Accountability in Arizona…not so much

Two headlines in the AZ Star caught my attention this morning: “Plan adds state cash for private education” and “Veto-proof majority backs repeal of JTED cuts.” The first one is about Representative Justin Olson’s bill to remove any limits on Empowerment Scholarship Accounts (ESAs.)  The second is about the Legislature’s plan to reinstate the $30 million in JTED cuts they made last year. Evidently the Legislature is now saying “my bad” about the 7.5% cut (about $400 per student) to charters and districts with students enrolled in JTED. According to Diane McCarthy at West-MEC, legislators weren’t really aware of what they were doing. “After the fact, some legislators said they didn’t understand what the impact of that (cut) was,” McCarthy said. “There’s a lot of talk about how do we fix it.”

I’m really glad the Legislature has come to its senses and intends to restore the funding, since 96% of Arizona students enrolled in CTE graduate from high school, 21% above those who don’t. Most CTE graduates also go on to post-secondary education and jobs and they score higher on standardized tests. CTE really is a win-win-win as the recent letter to the AZ Legislature signed by 32 business and education entities made clear. What really caught my eye about the JTED article was a quote from Senator Don Shooter who introduced the legislation to repeal the cuts. In response to Senate President Andy Bigg’s accusation that the program has insufficient oversight, Shooter said one key is “transparency.” Thanks for the segue Don.

Don Shooter is correct that transparency leads to more accountability, but evidently he and his fellow GOP legislators don’t understand that concept when it comes to ESAs (basically vouchers by another name.) As of mid-April 2014, approximately $17 million had been handed out through ESAs. That is a lot of money to be handed out without any way to ascertain return on investment. Unlike district school students, ESA recipients are exempted from all state assessments so there is no way to know whether the money was well spent.  Although there is a quarterly spending report required from ESA recipients, parents must only provide proof of spending 25% of the funding they receive each year. The money they don’t spend can be saved from year to year and can even be used for college. If the money isn’t spent, does it mean the parent was efficient with their child’s education or does it mean they skimped? Also, the vast majority of ESA funding goes to private schools (92% in 2012) and at least in Arizona, 70% of private schools are religious. I know this has been deemed constitutional because the money is given to parents who then give it to the schools, but sorry if it looks like a rose and smells like a rose…

The ESA program has been expanded little by little, (students: with disabilities, wards of the court or those that were, students of active duty military members or those killed while serving on active duty, those who had attended a D or F school the prior year, siblings of students currently in the program, and students who reside within the boundaries of an Indian reservation) but it has always been the intention of the GOP-led Legislature to open up the program to all. So far, pro-public legislators and those who believe in good stewardship of government dollars have been able to keep the wolves at bay. Make no mistake however; this legislation is much more about privatizing public education than it is about opportunities for disadvantaged children. Proponents say we need to transition from financing schools to funding students. Problem is, when students accept an ESA and leave the district school, they take all the funding with them, but none of the costs of running the school. A certain amount of overhead costs are fairly independent of student count and schools are incapable of rapidly adjusting their operating expenses with each student lost.

School choice is alive and well in Arizona and still a full 85% of Arizona’s students choose district schools.   The Legislature can pretend they care about these kids, but the truth is that they have a stranglehold on the necks of our district schools and as they continue to restrict the flow of resources to these schools, our kids are the losers. The more they encourage parents to look for greener grass outside our district schools, the more likely it is that resources will be pulled away from these schools making it harder for them to continue to educate the majority of students who remain.

If the Legislature really cares about Arizona students, why not just support our district schools why not just support what we know works: great teachers, small class sizes, infrastructure that supports learning and curriculum that is rich and challenging. We also know that schools can’t do it on their own. Many of our children face obstacles outside of school that affect their ability to learn inside school.

I am incredibly tired of our children being used as a political football. It is time for all good people to say enough is enough. We must stand up and speak for those who have no voice and no power to save themselves. It will be hard to make Arizona public education the envy of the Nation. But, it is possible and that possibility gives me hope.

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3 thoughts on “Accountability in Arizona…not so much

  1. You are absolutely correct, our children are the losers when the political powers in Phoenix short-change the district schools. The trade-offs demanded to fund or restore funds to public education are too great. One dollar for district schools, two dollars for vouchers, two dollars for charter schools and so on. Going into the voter registration figures by Legislative Districts finds astounding, shocking numbers. Until the Democrats become a majority in at least one body of the legislature compromise and ending the pandering to private prisons, for profit private education and revamping priorities away from moneyed special interests will not happen. The Democrats have totally failed to “sell” their values and the Republicans are extremely happy to welcome folks into the ranks of Independent or NO Preference voter registration and building road blocks to the voting booths.
    Too many people have moved to “retiree communities” with no personal connection to the educational systems available or the necessity of finding out. That disconnect has allowed local and state politics to the exploitation of special interests and to hell with accountable public services. Children’s Services just one such state function drifting in a sea of neglect. Tax giveaways, tax loopholes and tax credits have taken over where smart fiscal management is required.
    Even today most retirement communities are not as concerned with Social Security, Medicare as in years past. Other forms of retirement security have taken their place. Modern day Democrats are a minority because they have lost touch with the new societies’ concerns. Deterioration of critical state services is the by- product of Democrats loss of leadership. Not one statewide elected office is held by a Democrat in Arizona, really are the Democrat candidates all that bad?

  2. Great points Harvey! To your last question, I’m guessing you know that is not the case. We had some incredible state-wide candidates in 2014 (David Garcia for example.) But, we underestimated how much people just don’t care about the facts. Democrats have to figure out how to tap into the emotions!

    • I agree Democrats have had superior candidates several times over, but what good does that do after election day and they all are defeated? Democrats need to connect with more voters and I hate to say it but until we can move our registration figures and tie into the massive Independents voters we will continue to lose elections. It is difficult for me to read the second largest block of registered voters, ones without a political commitment. The pollsters tell us the majority agree with us on issues, then why don’t the election results show it? LD 11 is an example of legislative candidates winning elections despite of their sad positions on the issues. The cult across Idaho, Wyoming, Utah, Arizona and Colorado have an agenda that unites them and the sick money hungry greedy have made deals and trade offs with them for power. Far too many who agree with us have given up on the political system and choose not to participate.

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