False Choices for Arizona

Just when I was starting to think highly of the AZ Republic Editorial Board’s judgement, they came out today with: “The focus of this budget was clearly education – from kindergarten through the university level. It is the beginning of a long climb to provide Arizona’s schools with the resources they need to serve our youth and help drive the state’s economic growth.” Wow! Talk about drinking the Koolaid!

After all, this headline a couple of days ago: Gov. Doug Ducey gets much of what he wanted for education, was bad enough. Those in Ducey’s camp no doubt read it as him being successful, but those who know what he proposed against what our districts need, know that his getting “much of what he wanted” wasn’t well…all that much.

Instead, it is clear that his commitment to delivering tax cuts every year he is in office is much more important to him than fixing our state’s severe teacher shortage. That’s clear in his woefully inadequate proposal of a permanent 2% increase, rolled out over five years which amounted to only $15 per month  in the first year for the average teacher. As it turns out, the Legislature funded a 1% increase for next year with a “promise” to fund it again the following year. This funding is only for existing teachers, is more a stipend than a “raise” since it is not distributed on a per-student basis and therefore doesn’t increase with inflation. It amounts to about $500 per year, or about $40 per month. The Republic Editorial Board writes that, educators “will be watching next year to see if this is a good-faith effort.” Not so much I think. I mean, fool us once, shame on you. Fool us twice, shame on us. I don’t think educators or public education advocates have much faith in any promises the GOP-led Legislature or this Governor make to public education.

The Results Based Funding Plan of $37.6M he proposed for students attending excelling district or charter schools was pushed by none other than the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry (led by “teachers are crybabies” Glenn Hamer.) That tells me up front this isn’t going to be a great deal for our district schools. Appears I am right with The Republic reporting that 65% of this funding ($25M) will go to middle and higher-income schools. And, 26% of the monies would go to charters schools (and 12% of that to BASIS and Great Heart chains exclusively) versus districts, even though charters only educate 16% of the state’s public-school students. The money is misplaced infers Dr. Anabel Aportela, director of research for the Arizona Association of School Business Officials and Arizona School Boards Association. “BASIS is receiving a lot of attention for its top spots in the rankings and that’s great, but collectively the five BASIS school graduated just over 200 students, according to the latest data,” Aportela said. This a mere drop in the bucket of the 94% of the 13,778 students district high schools graduated in 2015, and doesn’t even begin to represent the diversity of those district graduates or the state at large. In addition, Ducey’s results-based funding uses only AzMERIT scores to determine where the money goes, but Arizona’s new A-F school accountability plan uses a more realistic set of factors that gives any school in the state the opportunity for a higher grade, not just those in higher socio-economic areas. Public education advocates would much rather have seen this funding added to teacher compensation where they believe it would have done the most good.

Speaking of good, that may be what Ducey’s proposed $10M next fiscal year and $20M the following year (the final budget allocates $8M and $12M) for full-day kindergarten or early literacy programs at schools looks like, but there is more to the story. This program provides additional funding where at least 90% of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch (FRPL), but will help certain charter schools much more than it is likely to help school districts. That’s because in order to qualify, the entire school district must meet the 90% threshold even though they may have several schools that meet it. Charter schools though, are each considered separate districts, even if they are managed by the same for-profit corporation. Once again, Ducey leans in for school choice over our 1.1M district students.

Yes, Ducey’s plan included $20M the Legislature didn’t fund, to help school districts deal with the negative impact of the change to current-year funding. Keep in mind though, that this change to current year funding versus prior year funding was totally a self-inflicted wound on the part of the Legislature last year. This, even though they had tried current year funding prior in 1980 and it proved to not work. The GOP-led Legislature didn’t care about that last year when they saw it as a way to save $31M in the budget. This change will hit districts with declining enrollment hard this year, making long-term planning difficult and making it even harder for them to attract and retain teachers.

Our Governor also asked for and got $17.2M in one-time money for school construction and building maintenance and the Legislature added $63M more for new school construction projects. But – and this is a big but – districts have been denied about $2B in funding in this area since the AZ Supreme Court ruled that the state needed to fund it. This is why now, 20 years after the Arizona Supreme Court originally ruled that the state’s method for capital funding to districts was unconstitutional, education plaintiffs are forced to file suit again. “Districts are funded at about 15 cents on the dollar for capital” and Joe Thomas, president of the Arizona Education Association said, “When you give a child an option of you’re going to have an air-conditioned room or you’re going to have a teacher, that’s a false choice for Arizona.”

In my mind, these are all “false choices for Arizona.” We know what needs to be done to recruit and retain quality teachers, properly maintain our facilities and buses, and give our students every opportunity to succeed. We, and I mean the collective “WE”, just don’t have the political will to do it. Money is not the only answer, but it is definitely a big piece of the equation and all this pretension that it isn’t is just freakin’ exhausting.

We Invest In That We Value

The recently released ASU Morrison Institute report titled “Finding & Keeping Educators for Arizona’s Classrooms”, offers a myriad of interesting insights into Arizona’s teacher shortage. Like the fact that 22% of new teachers hired in AZ between 2013 and 2015 left after their first year on the job and of the new teachers hired in 2013, 42% were not in the AZ Department of Education (ADE) database by 2016.

We know teacher attrition rates – about 8% over the past decade in the U.S. versus 3–4% in high-achieving nations like Finland and Singapore – are a problem. Our national price tag for teacher turnover is in fact, estimated to be $8 billion per year. With the rate ranging from under 9% in Utah to the high of 24% in Arizona, it is clear our state owns a higher than average share of this cost. But, cost isn’t the only factor as “High teacher turnover rates have been found to negatively affect the achievement of all students in a school, not just students in a new teacher’s classroom.”

A 50th ranking for elementary teacher salaries obviously has much to do with this. And although wages for all occupations across the nation actually rose by 2% between 2001 and 2016, teacher salaries have remained flat. In Arizona, elementary school teachers are actually now paid 11% less and high school teachers 10% less than in 2001. This dearth isn’t helped by our state’s low cost of living either. Although we are “only” 49th in secondary teacher pay, when compared to Oklahoma’s lower cost of living, Arizona drops to 50th.

It should have been no surprise to anyone then, that one month into the 2016–17 school year, our state had over 2,000 classrooms without a teacher and another 2,000 with an uncertified one. This despite the fact districts recruit from other states and even other countries to attract qualified candidates. According to the Morrison Report, many graduates from Midwestern colleges come to Arizona to gain two or three years of experience so they can return to their home state and get a teaching job. It appears that increasingly, “Rural Arizona districts may be importing inexperienced teachers and then exporting high-value veteran teachers back to the Midwest.” States surrounding Arizona have also been busy addressing their own teacher shortages by luring away ours. The median salary for California teachers is $30,000 more than in Arizona (even adjusted for the higher costs of living in California) and $10,000 to $15,000 higher in Nevada and New Mexico, making it enticing for AZ teachers to either move to those states or just work across the borders.

Of course, the competition has only become more fierce in light of dropping teacher education enrollments across the country. Between 2009 and 2014, institutions saw a 35% reduction in these enrollments. And, although Arizona prepares almost double the number of teachers as compared to its total teacher workforce of other states, it still isn’t enough. In 2015, there were 1,601 bachelor’s of education degrees granted by the three state universities, yet 8,358 teachers left the ADE teacher database that year. The shortfall is only exacerbated by an increase of district school enrollment of 53,000 over the last five years. In addition, a full 24% of Arizona’s current teachers are eligible to retire by June 2018, so this problem isn’t going away.

What is really sad, is that we know what needs to be done, we just don’t have the political will to do it. The truth is, that in America, we invest in that which we value. If we aren’t paying teachers what they are worth, we are telling them they aren’t worth much. That’s just the bottom line. But it isn’t just about money as teachers also report that working conditions like class sizes, competent and supportive leadership, a school’s testing and accountability environment, and teacher autonomy are also important factors. In the Morrison Report, one rural elementary teacher said, “While an increase in pay would help, I feel a lighter workload and more respect from the community, students, and political leaders would be more beneficial.” I ask you, is that REALLY too much to ask?

Throughout history, K–12 teachers have probably rarely entered the profession for the money, and ironically, that has likely worked against them. Willing to work for less — because of their commitment to their students — has made some value them less. And yet, these are the very people responsible for our precious children a large portion of each day. How’s that for irony?

The Bucks Stop Here

The latest talking point about education funding coming out of GOP leadership at the AZ Legislature is that “teacher raises are the responsibility of school districts, not the state.” Senate Education Committee Chair Sylvia Allen, recently said this as week as that districts “did not use Prop 123 monies to give teacher raises” and then that “some did and some didn’t.” And, she made the point that districts also used the funds to give administrators raises.

Well, technically, she is not wrong. School district governing boards are responsible for approving the budgets for their districts, or rather, how those budgets are sliced and diced. Some districts used more of the Prop 123 monies than others to give teachers raises. And, yes, some administrators were also given raises, but keep in mind that these “administrators” aren’t necessarily just district superintendents and principals. The administration line item also includes business managers, clerical and other staff who perform accounting, payroll, purchasing, warehousing, printing, human resources and administrative technology services. And, even if some districts gave raises to superintendents and principals so what? Truth is, the state has a shortage of these personnel as well.

Toward the end of 2016, the Arizona School Boards Association asked 83 districts across the state how they used their Prop 123 funds for FY2016 and how they budgeted for them to be used for FY2017. The survey showed that a majority of the school districts spent the 2016 funds on teacher or staff raises. For 2017, 75 percent was budgeted toward compensation increases. Some districts were forced to also use the funds to restore cut classes and programs, purchase classroom resources and technology, replace out-of-date textbooks, make overdue facility repairs, and replace old buses.

Let’s face it, Prop 123 provided very little “new” funding to school districts, it really was just 70% of that which was already owed. It did not provide sufficient monies to make up for increasing general operating costs and severe funding cuts made by the state – $4.56 billion since 2009. These cuts included $2 billion to capital funding (including technology, textbooks, desks, building repair and maintenance and school bus purchases) and $1.5 billion for full-day kindergarten (which many districts still provide out-of-hide because it is critical to student achievement.) The Legislature also currently funds just 20% of what the law requires them to for building of new schools and major school repairs via the School Facilities Board. That’s why public education plaintiffs have filed another lawsuit (the first suit over this same issue was in 1994) to force compliance with the state’s obligation to “adequately fund the capital needs of public schools under a 1998 court ruling.” In fact, Arizona is one of only a handful of states still cutting today, even in a steadily improving economy. Because of these cuts, district governing boards have been faced with very tough decisions about which holes to plug first and as the ones closest to the ground, they are the right ones to make it.

But, it is totally disingenuous of Senator Allen to intimate that school boards “chose” to not give their teachers sufficient raises. First of all, the vast majority of districts did give teachers significant raises (my very small district for example, gave 7%.) Secondly, forced to deal with the highest cuts in per pupil funding in the nation, Arizona school districts are not even remotely close to the “self-actualization” level on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, but just barely at the safety and security level. District leaders are faced with daily decisions about how best to just keep students safe in light of deteriorating facilities and aged buses.

Allen and her legislative cronies can deflect all they want, but the state constitution is clear, “The LEGISLATURE shall enact such laws as shall provide for the establishment and maintenance of a general and uniform public school system…” STATE lawmakers, not school district governing boards, are responsible for ensuring adequate funding for the “maintenance of a general and uniform public school system.” District governing boards may have responsibility for slicing up the pizza pie they are served, but just like a personal pan pizza won’t serve a family of four, state education funding that has been cut 23.3% since 2009, just doesn’t provide enough to go around. And, with the 0.6% state sales tax funding from Prop 301 set to expire in 2021 (not to mention the Prop 123 monies disappearing in 2025), it is only going to get worse. If only Senator Allen would remember and act on the saying: politicians think of the next election, leaders think of the next generation. And just in case she didn’t quite understand the nuance, President Truman’s famous saying appropriate here is “the buck stops here”, not “the bucks stop here.”

AZ Legislators: Listen Up or Get Out!

Night before last, at the West Campus of the Pima Community College in Tucson, AZ Schools Now held the second of three statewide Community Budget Hearings. I’m guessing over 100 people attended the Tucson event, including teachers, administrators, school board members, faith leaders and community advocates. AZ Senator Dalessandro and Representatives Friese, Gonzales, and Engle, and Pima County Schools Superintendent Williams were also in attendance to hear from their constituents.

AZ Schools Now is a coalition of public education advocate organizations from around the state focused on reinvesting in public schools to boost student achievement. The members are Support Our Schools Arizona, Pima County and Valley Interfaith organizations, Friends of Arizona School Boards Association, Christine Marsh (Arizona 2016 Teacher of the Year), Children’s Action Alliance and the Arizona: Education and Business Coalition, Center for Economic Progress, Education Association, School Administrators, Education Network, and Parent Teacher Association.

Moderators Julie Erfle, Jen Darland, David Lujan and Michelle Crow opened up the hearing aand provided information comparing the 2018 budget proposals from Governor Ducey, AZ Schools Now, and the Legislative Democrats prior to opening up the hearing to well…hear what the attendees had to say. All statements were being videotaped as part of the public hearing, so the attendees words could eventually be shared with AZ legislators.

David Lujan of the Arizona Center for Economic Progress gave a detailed description of the three proposals and told the audience that 65 percent of the Governor’s FY2018 education budget goes to high performing schools and 12 percent goes to two charter operators. Of the $10 million Ducey sets aside for kindergarten/early literacy for schools with highest percentage of low-income students, only one school in Pima County qualifies.

As far as funding sources go, Ducey proposes all of it to come from the General Fund and still wants to give a $3 million tax corporate tax cut. Republican legislators on the other hand, are looking to give $11 million in cuts to their corporate benefactors. This, despite 77 percent of Arizona voters wanting (in a Dec 2016) poll, to better fund education and 61 percent willing to pay more taxes to do end.

The AZ Schools Now proposal advocates for a 4 percent raise versus the 0.4 percent Ducey desires. The proposed raise cost of $134 million plus $2 million for building maintenance and repair would be paid for by shifting funding from Ducey’s Credit Enhancement District (which provides tax dollars as collateral for lower cost loans, primarily for charters), freezing growth in corporate tax credits which have grown from $12 million in 2009 to $127 million today, and a pause on new tax cuts.

Legislative Democrats want $136 million for teachers, $38 million for classroom funding and $14 million for building maintenance and repair, the latter two both phasing up over 10 years. They propose paying the bill with $56 million from the General Fund, along with all the methods AZ Schools Now favor plus $50 million in General Fund lottery revenue and $61 million in revenue from additional tax collections. Interestingly, we learned this revenue would come from rehiring 70 or so Department of Revenue tax collection staff who prior to their release by the current administration, each brought in about $1.2 million dollars a year in outstanding tax collections.

Once the microphones were passed to the audience, those wishing to speak lined up behind them and the floodgates opened. First up was a music teacher from Tucson Unified (TUSD) who wondered why our legislators continue to cut funding unless their intent is to kill public education. Needless to say, the audience immediately shouted in unison that is exactly their intention.

Next up was Judith, a grandmother and Pima County Interfaith leader who expressed concern about teachers buying their own supplies and needing second jobs to pay their bills. She said we don’t need more choice and instead of small increases, we should stop tax cuts, give teachers pay increases, stop vouchers, roll back tax credits allowed to School Tuition Organizations (STOs), and just stop taking any of her tax dollars to privatize our public education.

Elizabeth, a teacher, says she is just scraping by with one of her two monthly paychecks dedicated to her rent. She expressed great pride in her students saying they aren’t any less intelligent than others, they just don’t have the same background that initially sets them up for success.

A local business owner, Nicole, said the state should invest in teachers for the long-term because retention will produce the best return on investment (ROI). She talked about how teacher salaries have not only kept up with inflation, but have lost ground. Robert, an Oro Valley taxpayer and Interfaith community leader, said the problem is that the state’s tax structure has been systematically hollowed out and we must get back to collecting the taxes that are owed.

Ceasar, a parent who is a member of the newly formed Tucson Unified Parent Action Council (TUPAC) said parents need to be engaged. On his daughters’ school site council, he said it was a shock to have to deal with a 66 percent cut in funding. He also said he gets really tired of hearing old timers talk about “back in the day.” It’s not your day he said, it’s my kid’s day.

Rebecca, a teacher from Sunnyside Unified said she took a $35K pay cut when she moved here as a teacher from another state and to those who want to blame it on cost-of-living, said she pays more rent in Tucson. She doesn’t teach for the money, but for the love of her students — 90 percent of whom quality for free and reduced lunch and may not be highly proficient on AzMERIT, but have grown three grade levels in reading this year alone.

Another member of TUPAC and a resident of the Catalina Foothills Unified District, Lisa said it wasn’t until she open enrolled her gifted autistic child in TUSD that she was able to get him the type of help he needs to thrive. She appreciates her son’s teachers and wants them to be able to afford a house and a car and not have to get another job to do it.

Nate, a 6th grade ELA teacher in Sahuarita Unified, said 30% of his school’s teachers are in their first year of teaching, there are 35 kids in his 6th grade class, he often doesn’t have enough supplies in his classrooms, and he tires of having tiles fall down from his classroom ceiling when it rains. He also said he is sad to see the 21st Century Classroom program defunded just when they are starting to see tangible benefits to the district.

Another teacher in Sunnyside Unified, April, said her priorities for additional funding are teacher salaries and building maintenance and repair. As an example, her school has had to do away with the rule against traveling during basketball at their school because the gym floor is so worn students can’t stop as they should.

Jennifer, a third grade teacher from Sunnyside, said at the age of 47, that she is just getting too tired to work two jobs to make ends meet. She said she isn’t asking for a life of luxury, just the ability to pay her bills.

A retired kindergarten teacher who taught in Cave Creek for 20 years, Ann said she received no pay increase during the last 10 of those years. During her tenure, her class size increased from 20 kids to 29, she lost some of her support staff, and she gained more special needs students. She said she has friends at Raytheon and through them, understands the company is very pro-education, but very concerned about the education of Arizona’s workforce. Her personal concerns about the direction of Arizona education has caused her to get political for the first time in her life. She said the walking and calling for candidates and causes was not initially easy, but now she finds it empowering.

Sandy, President of the Marana Teacher’s Association, said she is in her 15th year of teaching. She is now within six years of retirement and worries about teachers coming behind her. She then read a letter from a high school teacher who loves her job but now $20,000 in debt, has made the tough decision to leave the career field for better pay. She wrote that by paying teacher wages that are less they could get in most other jobs, the legislature has shown they don’t really care about our kids.

Kevin, another Interfaith leader, teacher, and grandparent, said the hearing had been a good public processing of pain. But, he said, we need to do more than process. We are at a point in this nation that if we don’t come together to save our Democracy, we are going to lose it. If we allow that to happen, we will only have ourselves to blame for the untenable, unethical and immoral state of our affairs.

There were a few other speakers, but Judy, a librarian in three different school districts, was the last. She expressed great concern about our students’ literacy and lack of critical thinking skills. She then looked into directly the camera and told legislators she hopes will eventually listen, “if you are not moved by what you heard tonight, shame on you!”

Kudos to AZ Schools Now for holding these important hearings. Not only does the public need to be much better informed about the issues challenging our district schools, but they also need to be heard. It was great to see all the teachers in the house. They, along with the parents are really the ones who have the loudest megaphones to spur action. That action, retired Air Force Colonel Holly Lyon said, is to elect more pro-district education candidates to the Arizona Legislature.

That is the real bottom line. If the voters of Arizona really do support district education, the choice of over 80 percent of our students, they must look beyond the party and vote for pro-district education candidates. Two more Democratic Senators will bring parity to that chamber and hopefully the need to compromise for the best solutions. As Martin Luther King said, I have a dream…”

Plenty of blame to go around

Let me first say that I have much respect for Richard Gilman of “Bringing Up Arizona” and the work he has done on behalf of public education. I also very much appreciate his gracious support of my work and wish him well as he moves on to a new chapter of his life.

I did find much though, in his last blog post, to disagree with. It shouldn’t have surprised me, as the last time he and I had lunch, it was pretty clear he was frustrated. I tried to allay his concerns, but obviously, failed. It’s not that I don’t agree with his position that “the status quo in K–12 education is not acceptable. Of course I do. We have the lowest paid teachers in the nation, our per-pupil funding ranks 48th, and our education performance ranking isn’t much better. I do not agree though, that ”the onus belongs as much or more on public school administrators.” School administrators are after all, busy managing their schools and school districts. They are busy focusing on their students and the teachers educating them. That’s where their focus should be.

The good news is, they aren’t in this fight alone. Organizations like the Arizona School Boards Association, Arizona Education Association, Arizona School Administrators, Arizona School Business Officials Association, and Arizona School Personnel Administrators Association, offer training and professional development to their membership, engage their members in advocacy, do outreach to the public, lobby legislators and collaborate with each other to improve Arizona’s educational outcomes. They are aided by organizations like Support Our Schools Az, the Arizona PTA, Voices for Education, Expect More Arizona, the Children’s Action Alliance Arizona, and the Helios Education Foundation, who tirelessly engage both their members and supporters on behalf of public education and encourage others to do the same. All these parents, community members, business leaders and voters are groups of people both our legislators and the general public are unfortunately often more apt to “hear” than our school administrators.

None of these organizations operate in a vacuum. They know there is strength in numbers and that together, they can come up with the best solutions. One example of this collaboration is AZ Schools Now, a coalition of parent, educator, business, and community leaders fighting to reverse the destructive politics of the last 30 years and see Arizona schools adequately funded. It isn’t just these education advocacy groups or school administrators though, who recognize our schools need more funding. Even Governor Ducey’s Classrooms First Council, charged with revising the school finance formula, determined after a year of study that simply revising the formula won’t help if there isn’t more money to push through that formula.

Neither “the Legislature nor the public is going to write a check without getting a promise of improved results” he writes. Really Richard? Come on now, you’ve been around long enough to know that promises are easy to make, politicians do it every day. What is hard, is delivering on those promises. I learned a long time ago that if something was easy to fix, someone probably would have already fixed it. As for that blank check, isn’t that exactly what the Legislature is trying to do by pushing for a full expansion of vouchers? They don’t know how many students will leave districts via vouchers, but they do know each one will cost about $1,000 more than if that student were to stay. Sounds like a blank check to me and not only is it one without any promise of improved results, but by law, without any requirement to deliver and report those results.

I also agree with Richard’s recommendation “they need to speak with a unified voice.” If all the public education advocacy groups would agree on the top 1–3 legislative priorities for each year, it would make their voices much more powerful and harder for legislators to ignore. That is though, a big ask. Even in the Air Force, where teamwork was paramount and everyone was focused on the same mission, leaders had the natural tendency to protect their areas of influence. It was common to reflect that “it would be amazing what we could get done if no one cared who got the credit.” Yes, public education advocates all have the same basic mission, but they are not one cohesive organization and they all have different stakeholders. Nonetheless, I believe they can do it. They are dedicated professionals who all, in the end, just want to see every student have every opportunity to succeed. Agreeing on a few key priorities such as teacher recruitment and retention, funding for full-day kindergarten and renewing and expanding Proposition 301 for example, and absolutely standing together in demanding solutions would likely make a real difference.

That brings me to who is really responsible for the challenges faced by Arizona’s district schools. As long as Arizonans continue to vote for candidates committed to privatizing our district schools, we will continue to see funding and support get siphoned away. To really affect change, we must elect more pro-public (district) education candidates and voters must hold all elected officials (including governing board members) responsible for moving the needle for our students. Otherwise, we will continue to spin our wheels, the advocacy efforts will continue to be frustrating and yes, the results will get ever more sad.

As Franklin D. Roosevelt said, “Democracy cannot succeed unless those who express their choice are prepared to choose wisely” and “Let us never forget that government is ourselves and not an alien power over us. The ultimate rulers of our democracy are not a President and senators and congressmen and government officials, but the voters of this country.” Ultimately you see, it is up to each of us to ensure the students of Arizona have what they need to succeed. Ultimately, it is up to each of us to make the world a better place to be. Dramatist Edward Albee said it well, “Remember one thing about democracy. We can have anything we want and at the same time, we always end up with exactly what we deserve.”

Chair of AZ Senate Ed Cmte Needs Education

AZ Senator Sylvia Allen, Senate Education Committee Chair, recently asked, “When is it [funding for education] ever enough?” That depends on what kind of educational opportunities we want to offer our students. Additional funding alone can’t assure high quality schools, but it can provide a broader curriculum, more experienced teachers, smaller class sizes, better maintained facilities more conducive to learning, and much more.

It might be better to ask how much IS NOT enough. I believe there is not enough when: our educational performance is ranked 44th in the nation, our per pupil funding 48th, and our teacher salaries 50th; 2,000 of our classrooms are without a teacher and another 2,000-plus are filled by uncertified personnel; and our districts received only two percent of the facility repair and maintenance funding they needed from 2008 to 2012, creating a backlog impossible to clean up under current funding constraints.

Senator Allen refers to the Proposition 204 vote as proof Arizonans aren’t willing to pay higher taxes to support education. Well, that was five years ago, and polling data from December 2016 shows 77 percent of Arizonans believe the state should spend more on education and 61 percent (about the same percentage that defeated 204) support paying higher taxes to do just that. Yes, Proposition 123 was “creative”, but it didn’t provide enough to move us up even one place in per pupil funding and as the AZ Daily Sun points out, those in charge at the Capitol are “running out of non-tax gimmicks to tap.”

She also asks if people are willing to move funding from another area — should we let our roads deteriorate or sex offenders out of prison or reverse the millions spent on child safety? Bad examples in my mind since the AZ Legislature has consistently raided the HURF monies to fund the Department of Public Safety essentially causing residents to be taxed again when car repairs are forced by deteriorating roads, and private prisons cost us $4.60 per day per prisoner more than the public ones they replaced $4.60 per day per prisoner in 2010. Yes, this figure is dated, but a more current one is not available because the Legislature mandated the collection of that data be halted.

I’m guessing Senator Allen has her own ideas about how to better support the 80 percent of Arizona students in our district schools. Since she specifically asked for recommendations from readers, though, I will offer mine:
1. Curtail the tax cuts and credits for corporations;
2. Stop attempts to allow even more siphoning off of our district funds to private and religious schools via voucher (Empowerment Scholarship Accounts) expansions;
3. Close corporate loopholes in the tax code;
4. Renew Proposition 301 (which expires in 2020) and increase it to a full penny (currently at one-half cent). Sixty-five percent of the respondents to the December poll supported this idea which will bring in an estimated $400 million more per year; and
5. Convene stakeholder meetings to discuss recommendations from the Governor’s Classrooms First Council (which state additional funding was needed) and long-term funding solutions that include new revenue sources and an update of Proposition 301.

Senator Allen concludes by saying, “I understand as legislators we’re an easy target…”, As an Arizona taxpaying citizen, I would remind her that she and her colleagues get paid to ensure the state’s business is taken care of, including the constitutional mandate to provide for, maintain and enrich our public schools. President Teddy Roosevelt said, “Complaining about a problem without proposing a solution is called whining.” I’ve offered five realistic solutions to get our district schools the resources they need. How about you Senator Allen?

Vouchers: Some Common Sense Questions

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last few years, you know corporate reformers are anxious to implement vouchers as a way to expand school choice. The secret sauce they say, is that the dollars follow the student because parents know best about what is best for their child’s education.

Just for a few moments though, I’d like to ask you to please forget whether or not you believe school choice and vouchers are the answer to “Make American Education Great Again.” Forget all the hype and promises, just ask yourself which of these scenarios makes more sense?

  1. Which is more accountable and transparent to parents, the taxpayers and voters and therefore less likely to experience less fraud, waste and abuse? #1 Hint to the answer. #2 Hint to the answer. #3 Hint to the answer.
    a. District schools that must report every purchase, competitively bid out purchases over a certain amount, have all purchases scrutinized by a locally elected governing board, undergo an extensive state-run audit each year, and are publicly reported on for performance efficiency and student achievement by the AZ Auditor General’s office each year?
    b. A voucher system which puts the onus on recipient parents to submit proof of expenditures to an understaffed AZ Department of Education office responsible for monitoring the $37 million ($99.7 million since 2011) in voucher expenditures for 4,102 different students?
  2. Which is more likely to be held accountable for student achievement and thereby taxpayer return on investment? Hint to the answer.
    a. A district school where students are given a standardized state test with scores rolled up to the state and made public, where data is reported (following federal guidelines for data protection) by subgroups to determine achievement gaps, and where high school graduation and college attendance rates are reported?
    b. A private school that does not provide any public visibility to test results and where the state (per law) has no authority to request or require academic progress from voucher recipients or the school?
  3. Which is more likely regarding the portability (with no impact) of per student funding when students leave their district schools?
    a. When a student leaves a district school with their education funding in their backpack, they take all associated expenses with them?
    b. That there are fixed costs left behind (approx. 19%) that the school is required to still fund such as teachers and other staff that cannot be eliminated just because a couple of students left a classroom, or a bus route that can’t be done away with just because one student is no longer taking that bus, or a building air conditioner that can’t be turned off because the occupancy in the classrooms is down by three students. That what the “drain” causes instead, is larger class sizes, less support services, less variety in the curricula, etc.?
  4. Which is more likely to serve disadvantaged students — the ones most in need of our help? Hint to the answer.
    a. A district school, where the vast majority of educational expenses are covered by the taxpayer, where students are transported from their home to school, where free and reduced lunches are provided and which must accept all comers?
    b. A $5,200 voucher to a private or parochial school which has total control over which students they accept, does not provide transportation and according to PrivateSchoolReview.com costs an average of $6,000 for elementary schools and $18,000 for high schools in 2016-17?

I hope you came to the same conclusions I did some time ago, that when it comes to transparency, accountability and equity, district schools outperform private schools. I’d also like to make the unequivocal claim that district schools also (across the board) produce more achievement than private schools, but as you can see, they don’t report their results so I don’t know that for sure.

And yet, the Arizona Legislature continues to push expansion of vouchers in our state. A push for full expansion last year by Debbie Lesko (Peoria-R) was killed, largely due to its potentially negative impact on the passage of Proposition 123, but she has revived the effort this year in the form of SB 1431. This bill, which would fully expand vouchers to ALL 1.1 million Arizona students by the 2020-2021 school year has been assigned to the Senate Education and Rules Committees and is scheduled to be heard by the Senate Ed Cmte on 2/9/17. Senator Steve Smith (Maricopa-R) has sponsored an associated bill, SB 1281, that requires the AZ DOE to contract with an outside firm (I’m sure that’s much better…just like private prisons) to help administer the ESA program, and makes various changes to the program. The bill stipulates that AZ DOE may request (not MUST request) confirmation toward graduation from high school or completion of a GED. This is obviously an attempt to defuse the argument there is insufficient accountability in the AZ voucher programAZEDNEWS also reports that Lesko supports adding a requirement to her bill to track achievement of ESA students, but that requirement would be only to report test results to parents, not the AZ DOE.

No matter how much sugar the commercializers try to coat vouchers with, they are still just a vehicle for siphoning tax dollars away from our district community schools to private and parochial (religious) schools with no accountability or transparency. For every person who says “parents have the right to use their child’s education tax dollars as they see fit”, I say, “and taxpayers have the right to know the return on investment for their tax dollars.” The former right in no way “trumps” the latter.

We must stop this terrible legislation. If you are signed up for the Legislature’s Request to Speak system, please click here to log in today and leave a comment for the Senate Education Committee about why you oppose SB 1431 and SB 1281. If you aren’t signed up, please leave me a comment to this post and I will get you signed up and ensure you are trained to use it. The system allows you to comment on pending legislation from your home computer or mobile device, you don’t have to go to the Legislature and speak in person unless you want to.

If you don’t want to use RTS, please call or email the members of the Senate Education Committee (listed below) and your district legislators (click here to find out who they are) to let them know how you feel. There is strength in numbers and the people do have the power, we just have to exercise it!

Senate Education Committee Members

Sylvia Allen, Chairman – 602.926.5409

David Bradley – 602.926.5262

Kate Brophy McGee – 602.926.4486

Catherine Miranda – 602.926.4893

Steve Montenegro, Vice-Chairman – 602.926.5955

Steve Smith – 602.926.5685

Kimberly Yee – 602.926.3024