Teachers are the real patriots

These are tumultuous times. It seems every single day brings a rollercoaster of emotions over what is going on in our country.

A couple of days ago, I read this letter to the editor in the AZ Star that floored me.

Not only that it had been written, but that the Star printed it (hope they also sent it to the FBI). But after further reflection, I realized that it is better to shine the light on hate like this. It is better to understand the threat so that we can be prepared to counter it.

This guy gets so much wrong. I too am a veteran who served 22 years in the Air Force. I too took an oath to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same…”. But, I don’t equate defending the President with defending the Constitution. Not, when that President has told over 10,000 lies since taking the Oath of Office and not when he refuses to respect the Constitution himself.

What is most galling and actually frightening about this letter though, is that Mr. Theriot thinks that Democrats are the enemy, not the Russians who hacked our elections and continue to conduct cyber warfare against us daily to disrupt our operations and sow hate and divisiveness.

Ultimately though, I remain hopeful. For every Theriot, there are dozens of others like a group of teachers in Flagstaff who recently pushed back on an invite from the Arizona Chamber. Saying they “recognize the gesture of a Teacher Appreciation Dinner, we respectfully decline the invitation. We feel attending your dinner would be condoning the AZ Chamber’s many coordinated attacks on public education over the years. You see, educators have been pleading with the state of Arizona for adequate public education funding for an entire decade, and it seems that at every turn, the Chamber of Commerce has been there to block our efforts and work against us.”

There is much to be proud of with these almost 100 teachers’ not only taking the stand, but individually putting their names on the letter to the Chamber. In our hyper-polarized nation, it is increasingly difficult to take a stand. But, these teachers understand that, “if you stand for nothing, you’ll fall for anything.” So, they stood and said “we cannot and will not ignore the Chambers’ agression toward public education funding, and we refuse to allow your organization to bask in the glow of a feel-good PR campaign while consistently working against the interests of educators and working families across our great state.”

The teachers were also clear that they “will always welcome any collaboration with the business community designed to achieve positive educational outcomes for all of Arizona’s children.” They aren’t closed off to innovations for the betterment of all students, they just aren’t going to accept a system that is increasingly stacked to benefit those who “have” over those who “have not”.

I’m guessing Mr. Theriot would be as aghast at these teachers’ letter, as I was at his. The difference though is that the teachers’ words are aligned with the Constitution and good old American values, not at odds with it. They are exercising their 1st Amendment Rights to call out hypocrisy, not promising the “wrath of Hell will descend” on fellow Americans. The teachers are also standing up for their public school students, not a President who is a pathological liar and of whom, Mitt Romney said he was “sickened at the extent and pervasiveness of dishonesty and misdirection”.

Where Theriot said, “there are many retired military who will protect our president” (in spite of the Constitution one might surmise), the teachers called out the AZ Chamber for their work in scuttling a ballot initiative supported by the voters and for giving “enormous tax breaks to corporations and the wealthy instead of requiring them to pay their fair share for the benefit of all”. They also called out the Chamber for making “it a top priority to devastate educators’ retirement security by privatizing our pensions”, demanding “the Chamber of Commerce leave our retirement funds as the earned, defined benefit they are.

These teachers, standing up for those most vulnerable among us, are the real patriots. They know there can be no great democratic republic when there is no educated citizenry and that our public schools are the only ones that can address the problems we face at the scale demanded. Over 90% of America’s K–12 population attends public schools and that is where our singular educational focus should be. No. That is where it MUST be. Yes, to provide an engaged citizenry who can think creatively and determine fact from fiction.

The focus must also be on public schools to ensure our country stays strong. According to The American Conservative in 2018, one in three potential recruits are disqualified from service because they’re overweight, one in four cannot meet minimal educational standards (a high school diploma or GED equivalent), and one in 10 have a criminal history. In plain terms, about 71 percent of 18-to–24-year-olds (the military’s target pool of potential recruits) are disqualified from the minute they enter a recruiting station: that’s 24 million out of 34 million Americans. The article didn’t mention that the frenzied focus on high-stakes standardized tests and siphoning money from public schools have largely not improved achievement, but often robbed our students of opportunities such as physical education, art, music and more. Research shows curriculums must be robust to adequately develop all parts of the mind and to keep students engaged in school. Unfortunately, students in schools that are able to offer more, have plenty of other choices besides military enlistment.

Yes, we have much work to do. But, allowing ourselves to be divided and conquered, whether by Russia, partisan politics, or school privatizers is not going to help us get it done. To stay strong and prosperous, we must be true to what is referred to as the “immortal declaration”. From the Declaration of Independence, it states that, “We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness”.

America is undoubtedly a long way from realizing this dream. But even the aspiration itself is one of the things that sets us apart from most other nations and is one that we should fight tooth and nail to achieve. As patriots, we must steadfastly reject the nightmare Theriot and others like him would have us embrace and continue to fight with all our power for this American ideal and the Dream it promises.

What if Trump Wins a Second Term?

I try hard to value others’ opinions, especially when they are informed. That’s tougher in the digital age, because we are increasingly entrenched in information silos which don’t always provide us unfiltered truths. Still, I’ve tried to moderate my publicly stated positions on President Trump because I’d rather inform than alienate. At this point though, I feel silence is complicity.

A great article in the Atlantic explains some of the potential dangers of a second Trump presidency. The Pulitzer Prize winning author, Paul Starr, writes that

“the biggest difference between electing Trump in 2016 and re-electing Trump in 2020 would be irreversibility.”

He points to the areas of “climate change, the risk of a renewed global arms race, and control of the Supreme Court ”to make his case. The first two he writes, “will become much harder to address as time goes on.” The third one, “stands to remake our constitutional democracy and undermine capacity for future change.”

One specific example Starr points to, is Trump’s work to hinder the reduction of CO2 emissions. “According to the Global Carbon Project, a worldwide decarbonization effort begun now, would require a 5% per year emissions reduction to keep us below 2 degrees Celsius of warming. If put off another decade, it will take 9%. “In the United States” Starr writes,

“the economic disruption and popular resistance sure to arise from such an abrupt transition may be more than our political system can bear.”

Starr also warns that a Trump re-election will likely result in a “stepped-up” arms race, with countries in the Middle East and Asia pursuing nuclear weapons because they no longer believe they can rely on “American security guarantees”. These aren’t the only regions of concern. When Trump suspended U.S. participation in the INF treat, Putin did the same and promised a “symmetrical response” to new American weapons. In his State of the Union address shortly after, Trump threatened to “outspend and out-innovate all others by far” in weapons development.

A two-term Trump may also, writes Starr, have the opportunity to appoint four Supreme Court justices. Nixon was the last president to have this opportunity, and not since FDR has there been such an opportunity for a president to shift the Court’s ideological balance. At risk are not only “Roe v. Wade, and other decisions expanding rights protecting free speech, and mandating separation of church and state”, but also worker protections such as minimum wage provided by the federal government’s authorization to regulate labor and the economy. All a fully conservative Court need do, is reverse the previous decision from 1937 regarding the Constitution’s commerce clause, to “sharply limit the government’s regulatory powers”. The first casualty of that change might very well be the Affordable Care Act, which was saved in 2012 only by Justice Roberts holding it was a constitutional exercise of taxing power by the government due to the commerce clause.

Starr concludes,

“with a second term, Trump’s presidency would go from an aberration to a turning point in American history”.

Both “the effects of climate change and the risks associated with another nuclear arms race are bound to be convulsive”. And, the country would be dealing with these global threats in an increasingly hostile environment of “deeply alienated from friends abroad and deeply divided at home”. The Supreme Court would also likely be far out of line with public opinion, thereby positioning itself at the center of political conflict.

The key it appears, is for Americans to wake up from the matrix in which they’ve been living, and fully understand the stakes of the 2020 election. Whether we will do that, remains to be seen. As Starr writes, “the master of distraction will be back at it next year” and concludes with

“if we cannot focus on what matters, we may sleepwalk into a truly perilous future.”

I just hope and pray that enough of us wake up before Donald Trump and Mitch McConnell walk our country off the proverbial cliff.

Disadvantaged students 3+ years behind more affluent peers

A recently-released study by Harvard and Stanford universities shows the “achievement gap is as big today as it was for children born in 1954, with disadvantaged students three to four years behind their more affluent peers.” There are of course, multiple reasons offered for this stagnation, but the Boston Globe reports that researchers Eric Hanushek and Paul Peterson suggest “a decline in teacher quality through the years may be offsetting gains made in education reforms such as head start school desegregation, and federal aid to districts with low-income students.” Peterson said, “There is every reason to believe that the quality of the teaching profession will have a particularly adverse effect on low income…disadvantaged students, because those are the students who are unfortunately encountering the most inexperienced teachers.”

Hanushek and Peterson (H&P) write in EducationNext, that, “while some might see income inequality as the result of adult life choices about matters such as how hard to work or where to live, educational inequality seems unfair, because the economic status of a child is outside the child’s own control. It is an inequality of opportunity that runs counter to the American dream.” This is my point when I hear someone say something like, “it isn’t the school’s job to feed kids breakfast…their parents should be feeding them at home.” Uh, well yes, their parents should be feeding them. But…what do we do about those children that come to school hungry because their parents don’t properly care for them or, those who don’t even have parents in the picture?

H&P agree there is an achievement gap affected by socioeconomic status, writing that,

“A variety of mechanisms link socioeconomic status to achievement. For instance, children growing up in poorer households and communities are at greater risk of traumatic stress and other medical problems that can affect brain development. College-educated mothers speak more frequently to their infants, use a larger vocabulary with their toddlers, and are more likely to use parenting practices that respect the autonomy of a growing child. Higher-income families have access to more-enriching schooling environments, and they generally do not face the high rates of violent crime experienced by those in extremely impoverished communities. All these and other childhood or adolescent experiences contribute to profound socioeconomic disparities in academic achievement.”

But, they disagree with past research is that the gap is widening to correspond with ever-increasing wealth inequality. They posit that negative and positive factors in family demographics such the increased age of the mother at birth, higher number of single-parent households at the lower end of the socioeconomic spectrum, higher overall education attainment levels, and the number of siblings, could result in a stagnant impact of the family contribution to the achievement gap.

Likewise, opposing forces in the educational system could be helping maintain the status quo there. Positive moves such as Head Start, Brown v. Board of Education and the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Disabilities Education Act, a quadrupling in overall funding between 1960 and 2015, and accountability mandates disproportionately directed toward schools serving low-income students, may have all been largely countered by a “decline in the quality of the teaching force.”

Critics of H&P’s findings are pushing back. Sean Reardon, a Stanford professor of poverty and inequality in education, says growing income inequality is linked to an expanding achievement gap, and says the H&P report “paints an oversimplified picture of the issue”. Likewise, Richard Rothstein, author and fellow at the Economic Policy Institute, says H&P’s report showed results from desegregation, indicating that reforms do work. He also chided H&P for not owning up to their past support of the failed No Child Left Behind law and their previous criticism of people making the very same points they are making now, regarding the ties of socioeconomic status on achievement.

When answering why the achievement gap hasn’t closed, Peterson says,

“the simple answer is that nothing has changed out there that is relevant”.

And, what he and Hanushek believe is relevant is improving teacher quality, especially for disadvantaged students, and focusing on improving high school achievement (where any gains made are lost) is key.

Arizona is on the right track with its Arizona Teachers Academy, but until the pipeline is flowing at an adequate rate to compensate for the 25% of teachers eligible to retire, and those who just choose to do something that either pays better or is less frustrating, it is an uphill battle. Salaries that are still well below the U.S. median, and a lack of adequate autonomy in the classroom and respect for the critical work they do, aren’t helping. Quality teachers are the most significant in-school factor to improve student achievement. Doesn’t it then, stand to reason that educating, hiring, and retaining them, should be our collective focus?

The right to know how tax dollars are spent

The just released AZ Auditor General’s Office report on Arizona School District Spending – Fiscal Year 2018 states that,

“In fiscal year 2018, Arizona districts spent 54% of available operating dollars on instruction—the second consecutive increase in the instructional spending percentage in 14 years.”

It also stated that,

“Arizona school districts spent about $3,500 less per pupil than the national average and allocated their resources differently, spending a lower percentage of resources on instruction and administration and a greater percentage on all other operational areas.”

Six key takeaways from an article about the report in the AZ Daily Star are:
1. Even with recent increases to teacher pay, Arizona’s teacher salaries remain over $11,000 below the national average. According to Lindsey Perry, the AZ Auditor General, part of the lower salary may be due to an AZ average teacher experience of 11 years compared to 13.7 for nation.
2. After adjusting for inflation, total per pupil spending is $177 less now than in 2004 and $861 below that of 2008.
3. Arizona spends $8,300 per student with 54% of that being in the classroom, compared with a national average of $11,800 and 60.9% in the classroom.
4. The lower amount Arizona spends in the classroom isn’t due to high administration costs which are only 10.4% of total dollars versus a national average of 11.2%. Rather it can be attributed in part, to higher energy costs due to extreme temperatures, more money spent on food services, higher transportation costs to serve rural and remote areas and higher class sizes.
6. Student support cost is high due to the large percentage of students living in poverty or those with special needs.

Also important to note when discussing classroom support expenditures, is that Arizona lawmakers and educators disagree with the AZ Auditor General’s exclusion of instruction and student support when calculating classroom support dollars. In 2015 in fact, the governor, legislators and educators agreed to a change in state law that required, (beginning with the FY 2016 budget) to include reading and math intervention specialists, media specialists, librarians, counselors, social workers, nurses, psychologists and seed, occupational and physical therapists in the classroom support line item. They understood that these specialists directly contribute to improved academic outcomes for students and should be included in the classroom support totals.

The Auditor General report goes on to state that,

“Although factors outside a district’s control—such as district size, type, and location—can affect its efficiency, some districts operate efficiently and have lower costs despite these factors, while others do not. What the report does not discuss, and is what has never been included, is how charter and private schools perform with the taxpayer dollars they receive.”

Yes, at least charter schools do get audited (not by the state, but an auditor of their choice), but it is a compliance audit, not one to determine efficiency of operations. And, it is the State Board for Charter Schools rather than the AZ Auditor General who is responsible for audit and compliance oversight, so the results of audits are not reported by the latter which makes it difficult to compare them with those of district schools. We do know however, that administration costs in charter schools have typically been double that of district schools. So much for charter schools being models of efficiency.

What we are in total darkness about, is the efficiency of private and parochial school tax dollar spending (via corporate and individual tax credits and vouchers) which in 2017 was about $200M and grows exponentially every year. Funny how those who rail about inefficiencies at public district schools, seem to never be as concerned about tax dollars spent by alternative options. Fortunately, this tide has been turning lately, given all the charter school scandals in the news. As for what’s going on in private schools, that’s anyone’s guess.

Here’s the bottom line. WHEREVER public tax dollars are spent, the public has a right to know the efficiency and effectiveness of that spending. If educational entities accept our money, they should be forced to accept our oversight. It is that simple.

$23 Billion – The Wrenching Reality

U.S. News and World Report and CNN recently highlighted an EdBuild report that shows $23 billion dollars separate America’s white and nonwhite school districts. In other words, “nonwhite school districts get $23 billion less than white districts despite serving the same number of students.”

More than half of all U.S. public school students are enrolled in racially concentrated school districts” which the EdBuild report defines as more than 75% white or nonwhite students. In addition, about 20% of students are enrolled in districts that are both poor and nonwhite, but just 5% of students live in white districts that are equally financially challenged. These conditions help create an average disparity in the U.S. of about 19% or $2,600 less per student in poor nonwhite school districts than those in affluent white ones.

At least Arizona is one of the 35 states that “actively works to redistribute education money to make up for the fact that wealthier school districts generate more local funding than poor school districts.” It is called “equalization funding”, and provides school districts a base funding of $3,960 for every student enrolled (2018–19). With the school funding system reliant on local taxes however, EdBuild says smaller districts can have the effect of concentrating resources for a small, privileged few. And not only do wealthier districts have higher property values to better support the district, they may enjoy more active PTAs and well-funded school foundations to provide additional assistance. These conditions have resulted in Arizona having the biggest funding gap between districts where predominantly nonwhite districts received an average of $7,613 less per student.

Moreover, when we consider poor nonwhite districts to poor white districts, the disparity gets even worse. In Arizona, 34% of students attend racially isolated school districts, with 32% attending high-poverty, predominantly nonwhite school districts, and 1% attending high-poverty predominantly white school districts. “The average high-poverty, nonwhite school district in Arizona has 5,920 students compared to 433 in the average high-poverty, white school district. The difference in funding between them is 59%, or $11,000 less per student. Where the average revenue (funding) per student is $10,400, that can be hard to wrap your head around. But, Chuck Essigs of the Arizona Association of School Business Officials, and Matthew Ladner, Senior Research Strategist at the Arizona Chamber Foundation, agreed that EdBuild should have added up expenditures for all white and non-white school district groups, and divided that number by the number of students in each group. If they had said Ladner, the disparity would have been about $772 per student, rather than the astronomical $7,613 that EdBuild reported. On the high poverty, racially concentrated schools, the actual disparity would have been about $1,400 rather than the nearly $11,000 EdBuild reported.

 

According to EdBuild, “Because schools rely heavily on local taxes, drawing borders around small, wealthy communities benefits the few at the detriment of the many. White districts enroll just over 1,500 students – half the size of the national average, and nonwhite districts serve over 10,000 students – three times more than that average.” This problem is exacerbated in Arizona where many of the mostly white districts are small and rural and the nonwhite districts tend to be larger, in urban areas. “The comparison groups are like oranges and apples,” contends ASU Teachers College assistant professor Margarita Pivoarova. “We can’t really compare, not in terms of size, not in terms of location.” Other Arizona officials admit there is a disparity, but say EdBuild should have factored in more of the state’s students, such as charters with just a dozen students. Anabel Aportela, the director of research for the Arizona School Boards Association said, “There’s so many things to question about the data [like the small school weight formula], you can easily dismiss the message.”

I know Anabel and if she says there’s more to the story, there is. But, we must be open to the truth that our current school funding formula, which has been in place for 35 years — before charters, school tax credits, and vouchers were part of the landscape — needs to be relooked.

“”So long as we link opportunity to gerrymandered borders and school funding to local wealth, we will never have a fair education system,“ Sibilia says. ”The wrenching reality is that“, says Rebecca Sibilia, CEO of EdBuild, ”from any angle, America is investing billions more in the future of white children.” And that should not be, of course, acceptable to anyone.

corruption and greed

Greed Fueling Arizona’s 48th Ranking for Anti-Corruption

We currently have many crises in America, but one that affects our ability to deal with them all, is the crisis of confidence in our public institutions. Some might argue this lack of confidence is fueled by those seeking power and profit via privatization of said institutions. Whether manufactured or organically grown, the lack of accountability and transparency among public officials is no doubt contributing to the crisis.

In 2015, PublicIntegrity.org ranked the Arizona Legislature 22nd in the nation for state government accountability and transparency. And although the scores are not directly relatable, a 2018 report by the anti-corruption Coalition for Integrity, ranking Arizona 48th in the nation, leads me to believe we are not headed in the right direction. The Coalition’s scorecard is called the “States With Anti-Corruption Measures for Public officials” or “S.W.A.M.P. Index”. It “analyzes the laws of the 50 States and District of Columbia regarding the establishment and scope of ethics agencies, the powers of those agencies, acceptance and disclosure of gifts by public officials, transparency of funding independent expenditures and client disclosure by legislators.” This is important said the Coalition’s CEO Shruti Shah, because

“There is a strong link between an ethics regime and trust in government—and state laws are the first line of defense against corruption.”

Unfortunately, Arizona state laws are lax when it comes to school choice, once again earning the state a #1 ranking for a favorable privatization environment by the conservative bill mill American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). According to its website, the Report Card on American Education is

“part of its mission to promote limited government, free markets and federalism.”

Note that accountability, transparency and ethical governance, are not mentioned. ALEC exists after all, to support legislation favorable to the corporations that finance their work and influence. Instead, the ALEC report card discusses private school choice, purchasing power, flexibility, and freedom. Hey, I like freedom as much as the next gal and served 22 years in the military to help preserve it. But as the saying goes, “freedom isn’t free” and it isn’t maintained by just the ultimate price that some have paid, but other “costs” such as rules, laws, responsibilities and accountability without which, we would have anarchy.

The “A” in Arizona doesn’t yet stand for anarchy, but there are those lawmakers who evidently don’t see a problem working around a few ethical conflicts of interest to benefit themselves at our expense. At least the Arizona Constitution prohibits lawmakers from employment by state, county or city governments, with the exception of serving as school board members, teachers or instructors in the public school system. Where lawmakers act ethically, this exception can help ensure we have those with educational experience helping shape educational policy. Where that is not the case however, unethical actors interested in self-enrichment, can take advantage of a system that doesn’t hold them accountable.

Take for example, Senator Yarborough who termed out in 2018. For many years now, he has run a highly profitable Student Tuition Organization (STO), while sponsoring the majority of legislation expanding the diversion of state income tax liability to STOs. Likewise, According to the AZ Republic, Representative Eddie Farnsworth (now President Pro Tempore of the Senate) profited greatly on the sell of his charter school business (the one built with taxpayer funds) to a nonprofit company after voting for legislation favorable to the non-profit’s board members. In addition to the $13.2M from the sale, he will earn $478K on a loan he made to the school, another $80K in rent on his building that serves as the school’s corporate headquarters, and a consulting fee. And of course, there are numerous GOP lawmakers who have pushed the expansion of vouchers session after session, without sufficient accountability, despite numerous instances of fraudulent expenditures by parents. At the very least, many of them benefited from campaign contributions for their trouble, from Betsy DeVos’ American Federation for Children and other pro-privatization forces.

And now, the Arizona Republic recently reports that Arizona Speaker of the House, Rusty Bowers,

“was paid more than twice the going rate ($216.62 per day versus $90) for substitute teachers in the East Valley Institute of Technology (EVIT)”.

Interestingly, Bowers was EVIT’s director of external affairs (basically a lobbyist) from July 2011 to June 2015 and was paid $62K to $64K per year for this part-time work (double what a legislator makes incidentally.) In conducting an investigation of allegations related to operational and legal compliance concerning the East Valley Institute of Technology“ lawyer Susan Segal found that,

”Bowers had no class roster and didn’t have proper certification to teach his JTED classes.“ She also found that Bowers took it upon himself to scratch out the part of his contract that required certification, and wrote in ”permanent certification of substitute teacher.“

But, as reported by the Capitol Times, the district governing board never approved that change, and Segal noted that, ”there is no such thing as a permanent substitute certification. In another instance, on top of this sentence in his contract:

“If the Legislature fails to fund fully or partially, for any reason, the amounts appropriated for the salary and benefits categories of the District budget, the Board shall reduce pro-rata the total amount of compensation due under this Contract”;

he wrote (exhibiting great hubris in my opinion):

“who gets to decide whether or not the legislature appropriates enough?”

Maybe he thinks it is the AZ Speaker of the House?

Of course, that’s mere conjecture on my part. What is not, is the fact that Bowers has failed to allow even a modicum of increased legislator accountability to move forward this legislative session. Remember former Representative Paul Mosely driving close to 100 mph in a 55 zone, (his seventh time being pulled over for excessive speeding) and then bragging about his immunity to the police officer? The incident prompted Governor Ducey to call for repeal of legislative immunity and Representative T.J. Shope to sponsor HCR 2008 to do just that. Unfortunately Speaker Bowers did not assign it to be heard in any committee, so it is basically DOA at this point. Maybe he figures passing the bill would be a slippery slope toward more ethical governance?

As long as the foxes are in charge of the hen-house at the state Legislature and we don’t hold them accountable for the carnage they wreak, the unethical behavior will continue. After all, I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve had people ask me how in the hell did Senator Yarborough continue to get away with creating and voting for legislation that personally profited him? My answer is that there was no consequence for his actions. After all, he wasn’t violating any laws or existing ethics standards, and he continued to get reelected. From his perspective, why should he do anything differently?

There is a reason greed is one of the seven deadly sins within Christian teachings. Mahatma Gandhi said,

“Earth provides enough to satisfy every man’s needs, but not every man’s greed.”

We should be able to count on our government to ensure a fair shake for all of us. But, when those governing write and enforce the rules to give themselves a leg up, we need to do our job and give them the boot out. The voters of LD5 did the right thing in voting Mosely out of office in 2018. We need to all do the right thing by demanding ethics standards for our elected representatives at every level and then holding them accountable for not only illegal, but also unethical behavior. Government can work, but it takes ALL of us doing our part.

Mark Finchem, the master of condescension

As one of LD11 ‘s Representative Mark Finchem’s constituents, I’m thinking he largely penned today’s shared op-ed in the AZ Daily Star titled “Bills see to improve oversight of education vouchers”, and asked Senator Sylvia Allen (AZ Senate Ed Cmte Chair) to give it some credibility by lending her name to it. His attack on the Save Our Schools Arizona folks as “lobbyists” is soooooo “him”. Give me a break. They are grassroots advocates led by a group of moms who were sick and tired of being ignored by school privatization zealots like Finchem. Their movement caught fire over the last couple of years because it was obvious they actually were/are “in this to help our children”.

Contrary to what Finchem would have you believe, they and other public education advocates don’t argue for a lack of choices for parents. In fact, public education advocates and education professionals work hard to ensure our district schools offer an increasingly wide variety of programming to appeal to our diverse student population. This has been one of the good impacts of open enrollment and charter schools which have been providing choice since 1994.

Finchem’s claim that “100 percent of current [Empowerment Scholarship Accounts, or vouchers] ESA students have unique challenges” is purposefully misleading. Education professionals understand that every child has unique challenges and the ideal way to educate them would be to ensure an education program individualized to meet each of their specific needs. Unfortunately, Arizona’s public school funding doesn’t allow that sort of personalized attention as it is still $600 million short of even 2008 levels. Compounding the problem are the 1,693 teacher vacancies and 3,908 individuals not meeting standard teacher requirements as of December 12, 2018. This adds up to a total of 75% of teacher positions vacant or filled by less than fully qualified people, contributing to the highest class sizes in the nation and likely helped push 913 to abandon or resign their positions within the first half of the school year. When quality teachers have proven to be the #1 factor to in-school success, this is not a winning strategy to improving outcomes.

Those requiring the most personal attention, our special needs students, have had access to vouchers since the ESA began in 2011 and made up 58 percent of students on vouchers in 2017. Yet, our district schools still educate the vast majority of these students even though the state’s formula funding for such was $79 million less than what it cost in 2017 to provide the services required under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. This shortfall requires districts to fund the special ed programs (mandated by state and federal law), from non-special education programs (i.e. mainstream students). And while special education enrollment remains steady at 11.5 percent, the severity of disabilities (more expensive to administer to), have been increasing.

Of course, Finchem is “all about” those students “who have been bullied or assaulted and need ESAs to find a healthier environment in which to learn”. Again, open enrollment and charter schools already provide that option. And maybe, just maybe, if Finchem really wants to help students who have been bullied, he should focus on decreasing class sizes, providing more music and art education, and working to increase the number of counselors at Arizona’s schools? After all, there is nowhere to go but up in this area given our 903:1 ratio which puts us in “first” (worst) place for the number of students per counselor. (The national average was 482:1 in 2018 and the industry recommended ratio 250:1.)

As for his HB2022 providing increased transparency and accountability because it turns over financial administration of ESAs to a private firm, I call total BS. Just look at private schools and private prisons and the amount of transparency they afford the public. The best way to ensure transparency and accountability is to keep public services in the public domain and hold elected officials responsible for ensuring such.

Wait a minute. Maybe I’m on to something. After all, when ESAs were first implemented, Arizona lawmakers were told that the auditing requirements were so weak they were “almost a sham”, but the warnings went unheeded. Not only did the Legislature expand the program almost every year, but “resources to scrutinize the expenditures – made using state-provided debit cards – never kept pace. Yes, some improvements have been made, but an AZ Auditor General audit released in October 2018 found that ”Arizona parents have made fraudulent purchases and misspent more than $700,000 in public money allocated by the state’s school-voucher style program, and state officials have recouped almost none of that money.” Could it be that these lawmakers just don’t want to be held accountable?

Far be it from me to point out that Finchem was first elected in 2014 and is now serving his third term in the Legislature. Why is he only now taking an interest in making the ESA program transparent and accountable? I’d hate to think it has anything to do with the fact that our new Superintendent of Public Instruction is a Democrat who is committed to finally tackling the problem. Upon taking office after all, Superintendent Hoffman immediately launched an audit of the Department of Ed and has now established a bi-partisan task force to look at ESA accountability.

If Finchem really wanted to show our kids how to work together,” he should be working to properly fund ADE’s oversight of the ESA program. Even the former Superintendent of Public Instruction, Diane Douglas (Republican), said “the misspending of the voucher money is the result of decisions by the Republican-controlled Legislature to deny her department money needed to properly administer the program.” Douglas claimed lawmakers resisted properly funding oversight because they wanted a private entity to oversee it.

“If you’re not willing to put the resources into the oversight, then it doesn’t happen appropriately,” Douglas told the Arizona Republic.

Likewise, Republican Senator Bob Worsley said,

“My guess is just that the (Republican) caucus – my caucus – has been, probably, overly enthusiastic about ESAs, and vouchers in general, and therefore anything that would…make it more difficult, it would not be a high priority for them.” He went on to say that it is “neither fiscally sound nor ethical for lawmakers to inadequately fund oversight of the program.”

But, this is exactly what they’ve done. “Under the law, 4 percent of the program’s funding is supposed to go to the department to administer and oversee the program.” In 2018, the Arizona Department of Education (ADE) only received about 2 percent or $1.2 million. Douglas said the full 4 percent was needed to properly oversee the program, but the Legislature had not authorized the department to spend $5.7 million sitting in a fund allocated for program oversight. Let that sink in. Finchem is up in arms about the need to introduce more transparency and accountability into the ESA program, but is part of the GOP-led legislature that hasn’t allowed oversight funds to be spent.

Most galling to me of any of his positions in the op-ed though is Finchem’s admonishment that,

“it’s time for adults to start acting like adults and show our kids how to work together, even if it means working with people with which you may not always agree.”

This also is “him being him” as condescension is a tool Finchem has mastered. I guess when he showed total disdain for teachers (to their faces), during the #RedforEd walkout (and at every opportunity since), he was/is demonstrating how to work with others? I’m not buying it and neither should you. He is a blight on southern Arizona and I hope all those who care about public education, (regardless of where you live), work very, very hard to deny his reelection in 2020.