and dismayed by the direction we are heading and the speed with which we are getting there. PLEASE someone find the brakes!