The NPE Conference in Austin was AWESOME!

I traveled to Austin this past weekend for the first-ever #NPEConference.  This organization was founded by Diane Ravitch, who is an education historian, educational policy analyst, was an Assistant Secretary of Education under President George H.W. Bush and is currently the nation’s number one advocate for public education.

The conference was awesome as Diane wasn’t the only education rock star in the house.  Karen Lewis, President of the Chicago Teacher’s Union spoke openly and honestly on a variety of subjects. One of the statements she made was that “we are in dangerous times when the Chicago Tribune tells teachers to “shut up and sit down, schools are not a democracy!”

John Kuhn, the superintendent of the Perrin-Whitt Independent School District in Texas also spoke.  He originally burst onto the national state a year ago at the national Save Our Schools rally in Washington, D.C.  John spoke with an energy and passion that only comes from experience.  He said that “anything that weakens the public schools in America weakens our Nation.”  He also said that “public education is our trust fund and our nest egg.”  Both of these speakers obviously spoke to the frustrations of the 400 conference attendees, but also gave hope that standing together, we can make a difference.

The only criticism I have of the conference is that too many interesting breakout sessions were scheduled at the same time. On Saturday, I attended sessions on “Educators Organizing Resistance”, “Framing Our Message”, and Education Blogger Network.  I was especially impressed with a young African American woman, Sabrian Joy Stevens, who is the Executive Director of Integrity in Education.  During one of the sessions, she said:  “people complain to the void as if there is a justice fairy.  We are the government and must take responsibility.”

On Sunday, we heard an expert panel discuss the Common Core Standards.  Panel members included Randi Weingarten, President of the American Federation of Teachers and Mercedes Schneider, a Louisiana public school teacher and education activist who holds a PH.D in applied statistics and research methods.    A very lively debate ensued on the part of all the panelists.  Randi Weingarten pulled no punches when she said:  “If we’re going to have a Pub Ed system, we need standards & sufficient support where every child can achieve.”  She also said:  “We HAVE to be about saving middle class & kid’s ability to achieve. That should be the REAL conversation.”  Probably the most poignant comment for me though was:  “We need to get cmty on our side to defeat big $.” Is #commoncore mostly distraction to take our eyes off prize?  I agree with Randi.  I think the corporate reformers are using #commoncore to divert us from the real problem; the liquidation of our democracy.

As a professional educator, Mercedes Schneider shared her frustration:  “Common Core completely ignores my independent professional judgement – that’s my main problem with it.”  Randi Weingarten finished off with:  “The conversation needs to be about public ed and the ladder of opportunity that fights poverty.”

IMG_3190It was obvious when Diane Ravitch entered the auditorium.  She was immediately mobbed by people who wanted to meet her and get her to sign their copy of her book, Reign of Error.  When Diane spoke, her main message was one of optimism.  She said “we are going to win because everything corporate reformers are doing is failing.  You can’t fail your way to success.”  She also said “when there’s a race, it goes to the swift and strong, not the weak and needy.  DOE is not supporting equity.”  At the end of her speech, Diane said “be not afraid, be strong.  Retired teachers must step up.  Get political, get involved.  Be there for the kids.”  ll the panel members.  Randi Weingarten said: “if we’re going to have a Public Education system, we need standards and sufficient support where every child can achieve.  She also said:  “We have to be about saving middle class and kid’s ability to achieve.  That should be the real conversation” and “the conversation needs to be about public education and the ladder of opportunity that fights poverty.  As a current educator, Mercedes Schneider said “Common Core completely ignores my independent professional judgement – that’s my main problem with it.”  Paul Horton, teacher of history at the University of Chicago Lab School, said “schools are the incubators of public discourse and democracy.”

The final session I attended was a meeting of the Education Bloggers’ Network.  Jonathan Pelto announced that the network currently consists of 123 bloggers, but they are looking to expand and were hoping to gain more folks contributing. There was a lot of energy in the room with all the bloggers who’ve been shedding light on the work that needs to be done to save public education.   I hope to be one of those contributing to the cause.

I am so glad I attended this conference!  I believe it was historic and represents a formalization of the movement to save locally controlled, community centered, public education.  In fact, after the conference the NPE called on Congress to hold hearings about the over-testing of our K-12 students.  I met numerous teachers, administrators, and advocates who only want the best for our students and our nation.  I am honored to be a small part of this movement and look forward to supporting it however I can.

A rose by any other name…is just as thorny!

ImageIt is no surprise Arizona Legislators continue to seek expansion of Empowerment Scholarship Accounts AKA, vouchers.  The concept is model legislation for the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and has been introduced in numerous states around the country.  ALEC is the organization corporations pay big bucks to belong to so they can work together to develop model legislation to hand state legislators for introduction in their respective states.  ALEC claims it is non-partisan, but in 2012 it had only Democrat of 104 legislators in leadership positions.  In fact, every Republican legislator in Arizona is currently, or was recently, a member of ALEC.  The pipeline for the ALEC agenda in Arizona is the Goldwater Institute and Jonathan Butcher; Education Director from the Goldwater Institute is the “Private Chair” of ALEC’s Education Task Force.  Mr. Butcher has been collaborating with Rep Debbie Lesko, R-Peoria, ALEC’s Arizona State Chairman to expand Education Savings Accounts in Arizona.   Even the Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction, John Huppenthal, has actively promoted this private voucher program with a robocall directing parents to a Goldwater Institute website to pull their kids out of public school and send them to private school on the taxpayer’s dime, with no accountability.

Empowerment Scholarship Accounts were first introduced in Arizona in 2011 as a workaround to the state’s Supreme Court decision in 2009 that state school-voucher programs were unconstitutional because they violate a ban against appropriating public money for private or religious schools.  In Niehaus V. Huppenthal the Arizona Supreme Court determined ESAs were not the same as vouchers because the specified object of the ESA is the beneficiary families, not private or sectarian schools.  This decision is under appeal by the Arizona School Board Association and others.

ESA funds can be used for curriculum, testing, private school tuition, tutors, special needs services or therapies, or even seed money for college.  The program however, requires parents to waive their child’s right to a public education…a right that is guaranteed under the state constitution, in order to receive the benefits.

The original ESA bill, SB 1553, was signed into law April 12, 2011 and at that time, qualified students were only those eligible to received disability related services from a school district, or had been identified as disabled either by the school district or under federal guidelines.  Since then, we’ve seen expansions or at least attempted expansions, every year.  In 2012, the legislature attempted to expand the law with HB 2626, to include those attending a school or district that had been assigned a letter grade of D or F, previous recipient of a scholarship, child of a parent or guardian who is a member of the Armed Forces, child who is a ward of the court, or who has been identified as a gifted pupil.  Governor Brewer vetoed this bill on April 4, 2012.  In 2013, SB1363 was introduced to expand to all those categories above, and increased funding provided to 90% of the sum of the base support level and Additional Assistance if the student were attending a charter school.  Governor Brewer signed this bill into law on June 20, 2013.

Now, in its 51st Legislative Session, the Arizona Legislature is working fast and furious to further expand the state’s voucher program.  Here’s a list of what’s on the docket per the Arizona Legislature website:

Bill Purpose Status
HB 2291 & SB1236 Expands students eligible to those whose parents are police, fire, or EMT, as well as any child who has a sibling who is already receiving an ESA. Also extends eligibility to any student on free or reduced-price lunch programs and increases the household income threshold eligibility by 15% each year thereafter.  Would make a potential 881,000 students, or 73 percent of the total public-school population, qualified for the ESA program. The program is currently capped at 5,500 students until 2019 (per Legislative Report 2/26 AZ Capitol Reports.) House bill up for House vote 3/6/14.  Senate bill waiting to get on Senate Rules Cmte agenda.
HB2150 Allows children whose parents are an active-duty member of the armed forces to immediately enroll in a private school using vouchers and retain 25% of each voucher amount per student Ready for a floor vote
HB 2139 Expands eligibility to a sibling of a current or previous ESA recipient and those eligible to enroll in a program for preschool children with disabilities. Passed by House Approp Cmte
SB1237 Expands funding for ESAs to include the charter school additional assistance weight as well as 90% of the base support level funding the student would have otherwise received if they had attended a public school. Significant dollar increase, as the additional assistance amount is $1,684 for K-8 and $1,962 for high school. Passed the Senate along party lines
HB2036 Failed after Representative Eric Meyer added an amendment to the bill to require any student who uses the voucher to take the same assessment as public school students. Representatives Allen and Boyer specifically mentioned they were voting against the bill because the testing language was added to it. (per AEA) Defeated in House Education Committee

Pro-voucher folks argue that such programs level the playing field—low-income students can have the same educational options as their wealthier counterparts. In fact, they like to infer, if not outright state, that it is all about ensuring those low-income students are not stuck in bad schools. Really?  Only 362 students in Arizona had ESAs in 2012, but 92 percent of ESA funds went to private schools, in many cases for children whose parents could afford the schools without the assistance. For students without special needs, the program provides from $3,000 to $3,500 a year. As this is not nearly sufficient to cover the cost of tuition to a private school (which can be as much as $10,000), the program is unlikely to benefit students from low-income families.  Additionally, according to William J. Mathis, managing director at the National Education Policy Center, the best private schools often aren’t interested in participating in voucher programs, so voucher programs end up supporting lower quality alternatives. On top of all this, opponents of vouchers argue that the policy doesn’t improve educational outcomes or performance.

ESAs are really just another way for Arizona legislators to make the education of YOUR child, YOUR problem.  After all, under the Arizona constitution, “The legislature shall enact such laws as shall provide for the establishment and maintenance of a general and uniform public school system.” This is one of the primary responsibilities of the state of Arizona.  When state funding for educating is passed on to parents however, so will be the responsibility for that education.  After all, when you make a choice where to send their children, it won’t be your legislator’s fault you made the wrong choice.  Of course, ESAs are also good for those desiring to profit from the privatization of public education.  For-profit companies now run most charter schools and the lack of transparency and public oversight of charters and private schools will ensure profits can be maximized without repercussion.

Make no mistake about it; this push for vouchers is not in the best interest of the majority of Arizonans.  Over 85 percent of Arizona’s school children still attend public community schools.  Each time a student leaves with a voucher, schools lose the funding they would otherwise have received. Yet their overhead costs—for things like salaries and infrastructure—don’t go decrease just because a handful of kids left.  Jeremy Calles, the Kyrene School District chief financial officer, said “the state continues to use tax dollars and tax credits to make private school more affordable for the approximately 5 percent of the Arizona student population that makes the choice to attend those schools, while causing significant damage to the education of the 95 percent of students who are choosing to attend public schools.” Representative Eric Meyer added that supporting public education should be a priority of anyone at the Legislature who is interested in investing in the economic security of the state. “Legislation that undermines the public school system in our state is incredibly detrimental to our economic future,” Meyer said. “These vouchers use tax dollars to subsidize schools that are not subject to state testing standards. We need our kids in schools that can be held accountable for preparing them for the workforce. By starving public schools of resources, we are affecting the very foundation of our economy.”