Happy (sort of) Anniversary

Five years ago today, I wrote and published my first-ever blog post. It was titled, “Don’t Believe the Pundits, Traditional Public Education Works.”

Since then, I’ve written over 230 posts which garnered over 16,300 views. I hope I’ve enlightened a few folks about the war against public education, and am grateful for all those who read my words and took time to comment. Our efforts are stronger when we stand together!

What I’m not grateful for, is the fact that nothing much has come out of the AZ Legislature in the last five years to make the situation better for our district schools.  I wrote then about how education tax credits siphon funding away from our district schools. The caps for corporate tax credits have grown from about $56.6 million in 2013 to $94 million in 2018, and the President of the AZ Senate, Steven Yarbrough (who has enriched himself through his School Tuition Organization or STO), is proposing legislative changes that will grow the program even more.

I also wrote about Empowerment Scholarship Accounts (ESAs) or vouchers. I discussed how they redistribute state revenue and that most of the students receiving these vouchers, would have attended private schools without taxpayer help. That is still true today, but instead of 302 students accessing the program five years ago at a cost to the state of $5.2 million, there were 4,102 in 2017 at a cost of $37 million. Moreover, in 2017, more than 75 percent of the money pulled out of public schools for vouchers, came from districts with an A or B rating, not from schools that are failing.

Yes, there are pockets of excellence in our charter schools, I wrote, but “by and large, they have no significant performance advantage over traditional public schools.” That is still the case, and we continue to see examples of fraudulent management of charter schools throughout the state.

I ended the post with, “Just imagine what our schools could be if our efforts were properly focused and funded.” Well, I’m still imagining, but in the meantime, I’m fighting and I plan to die empty fighting for this incredible cause.

I believe the promise of truly public education, that which takes all comers, is totally transparent and accountable and is governed by locally-elected school board members, is critical to the survival and success of our great democratic republic. It is what built the world’s strongest middle class, and it will be what saves us from ourselves if we will only let it.

That’s the saddest part of all…the wounds we’ve inflicted on our district schools, are largely self-inflicted. By the pro-privatization lawmakers we continue to elect, and through the apathy of those who don’t even bother to vote. We CAN and we MUST do better. Those who have no voice, are counting on us.

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What IS glaringly obvious…

After I became an Arizona school board member and public education advocate, I was routinely asked, “doesn’t the Legislature understand what they are doing to our public schools?” I would respond with, “of course they do, it is all part of their plan.” That was five years ago and although we are still fighting the same battles, some things have changed.

Today, many more people understand that the privatization of America’s system of public education is actually the end game. The public is more “woke” than ever to the privatizers’ pursuit of profit and power via the $500B+ K-12 education market in the United States. Of course, the privatizers don’t refer to it that way. Rather, as reported in the Washington Post, they couch their war on public education as a benign attempt to improve the system. As Stacy Hock, a major Koch donor and co-founder of Texans for Educational Opportunity, said, “The lowest hanging fruit for policy change in the United States today is K-12, I think this is the area that is most glaringly obvious.”

What is glaringly obvious to me is that this fight isn’t just about a “policy change” and it definitely isn’t about improvement for all students. It is also glaringly obvious, that Arizona’s Governor Doug Ducey is chief water carrier for the movement with Koch donors seeing the state “as ground zero in their push.” Ducey’s been a member of the Koch network since 2011, the same year the Empowerment Scholarship Account (ESA) program (or vouchers) was passed in Arizona. Pushed by the Goldwater Institute, it was the first of its kind in the country. The AZ Legislature has increased the scope of the program every year since, and in 2017, with significant Koch network investment, Ducey was able to sign into law, a full expansion of the program.

It is also obvious to anyone willing to face facts, that vouchers are not the panacea to anemic academic outcomes. On EducationNext.org, Robert Pondiscio writes, “If shares in the education reform movement could be purchased in the stock market, neutral analysts would grade them ‘underperform’ and probably ‘sell.’ We’ve seen gains in student outcomes particularly among disadvantaged subgroups. But those gains have been mostly in math and almost entirely in the younger grades. The ‘historic’ rate of high school graduation is frothy at best, fraudulent at worst. It is not possible to look at the big indicators of K–12 performance over the last few decades—NAEP, PISA, SAT, and ACT scores—and claim that ed reform at large has been a success. The payoff is simply not there.”

None of that matters to the privatizers though, because in the end, it isn’t the kids they are focused on. “Tom Jenney, the senior legislative advisor for the Arizona chapter of Americans for Prosperity, says “We believe in competition. That’s the most important thing. … Competition is the only reason why, frankly, anything in the world improves without monumental effort and luck.”

I find that viewpoint incredibly cynical. What about those who do a good job because of pride in a job well done? Also, competition pits individuals and groups against each other and, it produces winners and losers…is that what we want for our children?

The Washington Post article also claimed, “Teacher unions, worried that this will undermine the public system, collected enough signatures to put the law on hold and create a ballot proposition to let voters decide in November whether to expand vouchers.” That claim comes from either sloppy or totally biased and purposefully misleading reporting. First of all, as a “right to work” state, Arizona has no statewide collective bargaining unit for our teachers. Secondly, Save Our Schools Arizona, the grassroots organization who collected the signatures, is not a union, but rather, a dedicated group of mom’s who ignited an army of volunteers tired of out-of-state monied interests forcing on Arizonans legislation we don’t want. “SOS Arizona enlisted about 2,500 people to help with its referendum. They ended up paying about six people to collect signatures, but the rest of its base was a patchwork of volunteers.”

Those gathering at a recent Koch brothers’ meeting outside Palm Springs, CA, are definitely not grassroots volunteers, but rather, those monied interests referred to earlier. Governor Ducey was also there, touting Arizona’s 2017 voucher expansion as further reaching than anything that’s been tried in other states. Now though he warned, that achievement is under attack with Prop. 305 set to go to be on the ballot in November”, saying that under Arizona law, if advocates lose at the ballot box, they will not be able to legislate on the topic in the future. “This is a very real fight in my state,” Ducey said. “I didn’t run for governor to play small ball. I think this is an important idea.” Ducey also introduced the headmaster of Capital Prep Charter Schools, who has been traveling Arizona to speak in support of the law. “The teacher unions are unencumbered by the truth,” he told the Koch donors. “It is a distant relative that is never invited to dinner.”

Maybe it takes one “unencumbered by the truth” to try to manufacture the same in others. What seems apparent though, is that it is much easier for Ducey and his gang to blame “teachers’ unions for “working to deny parents school choice options” than it would be to acknowledge that a group of concerned mom’s are the ones fighting for our public schools to ensure ALL children have equitable opportunity. Seems to me that if vouchers and school choice were really the end all/be all, the privatizers wouldn’t have to work so hard to convince us of that. Problem is, they are working really hard and they are throwing an awful lot of money into their effort.

Which brings me to my constant mantra of late. I received several concerned emails and phone calls from people who had read the Washington Post article and wondered what they could do to combat the incoming Koch network onslaught. My answer is simple. If we want to save our system of public education, that system which helped build the strongest middle class in the world, we simply must elect more lawmakers who care about that system and the children it serves. And, we must start right here in Arizona. If you care about our public district schools and the one million children in them, you must learn which candidates share your concern and will fight for the full accountability, transparency, and locally elected governance that district school boards provide. And remember, that although “they” have the money, we have the many. We can fight back, but we must do it together, and we must do it now.

 

Linda Lyon Responds (Again) to the Same Reader

Fighting against the success of our public school students is unpatriotic!

Diane Ravitch's blog

Linda Lyon, retired Air Force Colonel and President of the Arizona School Boards Association, responds again to our reader Charles, who tried to convince her of the virtues of privatization.

She writes:

“Dear Charles,

You’ve obviously given a lot of thought to your position on school privatization. At 666 words, you covered a lot of ground. I do though, agree with some of your points.

Yes, children can be educated in a diversity of environments and yes, some rich liberals send their children to exclusive private schools. So do, rich conservatives. I believe that anyone has the right to send their child to any school they want, (provided the education is adequate), as long as they pay for it. When my tax dollars are paying for it, I want full accountability, transparency and to know the return on investment. Yes, legislation could be enacted to provide more accountability and transparency…

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Linda Lyon Responds to a Reader about Fiscal Responsibility and Public Schools

If you want to advocate for privatization of our public schools, how’s about you look at how it benefits ALL American children vs. just disparaging the “government-run” schools!

Diane Ravitch's blog

Linda Lyon, a retired Air Force colonel and president of the Arizona School Boards Association, responds to a reader who supports school choice, charters, vouchers, and home schooling.

She writes:

”Yes Charles, you are correct that the military industrial complex does provide a valuable service to our military mission. There are many functions that are not a core competency of the military (such as building airplanes) that have made sense to be outsourced. But, outsourcing the defense of our nation is not one of those functions. Where we’ve done that, as with Blackwater, it has not ended well.

“Of course education is “built” on a mix of public and private. After all, our public district schools don’t publish their own textbooks, or build their own buses or computers. But, as with the military, the core mission of our districts — to educate ALL our children, should not be outsourced. I…

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Linda Lyon: Why Our Public Schools Matter

If you believe in REAL fiscal responsibility, where we get what we pay for, watch this quick video about school privatization and then share it far and wide.

Diane Ravitch's blog

Linda Lyon is the president of the Arizona School Boards Association. She is a retired officer in the U.S. Air Force. She served her country in the military and continues to serve it by her participation in defense of public schools.

Colonel Lyon made this stirring video about democracy and public education. It is short and powerful. Please watch and share with your friends via Twitter, Facebook, and other social media. Show it to your PTA, the school board, the town council, the League of Women Voters, and every other group committed to strengthening the common good.

This video was sponsored by the Network for Public Education and produced, directed, and edited by Michael Elliott, a professional cinematigher

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This can be done

For those who may not have seen them, I had two letters to the editor (LOEs) published recently, one on Tucson.com and the other in the Arizona Republic. As you might have guessed, they were about education.

I don’t know that these LOEs moved the needle any, but if enough of us write them, they surely can begin to. Certainly, we are seeing much more in the news about education than ever before.

One such bit of “news” is the op-ed published by the AZ Republic’s Editorial Board this morning titled “The heavy lift is still ahead on education.” I applaud the headline for making it clear there is much more to be done, and for driving home “how far Arizona still has to go to restore our public-education system and make it secure and strong enough to face the challenges of a growing state.” I also appreciate their astute observation that “The recession taught Arizonans the hard lesson that their children and grandchildren will need solid skills to succeed in a fast-changing world. Our schools are trying to deliver on a starvation diet.”

I believe (probably in attempt to be fair and balanced), that they are off-track when they write that Ducey’s add of $4 million for early literacy is “worthwhile and commendable.” I say this because they seem to equate the value of early literacy efforts with that of full-day kindergarten, when they give Ducey kudos for proposing 1.6% of the funding needed for early childhood education, versus providing the necessary $240 million for full-day kindergarten. Is it really too much to ask for our state to ensure all our students are given a good start on their educational journey? After all, our state lawmakers give away over $12 billion each year in corporate sales tax relief, on an annual budget of less than $10 billion. Are you really telling me we can’t find 2% of that corporate welfare that not producing a good return on investment and redirect that money to fund full-day kindergarten? And oh by the way, many districts are already paying for full-day kindergarten out of existing funding which ultimately, shortchanges what can be offered other students. But, governing boards across the state have made this decision because they recognize how important kindergarten is to promoting successful outcomes for the rest of their students’ educational experience.

The op-ed also mentions Governor Ducey’s promises for “next steps” following the Prop. 123 settlement. You might remember this was the deal where he actually paid the districts only 70% of what the people had mandated and the courts adjudicated, and did it with money that was mostly already theirs (state trust land revenues). But the Editorial Board writes, “Ducey had not followed through…Instead, he held to his campaign promise not to raise taxes and relied on existing revenue to make modes increases last year.”

That’s my real beef with this “Education Governor.” Arizona’s district schools are in a   huge funding pit dug over several years – even with his proposed increase for 2019, the funding is still almost $1 billion short from 2008 levels. The restoration of those funds cannot be, dripped back into the pit. We need an “open the flood gates, turn up the pump” solution to getting our schools the support they desperately need. We are hemorrhaging teachers (2,000 positions vacant and another 3,400 filled with non-certified personnel), and with as many as 25% of our teachers eligible to retire in 2020, this problem isn’t going to get better anytime soon. Neither with our districts provided only 15% of what is required for maintenance and repair, can our deteriorating facilities continue to be nursed into service without more failures rearing up to bite us.

What our district schools need, and our children deserve, is bold courageous leadership NOW. The time, as AZ Senate Minority Leader Katie Hobbs recently stated, “We’ve got all the change from the couch cushions that there is.” We need a real infusion of revenue now, before we fail another generation of students.

This can be done. It is Governor Ducey’s and the state lawmakers job to do it. If they can’t, we need to find those who can. Remember the old adage, “if you always do what you’ve always done, you always get what you’ve always got.”

 

 

 

 

Size Matters!

The recent Arizona Town Hall on “Funding PreK–12 Education”, reported that, after “three days of serious and intense deliberations, [we] believe there is a state of emergency with respect to Arizona’s underfunding of our preK–12 education system, which requires urgent, decisive action.” This Town Hall effort was non-partisan, including a cross-section of diverse participants traveling from across the state to convene in Mesa. The intent of the effort was to discuss how best to fund preK–12 education now and in the future while improving the quality of education provided.

In their yet draft report, the Town Hall states in that, “Arizona already dedicates approximately 43% of the state’s general fund to K–12 education spending – good enough for a ranking of 11th nationally, as compared to average general fund spending of 35% among other states – the problem has more to do with the ”size of the pie” than a lack of relative support for preK–12 education spending.

That led me to notice an Arizona Daily Star story today titled, “Here’s how to use your tax credits to help public schools.” Although there isn’t a public school out there that doesn’t appreciate the tax credit dollars that come in, in the bigger picture they are as much as part of the problem, as they help. Firstly, they exacerbate inequities between private schools and public schools and between public schools themselves. Taxpayers can claim a five-fold greater tax credit for private schools (up to $1,089 per person versus only $200 for public schools.) Secondly, the tax credit monies given to private schools can be used for any purpose versus the limitation to extracurricular activities or character education programs that public schools must live with.

There is also the reality that wealthier communities are always capable of providing more funding support to their public schools than more disadvantaged communities. Yes, tax credit donations to schools are a one-for-one deduction of the state taxes you owe, but first you must earn enough to owe the taxes you’re looking to offset. And, oh by the way, “when the impact of state tax credits is combined with federal [and sometimes state] tax deductions, some [wealthier] taxpayers in nine states (Arizona included) can actually turn a profit by making these so-called ”donations“ to School Tuition Organizations (STOs) which funnel money to private schools. The non-profit, non-partisan Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP) writes, ”The potential for wealthy individuals to turn a profit by claiming these credits is accelerating the diversion of critical resources away from public schools.”

The problem is compounded when we look at it from the state-level, especially when one considers all the tax credits available. In 2014, about $287 million was redirected by individual taxpayers from the state treasury including these widely available ones:
* Qualifying Charitable Organizations = 105,500 redirected $28.2 million
* Private-school tuition organizations = 109,300 redirected $84 million
* Public-school extracurricular = 266,000 redirected $51 million

To exacerbate the problem, Governor Ducey signed SB 1216 into law in 2016, doubling the Qualifying Charitable Organization tax credit donation limits and separating out the Foster Care Credit so as to allow taxpayers to claim both. The public school tax credit limit was not increased.

Arizona also allows corporations to claim tax credits through School Tuition Organizations (STOs) and is in fact, only one of four states that allow businesses to claim a larger credit than individual taxpayers. These corporate tax credits are for low-income students (from families not exceeding an annual income of $82,996 for a family of four) and, for displaced/disadvantaged students. 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 to grow to more than $250 million a year” by 2025. It should be no surprise that in 2016, the $67 million annual limit on corporate tax credit donations in Arizona for low-income students was met in a matter of hours. For FY2017/18, that limit was over $74.3 million and the one for disabled/displaced students was $5 million.

What makes matters worse, is the plethora of evidence from around the nation that these tax credit programs do not improve student outcomes. In Arizona, it is hard to tell since there is no requirement for the private and parochial schools receiving the dollars to be accountable or transparent.

What these programs do very successfully though, is drain our state coffers of critical funding, shrinking the size of the pie that funds our public schools. This, while lining the pockets of wealthier taxpayers and helping fund private and parochial schools and the STOs that funnel taxpayer dollars to them (like the one owned by AZ Senate President Steve Yarborough.)

This is NOT what fiscal responsibility looks like, people. Fiscal responsibility means that we get what we pay for. Fiscal responsibility means that when we say we want our public schools adequately funded, we actually invest sufficiently in them, then hold them accountable for delivering a good return on our investment.

Workarounds to adequate funding like tax credits, may make taxpayers feel like they are doing their part, but they are just that…workarounds. If we really want our children to have every opportunity to succeed and our teachers to make a living wage, we must do our part to provide (as per the Town Hall report), “dedicated, sustainable funding sources for Arizona’s pre-K–12 education system that meet the needs of schools, teachers, and students in an equitable manner. The state’s funding system should also be transparent and promote accountability.”

My mantra over the coming year will be “if we want different, we must vote different.” I know I’m preaching overwhelmingly to the choir, but for those already on-board with supporting our public, district schools, you have more work to do. Until you’ve done everything possible to fight back against the assault on our public, district schools, you haven’t done enough. Get to know which of our Legislators are pro-public education by checking out the Friends of ASBA Voting Record and research the legislative candidates running throughout our state (I previously wrote about my favorite three.)

Remember, it doesn’t so much matter what district they are in as it does that we get more pro-public education legislators in our Legislature. That’s because no matter what district they are in, even if you can’t vote for them, they can vote for you and the high-quality public education you want to see. Help these candidates by donating, volunteering, and promoting them on social media. Yes, the education privatizers may have the money, but we have the many. Let’s show them our power!