Wondering What Happened To Steve Smith?

Grrrrreeeeaaaatt! The Capitol Times just reported that former state Senator and GOP candidate for U.S. House of Representatives in CD1, Steve Smith, is joining the American Federation for Children as the new state director.

Many LD11 residents (especially those in his home town of Maricopa), were thrilled to get rid of him as our one of our lawmakers. Now though, I imagine public education advocates will likely emit a communal groan to this news. Smith was no friend of public education as a state Senator, and in fact, was a co-sponsor of the full-expansion of vouchers (Empowerment Scholarship Accounts) law.

In 2017, he voted for Arizona School Boards Association (ASBA) supported bills only 2 of 7 times. In 2016, he did better, but voted for three ESA expansion bills. In 2015, he voted for ASBA supported bills only 2 of 9 times, with two of those bills being ESA expansions. Back in 2014, he voted against ASBA positions all 7 times, and one of those was an ESA expansion.

The American Federation of Children (AFC) of course, is the organization that Betsy DeVos headed before she got the gig as U.S. Secretary of Education. Their mission, according to their website, is: “The American Federation for Children and AFC Growth Fund seek to empower families, especially lower-income families, with the freedom to choose the best K–12 education for their children.

Yeah, right, it is ALL about the low-income, disadvantaged child. No matter that “the freedom to choose” means nothing if there isn’t true access to the choice. An example of this is the expansion of vouchers to students living on tribal lands. Ask yourself…how many private schools are there on tribal lands? Exactly! The whole idea that AFC is all about empowering lower-income families “with the freedom to choose” sounds like a nice idea until you know the facts.

AFC is no stranger to Arizona, making its presence known via big campaign spending for pro-voucher candidates. In 2014 alone, they spent $205,000 in the state. Smith was one of the recipients of those funds. In 2016, AFC spent $213,000, but evidently none on Smith, they must have considered him safe that year.

The last time I met with then Senator Smith in his office at the Capitol, he was complaining about how the Feds were trying to shove something down Arizona’s throat and he wasn’t going to have it. I told him that just like he didn’t like the Feds trying to tell Arizona what to do, locally-elected school board members don’t like state lawmakers trying to tell them what to do. Everyone, I intimated, should stay in their lane to allow the system to work best. He didn’t even acknowledge what I said, but started ranting about how the Feds aren’t the parent, the state is the parent. He was finger pointing and literally, spitting mad. I decided at that point I was getting nowhere and left.

Smith is an ambitious ideologue and will continue his rampage against Arizona’s public schools. Certainly the pro-privatization crowd are not dissuaded by the failure of the full voucher expansion last November. Rather, I suspect they’ve circled the wagons and have been plotting their next assault on our public schools. Smith has certainly had lots of practice doing AFC’s bidding and now can be even more “unplugged” in leading the charge. Or, maybe, just maybe, he’ll be as successful at this, as he was at building the wall he promised to raise money for. Geesh…I keep telling myself! The session hasn’t even started yet!

Enough of Trump’s Sh*tdown

Ever since Trump announced his candidacy, up has been down, black has been white, wrong has been right. That trend continues as a man who is viewed by his supporters as a populist (seeking to represent the interests of ordinary people) obviously cares nothing about the 800,000 federal employees (about a quarter of all government employees) who are not being paid during this partial government shutdown.

This Trump Shutdown is now in its 16th day and some 420,000 government employees designated as “essential” (in some cases, the lowest paid) are being forced to work without pay. The New York Times writes, “This includes upward of 41,000 law enforcement officials [including FBI and DEA], 54,000 Border Patrol agents, and 53,000 Transportation Security Administration (TSA) workers”.

It can be no surprise that now some of those TSA employees have begun to call in sick in protest. According to CNN, “as many as 170 TSA employees called out [sick] each day this week” at New York’s JFK International Airport. At the Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport, “call outs have increased by 200%–300%.” And, union officials are predicting call-outs will increase when agents miss their first paycheck, forcing them to find other jobs to put food on the table, or pay their rent, or to stay home with their young children because they can no longer afford child care. What will happen is largely unknown though, since as TSA Administrator David Pekoske said, “We’ve never had a situation where officers did not get paid” since recent shutdowns have been of a duration that didn’t result in pay delay.

This, in a job where the annual turnover rate at some airports is already as much as 80%. About half of TSA agents after all, make less than $40,000 per year, and I for one, can’t imagine these jobs are the most fulfilling, stressless ever created. And, even if there are plenty of people to backfill departing employees, the on-boarding and training of replacement employees must be incredible and the instability and uncertainty caused by this shutdown aren’t going to help.

Reduced safety and security though, are the focus of airline pilots from Delta, United, JetBlue and others who have President Trump. “In a scorchingly fact-based letter” writes Inc.com, Captain Joe DePete of the Air Line Pilots Association (representing 61,000 pilots), wrote,

“I am writing to urge you to take the necessary steps to immediately end the shutdown of government agencies that is adversely affecting the safety, security and efficiency of our national airspace system.”

He goes on to write,

“The nation’s airspace system is a complex transportation network that involves government and industry partnerships to function properly, and the disruptions being caused by the shutdown are threatening the safe operations of this network.”

Finally, DePete points out

“Mechanical inspections, drone oversight and new enhanced communications systems are all threatened. Worse, air traffic controllers, airspace system maintenance personnel and Air Marshals are working unpaid.”

And although a TSA spokesman said,

“Security effectiveness will not be compromised and performance standards will not change”,

eventually something’s got to give. As a veteran TSA official said,

“If you’re not seeing long wait times at airports, there’s something on the security side they’re not doing.”

Options airports may use to keep lines down include fewer random pat down security checks on passengers, giving passengers who have not been vetted for the PreCheck program an expedited screening, or the use of a procedure called “positive passenger bag match” to loosen standards for checked baggage.

This is a scary proposition, but it shouldn’t be the only shutdown consequence giving us pause. A Republican authored op-ed in USAToday.com uses irony in its lead stating,

“In the name of strengthening border security, Trump refuses to fund the FBI, TSA, Coast Guard and Border Patrol(!). You can’t make this stuff up.”

And the New York Times Editorial Board writes that, “Trump’s Shutdown is Not About Border Security”, but rather, that the

“800,000 federal employees, and the citizens who depend on them, are being hurt for an empty political stunt.”

After all, they write, Congress has already,

“on a bipartisan basis…been allocating more money for border security – although the administration has spent less than 10 percent of what [has been] allocated in the past year.”

That’s likely because Trump claims there can be no border security without a wall, and he isn’t willing to learn about why that just isn’t true. He even claims that “‘many’ federal workers have urged him to ’stay out until you get the funding for the wall.” I doubt very seriously this is true, since a recent Reuters/Ipsos poll found that “only a quarter of all Americans support the shutdown” and only 35% favor including wall money in a spending bill. More likely this is about Trump placating his base as Senator Lindsey Graham recently expressed on Fox News,

“If he gives in now, that’s the end of 2019 in terms of him being an effective president. That’s probably the end of his presidency.”

No matter the reason for the shutdown, the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) says forcing employees to work without pay “is nothing short of inhumane” and has filed a lawsuit against the Trump administration. A previous such suit was filed during the 2013 shutdown and a federal judge finally ruled in 2017 that, “the government had to compensate 25,000 federal employees for damages due to the 2013 shutdown because it was a violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act to make workers do their jobs during the funding lapse.“ Those employees have yet to receive their damages compensation, but AFGE is hopeful that the precedence set will expedite matters this time around.

Of course, federal employees aren’t the only workers in government that are affected by the shutdown. More than 40% of the federal government workforce in fact, are white- and blue-collar contract employees, and many of the latter, in lower wage jobs as janitors and security guards. These workers likely won’t ever be compensated for their lost wages. Likewise, small businesses that depend on the patronage of government employees (restaurants for example) won’t recoup the revenue they are losing.

Ultimately, no matter the outcome, the shutdown will hurt us as a nation more than help us. The longer it continues, the more important work will backup, to include business ability to “E-verify” immigration status of new hires and immigration courts to deal with their already overwhelming backlog. Experts also calculate the shutdown will end up costing us more than the $5B Trump wants for his wall. According to Time.com, Republican U.S. Senator Rand Paul said the 2013 shutdown that lasted 16 days

“cost us more to shut the government down than to keep it open”,

a statement rated true by Politifact.

The costs incurred according to the center-right American Action Forum, include federal budgetary costs, forgone services, and economic disruption. The federal employees will after all, eventually receive their back pay; and there is cost associated with: shutting down and reopening offices, lost productivity, inability to collect permits and fees, and a lowered GDP growth (estimated at $2B to $6B for the 2013 shutdown.) And in 2013, we weren’t also paying for President ordered troops to the southern border to fight off the threat of a migrant caravan. The Pentagon estimated it would cost $72M to pay for the deployment through December 15, 2018. The administration is now considering  an increased presence there until September 2019.

We recognize when troops are being used as political pawns though, because we’ve seen it before, even on our homeland. As the Associated Press wrote last year, “When former presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama deployed the Guard to the border in 2006 and 2010, they were pushing Congress to pass wide-ranging overhauls of immigration policy. Both overhauls failed. A 2011 government review estimated the Bush and Obama deployments cost at least $1.3 billion.

Whether it is federal employees not getting paid, or troops going on BS missions, enough, is enough. I’m sick and tired of the little guy always taking it in the shorts while the powerful play silly games. Here’s an idea. How about the American people demand Congress work without pay until this issue is resolved? What if every single one of us called our U.S. Representatives and Senators over the next few days and left them the message that they should lead by example and work without pay if they are going to continue to require essential federal employees do the same? Here’s a link to the contact information for members of Congress: https://www.usa.gov/elected-officials. It’s a small action, but as Margaret Mead said,

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

Should seniors skate?

The Legislative session doesn’t start for another week and a half and I’m already tired of the bad ideas being proposed. I previously wrote about HB2002 Rep. Mark Finchem’s (R-Oro Valley) proposal, which would “allow the state to fire teachers who discuss politics, religion, or racial issues in classroom settings.” Yesterday, Newsweek picked up on Phoenix New Times reporting that nine of the points in his bill were “lifted directly from the Stop K–12 Indoctrination campaign, which the David Horowitz Freedom Center sponsors. The Southern Poverty Law Center describes David Horowitz as ‘a driving force of the anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant, and anti-black movements.’” Not to be outdone, Rep. Kelly Townsend (R-Mesa) submitted HB2015 which covers the same territory.

Now, we have “a self-proclaimed ‘tax activist’ who wants to excuse anyone 65 or older from paying property tax. Her name is Lynne Weaver and she is working with a former state GOP chairman to permanently ban property taxes on AZ home owners 65 and older.

What a ridiculous idea! As a Capitol Media Services article points out, if the initiative passes, homeowners under 65 would be left to make up the property tax burden the elderly were relieved of. This tax money after all, funds public education, emergency services and other community programs. In a perfect world, we wouldn’t rely on property taxes to fund these programs because it inevitably results in winners and losers. But the funding for these essential services has to come from somewhere and for now, that’s property taxes.

According to the AZ Department of Health Services “2014–2018 Arizona Healthy Aging Plan”, the number of Arizonans aged 65 and older was 14% in 2010. By 2025, the plan states “there will be as many people over 65 as under age 15 living in Arizona. These increases will be accompanied by a decrease in the proportion of working-age Arizonans who help support older adults in numerous ways including paying taxes on wages that help fund Social Security and Medicare.”

So, not only will there not be enough young people to support the older ones, but Weaver’s initiative would have those young people responsible for picking up the bill for elders’ property tax relief as well?

A California transplant, Weaver’s tried to limit property taxes before with efforts based on California’s disastrous Proposition 13, “a 1978 measure rolling back property valuations and capping year-over-year increases.” With this latest effort, she thinks she’ll have more luck targeting only seniors. But, she’ll need to get 356,467 valid signatures by July 2, 2020 for the initiative to make the ballot next year.

Which brings me back to another of Finchem’s proposals. He recently announced he wants to allow initiative organizers to collect signatures online. This caught my attention because although Sandy Bahr of the AZ Sierra Club lauded his proposal, I know (given his denial of climate change), he is not proposing this change to help promote renewable energy, or any other sane issue liberals care about.

What if Finchem wants the on-line initiative signing capability to help Weaver’s initiative qualify for the ballot? And if it qualifies, what’s the chances the voters will approve it? I don’t know the answer to that, but I do know that the 65+ age group are the most reliable voters of them all.

Then again, maybe I’m just getting cynical in my old age. No, I’m not 65 yet, but I do live in an active adult community. And yes, I believe in paying taxes for public education. Retirees (and others) paid for mine after all, and I want to ensure there are plenty of well educated young people to take care of all of our futures. Crazy concept, huh?

New Year’s resolution suggestion for Finchem

I have a suggestion for Representative Mark Finchem, (R-Oro Valley). How’s about one of his New Year’s Resolutions be that he sponsors a bill this session that actually improves the lives of his constituents?

Instead, the latest bill he is sponsoring, according to the AZ Capitol Times, is HB2022 (empowerment scholarships; financial oversight; treasurer) intended to broaden the state treasurer’s authority over the financial management of school vouchers. The bill “would add language to existing law that says the treasurer may contract with private financial management firms to manage the state’s Empowerment Scholarship Accounts (ESAs).” Evidently, Finchem believes the answer to ensuring more oversight over fraudulent ESA spending is to “grant the treasurer exclusive authority to issue requests for proposals from potential vendors, select payment processors and execute vendor contracts.”

But Chuck Essigs, lobbyist for the AZ Association of School Business Officials, questions the need for the bill since the Treasurer’s office only pays the vendor bills. It is up to Arizona’s Department of Education to ensure families have used their state-issued ESA debit card for only appropriate expenditures.

Yes, there have been problems, and tighter controls are needed. According to an October 2018 AZ Auditor General Report,

Arizona parents 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.“

Arizona’s Department of Education (ADE) has repeatedly failed to flag accounts at high risk for fraud allowing parents to ”make numerous improper purchases on state-issued debit cards, even after the accounts should have been frozen or closed.” And although ADE sent 142 collection cases to the attorney general totaling about $500,000, only two of those cases were closed and only $11,000 has been repaid in full.

But, according to the Diane Douglas, AZ Superintendent of Public Instruction (a Republican), the failure of her department to catch the offenders was a result of decisions by the Republican-controlled Legislature to deny her department money needed to properly administer the program. Under the law, 4% of the program’s funding is supposed to go to ADE to administer and oversee the program. This year, it is getting about 2%, or $1.2 million.

Douglas said ADE needs the full 4 percent to properly oversee the program and although $5.7 million is sitting in a fund that is allocated for program oversight, the Legislature has not authorized the department to spend that money. She claims lawmakers resist properly funding oversight because they want a private entity to oversee it, telling the AZ Republic,

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

A key Republican senator, Bob Worsley, doesn’t discount Douglas’ assessment saying,

”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,“ said Worsley, of Mesa. Worsley said it is neither fiscally sound nor ethical for lawmakers to inadequately fund oversight of the program. ”In our capacity, we should be making sure the taxpayer dollars are going for what taxpayers intended, even if it’s your pet project … but I’m probably a lone voice in my caucus on that front,“ he said.”

I’m thinking Finchem’s bill is more about continuing to reduce government so it “can be drowned in the bathtub” than it is about catching parents buying big screens with their ESA debit card. This situation after all, follows the pro-privatizer playbook which says: 1) chronically underfund a government agency, 2) promote its failures to properly perform, and then 3) outsource to the private sector as a way to “save the day”. It’s a twist on the old “start the fire so you can be the hero and put it out” routine. In this case, start the fire, so you can burn down the existing structure and rebuild it the way you want it.

The GOP-led Legislature knows they haven’t properly funded ADE efforts to deal with the ever-increasing ESA expenditures. But, they want to shrink the department, not grow it. Especially when an educator who just happens to be a Democrat is about to take the reins. And before you ask, yes, Arizona’s new treasurer is a Republican. But I’m sure that has nothing to do with it…

Lower quality = “good enough” results?

It should come as no surprise to anyone that teachers around the country are jumping ship at an alarming rate. According to the Wall Street Journal, public educators “quit at an average rate of 83 per 10,000 per month in the first 10 months of 2018” – the highest rate for public educators since 2001.

One obvious reason for teachers leaving the classroom is the low salaries many still earn. In an analysis of census data, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities noted that in at least 12 states, public education budgets are down some 7% from 2009 levels, adjusted for inflation. U.S. teacher pay (adjusted for inflation) says the National Education Association, is now 5% lower than it was in 2009. And, a 2017 report from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development “found that teachers in the U.S. earn far less than people with similar education levels who are working other jobs. American teachers make, on average, between 55 and 59 percent of the salaries of other professionals with comparable schooling levels.”

Even so, pay is not the only reason teachers are fleeing classrooms. They also cite inadequate public respect and increased accountability without appropriate support. In Arizona specifically, contributing factors include 25% of our certified teachers being retirement eligible, a grading system for schools that still relies heavily on standardized tests, a GOP-led Legislature that is very pro-school choice if not openly hostile to public district education and their teachers, and the lack of respect for the teaching profession demonstrated by the dumbing down of teacher qualification requirements.

Arizona began this dumbing down in 2017. According to AZCentral.com, since the 2015–2016 school year, “nearly 7,200 teaching certificates have been issued to teachers who aren’t fully trained to lead a classroom. In just three years, the number of Arizona teaching certificates that allow someone to teach full-time without completing formal training has increased by more than 400 percent according to state Department of Education data analyzed by The Arizona Republic. For the 2017–18 school year, that added up to 3,286 certificates issued to untrained teachers and by 47 days into the 2018–2019 school year, 1,404 certificates had been issued to untrained teachers while 3,141 were issue standard certificates.”

That last 1,404 certificates issued for the current school year is probably the most instructive, because this is after the 10 percent raises for teachers the #RedforEd movement garnered in 2018. So, less than one-third of the way into the school year, the state has issued almost half as many certificates to untrained teachers as the entire previous year. In other words, despite the 10% pay increase, Arizona districts are having even more difficulty attracting professional teachers into their classrooms.

Part of the problem is no doubt an improved economy. After the 2008 recession, the classroom was a safe place to be employed; other jobs just weren’t to be had. Now though, teachers have other options.

That, combined with the aforementioned factors, is putting school district governing boards in a bind. As the past president of the Arizona School Boards Association, believe me when I tell you that governing boards do not want less than fully qualified teachers in their district’s classrooms. But, when push comes to shove, sometimes they are left with little choice. And although a 2017 AZ Republic statewide examination of teacher quality found that “it is rare for schools to fill full-time teaching positions using Emergency Substitute Certificates” (requiring only a high-school diploma), in 2016–17 more than 40 of those teachers were leading classrooms. The Republic also found that “22 percent of 46,000 Arizona teachers either did not meet the state’s basic qualifications or had less than three years’ teaching experience.” And, that over 62% of the state’s almost 8,600 teacher vacancies either had not been filled or were filled with people who couldn’t qualify for a standard teaching certificate.

Some argue that standard certification, which in Arizona requires a bachelor’s degree, passing a professional and subject knowledge exam, completing a teacher preparation program and teaching full-time for at least two years, is not important. After all “they” say, (pandering to liberals no doubt), if Ruth Bader Ginsberg wanted to teach civics in Arizona, she wouldn’t qualify for a standard certification. Well, just because someone is a Supreme Court Justice, doesn’t mean they know how to teach. We’ve all met really smart people who couldn’t communicate what they knew. Pedagogy, the art of teaching, is a learned skill.

What it really comes down to, is whether or not we believe teaching is a profession worthy of appropriate compensation, investments in professional development and the autonomy to appropriately practice their craft. I believe the answer, with our future hanging in the balance, is an easy one.

Revenge Over Reason

Unknown-1.jpegFirst, Representative Mark Finchem (R-Oro Valley) introduced HB2002 directing creation of a code of conduct that would prohibit teachers from discussing politics, religion or race at the risk of violators being fired. Now Representative Kelly Townsend (R-Mesa) proposes HB2018 which would,

“expand a 2016 law that allows any state legislator to ask the attorney general to investigate an ordinance, regulation, order or other action taken by a municipality or county to determine whether it is in compliance with state law.” Her bill would require “the attorney general to investigate any policy, procedure or other official action taken by a school district governing board or any school district employee that lawmakers allege violates state law. If investigators find the law has been broken, the superintendent of public instruction would be directed to withhold up to $5,000 per violation from offending districts’ state funding.”

So, let me get this right. School employees or governing board members are already liable for an up to $5,000 personal fine for using public school resources to influence elections. In fact, two teachers were fined this year for violating the law. But, that’s not enough for Townsend. She now wants to threaten school districts for the potential actions of their governing board members and employees. Not only that, but she wants to withhold funding for students if violations occur.

Many believe these proposed laws area a solution in search of a problem, and the AZ Attorney General’s office says the 30-day timeline in-place to investigate per the existing law is already very difficult to meet. AG spokesman Ryan Anderson said,

“To expand that statute to every [district employee, thousands of employees, I just don’t see a way.” He added that, “any expansion of powers under SB1487 would have to come with corresponding increases in staff resources.”

For her part, Townsend says she has no problem with finding more money for the AG’s office. Too bad she hasn’t had the same attitude about adequately funding our public schools. During her time in the Legislature, she voted for multiple expansions (to include last year’s full expansion) of Empowerment Scholarship Accounts (vouchers), multiple bills intended to make it more difficult for districts to garner locally supported funding via bonds and override, and against a 20 year renewal of Prop 301, without which, Arizona’s public education system would have faced a funding cliff in 2021.

But wait, there’s more. Evidently, HB2018 isn’t the only “teacher hating” bill Townsend is proposing. Jerod MacDonald-Evoy from AZMirror.com writes that, “Another measure introduced by Mesa Republican Rep. Kelly Townsend, House Bill 2015 ”would prohibit teachers from talking about their political or religious beliefs, and allow parents to sue teachers who don’t follow the law. Those teachers could also be fired from their jobs.” (Just in case Finchem’s bill isn’t enough.)

I don’t know what teachers Representative Townsend is worried about, but the teachers I know are very clear on what conduct is allowable in, and out of, the classroom. In fact, until this past year, (in my opinion) they were overly cautious, thinking it best to leave advocacy to others. Then though, they saw the #RedforEd wave wash across America and they realized that if things were ever going to improve for their students, it was up to them. I happen to believe they were right.

During her run for the AZ House this past cycle, my wife interviewed a teacher who had left the classroom. Yes, low pay was one of the factors driving her decision, but it wasn’t the primary one. Rather, she was tired of insufficient resources to do the job the way she knew it needed to be done. She was tired of giving her students less than they deserved.

I don’t believe Arizona’s teachers walked out because they were tired of being paid at a rate ranked 48th in the nation. I believe they walked out because we had some 2,000 classrooms without a certified teacher and class sizes that are 5th highest in the U.S. They walked out, because they know that the number one in-school factor to student achievement is a highly qualified teacher. They walked out because it was way beyond time for someone to take a significant stand. It took 75,000 of them, but their stand significantly moved the needle for Arizona’s one million public school students. To be clear though, even with the additional funding garnered this year, our public schools are still short over $600 million from 2008 levels (yes, a decade ago.)

Progress though, evidently scares lawmakers like Finchem and Townsend (or gives them a tool with which to scare others) and they are out for revenge. They don’t want teachers who stand up for their students, they want teachers who do what they are told. Unfortunately for them, teachers are citizens first and still do enjoy certain Constitutional protections for protected speech. But, says AZ American Civil Liberties Union spokesman Steve Kilar,

“It appears that there are a number of provisions…that have the potential to chill teachers’ speech” as well as, “certain teaching styles, like the Socratic method, the system of posing a question of students in order for foster critical thinking.”

That, I posit, is exactly how lawmakers like Finchem and Townsend like it. They don’t want our students taught to think critically about the world around them. Instead, they want compliance with their desired world order. It might seem like a good idea for them and their ilk, but it is damn scary for the rest of us.

Please let Mattis’ resignation be the wakeup call

President Trump’s capitulation to Turkish President Erdogan’s demand for U.S. troops to leave Syria takes me back to 1989 when I was assigned to Incirlik Air Base in Turkey. It was during Operation DESERT STORM that I first learned about the Kurds and Turkey’s desire to destroy them. Even while we were busy securing a no flyzone to protect the Kurds, the Turks were using joint intelligence to go after them. I knew the Turks considered them terrorists, but hey…one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. My country had the latter opinion – back when we at least pretended to care about “little” things like human rights.

As a young Captain assigned to the 39th Combat Support Squadron at Incirlik AB, I was in charge of food service, lodging, furnishings management and the milk, laundry, and mortuary operations at the base. Initially a sleepy hollow, things heated up real quick when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait.

We received the execution order for Operation Desert Storm (to expel occupying Iraqi forces from Kuwait) on January 13, 1991, and the ensuing six weeks were the most satisfying of my entire 22-year career. My provisional squadron of 95 personnel and I were doing what we’d trained to do and everyone was committed to the mission at hand. At our level at least, there were no mixed messages. We were there to fly, fight, and win. It was hard work, but we believed in the mission and knew we had the full support of our commanders, to include our commander-in-chief.

Fast forward to today. Our troops now have a Commander-in-Chief who doesn’t care to learn the importance of our alliances and nor evidently, does he care about the real threats posed by our long-standing enemies. He has yet to visit the troops in a combat Area of Operations (AOR) and much worse, has no concept of the danger he puts them in by tweeting about troop withdrawals with no thought given to the process or the implications thereof. Remember, this is the guy who brushed off his lack of a specific policy to defeat ISIS saying,

“I have a substantial chance of winning. If I win, I don’t want to broadcast to the enemy exactly what my plan is.”

Evidently, he has no problem now with announcing his intent to cut and run. It should tell us everything we need to know that both Erdogan and Putin praised ”the Donald’s” withdrawal of U.S. forces. Trump is giving them exactly what they want.

General Mattis understands this and that’s why even after Trump announced his decision via Twitter, Mattis went to the White House to try to change his mind. It was of course to no avail, and Mattis was left with no choice but to tender his resignation. We should all be horrified it has come to this. Mattis is a highly respected, combat-tested, career soldier who has many times over, proven his dedication to duty and our country. This is a man who has been quoted as saying,

“I don’t lose any sleep at night over the potential for failure. I cannot even spell the word.”

Yet, he has now been forced to recognize that his only recourse to the craziness coming out of the Oval Office, is to basically admit failure and resign in protest.

As reported on TheAtlantic.com, A senior U.S. national-security official who spoke on condition of anonymity said,

“Mattis is the last brake on a president that makes major life-and-death decisions by whim without reading, deliberation, or any thought as to consequences and risks.”

I couldn’t agree more with this statement. I don’t however agree with the rest of his statement that,

“The saving grace is that this president has not been tested by a major national-security crisis. But it will come, and when it does, we are [f*cked].”

This president HAS been tested by a “major national-security crisis”, continues to be tested every single day, and is found to be severely wanting. Although there are plenty of people who seem to think that a foreign power influencing our elections is just politics as usual, it is not political, nor is it usual. What it is, is sophisticated cyberwarfare and it should not be tolerated, not for one red-hot second. Not only has Trump tolerated it, he invited it and has essentially worked to provide top cover for it ever since he was elected.

Thus far, General Mattis had been successful at moderating Trump’s dangerous, knee-jerk tendencies. From Trump’s disdain for NATO, to his desire to strike North Korea and/or withdraw from the Korean peninsula, to his demand to kill Bashar al-Assad, and much more. Time and again, Mattis managed to talk Trump down from potentially disastrous decisions, smooth the ruffled feathers of our allies, and remain effective at providing top-cover for the troops.

Now as this last line of defense crumbles, we must see Mattis’ resignation as a serious wake up call. We, the American people, must demand of Congress, a co-equal branch of government to the Executive, to be the check on a president who would be king. Otherwise, as his malfeasance continues to catch up with him and the walls close in, he will become increasingly desperate to deflect blame by creating chaos. So much has happened in the last two-plus years that we never could have imagined. Is it really that unimaginable that this President would create a situation to grab more power by declaring martial law or, God forbid, launch nuclear weapons? Is it?

Finchem to teachers: “I’ll get you my pretty”

Voter suppression is alive and well in America and Arizona is no exception. Yes, some strides were made by county recorders to ensure more people had the opportunity to cast their ballots and have them counted, but the work to disenfranchise voters and strip away their voice, continues.

I’ve personally experienced a little bit of this, because as the President of the Arizona School Boards Association (ASBA), I had to be mindful of even giving an appearance the Association was attempting to influence the outcome of any election. Given my natural tendency to speak my mind, I found it frustrating to be silent while unethical candidates peddled their spin and thousands of grassroots volunteers labored across the state to get pro-public education initiatives passed. And although too many of the former won reelection, at least the full expansion of vouchers was killed. Other good news (at least for me) is that since I passed the President’s gavel this week, I am now once again free to comment away. It has been an incredible honor to serve as President of this awesome organization, but I am happy to be unmuzzled.

I just read Arizona Capitol Times reporting that AZ Representative Mark Finchem isn’t waiting for the start of the legislative session to exact retribution on educators who stood up for themselves and their students this year. To the teachers in his district (LD 11) who marched on the Capitol this year and saw him in action, this will not come as a surprise. After all, one teacher who visited him during the #RedForEd walkout told me that when they went to see him, he told them to “get their asses back to work”. I cannot verify this charge, but in my experience with Finchem, can say that I have found him to: 1) say what he thinks, 2) not be subtle and 3) not be supportive of public education.

His new bill, H2002 (educators; ethics professional responsibility), would require the State Board of Education to adopt uniform rules for all certified teachers in “taxpayer supported schools” to bar them from political activities. Funny thing is, Arizona Revised Statue (ARS) 15.511 already forbids the use of public school resources to influence elections and, levies a fine of $5,000 per violation. And, as Chris Kotterman, ASBA’s legislative Liaison said, “everyone who works in public schools is keenly aware that they’re under a microscope in regard to political activity.”

True to form though, Finchem wants to not only drive the point home (just in case educators are too stupid to understand it), but also lock them in a box and throw away the key. According to AZ Capitol Times, he proposes a prohibition on “the endorsement or opposition of any candidate or elected or appointed official; any pending or enacted legislation, rule or regulation; pending, proposed or decided court case; or pending, proposed or executed executive action.”

As Kotterman observes, “Finchem’s bill does not appear to be a genuine effort to improve the teaching profession, but rather a list of grievances.” Kotterman also said, “This just doesn’t feel serious to me. It feels 100 percent political. If you were serious about having a teacher code of ethics, it would cover more than just stuff that seems to have happened in the last 24 months.”

Finchem’s past words and actions have made it clear that he is: disdainful of higher education that teaches critical thinking, not a fan of local control, and, that in favor of teaching revisionist history. Perhaps these are the some of the reasons he is also proposing a prohibition on “any controversial issue that is not germane to the topic of the course or academic subject,” where “controversial issue” is defined as “a point in a political party platform,” and on “partisan advocacy of a controversial issue.” He also wants banned, the “segregation of students according to race” and that teachers not be allowed to “single out one racial group of students as being responsible for the suffering or inequities experienced by another racial group of students. Of this, AZ Capitol Times reporter Katie Campbell writes, ” That provision seems to hint at Tucson Unified School District’s former Mexican American Studies program, of which Finchem has been a frequent critic.” Kotterman commented on that too, saying, “We have been down this road. We have a law on the books about this. It’s been litigated three times. Believe me when I say that school districts understand their responsibilities.”

Yes, districts and educators do understand and that’s why, until this election cycle, they remained largely silent. It was just easier to stay silent than to risk an accidental infraction. But when they watch the #RedForEd wave work its way across our country, they realized if there was any possibility of driving real positive change for their students, they were going to have to be the ones to drive it. I suspect Finchem didn’t like them “getting to big for their britches” (my words not his) and it doesn’t surprise me he wants to put them back in their place. Legislation he sponsors and positions he espouses is routinely focused on showing who’s the boss and in his view…its not the people of Arizona. And, when the people forget the Legislature is “the Boss” he is good at whacking them on the proverbial knuckles – or at least trying to.

And yet, the voters of LD 11 returned him to the Legislature, rewarding him for his condescending, mean-spirited attitude. The good news is that some of his more egregious bills fail. The bad news is, many of them don’t and now on his third term, he will be even more emboldened.

I don’t know about you, but I’d like to have elected officials that work to make our lives better, not worse. I’d like to have our elected officials focused on finding ways to “lift us up” versus “keep us down.” Unfortunately, at least in LD 11, that’s just not reality. So, it requires us, his constituents, to stay informed and engaged, to remind Finchem that we ARE the boss of him and not the other way around.

Wealth Redistributed

I was recently in a public forum on education when a school board member asked me whether my call to address inequities in our schools was a call for the “redistribution of wealth”. I told him local control dictates that our Governing Boards, representing the communities in which they live, are best positioned to decide how to allocate district resources for the maximum benefit of all their students.  I hoped, I said, they would do that.

His question though, caused me to think about this term, and why it seems to be a lightning rod for conservatives. Social scientist researcher Brené Brown believes it is because of the “scarcity” worldview held by Republicans/conservatives. “The opposite of scarcity is not abundance” she writes, “It’s enough.” Basically, “they believe that the more people they exclude from “having”, the more is available to them.” And, in this binary way of thinking, the world is very black and white (pun sort of intended), e.g., if you aren’t a success, you’re a failure, and should be excluded. Of course, this sort of mindset is a gold mine for those who fear-monger to garner support for their exclusionary agendas. “We’ve got to stop the illegal hoards from coming across the border” the narrative goes, or “they’ll be stealing our jobs and elections.”

I offer that the redistribution of wealth can also flow the other way as with the            privatization of our public schools. Those who already “have” are redistributing the “wealth” of those who “have not”. They do this by encouraging the siphoning of taxpayer monies from our district public schools, for charters, home and private schools. Once slated for the education of all, our hard-earned tax dollars are now increasingly available to offset costs for those already more advantaged.  

In Arizona, approximately 60% of our one million public K-12 students qualify for the free and reduced price lunch program, with over 1,000 schools having over 50% of their students qualifying. As you might guess, schools with the highest number of students qualifying for “free and reduced” are located in higher poverty areas and with few exceptions, have lower school letter grades. Zip code it turns out, is an excellent predictor (irrespective of other factors) of school letter grade. According to a study by the Arizona Partnership for Healthy Communities, “Your ZIP code is more important to your health than your genetic code” and a life-expectancy map for Phoenix released three years ago, “found life expectancy gaps as high as 14 years among ZIP codes.”

Clearly, when it comes to inequities in our public schools, the “public” part of the equation is at least as important as the “schools” part. In other words, the problem is bigger than our schools and must be dealt with more holistically if it is to be solved. Poverty is obviously a big part of the problem and is nothing new. What is relatively new, is the purposeful devaluation of concern for the common good and the marketing of privatization as the solution to all our problems. 

Privatization has not however, proven itself to be the panacea for fixing our “failing schools”, rather, it is exacerbating their problems. In Arizona, all forms of education privatization (vouchers, tax credits, home schooling, for-profit charters) are taking valuable resources out of the public district school system while delivering mixed results. We’ve also seen countless examples of shameless self-enrichment and outright fraud with taxpayer dollars. Meanwhile, some 80% of Arizona students are left in underresourced district schools, many of which are seeing (not by accident), their highest level of segregation since the 1960s. 

Noliwe M. Rooks, director of American studies at Cornell University and author of  “Cutting School: Privatization, Segregation, and the End of Public Education, coined the term “segrenomics” to define the business of profiting from high levels of this segregation. In an interview with Valerie Strauss of the Washington Post, Rooks said that, “Children who live in segregated communities and are Native American, black or Latino are more likely to have severely limited educational options. In the last 30 years, government, philanthropy, business and financial sectors have heavily invested in efforts to privatize certain segments of public education; stock schools with inexperienced, less highly paid teachers whose hiring often provides companies with a “finder’s fee”; outsource the running of schools to management organizations; and propose virtual schools as a literal replacement for — not just a supplement to — the brick and mortar educational experience. “ She went on to say that, “The attraction, of course, is the large pot of education dollars that’s been increasingly available to private corporate financial interests. The public education budget funded by taxpayers is  roughly $500 billion to $600 billion per year. Each successful effort that shifts those funds from public to private hands — and there has been a growing number of such efforts since the 1980s — escalates corporate earnings.”

This shift of taxpayer dollars from public to private hands is clearly a redistribution of wealth. Worst of all, in Arizona, it is a redistribution of wealth with little to no accountability nor transparency. Private, parochial and home schools are not required to provide the public information on their return on investment. And make no mistake, this investment is significant and continues to grow. In 2017 alone, taxpayer dollars diverted from district schools to private school options, amounted to close to $300 million. About $160 million of this, from corporate and personal tax credits with the other $130 million from vouchers. All told, according to the Payson Roundup, “vouchers have diverted more than $1 billion in taxpayer money to private schools. These dollars could have instead, gone into the general fund to ensure the vast majority of Arizona students were better served. In a 2016 study reported in USA Today, “a 20 percent increase in public school funding corresponds with low-income students completing nearly a year of additional education — enough to drastically reduce achievement gaps and adulthood poverty.” Of course, corporate reformers argue that school choice affords poor, disadvantaged children the opportunity to access the same education as their wealthier counterparts. But, does it?

The Arizona Republic reported in 2017 that, “75% of the voucher money came from school districts rated “A” or “B” and only 4% from those rated “D” or lower.“ And, not only were the tax payer dollars disproportionately siphoned from better (at least by the state’s grading system) performing schools, but “students leaving the ‘A’ and ‘B’ rated districts had an average award of about $15,300, while for those leaving the ‘D’ or lower rated schools, the average award was only about $6,700.” With the average private elementary school cost at about $6,000 and high school at $18,000, it is easy to see, even without the added hardships of having to provide transportation and lunches, that opportunity does not equal access for low-income students and that those students are not the ones taking advantage of other than district school, school choice options.

Unfortunately, low-income parents are sometimes lucrative targets to the promise of school choice. As Professor Rook writes, “What I learned writing this book is that parents in poor communities care so deeply about education that they are willing to go to almost any lengths, both tested and experimental, to find the silver bullet that might possibly provide their children with the educational access that has been so long denied.”

I believe the answer lies in recognizing that the common good matters and in the long run, is important to everyone, rich, poor, or in between. As Mark Baer wrote on Huffington Post, “ the more people you essentially exclude from participating in the economy, the worse the economy becomes because the money isn’t circulating.” There are after all, only so many yachts a billionaire needs (Betsy DeVos and her 10 yachts aside).

The point is, the more people we have participating in the American Dream, the stronger that Dream and our country, will be. Our system of public education for all, that created the greatest middle class in the world, is at risk and if we aren’t careful, will take our communities, the very fabric of our society, with it.  

Breathtaking Hipocrisy

There are many things to be upset about in today’s world, especially in the political arena. What probably gets my blood boiling quickest though, is the unadulterated hypocrisy I see coming from the Right.

According to the Arizona Capitol Times, AZ House Speaker Mesnard recently criticized Maricopa County Recorder Adrian Fontes for his opening of certain Emergency Early Voting Centers during the General Election. He accused Fontes of selectively choosing where to open these centers and said, “those type of ‘shenanigans’ foster doubt in the public about the integrity of our election system.” Mesnard added that “And I cannot think of a more dangerous reality than people questioning the integrity of an election system.”

Okay, maybe he really does believe this. It is of course, something that any patriotic American should be worried about. Even if he does believe it though, his party and foremost, its leader (President Trump), has been stoking this “dangerous reality” ad-nauseam. And, the Arizona Republican Party recently jumped on his bandwagon with unfounded claims of deliberate election fraud by the Democrats.

At the same time, GOP Congressman Andy Biggs published an op-ed in the Daily Caller titled, “Democrats have a Civility Problem to Fix.” How about this Andy, you guys go first. I mean REALLY, the audacity! I find it beyond the pale that Biggs is lecturing Democrats about civil discourse. After all, his party’s fearless leader has been a master at fomenting hatred and polarization. In 2017, Trump’s first year in office, the FBI reports hate crimes alone were up by 17%.

In his piece, Biggs criticizes Congresswoman Maxine Waters for “incit[ing] criminal conduct by promoting harassment and intimidation of Republicans, conservatives, and Trump supporters. Okay, there may be some truth to his criticism, but she only responded to President Trump calling her “crazy”, “one of the most corrupt people in politics” and of being a “low IQ individual…somewhere in the mid–60s.” No, his attacks do not excuse her of any bad behavior, but let’s not act like she drew first blood. And oh by the way, what she actually said, was “If you see anybody from that Cabinet in a restaurant, in a department store, at a gasoline station, you get out and you create a crowd” she followed later on MSNBC with a prediction that people are “going to protest, they are going to absolutely harass” Trump staffers. None of that sounds like “destruction in American politics. Especially not, in comparison to the incendiary comments and Tweets routinely coming out of the Oval Office. How’s about Biggs and his Congressional colleagues do their job as a co-equal branch of our government and act as a check on the worst impulses of this Commander-in-Chief?

Congressman Biggs goes on to write that, “I suspect we will continue to see masked domestic terrorists commit crimes against conservatives and reprehensible conduct toward conservatives.” I assume he is referring to the Antifa protestors who wore scarves on their faces, but I can’t recall any actual terrorism they perpetrated. I do however, remember James Alex Fields, the white nationalist who ran down Heather Heyer, at the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville. Heather was one of the counter-protestors carrying signs promoting equality and protesting against racial discrimination, hardly the stuff of domestic terrorists. I also remember Cesar Sayoc, an early and impassioned Trump supporter, who mailed pipe bombs to numerous prominent Democrats and news organizations who had been critical of President Trump (their constitutional right as American citizens). And, I remember Robert Bowers, the white nationalist who killed 11 worshippers in a Jewish synagogue. Bowers is an anti-Semite who wrote on his social media page about his stark opposition to immigrants, especially the migrant caravan President Trump has been scaring everyone with (and now post-election, has gone silent about). Are these maybe the incidents of domestic terrorism Biggs is referring to?

I do agree with Biggs’ statement that there are “destructive ironies in American politics today, and they must be corrected before the foundations of our Republic collapse.” But, I suspect the ironies I see aren’t the same ones to which he refers. Rather, that people (especially those in Congress who have responsibility to care for our Nation and all its people), would march lock-step with this nationalistic (by his own claim) President and at the same time, pretend to hold the high ground. No side is totally blameless for the mess we currently find ourselves in. But, I think we have a better chance of finding our way out of it if each side just focuses on cleaning up their own piece of it before they resort to slinging mud across the aisle. What was that proverb about those living in glass houses?