Governor Ducey’ State of the State address today at the AZ Legislature’s opening day was a fairly typical “state of” address. He talked about what he’s accomplished thus far and provided sound bites about what else he’ll do. He promised he’ll lower taxes each year and still invest in education. He claimed it doesn’t have to be either/or, it can be both. He did not of course, dilineate any specific plan to do this, but that isn’t really what a “state of the state” address is for. He provided examples of good things happening in public education, and stated that Prop 123 will give us opportunity to make substantial progress.” Have to inject here that although I am supporting Prop 123, it won’t really help us “make substantial progress.” Even if with the passage of Prop 123, Arizona won’t move up from 49th in per pupil funding. After all, it is only going to provide about $300 per student, still less than has been cut since the recession began. Not nothing, but not a game changer either.
Governor Ducey then made the prediction that: “In the years ahead, Arizona will be among the states investing the most new dollars in public education – all without raising taxes.” Just to be clear here, the Prop 123 monies aren’t “new monies”, they are monies that were already owed to our schools. Not sure the Governor sees it that way, but that is the truth. More funding, much more funding is needed and every bit will be welcome, but I just don’t see how we can make a dent in the need without raising taxes. I am positive we can’t do it by cutting taxes and giving our surplus away as corporate handouts. We just need to look at what Governor Brownback did to Kansas with his tax cuts. When he took the reins in Kansas, he dropped the top income-tax rate by 25%, lowered sales taxes and created a huge exemption for business owners filing taxes as individuals. He claimed it would spur investment, create jobs and bolster the state’s coffers through faster growth, sound familiar? Now, five years after doubling down, his state lags in job creation, tax revenue is far short of expectations and bond and credit ratings have been downgraded. Rating agencies claimed the tax breaks were unsustainable and that the promised economic growth would be elusive. It is with great hubris this lesson would be ignored.
Ducey then touted the conservative mantra that more money doesn’t equal better education with “We know spending is not the measure of success. And it shouldn’t just be about the billions of dollars we are putting into public education; it must be about what our kids are getting out of their education.” He’s right, it shouldn’t be just about the spending. But again, just look at the schools wealthy people send their kids to. Those schools aren’t bargain basement…they cost big money because they have small class sizes, highly qualified teachers (some with PhDs from Harvard, Yale and Stanford), extensive curricula, fabulous facilities and the very latest in technology. Money is not the only solution, but it does matter.
Facts also matter, so I have to call a “not so fast” on the Governor’s reference to “until the thousands of kids on public school wait lists have access to our finest teachers and principals, our job isn’t done.” Firstly, although Ducey refers to “public school wait lists”, he means “charter school wait lists.” Yes, charter schools are technically public schools, but district schools don’t really have wait lists, they must take all who reside in their boundaries and also accept the vast majority of those students who apply via open enrollment. So how about those much touted charter school wait lists? Although the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools (NAPCS) claims that waiting lists for charters across the Nation would top one million for the first time in 2014, a May 2014 report by the National Education Policy Center (NEPC) gave nine reasons we should be skeptical of these numbers. Among the reasons were: students apply to multiple charter schools; waitlists can’t be confirmed and record-keeping is unreliable; charters accept applicants for students they have no intention of ever admitting; and many charter schools choose not to “back-fill” students who vacated during the school year (because accepting new students mid-year can create turmoil in the classroom), which would reduce their waiting list. Without the ability to verify the wait list data to determine its reliability, the NEPC study concluded that “policymakers would be wise to set aside NAPCS’ claims and wait for verifiable data.” After all, where charter schools are managed by for-profit corporations, the facilities built with taxpayer funding assistance eventually become property of the corporations. Paint me cynical, but when a governor cites waiting lists as the reason to expand these schools and says he is going to provide more dollars for this expansion, it is easy to see it is in the corporation’s interest to inflate those lists. He also though, talked about the “need to provide resources for aging schools to repair and rebuild their facilities for future students.” I’m hoping he is including district schools here since their facility maintenance and repair has been funded at only two percent of the need over a recent four year period.
Of course, Governor Ducey continues to want to reward those schools that are already succeeding. In his speech he spoke of “the need to reward schools that are helping kids reach their full potential…and that under our plan, schools that produce students who successfully complete AP-level, college-prep courses will be rewarded with more dollars.” Likewise, he said: “Schools in low-income areas – where educators and students face added challenges – will receive an even greater boost for helping kids beat the odds.” I totally understand his wanting to reward “good behavior”, but am concerned about a lack of concern about helping those schools and their students who are struggling. In my former Air Force life, higher-heaquarters inspection teams routinely visited bases to evaluate their performance. Where there were significant problems, “staff assistance teams” would be sent in to help fix them. Although the boss (wing commander) might be fired if the dysfunction was severe, the assistance provided after the fact was not punitive, but meant to help things get back on track. The vast majority of our struggling schools have administrators, teachers and staff working hard to make a difference. They need help, not punishment likely to accelerate their race to the bottom.
I was very happy to hear him acknowledge the importance of career technical education (CTE): “I know not every child plans to go to college – their K-12 experience also needs to prepare them for life. Which is why I’m targeting high-need employment sectors with a new focus on career and technical education. There is bipartisan support for this – so let’s get it done.” Of course, this wouldn’t be quite as critical this legislative session if it weren’t for the Legislative mandated cut of $30 million scheduled to go into effect next year. Nonetheless, he’s right, CTE is a win-win-win and the funding must be restored and hopefully, increased.
The Governor also gave note to the fact that “The state isn’t the only player in public education. Every day, philanthropic foundations in Arizona are investing in our schools. They are developing new school leaders, expanding educational opportunities for low-income children and funding the arts and sciences. I intend to partner with the heads of these foundations to provide an even greater opportunity and impact in our schools.” Good for you Governor! Just don’t forget that it isn’t the job of these philanthropic foundations to provide for public education. That, as outlined in the Arizona Constitution, is the primary job of the Legislature and you! Irrespective of how much you promote the growth of for-profit charter schools and the expansion of Empowerment Scholarship Accounts (essentially vouchers), the responsibility for the public education of Arizona’s one million plus students is still ultimately rests on your shoulders. I hear you saying many of the right things, I just hope your intent is pure and your commitment is real. Our students are not a talking point, they are young people who deserve every opportunity to succeed and reach their full potential. Not only for themselves, but for the future of our State and our Nation.