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.  

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We Get What We Deserve

Wow! I normally think of Laurie Roberts as a fair-minded reporter with a pro-public education bent. I don’t know what happened to her this morning, maybe she ran out of leaded coffee and had to drink decaf. At any rate, I couldn’t let her opinion piece, “Does Arizona really need 236 school districts?” go unanswered.

First of all, the answer is no. But of course, this isn’t the sort of question that can be answered with a simple “yes” or “no” because there are so many variables that must be factored in. For example, I was recently on the Diné (Navajo) reservation where even relatively close to Tuba City, the students must travel over REALLY bad roads for over an hour each way every day to get to and from school. Could we do more to consolidate district schools on tribal lands? Maybe a little, but I’m guessing opportunities would be very few and far between.

Sure you say, but that’s a really different situation than what they have in downtown Phoenix. Yes, that’s true, but I’m guessing there are other unique circumstances in those schools and the voters elect locally elected governing boards to make decisions about what is best for their students and their communities. Do they always get it right? No – no one ever does. But, they are closest to the action and have the best chance of making the right calls.

Roberts finds it curious Governor Ducey has never shown interest in merging school districts. I seriously doubt she really finds it curious and suspect she understands that this is a hot potato issue the Governor would rather just keep off his plate. And as for Robert’s claim that Governor Napolitano’s plan to reduce the number of districts went down in flames because “school officials fired up torches in defense of ‘local control’”, I don’t believe that was where the main pushback originated. If school officials were fighting the consolidations, I’m betting it was because their parents and community members were pushing them to do so. What parent after all, wants their child on longer school bus rides than necessary, or further away from home during the school day?

As for her assertion that “On average, school districts in Arizona spend a woeful 53.8 percent of their budget in the classroom”, Roberts knows this is “woefully” misleading. Here’s the facts about what public district schools spend in the classroom and what they spend on administration:
1. Yes, Arizona districts spent 53.5 percent of their available operating dollars on instruction in FY 2016 per the AZ Auditor General’s Arizona School District Spending report. But, the Arizona School Boards Association disagrees with what is included in that “classroom spending” and the Governor and Arizona Legislature agreed back in 2015. That’s because the AG’s report doesn’t count instructional support (5.7 percent) and student support services (8.2 percent). These areas include physical and occupational therapists, reading and math intervention specialists, media specialists/librarians, counselors and social workers. All of these specialists are critical to a student’s academic success and when included, take the total amount of classroom spending up to 67.4 percent.
2. Even at that, as Roberts points out, Arizona districts spend less on administration than the national average. My research shows we spend only 67 percent of the U.S. average spent on administration, not just the one percent she cites. Even assuming she is correct, the important point is that we do better than the national average.
3. For all their touting of efficiencies gained due to their relief from bureaucracy, Arizona charter schools spend DOUBLE the amount on administration than do district schools.

She really loses me though, when she opines, “if the school lobby succeeds with its plan to soak the rich with a massive income tax hike….” Words have meaning and it is by no accident that she chose “lobby” and “soak”. I mean, imagine if she’d wrote the sentence this way: “if public education advocates succeed with their plan to more fairly distribute additional taxation to ensure our districts are funded just at 2008 levels….”

Besides, if you want to make a case for efficiency of public school operations, how about we start exercising more control over where charter schools can build and operate. Does it really make sense for a Legacy Traditional Charter School to have been built in Peoria a couple of years ago for 1,500 students when there were 8 “A” and “B” rated schools WITH capacity, within a two-mile radius of where the charter went in? And that’s just one example of the waste generated via the lack of accountability in a state that is intent on siphoning taxpayer dollars away from its public schools with little transparency to the process.

The bottom line is that district schools, with their locally-elected governing boards, open meeting law requirements, and procurement rules, (unlike charters and certainly, private schools) offer the greatest degree of accountability and transparency of any school choice option. But…for the system to work, the public must be informed and engaged, and government MUST provide the checks and balances. Just like with government at large, we get the public schools we deserve.

Budget Shows What We Value

In reading a story today on Tucson.com, I learned about how the Vail Unified School District is thinking about building tiny homes for “cash-strapped teachers.” Although I laud their innovative approach, I can’t help thinking that to some degree, the culpability we all have in creating the need.

The reality is that the starting base salary for a teacher in Vail is about $36,000 in an area where the “household income is $83,000 and the median home sale price is about $260,000.” It also is reality that there is “not a single apartment complex anywhere in the district’s 425-square-mile boundary.”

This situation is not isolated. Vail might be the first district in the country to bring the tiny house concept to fruition, but they aren’t the only ones considering such an option. A charter school in Sedona and school district in Colorado are also looking at it, for example. And, offering housing as part of teacher’s contracts has long been a strategy employed by rural school districts. The Baboquivari Unified School District on the Tohono O’odham Nation has dozens of rental units for teachers and Patagonia Public schools turned an old school building into apartments for teachers.

What I find truly ironic, is that our lawmakers, Governor Ducey included, continually push for a greater percentage of education dollars to be spent in the classrooms, when the inadequate funding they provide for education actually forces energy and funding to be spent outside the classroom — as in creating cheaper housing for teachers ? Truth is, Arizona district schools already have the lowest administrative costs in the U.S. and those costs, are half those of charter schools in our state. That narrative though, doesn’t serve lawmakers’ purposes, so they continue to rail about the inefficiencies of our public district schools, all while doing what they can to try to make it true.

The recently concluded 110th Arizona Town Hall, on “Funding and preK–12 Education”, reported that, “the state needs to fulfill its constitutional mandate by providing adequate funding for state schools.” As the AZ Daily Sun pointed out though, state legislators and the governor “weren’t [even] invited [to the Arizona Town Hall on Education] because they have demonstrated time and again that they are part of the problem, not the solution. They continue to intone their mantra of private school ‘parental choice’ even as teachers are leaving in droves, thousands of classrooms are staffed on a near permanent basis by noncertified substitutes and Arizona remains mired near the bottom of the 50 states in per-pupil spending.”

The old adage “If you don’t have time to do something right the first time, when will you have time to do it over” comes to mind. In fact, the AZ Town Hall reported that, “Arizona’s current education funding system has regressed over the past 40 years into a complicated patchwork of temporary solutions.” That’s certainly how it has appeared to me and I continue to see new workarounds under consideration, such as a “soda tax” to help fund our schools.

How about this? How about we just decide we want our students in fully funded classrooms, housed in safe, adequate, properly maintained facilities? How about we decide we want high-quality, certified teachers and then pay them a living wage? How about we decide the children of Arizona deserve as much opportunity to succeed as any child living anywhere else in our country? And then, how about we put our money where our collective mouths are? Or as former Vice-President Joe Biden put it, “Don’t tell me what you value, show me your budget and I’ll tell you what you value.”

Arizonans have time and again said we want our public schools adequately funded and there are plenty of solutions to do so, many without raising taxes. Yet, those that vote (less than half of those eligible) , continue to vote for lawmakers who are doing everything they can to destroy our system of public education and turn it over to market forces. Until we vote different, we won’t get different. It’s that simple.

Yeah, Let’s Focus on Our Students!

In a recent Scientific American article, a U.S. Department of Education spokesperson for Betsy DeVos said “The secretary believes that when we put the focus on students, and not buildings or artificially constructed boundaries, we will be on the right path to ensuring every child has access to the education that fits their unique needs.” As good as that sounds, it is total bullshit.

Here’s the deal. As much as its proponents try to tell us otherwise, school choice does NOT put the focus on students, because the “choice” is largely that of the commercial school, not the student. We know for example that private schools have total control over what students they accept, irrespective of the students’ funding sources (taxpayer-funded vouchers included.) Charter schools are by law required to accept all, but we also know they enroll much lower percentages of special needs students, those of color, and those in poverty.

As for the secretary’s belief that we should put the “focus on students, and not buildings or artificially constructed boundaries,” puhleeeeeeeaaasssee! This is just a thinly veiled swipe at community district schools. In Arizona, over 80% of our students attend these district schools where facility maintenance and repair is severely underfunded and there are no “artificially constructed boundaries” since we’ve had open enrollment since 1994.

Incidentally, “ensuring every child has access” is not the same as “providing every child….” Access refers to “the right or opportunity to use or benefit from something.” But, it takes more than the right or opportunity, it takes the means not only to get into the school, but to get to the school and survive the school. That’s not how it works in a district school which takes all comers, and works to provide each student what they need to succeed. And, they continue to serve the student even if that student’s test scores don’t make the school look good.

The piece de resistance in the DOE statement though, is “that fits their unique needs.” Wow! Isn’t that a great sound bite? Unfortunately, it is totally undoable and DeVos knows it.

In America, one in five children live in poverty. This reality, not inadequately funded schools and under appreciated teachers, is their major hurdle to a good education. What these students need is more than district schools are charged with, or have the capacity to provide. There is just no way commercial schools will do better at bridging that gap.

It amazes me how adept the privatization advocates have been at messaging. They’ve convinced parents that school choice is the answer and that “voting with their feet” is empowering. But as a fellow blogger pointed out recently, when parents “vote with their feet” to leave district schools for greener grass, all they are really doing is relinquishing influence. There is no school choice option (aside from homeschooling) that provides a parent as much say in their child’s education as does the district school with its locally-elected governing board. Parents and taxpayers alike have the right to be heard at public board meetings and, if their elected governing board members are not responsive to parent’s concerns, they can be recalled or replaced via elections.

Yes, we should all be focused on the students. So let’s do that, okay? Let’s properly fund our local community district schools where over 80% of our students are, instead of reaching for the shiny object being dangled to distract us. Let’s demand our tax dollars are spent where there is full accountability and transparency with locally-elected governing boards responsible for producing a good return on our investment. Let’s demand our teachers are adequately compensated and treated like professionals. Let’s in other words…put our money where our mouth is. The bottom line is that parents shouldn’t have to make a choice about where to send their kids. Every public school should be a high quality one.

 

Manufactured Crises

The AZ Capitol Times reports that although Governor Ducey is disavowing any connection to the effort, the GOP’s attack on Arizona’s public (district) schools is far from over. Sean Noble, the political hack running the two 2018 ballot measures though, “funneled millions into Ducey’s 2014 campaign through dark money groups.”

The first initiative would require 60 percent of district funding to be spent in the classroom, (per the U.S. Department of Education.) The second initiative looks to “cap executive pay in K–12 public schools at no more than twice the average teacher pay in the same school district or the highest salary a principal receives within that district, whichever is lower.”

What the hell? I mean, the ink isn’t even dry on the full expansion of vouchers and now the GOP is again trying to stick it to our district students by allegedly solving a problem that doesn’t really exist.

First of all, it is telling that Noble defines classroom spending as “defined by the U.S. Department of Education.” What???? Defer to the Feds about how to do something in Arizona? He obviously knows there is a disconnect in our state between how the AZ Auditor General defines classroom spending and how the Governor, Legislature, and public school leaders define it. The AZ Auditor General defines classroom spending (or instruction) as: “Salaries and benefits for teachers and instructional aides; costs related to instructional supplies, such as pencils, paper, and workbooks; instructional software; athletics; cocurricular activities, such as band or choir; and tuition paid to private institutions.” Our lawmakers though, agree with the Arizona School Boards Association’s (ASBA) definition of what they call “classroom support” which includes funding allotted to “instructional support and student support.” This categories include reading and math intervention specialists, librarians, counselors, speech pathologists, physical therapists, nurses and social workers which due to the high number of Arizona students who live at or below the poverty line, is critical for students to be successful in the classroom. “In 2015, the definition made it into state law, when the governor, legislators and educators agreed that a more holistic approach was required. As a result, the state’s budget for fiscal year 2016 identified student support and instructional support services along with instruction as the categories that support classroom learning.” This should therefore, be no need to turn to any guidance from the U.S. DOE on what defines classroom spending.

Defintion aside, Arizona districts do a good job of ensuring they are spending their limited monies where they will most matter. In FY 2016, the total amount for classroom, instructional and student support amounted to 67.4% which is down only slightly from the 68.3% in 2001. Chuck Essigs, director of governmental relations for the Arizona Association of School Business Officials, notes that is “a very small decline given the many significant cuts to school district funding over this period of time, including the elimination of funding for full-day kindergarten and the current annual cut of over $350 million to district additional assistance.” Likewise, an ASBA analysis determined that, “Arizona’s classroom spending continues to be impacted by its low per-pupil funding which is ranked 48th in the nation, students who are poorer than the national average, higher plant operations costs due to extreme temperatures and high transportation costs to serve rural and remote areas.” In fact, over the last 9 years, the Arizona Legislature has cut District Additional Assistance (monies used for textbooks, technology, items like desks and school buses and building repair and maintenance like fixing roofs and plumbing and repairing air conditioners) by two billion dollars, forcing districts to redirect funding they would otherwise have spent in the classroom. In total, our state has cut $4.56 billion dollars to public schools since 2009 – leading the nation in per pupil cuts. This is important, because all categories of costs don’t shrink evenly when a budget gets cut. Fixed costs (such as teacher numbers constrained by numbers of students), and those associated with utilities, building maintenance, and transportation for example, remain, and then eat up a bigger piece of a smaller pie.

I couldn’t find the US DOE definition of classroom spending Noble refers to. I did find a discussion about “instruction” spending. According to the National Center of Education Statistics (NCES), this includes “salaries and benefits of teachers and teaching assistants as well as costs for instructional materials and instructional services provided under contract.” On their website, the NCES noted that in 2013–14, instruction percentages were 61% of current expenditures. They also said that these expenditures peaked in 2009–10 (shrinking across the nation since then.)

The initiative to “cap executive pay”, is equally misleading. First off, “cap executive pay” makes it sound like our Superintendents are CEOs of giant corporations living the good life. No, that would be ACTUAL CEOs of corporations, not school district administrators. Secondly, Arizona public school administrative costs are below the national average at 10.4% versus 10.9%. And oh by the way, many of these “executives” are in small rural districts, where their jobs are nothing like that of a CEO. “The New York Times reported that, ”In the Miami Unified School District east of Phoenix, the superintendent is also a grant writer and the principal of the elementary school is also in charge of keeping the toilets running, as the district’s director of maintenance.” As for Arizona superintendents being overpaid, not so much. The median school superintendent salary in the U.S. as of March 31, 2017 was $151.636. Although the Phoenix median approaches this number at about $150,000, the median in Tucson is only $137,396 in Lake Havasu City it is $123,108, and in Sierra Vista, it drops to $119,199.

It might be noted by the way, that Arizona’s critical teacher shortage isn’t the only shortage our districts are facing. In 2015, the superintendent turnover rate was the highest seen in the past five years. That same year, of the 45 superintendent openings in the spring, seven were still unfilled by July and 28 were filled by a person with no superintendent experience. And just like 25% of our teachers are eligible to retire by 2020, so were nearly 50% of working superintendents between the ages of 56 and 60, planning to retire soon. Dr. Debra Duvall, former executive director of the Arizona School Administrators Association, said she suspects superintendents are fleeing for many of the same reasons teachers are, basically, that both educational resources and salaries have been stagnant or declining for the past decade. Usurping the local control authority of locally elected governing boards to apply an arbitrary cap, is certainly not the way to turn the tide on our ability to recruit and retain the quality superintendents we need in Arizona.

What we all know this is really about, is continuing to plant the lie in the public’s mind, that district schools are inefficient bloated bureaucracies and that commercializing our schools is the way to go. At least in Arizona, nothing could be further from the truth! If fact, if you want to talk about excessive spending on administration versus instruction, charter schools take the cake. Arizona charter schools spend twice the amount on administration ($1,451 versus $804 in FY2016) as do district schools. And also in FY2016, charter schools spent only 55.33% on classroom instruction, supplies and student support compared to district schools which invested 61.99%.

In short, these “problems” Noble seeks to solve with his initiatives, are manufactured crises, not reality. Of course, he won’t be deterred, saying he has “a ‘couple’ of wealthy Arizonans lined up in support of the plans.” I would just caution him not to allow his wealthy donors to reward the legislators with a free lunch celebration in the event he is successful. Speaker of the Arizona House J.D. Mesnard wisely realized the optics of this with the free lunch offered lawmakers by the American Federation for Children (Betsy DeVos was the chair prior to her SecED gig) after the voucher expansion passage. It doesn’t play well to pass laws that screw over our kids (while benefitting rich donors and corporations) and then do a victory lap around the Capitol.

A Cautionary Tale

Arizona may be at, or near, the bottom in many education related statistics, but when it comes to a school choice friendly environment, we are #1. That’s why, when executive committee members of their state school boards associations got together last year in Oakland for the Pacific Region National School Boards Association meeting, the Arizona team shared their story of eroding legislative support (funding and supportive legislation) for our district schools as a cautionary tale.

It all began in Arizona with the Legislature’s authorization for charter schools in 1994 and of course, open enrollment so parents could choose to enroll their children in any public school in the state, not just in their district. This mattered because 1) it told parents they were free to look for greener grass elsewhere, versus watering the grass they had, and 2) all that mattered was their child’s education, the hell with the rest.

Arizona’s first charter school opened in 1995. Now 180,000 students attend about 550 charter schools in Arizona equating to 16% of the students and 30% of the public schools. In 2010 in fact, Arizona had the highest number of charter schools per capita in the nation. The competition created with district schools wasn’t all bad. Many district schools offer fuller curriculums with more specialty programs than they once did. But, for corporate reformers, that wasn’t enough.

The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) ranks our state as #1 with regard to school choice policy. This should not surprise anyone, since ALEC has been aggressive in working with corporations and state lawmakers all over the country to create legislation favorable to school choice and the privatization of education. Likewise, the American Federation for Children (previously led by our new SecED, Betsy DeVos) has been very active in pushing school choice around the nation through both significant campaign contributions and strong arming of legislators.

These organizations and others with the same agenda, have enjoyed much success. When vouchers for private and parochial schools were first introduced in Arizona in 2009, the AZ Supreme Court deemed them unconstitutional since the state constitution (as most do) requires that “No public money or property shall be appropriated for or applied to any religious worship, exercise, or instruction, or the support of any religious establishment.” The Court stipulated though, “[t]here may well be ways of providing aid to these student populations without violating the constitution. School choice proponents such as the Center for Arizona Policy (CAP) jumped on that and according to their website, ”CAP and its attorneys were heavily involved in the drafting and development of this [Empowerment Scholarship Accounts or ESAs] program.” Then in 2013, the AZ Supreme Court, in Niehaus v. Huppenthal approved ESAs, (vouchers or Educational Subsidies for the Affluent as AZ’s 2016 Teacher of the Year calls them), saying that the fact the funding goes to the parent and the parent decides what to do with it, makes the program constitutional.

Initially, only students with disabilities were eligible for vouchers but the Arizona Legislature managed to expand ESAs each year to eight different categories including students living on tribal lands, wards of the state, military dependents, students from D or F rated district schools and more. Then, on April 6, 2017, the Legislature passed and the Governor signed, a law making all Arizona children eligible for vouchers. For now, there is both an annual cap of 5,500 and an overall cap of 30,000 by 2022. In addition, there is a by-grade implementation that staggers eligibility over several years.

With Arizona’s conservative and libertarian public-policy think tank, the Goldwater Institute, already promising donors they would eliminate the cap before the Governor even signed it into law, these speed bumps undoubtedly won’t be in place long. That’s because the end game for the corporate reformers and the lawmakers they’ve purchased is to commercialize our public schools. It doesn’t matter what innocuous name you give a voucher, it is still about siphoning taxpayer dollars away from our district schools, to private and parochial schools. And, vouchers aren’t the only way these tax dollars are siphoned away.

Remember I wrote that ALEC thinks Arizona is #1 in school choice policy? Well, that’s because we not only have open enrollment, charter schools, and Empowerment Scholarship Accounts, but also individual tax credits, School Tuition Organizations and the corporate tax credits that feed them. And yes, we even have legislators that have ownership of, or vested interests in, all of the above. But that discussion is for another day.

As for school tax credits, Arizona allows five separate types. There are three individual; one for public schools and two for private schools. The private school tax credit, begun in 1997, is now worth five times as much as the amount that can be claimed for public schools. Maybe that’s part of the reason why the program the legislative budget staff estimated would cost $4.5 million a year 20 years ago, topped $140 million in 2015 without including the $50 million in tax credits taken for public schools.

Tax credits were originally sold as a way to help special-needs and low-income students, but it hasn’t largely worked out that way. According to the AZ Republic, “Only about 3 percent of the money is designated specifically for special-needs students.“ As for the ”low-income” families, only 32% of the money went to them. Aside from the fact they don’t serve the most needy, tax credits divert funding away from the state coffers and in the case of district schools, give the taxpayers the impression they are doing their part to support public education when the reality is the funding isn’t really allowed for classroom expenses, but for extracurricular, fee-based activities. In the case of private schools, the tax revenue is diverted away from the general fund directly into private education.

Corporate tax credits are made to School Tuition Organizations (STOs) which are 501(c)(3) tax exempt organizations that must allocate at least 90% of their annual revenue to tuition awards for students to attend private and parochial schools. The two types of corporate tax credits allowed are one for corporate contributions for low-income students and another for displaced/disadvantaged students. The definition of “low income” though, is misleading. For these scholarships, a family of four with an annual income of $82,996, qualifies leading many to claim that the scholarships are going to families that could afford the private schools without the taxpayer welfare. Critics also say it is fairly impossible for the poor to benefit because even if they get a scholarship, they still have to come up with the rest of the tuition. Regardless of who else is benefiting from the tax credits, the general fund and therefore district schools and other critical programs and services are not. In 2008, three-fourths of Arizona companies paid only the minimum $50 in corporate taxes and with a 20% increase in cap allowed every year, the program is causing significant impact to the state’s general fund. In fact, the “low-income corporate tax credit alone is expected by 2025 to grow to more than $250 million a year.”

In the end, one thing has been abundantly clear here in Arizona. The corporate reformers are dead set on commercializing our district schools. That’s why every legislative session, we public education advocates gear up for battle and “look for incoming.” And that’s why, one of our favorite phrases is “sine die” which literally means “without assigning a day for a further meeting or hearing”, but in layman’s terms, signifies the end of the legislative session. It is a very sad state of affairs that rather than counting on our Governor and GOP-led Legislature to do good for our one-plus million district school students, the best we can usually hope for is for them to do no harm. This year, with the full expansion of vouchers, they did tremendous harm that will be hard to recover from. A word to the wise…if you give them (corporate reformers) an inch, they will take a mile and stretch it out to 10. Stay focused and vigilant, this really is a war and the stakes couldn’t be higher.

So Much for the “Education Governor”

A couple of nights ago, I was talking with a news editor who asked me about the effect of the voucher expansion on homeschoolers. He said when he homeschooled his child, he saw it as his responsibility to bear those costs. He wondered with the new expansion, if homeschoolers would now get taxpayer dollars to teach their child at home. I told him homeschoolers were always eligible for Empowerment Scholarship Accounts (ESAs), or vouchers (I prefer to call them what they really are), but their child needed to be in one of the eligible categories such as: having a disability, from a D or F rated school, living on tribal land, dependents of military, wards of the state, etc. With the latest expansion of eligibility though, all categories of children are eligible for the vouchers. He surmised it wouldn’t take long to reach that cap, given there are some 20,000 homeschooled children in Arizona.

It is difficult to find clear data about the number of homeschoolers but a general estimate is from three to four percent of the school-age population. Given that, we are looking at 30,000 to 40,0000 students in Arizona. Another source I found from 2011 quoted the number at 22,500, so in the interest of being conservative, let’s go with 25,000. To the news editor’s point, if all 25,000 estimated homeschoolers took vouchers, that would deplete Arizona’s general fund by $110 million in taxpayer dollars which are then not available for district education or other critical programs and services. And this new outlay would not be offset by any reduced costs on the part of the state since previously, parents were footing this bill. At three to four percent though, homeschoolers are just a fraction of those who could take the vouchers and run.

Fortunately, there are currently a couple of speed bumps to slow the depletion. The first one is the cap of 5,500 ESAs that may be awarded each per year. Of course, before the Governor even signed the latest expansion bill, Goldwater Institute leadership had already notified their major donors they would get the cap lifted.

The second speed bump is the by-grade phase-in of eligibility. For 2017–2018, the only additional children eligible are those who attend or are eligible to attend public schools in kindergarten (at least four but under seven years of age) or grades one, six, and nine. The following year, the law adds grades two, seven and ten to the mix. The year after than, grades three, eight, and eleven are added. Then in the 2020–2021 school year, all children who currently attend or are eligible to attend a public school in K–12 are eligible to receive a voucher.

If the Goldwater Institute is successful in removing the cap next legislative session though, (or maybe still this session in a “strike everything” bill), the floodgates will be wide open for the grades specified to be added each year. There is after all, a tremendous amount of support for that end as evidenced by Betsy DeVos’ tweet to Governor Ducey congratulating him on the eve of his signing the bill. She wrote, “A big win for students & parents in Arizona tonight with the passage of ed savings accts. I applaud Gov. @DougDucey for putting kids first.” Keep in mind that this is the same Betsy DeVos, that as the head of the American Federation for Children, oversaw an investment of over $750,000 since 2011 into Arizona legislative races for pro-school choice and voucher candidates.

We in Arizona though, know that our Governor hasn’t really put over 80 percent of our kids first. Instead, the self-acclaimed “education governor” has time and again shortchanged our kids. Like with his 2018 spending plan that would provide a 2% pay raise over five years for teachers giving them only about $182 (0.4%) more in the first year. Like with his no-details “plan” to streamline teacher certification requirements to help with the critical teacher shortage, as if less qualified teachers will help our students. Like with his plan to provide $10 million for full-day kindergarten funding at public schools where more than 90% of students are eligible for free or reduced lunch. Unfortunately, for district schools, the entire district must meet the 90% threshold, but for charters, only a single school. In Southern Arizona, only two districts – Nogales Unified and Santa Cruz Valley Unified – qualify. Even Sunnyside Unified School District, at 86 percent of its students on free/reduced lunch, doesn’t qualify. And, like when he negotiated a deal to pay the schools 70% of what they were owed with money that was already theirs and promised that would just be the beginning. As David Safier points out in the Tucson Weekly, the $325 million per year Prop. 123 is bringing in (again, money the schools were already owed, not a plus up), could easily be wiped out by “his latest attack on public education which could drain $150-$300 million” via vouchers.

The most important moral of this story is that elections do have consequences and one of those consequences is now the systemic dismantling of our system of public (district) education. You know, the system that takes all comers, the only system with locally elected governing boards who must operate in a transparent manner and are totally accountable to parents and taxpayers, and, the system which after adjusting for student poverty levels, produces better results.

The only real solution to save our district schools and the one million plus students they provide for, is to elect different lawmakers. To do that, each of us must take personal responsibility to do our part and then some. No longer can any of us leave the work to someone else. Not if we want better for our kids, our communities, and our country. As the Jewish religious leader Hillel originally said sometime around 50 BCE, “If not now, when? If not me, who?”