The Point of Vouchers

Improving Educational Outcomes is Not the Point of Vouchers. In 2017, I wrote a post on titled “Vouchers: Some Common Sense Questions” that supported this fact. I’ve included some of the original post below. My updated comments, now six years later are included in italics below.

Just for a few moments, I’d like to ask you to please forget whether or not you believe school choice and vouchers are the answer to “Make American Education Great Again.” Forget all the hype and promises, just ask yourself which of these scenarios makes more sense?

Accountability and Transparency

Which is more accountable and transparent to parents, the taxpayers, and voters, and therefore less likely to experience less fraud, waste, and abuse? #1 Hint to the answer. #2 Hint to the answer. #3 Hint to the answer.
a. District schools that must report every purchase, competitively bid out purchases over a certain amount, have all purchases scrutinized by a locally elected governing board, undergo an extensive state-run audit each year, and are publicly reported on for performance efficiency and student achievement by the AZ Auditor General’s office each year?
b. A voucher system that puts the onus on recipient parents to submit proof of expenditures to an understaffed AZ Department of Education office responsible for monitoring the $37 million ($99.7 million from 2011 to 2017) in voucher expenditures for 4,102 different students?

Arizona’s ESA voucher program had over 50,000 recipients in March 2023 and is now costing the state over $500 million annually, with less oversight than ever. In fact, Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne bragged earlier this year that his office had approved 22,500 expenditures for reimbursement ($22 million worth), in a single day. And, the State Board of Education recently approved Horne’s new ESA Parent Handbook which actually decreases accountability.

Student Achievement

Which is more likely to be held accountable for student achievement and thereby taxpayer return on investment? Hint to the answer.
a. A district school where students are given a standardized state test with scores rolled up to the state and made public, where data is reported (following federal guidelines for data protection) by subgroups to determine achievement gaps, and where high school graduation and college attendance rates are reported?
b. A private school that does not provide any public visibility to test results and where the state (per law) has no authority to request or require academic progress from voucher recipients or the school?

Horne’s new ESA parent handbook (which previously stated a bachelor’s degree was required) now only requires a high school diploma instead of subject-matter degrees or certification. This move provides parents no guarantee that their child’s teachers have the knowledge or skill to teach core subjects. 

In addition, special education students desiring vouchers were previously required to be evaluated by a public school and receive a plan detailing their specific educational needs. Now, those students can be assessed by a doctor or psychologist, or at a private school. Keep in mind though, that, unlike public schools, private schools can refuse any student they don’t want to accept.

Funding for Public Schools

Which is more likely regarding the portability (with no impact) of per-student funding when students leave their district schools?
a. When a student leaves a district school with their education funding in their backpack, they take all associated expenses with them?
b. That there are fixed costs left behind (approx. 19%) that the school is required to still fund such as teachers and other staff that cannot be eliminated just because a couple of students left a classroom, or a bus route that can’t be done away with just because one student is no longer taking that bus, or a building air conditioner that can’t be turned off because the occupancy in the classrooms is down by three students. What the “drain” causes instead, is larger class sizes, fewer support services, less variety in the curricula, etc.?

The good news (if there is any), is that 75% of the students now taking vouchers, did not attend a public school before they qualified for a voucher. In other words, the vast majority were already attending private schools and therefore did not cause a massive drain of students from public schools. The bad news is that the cost to the state fund for the voucher program is unsustainable and if it doesn’t bankrupt the state, it will reduce funding for public education.

Are Vouchers Helping Disadvantaged Students?

Which is more likely to serve disadvantaged students — the ones most in need of our help? Hint to the answer.
a. A district school, where the vast majority of educational expenses are covered by the taxpayer, where students are transported from their home to school, where free and reduced lunches are provided, and which must accept all comers?
b. A $5,200 voucher to a private or parochial school that has total control over which students they accept, does not provide transportation, and costs an average of $6,000 for elementary schools in 2016-17?

ESA vouchers in Arizona now provide approximately $7,000 per student, regardless of household income. Not surprisingly, the cost of private school tuition has also gone up to an average of $9,576 per year for elementary school and $13,902 for high school. After all, why wouldn’t private school operators raise tuition when the voucher amount increases? 

Obviously, the most disadvantaged students will have a hard time finding their way to private schools considering the $2,500 to $7,000 out-of-pocket expense just for tuition. That doesn’t even take into account the requirement for parents to provide transportation and, the lack of any sort of free or reduced meal program. 

When it comes to transparency, accountability, and equity, district schools outperform private schools. I’d also like to make the unequivocal claim that district schools also (across the board) produce more achievement than private schools, but they don’t report their results so I don’t know that for sure.

Are Vouchers Producing Better Academic Outcomes?

National education expert Diane Ravitch recently reported that “new evaluations of vouchers in Washington, D.C., Indiana, Louisiana, and Ohio show some of the largest test score drops ever seen in the research record–between -0.15 and -0.50 standard deviations of learning loss.” If you aren’t a professional educator, those numbers might not mean much to you. Let’s just say that the learning loss was similar to that experienced during the COVID-19 pandemic and larger than what Hurricane Katrina did to New Orleans academics. 

Ravitch goes on to say that this is happening because “elite private schools with strong academics and large endowments often decline to participate in voucher plans. Instead, the typical voucher school is a financially distressed, sub-prime private provider often jumping at the chance for a tax bailout to stay open a few extra years.”

No matter how much sugar the privatizers try to coat vouchers with, they are still just a vehicle for siphoning tax dollars away from our district community schools to private and parochial (religious) schools with no accountability or transparency. For every person who says “parents have the right to use their child’s education tax dollars as they see fit”, I say, “and taxpayers have the right to know the return on investment for their tax dollars.” The former right in no way “trumps” the latter.

Every Family for Themselves

Peter Greene, a well-recognized education blogger, recently wrote a post on his blog “Curmudgucation”, titled “Vouchers are About Abandoning Public Education, Not Freeing Parents”. He says we should think of vouchers this way,

“The state announces, ‘We are dismantling the public education system. You are on your own. You will have to shop for your child’s education, piece by piece, in a marketplace bound by very little oversight and very few guardrails. In this new education ecosystem, you will have to pay your own way. To take some of the sting out of this, we’ll give you a small pocketful of money to help defray expenses. Good luck.’

It’s not a voucher system. It’s a pay your own way system. It’s a you’re on your own system. The voucher is not the point of the system; it’s simply a small payment to keep you from noticing that you’ve just been cut loose.

Freedom and empowerment will come, as always, in direct proportion to the amount of money you have to spend.”

Greene warns that “the voucher amount will dwindle” as public schools are left with those students who don’t have any other option. “Vouchers,” he says, are “the tail, not the dog. They are the public-facing image of privatization– and not just privatization of the “delivery” of education. Voucherization is also about privatizing the responsibility for educating children, about telling parents that education is their problem, not the community’s.”

Improving educational outcomes is not the point of vouchers. The point, my friends, is to reduce the power of the people, by reducing the size of government and diminishing our voice. The point is to dismantle the public square and the common good, leaving us all to fend for ourselves in a sort of hunger games that only the game masters (the rich and powerful) win. 


Stop Diverting Our Public Education Funding!

The GOP loves to tout free enterprise

But they sure don’t have a problem diverting public education funding to private schools. As reported in the AZ Daily Starthis morning, Rep. Matt Gress, R-Phoenix, is pushing a bill to once again divert taxpayer dollars to private schools. This time, the goal is to provide scholarships for a degree in education to students attending private and religious colleges. The scholarships would require students to teach one year in a public school for every year funding was accepted.

This bill would expand the Teachers Academy created in 2017 at Governor Ducey’s request. The program currently pays a year of college tuition at public community colleges and universities for education degrees in exchange for each year of teaching in an Arizona public school. This year’s $15M budget for the program was woefully inadequate with as many as 300 students on the scholarship waitlist at ASU. Governor Hobbs has proposed another $15M in her budget to handle the shortfall, but I’m guessing the GOP-led Legislature will agree to that (maybe) if the funding can go to private colleges.

Even if the additional funding was approved, Grand Canyon University could suck up $17M of it all on its own. According to the school, they have 3,000 students enrolled in programs to help make them certified teachers and at least 80% of those will teach in public schools. The good in that is that we’d have more certified teachers filling Arizona district and charter classrooms.

Attacking Separation of Church and State

The bad news is that $17M is more than the program’s current funding, and GCU mandates students must sign a statement of faith that includes an acknowledgment that marriage is between a man and a woman. GCU’s Statement on the Integration of Faith and Work also states, “Jesus Christ is both Savior and Lord… and that salvation comes through Jesus Christ alone.”

GCU has offered same-sex marriage benefits to employees since 2015, a move they took voluntarily. Their website also states that one must not be Christian to attend the university. But, this is yet another example of the effort to divert taxpayer dollars to private schools and private religious schools in particular. It also is another attempt to break down our nation’s long-standing separation of church and state.

As for program funding, the Joint Legislative Budget Committee fiscal note attached to the bill states that “the appropriation is not tied to a statutory formula”. This, the JLBC says, allows private institutions to offer scholarships that may decrease the allocation to public universities.

Long-Term Goal – More Conservative Teachers?

The problem isn’t that our public community colleges and universities can’t produce more teachers. Rather, the problem is the lack of additional funding to provide scholarships for this program. Opening up the program to private schools, even with the additional $15M Governor Hobbs is proposing, won’t help the scholarship shortfalls at our state universities, but may drive those students to the private schools. Long-term, that would likely mean more conservative teachers in our public schools – a change all of us would have helped pay for. Wait…could that be part of the plan?

And, Arizona’s GOP-led Legislature has proven itself totally disinterested in ensuring any kind of accountability and transparency in the awarding of taxpayer dollars to private K-12 schools. How can we believe this would be any different?

One of the Few Unifying Institutions We Have Left

Once again, they are instead, working to dismantle our public schools. This, according to Daniel Buck, a rising star conservative education writer. He writes that public schools are, “one of the few unifying institutions that we have left”. Buck goes on to say, “If we continue to individualize and atomize the classroom, we shouldn’t be surprised if our culture and political climate follow suit”.

Education blogger Peter Greene first wrote about Buck making a case for public education. Green writes of Buck,

“The argument he makes in this latest piece–that the nation benefits from having students share core experiences together while learning some of the same material even as they learn how to function in a mini-community of different people from different backgrounds–that’s an argument familiar to advocates of public education. The “agonizing individualism” and personalized selfishness that he argues against are, for many people, features of modern school choice–not public schools.”

So yes, I have concerns with this bill for several reasons. But, my greatest concern is the further erosion it helps precipitate, of our common good, our common identity, our unifying forces. We seem to be rapidly devolving into a “screw you, it’s all about me” form of self-identity where there is no value in those things that contribute to the common good and no participation in the public square. Public schools, in the words of Thomas Jefferson,

“Is here placed among the articles of public care, not that it would be proposed to take its ordinary branches out of the hands of private enterprise, which manages so much better all the concerns to which it is equal, but a public institution can alone supply those sciences which, though rarely called for, are yet necessary to complete the circle, all the parts of which contribute to the improvement of the country, and some of them to its preservation.”

Public schools, from preschool to the university level, bring together people from many different walks of life. Segregation, often (sometimes inadvertently) fueled by financial means, or the desire to be around (or have your kids be around) people just like you, only serves to exacerbate our differences and our polarization.

Our Public Schools Knit Our Communities Together

Our Founding Fathers understood this, wrote author Derek Black on, they knew public education was key to the survival of our democracy. Thomas Jefferson once warned against the “‘tyranny’ of government that would follow unless ‘the people at large’ were ‘educated at the common expence of all'”. John Adams went even further, saying that, the education of “every rank and class of people, down to the lowest and the poorest” had “to be the care of the public” and “maintained at the public expense.” The importance of it he said, required that, “no expense…would be too extravagant.”

Black went on to write in his book “Schoolhouse Burning: Public Education and the Assault on American Democracy”,

“America’s education story is ultimately a story of the tension between the idea that the nation’s democracy rests on the foundation of education and the inability to ever fully deliver on that commitment. Education, like democracy, has long been a work in progress. But that progress has come by remaining fixed on our fundamental ideas, not questioning them because of our own failures to reach them – and certainly not relacing them with something else. And as we ponder our own distinct, yet similar, challenges in providing education to all and uniting a polarized nation, we would be well served to ask whether we will resolve them by moving further away from or closer to our public educaiton commitments.”

We know how to fix public schools. At the root of it all are our teachers. Paying them what they are worth, respecting their expertise, and yes…in the beginning…ensuring they get the absolute best education we can provide. The quality of that education won’t improve if we continue to divert funding. Let’s focus on our public schools of teacher education for our public schools of student learning. Let’s keep our democracy strong!

(Update) A Crack in the Privatization Movement?

The BASIS Tucson North charter in Oro Valley voted to unionize this past Wednesday night. By a 2 to 1 margin, teachers voted to found a local union chapter of the Arizona Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff. This charter is now the first in Arizona to have staff join a union, an affiliate of the nation’s second-largest teacher labor union, the American Federation of Teachers.

Say it is not so! Teachers at BASIS felt the need to form a union to ensure more money for hiring and retaining teachers. What has the world come to when we can’t rely on businesses to do the right thing and take care of their employees without some pesky union getting in the way?

Trudi Connolly, a member of the union organizing committee explained the rationale for unionizing.

“The union was needed because we were losing teachers and the essence of the school’s culture at an unbelievable rate. We want to protect the aspirations we’ve always had for our school. Under current circumstances, we can’t retain enough teachers to educate our students, let alone provide them with the dept of intellectual experience and support they deserve. Teachers, indeed like all kinds of workers all over the country, are coming together to make sure they have a real voice in what the future of our workplaces looks like. In our case, we want our workplace to be one where teachers thrive and students get the education they deserve.”

Teachers and administrators of public school districts across the state share this sentiment. But, Arizona is a “right to work” state. This means an employer is prohibited from denying a person the opportunity to be hired or retained because they are not a member of a labor organization.

The Arizona Education Association, (and its local district chapters), represents 20,000 members.

The AEA can lobby for employees at the Legislature. They can also represent them in negotiation efforts such as “meet and confer”, a board-adopted policy to ensure both sides negotiate in good faith in a sincere effort to be heard and reach a consensus. They can also represent employees in “interest-based bargaining”, enabling negotiators to act more like joint problem-solvers. The AEA may not, however, engage in “collective bargaining” for the employees.   And, district employees are prevented from going on strike and if they do, they can be fired and replaced.

For further clarification, I reached out to a lawyer friend of mine who has extensive Arizona education policy experience. He said Arizona does not allow for collective bargaining but that doesn’t mean employees can’t unionize. It does, however, mean they can’t be required to join the union as a condition of employment (the “right to work” part). Just because the employer is not obligated to engage in collective bargaining, doesn’t mean some representation and organizing can’t occur.

Most school districts “meet and confer” with their employees.

Although school districts aren’t obligated to “meet and confer” with their employees, many do. Partly because some Boards require it and because there is some connection between being elected by the public and being responsive to the staff. That same dynamic would likely not be present in a charter like BASIS. In fact, according to, Arizona law provides that all charter schools are their own legal entity and thus are not required to abide by any outside agreements. It will be interesting then, to see what becomes of this new union’s efforts to bargain on behalf of its members at the BASIS school.

Did unions create charters?

I thought it ironic that unions were gaining a foothold in charter schools since a common narrative was that unions played a part in creating charters, to begin with. Additional research, however, proved this narrative suspect. Rachel Cohen, in, wrote in 2017 that legendary AFT president Albert Shanker played a much smaller role in creating the charter concept than he has been credited with. Rather, she claims,

“At its outset, the real power in the charter coalition was what might be termed the ‘technocratic centrists’: business leaders, moderate Republicans, and DLC members looking for Third Way solutions that couldn’t be labeled big-government liberalism.”

She goes on to say,

“The mythological origin story of charter schools—the Shanker myth—has served an important role in keeping the charter coalition together. The idea that charters come from unions lends a certain weight-of-history inevitability to school reform. It suggests that everyone has agreed that change must come, and the only question is from who, and what it’ll look like in the end.”

Cohen posited that the “Shanker tale” may have “helped undermine progressive school choice advocates, who find themselves chasing a vision that has never played a major role in the inner circles of school reform”. Most charters she writes,

“Are more segregated than traditional public schools, are non-union, and when charter educators do mount union campaigns, they almost always face tremendous opposition. If the promise of unionized, integrated, teacher-centered charters has proven devilishly difficult to fulfill, it may be, in part, because the movement’s leaders never took it very seriously to begin with.”

A movement is afoot.

That was in 2017 and now, approximately 12% of U.S. charter schools have unionized. BASIS union organizer Duncan Hasman believes a movement is underway saying “A win in Arizona is a signifier that charter school teachers are ready to start making their voices heard across the nation”. A union press release stated, they will work towards, “additional accountability, administrative transparency, and more resources and time to effectively identify and address student needs”.

I reached out to AFT prior to publishing this article and they asked Duncan to get in touch with me. He did and told me he has (along with the organizing committee) been working on unionizing for a couple of years. The decision to organize wasn’t due to a “straw that broke the camel’s back”, but rather, resulted from recognition of a structural problem. There just wasn’t a mechanism for teacher considerations or recommendations to be heard. And, there wasn’t any strength in individual negotiation.

I asked Duncan how Arizona’s “right to work” law and prohibition against collective bargaining affected the union’s ability to organize and their bargaining efforts. He said they did have to reassure teachers that organizing and forming a union was still possible despite state laws. The OC addressed their concerns and now their approach, informed by data and an understanding of how the system works, will amplify teachers’ voices and give strength to power.

When I asked him if he worries about what the AZ Legislature will do to try to negate this victory, he said that, “As an organizer, you know what you have control over and you know what you don’t. Our group of teachers has control over what they say and do, but we can’t control the Legislature”. 

Time will tell how successful their efforts will be in a state whose Legislature is way more business-friendly than teacher-friendly, regardless of the type of school. BASIS Eighth-grade algebra teacher Justine Sleator explained her hopes for the effort,

“Our union will allow us to reprioritize the needs of our students. We will be able to protect new teachers from burnout and retain high-quality educators, as BASIS has been known for.”

That need is universal, especially in this time of ever-increasing pressures placed on our public schools and educators. Really, why would anyone want to be a teacher these days with our lawmakers constantly looking for ways to make their jobs even more demanding? The bottom line for Duncan Hasman is that teachers at his school “needed a voice”. There was no structural way for teachers to come together and share their experiences and needs with either management or the community they serve. 

Ultimately, privatization is not about “giving power to the people”. Rather, it is about giving power to “The Man” (business). Maybe this win at BASIS will act as a small crack in the privatization movement. At the very least, it will likely show that although BASIS has a reputation for student achievement, it comes at a cost. It will be interesting to see how that bill is paid. 

Curb Gun Violence Against Children by Home Schooling

We are pathetic. Yes, all of us. We obviously don’t care enough about the carnage going on in our schools, our churches, our theaters, our grocery stores, our concerts, our workplaces, and myriad other places. If we cared enough, we would do something to curb gun violence.

I’ll be the first to admit that I started to feel hopeless, powerless, and numb after 20 first graders and six adults were slaughtered at Sandy Hook in 2012. After all, I thought, if this doesn’t change things, what will?

More than a decade and eight mass school shootings later, not much has changed. In all, as reported by the AZ Daily Starjust this morning, 175 students have been massacred in 15 school shootings since 1999. As grisly as that number is, you may have been surprised it wasn’t larger. But then, it doesn’t include all the other mass shootings, defined as where four or more people are killed. So far in 2023, we’ve seen 130 mass shootings in the United States…averaging more than one per day. And, these heinous acts don’t just kill people, they make the rest of us fearful, just as terrorism is designed to do.

Thankfully, we now have some data about the extent and causes of the carnage since President Obama blocked the two-decade effort by the gun lobby and GOP to prevent the CDC from conducting gun research. Facts like this one reported by, help us understand the problem,

“Just over 100 people, on average, are killed by firearms in the U.S. every day. That includes crimes, suicides, gun accidents, and shootings involving law enforcement.” 

And according to the Kaiser Family Foundation, (also from CDC data),

“Firearms were the leading cause of death in children between ages 1 and 19″ in 2020.”

No other peer country except for Canada had firearms in their top 5 causes of death for this age group. Canada’s 48 deaths (versus our 4,357) made it their 5th highest cause of death. Our high number of deaths is not so surprising when you learn that in 2017, the U.S. had 4% of the world’s population, but owned 46% of the guns. WTF?

We have met the enemy…and he is us! You, me, all of us. Because you see, a healthy democracy doesn’t allow “checking out”. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” He understood that when we don’t engage in our democracy, we abdicate our rights to self-govern and fully live our lives the way we choose. Author Daniel Suarez put it this way, “Democracy requires active participation, and sooner or later someone ‘offers’ to take all the difficult decision-making away from you and your hectic life.”

The only problem is those “someones” we are counting on to make the difficult decisions, aren’t doing it. In this morning’s New York Times, Congressman Tim Burchett (R), Tennesse, was quoted saying about additional gun safety measures, “We’re not going to fix it…criminals are going to be criminals”. This was just hours after three children and three adults were killed at a school in his home state. He said he saw no “real role” for Congress in this matter and offered “his solution for protecting his family was to home-school his children”. In other words, the hell with all y’all, I’m taking care of mine. And, Tennessee’s governor basically touted a “murderers gonna murder” trope when he said, “we can’t control what they do”.

Burchett is not alone in his refusal to act. The New York Times reports that Senator John Cornyn (R), Texas has dismissed President Biden’s calls for banning assault weapons as a set of “tired talking points”. Senator Cynthia Lummis (R), Wyoming said “I don’t think there’s any appetite” when referring to her party’s unwillingness to take on gun control legislation.

Senate Chaplain Barry Black however, didn’t hold back in an unusually urgent plea for action. He prayed aloud to “deliver our senators from the paralysis of analysis that waits for the miraculous.” “When babies die at a church school” he said, “it is time for us to move beyond thoughts and prayers”. Not sure why it should matter that it was a church school, but have you noticed that GOP lawmakers are no longer offering their thoughts and prayers? That’s because they learned that, “that dog don’t hunt”. Instead with this latest shooting, they’ve decided they are just done with the whole thing, (as Congressman Burchett articulated) and are throwing the bullet (er…) ball, back in our court.

Well, as Abraham Lincoln said, “The ballot is stronger than the bullet” and that’s where “we the people” reclaim our power. That’s where we live the values we proclaim. That’s where we prove our individual and collective moral character by acting per our beliefs.

So, let’s not let the ball lie in our court. Let’s pick it up and commit to acting for change. How do we do that?
1. Vote in every election and help register and encourage others to vote
2. Join, donate, and volunteer for an organization such as or or, or myriad others.
3. Know which candidates support reducing gun violence and vote for them, volunteer for them, and donate to their campaigns.
4. If you can’t find someone you believe can affect the change needed, run for office yourself.
5. Hold your current lawmakers, at every level, accountable. Follow what they are doing and speak out when they don’t do the right thing. You can write letters to the editor; email, write, or call them; post about their actions on social media; or sometimes even make in-person or online “calls to the public”.

Except for running for office, the above actions are probably the bare minimum for one person to be able to affect any change. And of course, it will take many of us working together to really make a difference. Think Mothers Against Drunk Driving which “helped get over 1,000 new laws involving alcohol passed on both a local and national level, including laws regarding server liability, the setting up of sobriety checkpoints, and raising the minimum drinking age.”

With more than 393 million civilian-owned firearms in the U.S. in 2018 (one for every person with 67 million left over), change won’t happen overnight. But…could we at least start moving in the right direction? Even now, GOP lawmakers around the country continue to look for ways to make firearms even more accessible by arming teachers, allowing gun carry on campuses, limiting gun-free zones, removing background checks, and rolling back red-flag laws. The trend won’t reverse until these lawmakers are sent packing.

The Pew Research Center conducted a survey in 2021 that showed “nearly three-quarters of Americans think that gun violence is a big or moderately big problem.” What we don’t all agree on, is how to fix it. That, however, is what we pay our lawmakers to figure out. To…wait for it…compromise to find the best possible solution not just for themselves, not for just their constituents, but for the whole damn country. THAT, my friends, is how we make America great again. Let’s start (today) holding them, and ourselves, accountable to do just that.

The Indispensability of Community Public Schools

Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines indispensable as “absolutely necessary” and “not subject to being set aside or neglected”. I can think of no better word to describe how important our public schools have been, and are, to our communities and country. Unfortunately, the GOP has made it clear they want to privatize and defund public schools. They are working very hard to “set aside and neglect” our community (real) public schools at the risk of great peril to our nation.

Yesterday, U.S. public education advocate #1, Diane Ravitch, published a blog post titled “Inclusion: the key to public school’s value” from Stephen Owens on his blog Common Grace, Common Schools. I hadn’t read anything from Owens before but found his writing both powerful and spot-on. Owens has a Ph.D. in education policy from the University of Georgia and is Director of Education at the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute. His truth-to-power straight talk aimed (at least in this post) at white people and Christians, is all the more powerful because he is himself, an evangelical Christian.

“Not only” writes Owens, “are parts of American public schooling unique, but reflect central tenets of the Christian faith.” Three of the tenets he cites are inclusion, equity, and accountability. I’ve written plenty about accountability before and in fact, believe the lack of accountability is the number one problem (or at least in the top three) facing our society today.

As for inclusion and equity, our community public schools promise to educate all, and helped make our nation the powerhouse it is. “Meanwhile”, writes Anya Kamenetz in the New York Times, “a well-funded, decades-old movement that wants to do away with public school as we know it is in ascendance.” Kamenetz is a longtime education reporter and author of “The Stolen Year: How Covid Changed Children’s Lives, and Where We Go Now”. She maintains the extended school closures during the COVID pandemic “effectively broke the social compact of universal, compulsory schooling. Sad but true, parents with means did what could ensure their kids continued to learn and the rest made do with what they had. Increasingly now, students are being home-schooled, attending private schools, or are otherwise absent from their community schools. Teacher shortages are at a crisis level, with many who are still teaching experiencing intense burnout.

Pro-choice advocates are no doubt, rejoicing at this manna dropped from heaven (or maybe pushed up from hell). Undermining our community public schools and the dedicated educators that toil in them has never been easier. Their gains, however, tear at the fabric of our communities, especially in rural locations where the school maybe not only the major employer but also the hub of the community. This is largely true because community schools, regardless of parents’ ability to pay, ensure students are educated, transported to and from school, fed, given medical attention as needed, and provided specialized help when their circumstances warrant. And, let’s be honest, they are often the source of free child care for families.

As much as we’d like to believe our society is a true meritocracy writes Owens, the “brutal truth of schooling in the U.S. is that parental income is strongly predictive of educational outcomes. The real difference in who makes it or not, he says, “is whether your parents have enough money to provide 1) security (food and housing), 2) accountability, 3) targeted support and 4) social capital.” Of course, the GOP continues to push the notion that all the supposed “disadvantaged” need to do is “pull themselves up by their bootstraps”, totally ignoring the fact that this isn’t even physically possible, even if it were true.

As for what is painfully true, many in the GOP want to go back to the “Leave it to Beaver” days. You know, when the neighborhood was all white and comfortably middle class. When Dad went off to work and Mom stayed home and cleaned the house and cooked in her dress, high heels, and pearls. Concern for the common good evidently was much easier in a homogenous society with similar values and understandings. Remember when we used to all watch Walter Cronkite at 5pm to learn about “the way that it was” for each day? That shared understanding of the news, fairly void of opining, provided us common ground upon which to stand.

Likewise, our community schools brought us together to increase our understanding of each other as we became (hopefully) productive members of society. “Without public education delivered as a public good,” writes Kamenetz, “the asylum seeker in detention, the teenager in jail, not to mention millions of children growing up in poverty, will have no realistic way to get the instruction they need to participate in democracy or support themselves”.

Of course, it isn’t just the disadvantaged that suffer, but all of us as evidenced by our extremely high level of polarization. There can be no doubt as to social media’s influence on our polarization, particularly those attacks from our enemies on the global stage (China and Russia for example). But, it is the efforts to rob our community schools of critical funding, dedicated teachers, and the ability to teach the truth, that are most insidious. As Kamenezt points out, “students of privilege will stay confined in their bubbles. Americans will lose the most powerful social innovation that helps us construct a common reality and try, imperfectly, to understand one another.” “In the eyes of conservative activists,” she says, “public education is the enemy of the people, alongside the deep state and the mainstream media, and they are working hard to make the American people believe it too.”

And their tactics are working on a swath of America. According to Phi Delta Kappan (a professional organization for educators) poll from 2020, 53% of Americans support using public tax dollars to pay for private school tuition (48% for religious schools). This should not be entirely surprising as the GOP has worked this very hard for at least 40 years when President Reagan promised to eliminate the U.S. Department of Education and Grover Nordquist advocated drowning the government in the bathtub.

As part of their Machiavellian scheme, the GOP has managed to market private school choice options as the ones that offer parents the most control. The truth is the exact opposite (what a shock). Public schools are the only school choice option that offers parents total accountability and transparency. Other school choice options offer virtually none of either.

I once thought GOP stood for “Grand Old Party”, but now I think maybe it is “Gaslighters or Prevaricators”. Ain’t tryin’ to be hatin’ on those on the Right. I understand they are not a monolithic group. Would just really like to see the party stand for something again instead of just spouting negative ideology. We need a strong two-party system to find good solutions to the many problems our country faces. And, we need to set a good example for our children so they can lead into the future they will inherit. One where the common good is again good and common and…it really matters to all of us.

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.

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 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.

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