Manufactured Crises

The AZ Capitol Times reports that although Governor Ducey is disavowing any connection to the effort, the GOP’s attack on Arizona’s public (district) schools is far from over. Sean Noble, the political hack running the two 2018 ballot measures though, “funneled millions into Ducey’s 2014 campaign through dark money groups.”

The first initiative would require 60 percent of district funding to be spent in the classroom, (per the U.S. Department of Education.) The second initiative looks to “cap executive pay in K–12 public schools at no more than twice the average teacher pay in the same school district or the highest salary a principal receives within that district, whichever is lower.”

What the hell? I mean, the ink isn’t even dry on the full expansion of vouchers and now the GOP is again trying to stick it to our district students by allegedly solving a problem that doesn’t really exist.

First of all, it is telling that Noble defines classroom spending as “defined by the U.S. Department of Education.” What???? Defer to the Feds about how to do something in Arizona? He obviously knows there is a disconnect in our state between how the AZ Auditor General defines classroom spending and how the Governor, Legislature, and public school leaders define it. The AZ Auditor General defines classroom spending (or instruction) as: “Salaries and benefits for teachers and instructional aides; costs related to instructional supplies, such as pencils, paper, and workbooks; instructional software; athletics; cocurricular activities, such as band or choir; and tuition paid to private institutions.” Our lawmakers though, agree with the Arizona School Boards Association’s (ASBA) definition of what they call “classroom support” which includes funding allotted to “instructional support and student support.” This categories include reading and math intervention specialists, librarians, counselors, speech pathologists, physical therapists, nurses and social workers which due to the high number of Arizona students who live at or below the poverty line, is critical for students to be successful in the classroom. “In 2015, the definition made it into state law, when the governor, legislators and educators agreed that a more holistic approach was required. As a result, the state’s budget for fiscal year 2016 identified student support and instructional support services along with instruction as the categories that support classroom learning.” This should therefore, be no need to turn to any guidance from the U.S. DOE on what defines classroom spending.

Defintion aside, Arizona districts do a good job of ensuring they are spending their limited monies where they will most matter. In FY 2016, the total amount for classroom, instructional and student support amounted to 67.4% which is down only slightly from the 68.3% in 2001. Chuck Essigs, director of governmental relations for the Arizona Association of School Business Officials, notes that is “a very small decline given the many significant cuts to school district funding over this period of time, including the elimination of funding for full-day kindergarten and the current annual cut of over $350 million to district additional assistance.” Likewise, an ASBA analysis determined that, “Arizona’s classroom spending continues to be impacted by its low per-pupil funding which is ranked 48th in the nation, students who are poorer than the national average, higher plant operations costs due to extreme temperatures and high transportation costs to serve rural and remote areas.” In fact, over the last 9 years, the Arizona Legislature has cut District Additional Assistance (monies used for textbooks, technology, items like desks and school buses and building repair and maintenance like fixing roofs and plumbing and repairing air conditioners) by two billion dollars, forcing districts to redirect funding they would otherwise have spent in the classroom. In total, our state has cut $4.56 billion dollars to public schools since 2009 – leading the nation in per pupil cuts. This is important, because all categories of costs don’t shrink evenly when a budget gets cut. Fixed costs (such as teacher numbers constrained by numbers of students), and those associated with utilities, building maintenance, and transportation for example, remain, and then eat up a bigger piece of a smaller pie.

I couldn’t find the US DOE definition of classroom spending Noble refers to. I did find a discussion about “instruction” spending. According to the National Center of Education Statistics (NCES), this includes “salaries and benefits of teachers and teaching assistants as well as costs for instructional materials and instructional services provided under contract.” On their website, the NCES noted that in 2013–14, instruction percentages were 61% of current expenditures. They also said that these expenditures peaked in 2009–10 (shrinking across the nation since then.)

The initiative to “cap executive pay”, is equally misleading. First off, “cap executive pay” makes it sound like our Superintendents are CEOs of giant corporations living the good life. No, that would be ACTUAL CEOs of corporations, not school district administrators. Secondly, Arizona public school administrative costs are below the national average at 10.4% versus 10.9%. And oh by the way, many of these “executives” are in small rural districts, where their jobs are nothing like that of a CEO. “The New York Times reported that, ”In the Miami Unified School District east of Phoenix, the superintendent is also a grant writer and the principal of the elementary school is also in charge of keeping the toilets running, as the district’s director of maintenance.” As for Arizona superintendents being overpaid, not so much. The median school superintendent salary in the U.S. as of March 31, 2017 was $151.636. Although the Phoenix median approaches this number at about $150,000, the median in Tucson is only $137,396 in Lake Havasu City it is $123,108, and in Sierra Vista, it drops to $119,199.

It might be noted by the way, that Arizona’s critical teacher shortage isn’t the only shortage our districts are facing. In 2015, the superintendent turnover rate was the highest seen in the past five years. That same year, of the 45 superintendent openings in the spring, seven were still unfilled by July and 28 were filled by a person with no superintendent experience. And just like 25% of our teachers are eligible to retire by 2020, so were nearly 50% of working superintendents between the ages of 56 and 60, planning to retire soon. Dr. Debra Duvall, former executive director of the Arizona School Administrators Association, said she suspects superintendents are fleeing for many of the same reasons teachers are, basically, that both educational resources and salaries have been stagnant or declining for the past decade. Usurping the local control authority of locally elected governing boards to apply an arbitrary cap, is certainly not the way to turn the tide on our ability to recruit and retain the quality superintendents we need in Arizona.

What we all know this is really about, is continuing to plant the lie in the public’s mind, that district schools are inefficient bloated bureaucracies and that commercializing our schools is the way to go. At least in Arizona, nothing could be further from the truth! If fact, if you want to talk about excessive spending on administration versus instruction, charter schools take the cake. Arizona charter schools spend twice the amount on administration ($1,451 versus $804 in FY2016) as do district schools. And also in FY2016, charter schools spent only 55.33% on classroom instruction, supplies and student support compared to district schools which invested 61.99%.

In short, these “problems” Noble seeks to solve with his initiatives, are manufactured crises, not reality. Of course, he won’t be deterred, saying he has “a ‘couple’ of wealthy Arizonans lined up in support of the plans.” I would just caution him not to allow his wealthy donors to reward the legislators with a free lunch celebration in the event he is successful. Speaker of the Arizona House J.D. Mesnard wisely realized the optics of this with the free lunch offered lawmakers by the American Federation for Children (Betsy DeVos was the chair prior to her SecED gig) after the voucher expansion passage. It doesn’t play well to pass laws that screw over our kids (while benefitting rich donors and corporations) and then do a victory lap around the Capitol.

Republicans should be embarrassed by vouchers for all and should pay the political price

Cross-posted from skyislandscriber.com

Greg Miller, a Republican, charter school founder, and past president of the AZ Board of Education, holds the GOP support of voucher expansion bill an insult to most students. And it is an insult to the rest of us who understand, what our state supreme court does not, that the AZ voucher program is a scam. It is nothing more than money laundering to get around the constitutional prohibition against giving public money to private, religious schools. As such the voucher program is an assault on public education. Period.

Here is Miller’s opinion piece in the Arizona Capitol Times (subscription required) – emphases added.

As an advocate for education reform for the past 35 years, a co-founder of a very successful charter school, a lifelong Republican, and the most recent past president of the Arizona State Board of Education, I have never been more embarrassed, outraged, disappointed, and angry to call myself a Republican. How on earth do the Republicans in the state Legislature who voted for the Empowerment Scholarship Account (voucher) bill, or our governor, who signed it, look in the mirror and in good faith, not understand what they have just done.

This is an outrageous attack against public education. This out-and-out transfer of state taxpayer money to private education through “school choice” is just what it seems, political rhetoric and very bad financial policy. It even blurs the separation of church and state line defined in the U.S. Constitution by our founders. Public education has been the equalizer for 150 years of economic growth and assimilation of immigrants into the culture that we enjoy today. This is an insult to the hundreds of thousands of students who do not have the resources to pay the additional thousands of dollars for the tuition these private schools will be charging above the state subsidy, and without the opportunity of a quality education provided in their local schools where due process and common goals of expectation drive the continued development of economic expansion for everyone, not just a privileged few.

Does the existing system have its troubles? Yes it does. Has the education reform movement of the past 25 years made a difference? Yes, but with miles left to go. Is money the only answer to solve the major issues in public education? No, but as a state you can starve the system to death. Without adequate funding for public education we have: 35 or more students in classrooms, teacher shortages resulting in 2,000 to 3,000 classrooms going without teachers, hundreds of teachers walking away from their existing classrooms (500 this past fall) because of the stress of the job, the politics of the institutions, and the low pay in one of the highest stress professions. This is our current situation, but instead of finding solutions we are letting more state tax money flow out of the existing system without accountability or transparency.

Are our classroom teachers getting the job done? Many are not! But their efforts are not the only reason: first generation immigrants, exaggerated federal rules and requirements, poverty, highly mobile student populations, uninvolved parents, teaching resources, a lack of commitment to children by their families and the state, and the list goes on! But in a state that is ranked at, or near, the bottom in every category of financial support for public education, how on earth can anyone, let alone those who are responsible for the stewardship of our children’s education and our tax dollars, support or even condone this disgraceful attack on our state’s economic future?

A great big thank you to my fellow Republicans at the Legislature who held ground and used common sense by not giving in to the pressure of those who have crafted and moved this bill to signature. All Republicans that share this view use your vote in next summer’s Republican primary to replace anyone who supported this transfer of economic wealth from our public school system to the private schools of the wealthy.

— Greg Miller is president and superintendent of Challenge Charter School and a former president of the state Board of Education.

Arizona fails its future as Doug Ducey, our "Education governor", goes mum on teacher exodus

Cross-posted from skyislandscriber.com

Actually I’m not being fair. Dougie proposed a 0.4%raise (which works out to a couple of dollars a week) and then signed off on vouchers for everyone (that siphons off several thousand public dollars to private, religious schools). That’s what an “education governor” does. It gets worse. Read on and weep.

Arizona State University’s Morrison Institute for Public Policy has released a fact sheet highlighting the key findings of an upcoming report on Finding & Keeping Educators for Arizona’s Classrooms. (h/t BlueMeanie.) Here are the bullet points.

  • Arizona annually is losing more teachers than bachelor of education degrees produced by its three universities.
  • When adjusted for cost-of-living, Arizona elementary school teacher pay is the lowest in the nation. High
    school teacher pay ranks 48th of the 50 states.
  • When adjusted for inflation, elementary school teachers here are paid 14% less than in 2001. Arizona secondary teachers are being paid 11% less.
  • 74% of Arizona school administrators surveyed said their campuses are experiencing a shortage of teachers.
  • Arizona teacher rosters do not reflect state demographics, offering limited role models for children of color.

And on top of all that, Ducey sticks it to our teachers by proposing a niggardly, insulting 0.4% raise. See Laurie Roberts’ comments in Is Ducey joking? A 4/10th’s of a percent pay raise for teachers?

I know Ducey’s in a tough spot because money’s tight due to a quarter century of tax cuts and due to the fact that he wants to continue cutting taxes every year.

But Ducey could have proposed delaying previously approved corporate tax cuts set to be phased in next year, allowing him to double his proposed investment in public education. Even freezing automatic 20 percent increases in the corporate tax credit that funds private school tuition would have signaled a commitment to public education.

But a 4/10s of a percent pay raise?

This, again, is Ducey … :

“This is an investment by the state of Arizona in recognizing and rewarding the work of our teachers in a way that is fair, permanent and fiscally responsible.”

And they can take that to the bank …

Or maybe to a payday loan center.

If this isn’t a crisis, I don’t know what is. AZBlueMeanie agrees: New study: ‘Arizona teacher recruitment, retention and pay are at crisis levels’

David Fitzsimmons uses his sharp wit to expose the problems facing public education in Arizona as State Senator Rip Fiddler talks public education

The most piercing comments again come from Laurie Roberts at azcentral.com: Teachers fed up? In Arizona? Noooo. (h/t AZBlueMeanie)

The study – funded by the Arizona Community Foundation, Helios Education Foundation and The Pike and Susan Sullivan Foundation – concluded that teachers are leaving the profession for a variety of reasons – retirement, disillusionment, low pay and a belief that they aren’t supported.

Me? I don’t see how they can say that.

Our governor has proclaimed himself the education governor.

But wait: Look at all this help they’re getting

Why, just three months ago, Ducey, in his State of the State address, said he had “a new appreciation for the excellence occurring in our school system.” He attributed that success to teachers.

“I want teachers in our state to know: You make a difference. I value your work and it’s time we return the favor.”

Four days later, he proposed a pay raise that amounts to about $2 a week.

Three months later, he signed a universal voucher bill that’ll divert more public money to private schools.

This, in a state that already spends $1,365 less, when adjusted for inflation, to educate a child than it did in 2008.

Me? I can’t imagine why teachers are feeling slighted.

Here are selected observations from the Morrison Institute’s Report: AZ in crisis over teacher pay, retention

“Teacher pay and support is a proxy for how highly we think of students and their education,” said Steve Seleznow, President & CEO of Arizona Community Foundation and a former school administrator. “When we undervalue our educators, we under educate our children. This problem will not go away without fundamental change in the ways we support our teachers. If we value the education our children receive, we must provide teachers compensation commensurate with those values.”

Teachers are leaving the profession for many reasons – retirement, disillusionment, low pay and a feeling of lack of support.

"The teacher shortage is urgent, critical and very real,” said Rachel Yanof, Senior Director of Educational Initiatives for the Pike and Susan Sullivan Foundation. “It is imperative that those with the position to influence policy read this report and act in a manner that will stem this crisis as quickly as possible. Our children deserve it.”

Arizona, you see, is not just failing its teachers. Arizona is failing its future.

Misogynistic Malfeasance

What is going on with K–12 teachers in Arizona’s district education systems is nothing short of malfeasance on the part of the state and ultimately, on the part of the people. We have allowed our teachers to be disregarded and undervalued to the point that one must question why anyone would care to be a teacher. Truth is, today very few are choosing that route.

Four weeks into the 2016–2017 school year, Arizona saw 53 percent of its district classrooms without a certified teacher; over 2,000 had no teacher and another 2,000 had an uncertified person at the head of the class. Part of the problem is recruitment and retention. In fact, an upcoming report from ASU’s Morrison Institute for Public Policy, states that 85% of rural school and 77% of urban administrators say hiring new teachers is somewhat or extremely difficult. The report also states that Arizona is losing more teachers than bachelor of education degrees produced by its three state universities. Turnover is high, with 22% of teachers not teaching in state after one year and 42% of them leaving the profession within three years.

Probably one of the biggest problem is teacher pay that is rock bottom lowest (50th) in the nation. In fact, elementary school teachers here are paid 14% less than in 2001 and secondary teachers are paid 11% less. Governor Ducey’s response for next year’s budget is to give teachers a 0.4 percent pay raise amounting to $187 extra next year on an average salary of $46,384 in 2016. I don’t know about you, but an extra $187 per year wouldn’t convince me to do anything I hadn’t already decided to do.

This paltry teacher raise isn’t the only funding boost to education Ducey is recommending, as he’s proposed a total of $113.6 million for K–12 education next year. But, in light of the fact that per pupil funding is $1,365 less than it was in 2008 (adjusting for inflation) that amount is not even a drop in the bucket compared to the $1.43 billion that has been cut.

The Legislature (including some Republicans) is going a step further in proposing a one percent raise for teachers, which would amount to an additional $430 per year at a total cost of $31 million. Democratic legislators and AZ Schools Now, a coalition of education groups, are advocating for a four percent raise which would give the average teacher an annual boost of $1,720 by freezing corporate tax cuts. Even this amount though, would still leave Arizona teachers $8,616 short of the U.S. average annual salary for teachers.

Why this isn’t something all of us are screaming bloody murder about is, I’m sure, multi-faceted. The most obvious is it doesn’t support the agenda of school choice proponents. After all, from Betsy DeVos and her American Federation for Children, to Michael and Olga Block and their BASIS empire, to Senator Yarbrough and his cash cow School Tuition Organization, raising the salaries of Arizona’s district teachers just isn’t a high priority. But, there is likely a more insidious reason, one that most people probably never think of, and that is the fact that most K–12 teachers are, and traditionally have been, women.

Back in 2014, a teacher in Portland named Nikki Suydam, penned a guest opinion published by the Oregonian on oregonlive.com. In it, Ms. Suydam pointed out that “blaming women for society’s problems is as old as the story of Eve in the Garden of Eden, or Pandora and her box of woes, or every medieval witch hunt spurred on by crop failure or plague outbreak.” “Contemporary education reformers” she wrote “have launched a similar witch hunt to root out ”rotten apples“ from a profession still more than 75 percent female.”

She goes on to make the point that “No similar reform movement targets doctors (65 percent male) for our nation’s spiraling obesity epidemic. America’s dentists (78 percent male) are not held responsible for their patients’ tooth decay. Law enforcement officers (80 percent male) are not blamed for crime statistics. Nor are engineers (78 percent male) ‘held accountable’ for the crumbling U.S. infrastructure.”

And yet, teachers (three-fourths of whom are women) are often vilified for any lack of success in today’s public district schools. This, despite the fact that 20 percent of Arizona’s children live in poverty and the vast majority of these children attend district schools. This despite the fact that Arizona is 48th in the nation in per pupil spending. This despite the fact that our Governor and Legislature continue to push for ways to siphon more tax dollars away from our district schools.

Let’s face it. Whether we are talking about homemakers, or nurses, or teachers; professions traditionally filled by women just don’t earn the same respect and salaries of those dominated by men. We really should get past this old paradigm though, and not look at who does the work, but what work is done. After all, for most people, their child is their most precious “possession” and they turn over the care of this precious possession to a teacher for six to eight hours each day. Shouldn’t we want these teachers to be highly skilled, appropriately valued, and sufficiently compensated?

Numerous studies have looked at teachers’ impact on student achievement. A 2012 research study by the RAND Corporation, found that “among school-related factors, teachers matter most.” The study also found “When it comes to student performance on reading and math tests, a teacher is estimated to have two to three times the impact of any other school factor, including services, facilities, and even leadership.” Steve Seleznow, President and CEO of Arizona Community Foundation and a former school administrator said, “Teacher pay and support is a proxy for how highly we think of students and their education…If we value the education our children receive, we must provide teachers compensation commensurate with those values.”

Every parent knows that children are sponges and they are really good at picking up on the dissonance between our words and our actions. When we undervalue our teachers, on some level, our children know we are undervaluing them as well. And that my friends, is a really, really sad state of affairs.

Ducey should sign SB 1080 (texting while driving). Here’s why.

Cross-posted from skyislandscriber.com.

Howard Fischer (Arizona Capitol Times, subscription required) reports that Texting ban on teenage drivers now only needs Ducey’s signature to become law.

Arizona is just one signature away from imposing its first-ever limits on the use of cell phones by teens.

On a 32–24 margin, the state House today gave final approval to legislation banning teens with a learner’s driving permit from texting or making calls from their cell phones while behind the wheel. SB1080 also extends that to the first six months they have their actual Class G license, which is reserved for the newest drivers.

The measure, which previously was approved by the Senate on a 24–6 margin, now goes to Gov. Doug Ducey.

Gubernatorial press aide Daniel Scarpinato said only that his boss will review the bill.

But the issue could be more personal for Ducey. He has three sons, two of whom are of driving age.

Thursday’s vote came over the objection of some legislators who want Arizona to remain one of only two states in the country with no limits at all on cell phone use by motorists. They said their fear is that once Arizona restricts what teens can do, it’s just a small step to extending that to adults.

Exactly. It should be extended to all drivers. Here is why.

In the early 2000’s, Psychologist David Strayer at the University of Utah investigated the influence of cell phone use on driving errors. Here is some of a review of that research by the American Psychological Association Driven to Distraction. Driving and cell phones don’t mix.

Cell phones may be convenient but there’s one place they seem to do more harm than good – and that’s behind the steering wheel. Psychological research is showing that when drivers use cell phones, whether hand-held or hands-off, their attention to the road drops and driving skills become even worse than if they had too much to drink. Epidemiological research has found that cell-phone use is associated with a four-fold increase in the odds of getting into an accident – a risk comparable to that of driving with blood alcohol at the legal limit.

In one study, when drivers talked on a cell phone, their reactions to imperative events (such as braking for a traffic light or a decelerating vehicle) were significantly slower than when they were not talking on the cell phone. Sometimes, drivers were so impaired that they were involved in a traffic accident. Listening to the radio or books on tape did not impair driving performance, suggesting that listening per se is not enough to interfere. However, being involved in a conversation takes attention away from the ability to process information about the driving environment well enough to safely operate a motor vehicle.

According to Strayer’s laboratory research, cell-phone drivers were also more likely to miss traffic signals and often failed to see billboards and other signs. A special eye-tracking device measured where, exactly, drivers looked while driving. Even when drivers directed their gaze at objects on the road (during simulations), they still didn’t “see” them because their attention – during a cell-phone call – was elsewhere.

The Utah lab is also measuring the increased risk associated with cell-phone use relative to other real-world activities – most recently, alcohol consumption. Disturbingly, forthcoming research will show that talking on a cell phone (even hands-free) hurts driving even more than driving with blood alcohol at the legal limit (.08 wt/vol). When talking on a cell phone, drivers using a high-fidelity simulator were slower to brake and had more “accidents” than when they weren’t on the phone. Their impairment level was actually a little higher than that of people intoxicated by ethanol (alcohol).

Strayer and his colleagues compared data for hand-held and hands-free devices and found no difference in the impairment to driving, thus, they say, raising doubts about the scientific basis for regulations that prohibit only hand-held cell phones.

Real life implications

… drivers should also be aware that whether a cell phone is hands-on or hands-free makes no difference in terms of mental distraction. According to the research, the mental activity of conversation, whether in person or over the phone, is what takes one’s mind off the road. What happens in the head happens regardless of what happens with the hands.

… drivers need to remember that warnings (and, in some localities, legislation) about cell-phones and driving are prompted by cross-sectional studies of drivers of varied ages, educational levels, and years of driving. Susceptibility to distraction while driving has nothing to do with smarts or skill

Arizona SB 1080 now sits on Gov. Ducey’s desk. It is not perfect – far from it because of its failure to accommodate the above two lessons from applied research. Nevertheless, it is an important first step. We have laws aimed at prevention of driving while drunk. We should have parallel laws aimed at prevention of driving while distracted. Ducey should sign SB 1080.

A Cautionary Tale

Arizona may be at, or near, the bottom in many education related statistics, but when it comes to a school choice friendly environment, we are #1. That’s why, when executive committee members of their state school boards associations got together last year in Oakland for the Pacific Region National School Boards Association meeting, the Arizona team shared their story of eroding legislative support (funding and supportive legislation) for our district schools as a cautionary tale.

It all began in Arizona with the Legislature’s authorization for charter schools in 1994 and of course, open enrollment so parents could choose to enroll their children in any public school in the state, not just in their district. This mattered because 1) it told parents they were free to look for greener grass elsewhere, versus watering the grass they had, and 2) all that mattered was their child’s education, the hell with the rest.

Arizona’s first charter school opened in 1995. Now 180,000 students attend about 550 charter schools in Arizona equating to 16% of the students and 30% of the public schools. In 2010 in fact, Arizona had the highest number of charter schools per capita in the nation. The competition created with district schools wasn’t all bad. Many district schools offer fuller curriculums with more specialty programs than they once did. But, for corporate reformers, that wasn’t enough.

The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) ranks our state as #1 with regard to school choice policy. This should not surprise anyone, since ALEC has been aggressive in working with corporations and state lawmakers all over the country to create legislation favorable to school choice and the privatization of education. Likewise, the American Federation for Children (previously led by our new SecED, Betsy DeVos) has been very active in pushing school choice around the nation through both significant campaign contributions and strong arming of legislators.

These organizations and others with the same agenda, have enjoyed much success. When vouchers for private and parochial schools were first introduced in Arizona in 2009, the AZ Supreme Court deemed them unconstitutional since the state constitution (as most do) requires that “No public money or property shall be appropriated for or applied to any religious worship, exercise, or instruction, or the support of any religious establishment.” The Court stipulated though, “[t]here may well be ways of providing aid to these student populations without violating the constitution. School choice proponents such as the Center for Arizona Policy (CAP) jumped on that and according to their website, ”CAP and its attorneys were heavily involved in the drafting and development of this [Empowerment Scholarship Accounts or ESAs] program.” Then in 2013, the AZ Supreme Court, in Niehaus v. Huppenthal approved ESAs, (vouchers or Educational Subsidies for the Affluent as AZ’s 2016 Teacher of the Year calls them), saying that the fact the funding goes to the parent and the parent decides what to do with it, makes the program constitutional.

Initially, only students with disabilities were eligible for vouchers but the Arizona Legislature managed to expand ESAs each year to eight different categories including students living on tribal lands, wards of the state, military dependents, students from D or F rated district schools and more. Then, on April 6, 2017, the Legislature passed and the Governor signed, a law making all Arizona children eligible for vouchers. For now, there is both an annual cap of 5,500 and an overall cap of 30,000 by 2022. In addition, there is a by-grade implementation that staggers eligibility over several years.

With Arizona’s conservative and libertarian public-policy think tank, the Goldwater Institute, already promising donors they would eliminate the cap before the Governor even signed it into law, these speed bumps undoubtedly won’t be in place long. That’s because the end game for the corporate reformers and the lawmakers they’ve purchased is to commercialize our public schools. It doesn’t matter what innocuous name you give a voucher, it is still about siphoning taxpayer dollars away from our district schools, to private and parochial schools. And, vouchers aren’t the only way these tax dollars are siphoned away.

Remember I wrote that ALEC thinks Arizona is #1 in school choice policy? Well, that’s because we not only have open enrollment, charter schools, and Empowerment Scholarship Accounts, but also individual tax credits, School Tuition Organizations and the corporate tax credits that feed them. And yes, we even have legislators that have ownership of, or vested interests in, all of the above. But that discussion is for another day.

As for school tax credits, Arizona allows five separate types. There are three individual; one for public schools and two for private schools. The private school tax credit, begun in 1997, is now worth five times as much as the amount that can be claimed for public schools. Maybe that’s part of the reason why the program the legislative budget staff estimated would cost $4.5 million a year 20 years ago, topped $140 million in 2015 without including the $50 million in tax credits taken for public schools.

Tax credits were originally sold as a way to help special-needs and low-income students, but it hasn’t largely worked out that way. According to the AZ Republic, “Only about 3 percent of the money is designated specifically for special-needs students.“ As for the ”low-income” families, only 32% of the money went to them. Aside from the fact they don’t serve the most needy, tax credits divert funding away from the state coffers and in the case of district schools, give the taxpayers the impression they are doing their part to support public education when the reality is the funding isn’t really allowed for classroom expenses, but for extracurricular, fee-based activities. In the case of private schools, the tax revenue is diverted away from the general fund directly into private education.

Corporate tax credits are made to School Tuition Organizations (STOs) which are 501(c)(3) tax exempt organizations that must allocate at least 90% of their annual revenue to tuition awards for students to attend private and parochial schools. The two types of corporate tax credits allowed are one for corporate contributions for low-income students and another for displaced/disadvantaged students. The definition of “low income” though, is misleading. For these scholarships, a family of four with an annual income of $82,996, qualifies leading many to claim that the scholarships are going to families that could afford the private schools without the taxpayer welfare. Critics also say it is fairly impossible for the poor to benefit because even if they get a scholarship, they still have to come up with the rest of the tuition. Regardless of who else is benefiting from the tax credits, the general fund and therefore district schools and other critical programs and services are not. In 2008, three-fourths of Arizona companies paid only the minimum $50 in corporate taxes and with a 20% increase in cap allowed every year, the program is causing significant impact to the state’s general fund. In fact, the “low-income corporate tax credit alone is expected by 2025 to grow to more than $250 million a year.”

In the end, one thing has been abundantly clear here in Arizona. The corporate reformers are dead set on commercializing our district schools. That’s why every legislative session, we public education advocates gear up for battle and “look for incoming.” And that’s why, one of our favorite phrases is “sine die” which literally means “without assigning a day for a further meeting or hearing”, but in layman’s terms, signifies the end of the legislative session. It is a very sad state of affairs that rather than counting on our Governor and GOP-led Legislature to do good for our one-plus million district school students, the best we can usually hope for is for them to do no harm. This year, with the full expansion of vouchers, they did tremendous harm that will be hard to recover from. A word to the wise…if you give them (corporate reformers) an inch, they will take a mile and stretch it out to 10. Stay focused and vigilant, this really is a war and the stakes couldn’t be higher.

So Much for the “Education Governor”

A couple of nights ago, I was talking with a news editor who asked me about the effect of the voucher expansion on homeschoolers. He said when he homeschooled his child, he saw it as his responsibility to bear those costs. He wondered with the new expansion, if homeschoolers would now get taxpayer dollars to teach their child at home. I told him homeschoolers were always eligible for Empowerment Scholarship Accounts (ESAs), or vouchers (I prefer to call them what they really are), but their child needed to be in one of the eligible categories such as: having a disability, from a D or F rated school, living on tribal land, dependents of military, wards of the state, etc. With the latest expansion of eligibility though, all categories of children are eligible for the vouchers. He surmised it wouldn’t take long to reach that cap, given there are some 20,000 homeschooled children in Arizona.

It is difficult to find clear data about the number of homeschoolers but a general estimate is from three to four percent of the school-age population. Given that, we are looking at 30,000 to 40,0000 students in Arizona. Another source I found from 2011 quoted the number at 22,500, so in the interest of being conservative, let’s go with 25,000. To the news editor’s point, if all 25,000 estimated homeschoolers took vouchers, that would deplete Arizona’s general fund by $110 million in taxpayer dollars which are then not available for district education or other critical programs and services. And this new outlay would not be offset by any reduced costs on the part of the state since previously, parents were footing this bill. At three to four percent though, homeschoolers are just a fraction of those who could take the vouchers and run.

Fortunately, there are currently a couple of speed bumps to slow the depletion. The first one is the cap of 5,500 ESAs that may be awarded each per year. Of course, before the Governor even signed the latest expansion bill, Goldwater Institute leadership had already notified their major donors they would get the cap lifted.

The second speed bump is the by-grade phase-in of eligibility. For 2017–2018, the only additional children eligible are those who attend or are eligible to attend public schools in kindergarten (at least four but under seven years of age) or grades one, six, and nine. The following year, the law adds grades two, seven and ten to the mix. The year after than, grades three, eight, and eleven are added. Then in the 2020–2021 school year, all children who currently attend or are eligible to attend a public school in K–12 are eligible to receive a voucher.

If the Goldwater Institute is successful in removing the cap next legislative session though, (or maybe still this session in a “strike everything” bill), the floodgates will be wide open for the grades specified to be added each year. There is after all, a tremendous amount of support for that end as evidenced by Betsy DeVos’ tweet to Governor Ducey congratulating him on the eve of his signing the bill. She wrote, “A big win for students & parents in Arizona tonight with the passage of ed savings accts. I applaud Gov. @DougDucey for putting kids first.” Keep in mind that this is the same Betsy DeVos, that as the head of the American Federation for Children, oversaw an investment of over $750,000 since 2011 into Arizona legislative races for pro-school choice and voucher candidates.

We in Arizona though, know that our Governor hasn’t really put over 80 percent of our kids first. Instead, the self-acclaimed “education governor” has time and again shortchanged our kids. Like with his 2018 spending plan that would provide a 2% pay raise over five years for teachers giving them only about $182 (0.4%) more in the first year. Like with his no-details “plan” to streamline teacher certification requirements to help with the critical teacher shortage, as if less qualified teachers will help our students. Like with his plan to provide $10 million for full-day kindergarten funding at public schools where more than 90% of students are eligible for free or reduced lunch. Unfortunately, for district schools, the entire district must meet the 90% threshold, but for charters, only a single school. In Southern Arizona, only two districts – Nogales Unified and Santa Cruz Valley Unified – qualify. Even Sunnyside Unified School District, at 86 percent of its students on free/reduced lunch, doesn’t qualify. And, like when he negotiated a deal to pay the schools 70% of what they were owed with money that was already theirs and promised that would just be the beginning. As David Safier points out in the Tucson Weekly, the $325 million per year Prop. 123 is bringing in (again, money the schools were already owed, not a plus up), could easily be wiped out by “his latest attack on public education which could drain $150-$300 million” via vouchers.

The most important moral of this story is that elections do have consequences and one of those consequences is now the systemic dismantling of our system of public (district) education. You know, the system that takes all comers, the only system with locally elected governing boards who must operate in a transparent manner and are totally accountable to parents and taxpayers, and, the system which after adjusting for student poverty levels, produces better results.

The only real solution to save our district schools and the one million plus students they provide for, is to elect different lawmakers. To do that, each of us must take personal responsibility to do our part and then some. No longer can any of us leave the work to someone else. Not if we want better for our kids, our communities, and our country. As the Jewish religious leader Hillel originally said sometime around 50 BCE, “If not now, when? If not me, who?”