They can have their own opinions, but not their own facts

The first session of the 53rd Legislature began yesterday and as we public education advocates “batten down the hatches” and plan our “assaults”, I thought it a good time to provide what I believe are some of the most salient facts about the state of education in Arizona today.

  1. Educational Achievement. The Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Kids Count 2016 report ranks us 44th in the nation, Education Week’s Quality Counts 2016 ranks us 45th, and WalletHub 48th. Might there be a nexus to our other rankings provided below?
  2. Per Pupil Funding. Our K–12 state formula spending (inflation-adjusted), was cut 14.9% from 2008 to 2016 leaving us 48th in the nation.
  3. Propositions. The $3.5 billion Prop. 123 provides over 10 years (only 70% of what voters approved and the courts adjudicated) disappears in 2026. Prop. 301, which includes a 0.6% state sales tax, raises about $600 million per year for schools and self-destructs in 2021. There is now talk of increasing the tax to a full cent which would bring in around $400 million more per year or, adding an additional penny which would up it $1 billion.
  4. Teacher Shortage. We have a critical shortage of teachers willing to work in the classroom with 53% of teacher positions either vacant or filled by an individual who does not meet standard state teacher certification requirements. With 25% of the state’s teachers eligible for retirement by 2020, this problem is only going to get worse. Pay is just one of the reasons teachers are opting out, but with Arizona ranking 45th in terms of teacher salaries against the national average, it is real. In fact, “Arizona’s teachers earn just 62.8% of the salary that other college degree-holders do in the state – the lowest ratio nationwide. WalletHub scored the state the third-worst for teachers in terms of ”job opportunity and competition“ and ”academic & work environment.” Providing them a $10,000 raise (more in line with national averages) would cost the state an additional $600 million.
  5. Voter Support. In a December 2016 poll of Arizona voters, 77% said the state should spend more on education and 61% said they’d be willing to pay higher taxes to do so.
  6. Double-Down Ducey. Our Governor has promised not to raise taxes but to propose a tax cut every year he is in office. This, on top of two decades of tax cuts that equal a cumulative impact on the 2016 general fund of $4 billion in lost revenue. In fact, more than 90% of the decline in revenue since 1992 has resulted from tax cuts versus economic downturn–our troubles ARE NOT a result of the great recession. And, Arizona ranks in the bottom third of states in terms of tax rates.
  7. Good Ideas With No Way to Implement Is Called Philosophy. In her 2017 AZ Kids Can’t Wait plan, Superintendent of Public Instruction Diane Douglas has recommended an additional $680 million in common-sense, no frills funding for public schools but points out it is not her job to appropriate funds and the Governor’s Classrooms First Council spent over a year studying how to modernize the school funding formula only to determine that just rearranging the deck chairs won’t be enough…more money must be provided.
  8. They Owe, They Owe, So Off To Court We Go. Over 20 years ago, the AZ Supreme Court voided the system under which districts were responsible for capital costs because of the “gross inequities” created. The Legislature agreed to have the state assume responsibility for building and maintaining schools but that vanished under Governor Brewer’s time as a budget-saving maneuver leaving us back where we started. In fact from 2008 to 2012, districts only received about 2% of the funding they needed for renovations and repair of school facilities and the problem continues. A new lawsuit is in the works.
  9. It’s For The Poor Kids…NOT! Arizona’s educational tax credit (individual and corporate) and the Student Tuition Organizations (STOs) that funnel the monies to private and parochial schools will deny the AZ General Fund of almost $67 million in revenue in 2016/17 (the maximum allowed.) Due to a 20% allowable increase each year, the cap for corporate tax credits will be $662 million by 2030. By way of comparison, the total corporate income tax revenue for FY 2015 was only $663 million. And yet, even in 2011, As many as two-thirds of Arizona corporations paid almost no state income tax partially as a result of the program which predominantly serves students whose parents could afford the private schools without taxpayer assistance. Just for the original individual tax credit for example, 8 STOs awarded over half of their scholarship funding in 2014 to students whose families had incomes above $80,601. By the same token, Arizona’s voucher program (Empowerment Scholarship Accounts) is billed as the way for disadvantaged students in failing schools to have more opportunity. Truth is, in the 2015/16 school year ESAs drained $20.6 million from  district schools rated “A” or “B”are and only $6.3 million from schools rated C or D. Besides, the mere existence of school choice in whatever form it takes does not in itself provide access and opportunity. As Charles Tack, spokesman for AZ Department of Education said, “The economic situation of a family will always factor in.”
  10. Want A Voice? Stick With Where You Have a Vote! Parental and taxpayer oversight and voice is vastly greater in district schools with locally-elected governing boards, annual state-run audits, annual Auditor General reports on school efficiencies, AzMERIT test score results, and other required reporting. Commercial schools (charters and privates) do not have the same requirements for certified teachers and transparency and accountability; nor are they required to provide taxpayers any information regarding return on investment.
  11. Apples and Oranges. Commercial schools do not – across the board – perform better than do our district schools. Yes, there are pockets of excellence, but those exist in district schools as well. Comparisons are difficult to make because the playing field is not level, with commercial schools often managing to pick the cream of the crop while district schools take all comers. A key point to note though, is that charter schools spend double the amount on administration than districts.
  12. A Great Start Is Critical For All Kids. Full-day kindergarten is essential to ensure every child (especially those who are disadvantaged) has a more equal footing on which to start their education. In today’s fast paced, global economy, preschool is also critical and has been proven to provide as much return on investment as $7 for every $1 spent. Restoring all-day kindergarten statewide would cost an additional $240 million. We’ve had it before incidentally. In 2006, Napolitano made a deal with legislative leadership for all-day kindergarten in exchange for a 10% cut in individual income tax. Four years later, the Legislature cut full-day kindergarten but the reduction in taxes still exists.
  13. District Schools and School Choice Cannot Co-Exist. When students trickle out to commercial schools, almost 1/5 of the expense associated with educating them remains despite the district’s total loss of the revenue. And while private school enrollment dropped two percent from 2000 to 2012, tax credits claimed for the students has increased by 287%. This, while public school enrollment increased 24.1% during that same time but state appropriations (from General Fund, State Land Funprivate-public-school-fundingds, and Prop. 301 monies) decreased by 10%.

It is clear there are several current and looming crises in Arizona K–12 education. And yet, Senator Debbie Lesko (R), has been quoted as saying, “Balancing the budget is always the most important work of the state legislature.” Really? That’s why the people of Arizona elect our state lawmakers? I don’t think so. Rather, I think we want them to ensure our children receive a quality education, that our roads are safe to drive and our water is safe to drink, and that our police and other first responders protect us from danger. In short, we want the Legislature to ensure appropriate capability to provide for the common good and we send them to Phoenix to figure out how to do that. Yes, they are mandated to balance the budget but, I would argue, that isn’t their raison d’être.

Arizona voters have made it clear they are willing to pay higher taxes to provide more funding to our public schools unfortunately, not enough have made the connection between a lack of funding for public education and the legislators they elect that are causing that problem. Yes, the prohibition to raising the required revenue is pain self-inflicted by our Governor and GOP-led Legislature. And, we need only look to Kansas to see that cutting taxes to attract companies to our state is a race to the bottom. I guarantee over the long haul, quality companies prefer a well-educated workforce and good quality of life for their employees over tax cuts.

In his State of the State address yesterday, Governor Ducey said, “I have a commitment our educators can take to the bank: starting with the budget I release Friday, I will call for an increased investment in our public schools – above and beyond inflation – every single year I am governor.” What is notable about this statement is his reference to “public schools” and, the fact that he followed it up with the statement that “we won’t raise taxes.” Promising support for public schools isn’t the same thing as promising it for district schools. In fact, some lawmakers now equate the term “public schools” to mean any school that accepts taxpayer dollars.

Let me be clear. I believe any promise to provide significant additional monies to public education without a willingness to raise additional revenue, is total bullshit. The pie is only so big and there are only four basic ways to significantly increase its size. Either corporate tax cuts are curtailed, additional taxes are levied, funding meant for other purposes is siphoned off or, important programs are cut. Senator Steve Smith (LD11-R) who sits on the Senate’s education committee, suggested funding could be found by moving money away from state programs “that may not be working so well.” Perhaps he was thinking of Child Protective Services which has continued to flounder and endanger children (primarily because sufficient resources have not been provided) even after Governor Ducey promised fixes when he first took office in 2015?

Arizona simply cannot move the educational needle without a significant additional investment in our district schools. These schools are where close to 85% of Arizona’s students are receiving their education, doesn’t it make sense that this is where we should dedicate the majority of our funding and efforts?

The Rest of the Story…

The editor of the Scottsdale Independent, Terrance Thornton, recently wrote, “the idea of choice has created a competitive public school marketplace.” I agree with his premise that school choice created competition, but add that competition is, by definition, a zero-sum game. For a charter school to “win” a student a district school has to “lose” both a student and the funding associated with that student.

Counter to what those who advocate for backpack funding would have you believe, the loss of a student is not without consequences for a district. This, since fixed costs (utilities, food, and transportation), consume almost 19 percent of per pupil funding in Arizona. In fact, Moody’s, the bond rating agency, just issued a report stating that “charter school expansion poses the risk that schools will not be able to adjust to the loss of revenue, since even if the student population drops at a district school, schools still must pay for costs like transportation and infrastructure.” And, oh by the way, don’t even get me started on the whole concept of “the funding belongs to the student.” I disagree vehemently and quote fellow blogger Peter Greene who writes, “the funding belongs to the taxpayer.” Amen brother!

In this competitive environment, district schools are forced to doing everything they can to well…compete, despite a funding level per-pupil that makes Arizona 48th in the Nation. That includes ensuring the public knows about their achievements. Even with the availability of social media, this takes money, which of course; district leaders would prefer to spend in the classroom. Unfortunately, marketing is one of the necessary “evils” of the competition forced on districts.

Thornton alleges that school board members “know very little about how the system works.” Not true. As a school board member, I am very aware of “how the system works” and I am continually impressed with fellow board members I meet from around the state. We take our elected but unpaid “jobs” very seriously and regularly attend training to keep up-to-date and learn more. The vast majority of board members are reelected to multiple terms by their constituents because they believe in the leadership they are providing.

I must say that some of the words Thornton chose seem to have a bias against district schools. For example, he wrote “established spending thresholds…allow a district to allocate funds…free from public scrutiny.” There is no expenditure of taxpayer dollars a district can legally make that is free from public scrutiny. Although at times the public must make official requests to see the information, transparency and accountability of taxpayer dollars is just one of the attributes that sets district schools apart from the commercial schools. In the case he described, the law was written to provide some procurement efficiencies (like a business would use) to ensure only those purchases above a certain level go through a public bidding process. He seems to imply that the use of commercial vendors to provide services to districts is a problem. That is though, exactly how a business would operate since usually, outsourcing a service that is not your core product is less expensive and more efficient than maintaining all those capabilities in-house.

Interestingly, commercial schools are often touted as being much less bureaucratic than district schools. It should of course, be easy to be less bureaucratic when there are very few, if any requirements to be transparent and accountable to the taxpayers. But, at least in the case of Arizona’s charter schools, their administrative expenses are double that of district schools. You read that right…charter schools in our state spend twice as much on administrative costs as district schools. How’s that for less bureaucracy?

As for the “hundreds of thousands of dollars” both Scottsdale and Paradise Valley Unified School Districts “allocate to [their] communications department[s]”, I offer two questions. First, what is the average marketing expense for a business with an operating budget equal to that of these districts? Second, how much of this funding for these districts’ “communications departments” is actually for advertisement of teacher job openings, or to fund the maintenance of the district website (primarily for the use of district parents), or for the safety of students in the form of emergency notification services (as Thornton points out in his article?) And, while we are on the subject of funding allotted to “communications departments”, it might be worth noting the amount per student of that funding. At Paradise Valley Unified (PVUSD), the “communications” costs work out to be about $5.50 per student, while Scottsdale BASIS spent about $37 per student on marketing expenses, almost seven times as much as PVUSD. This despite the BASIS.ED CEO’s contention that “effective social media campaigns have gone a long way in promoting” their schools and that “the key is word of mouth.”

Finally, yes, BASIS enjoys a fair amount of academic success but so do many district schools around the state. In fact, in the 2016 U.S. News and World Report, half were charter schools (three of them BASIS) and half were district schools. As a news professional, I am sure Thornton is well aware there is always much more to any story. Too bad he didn’t feel the need to share all sides in this one.

 

 

 

Wishing doesn’t make it so

Arizona’s Superintendent of Public Instruction Diane Douglas just released her 2017 “AZ Kids Can’t Wait” education plan calling for pay raises to teachers, repairing school facilities and buying new buses. At the same time, business leaders such as the CEOs of PetSmart, Goodman’s Interior Structures, and Empire Southwest Caterpillar, are proposing a five-year funding phase-in of full-day kindergarten.

These are both laudable pursuits. We know Arizona has a critical teacher shortage, our school facilities are in need of repair and upgrade, and our busses are beyond old. We also know how critical full-day kindergarten is the to the long-term success of our students both in school and beyond. But, understanding the problem is only half of the solution. The other half, is providing the funding to make it happen.

In terms of the AZ Kids Can’t Wait plan, the bill is $680 million. That’s $200 million without strings attached; $140 million to boost teacher salaries; $60 million to increase rural transportation funding and help with teacher recruitment; and $280 million to begin to address district capital funding requirements. There’s nothing wrong with Superintendent Douglas’ plan, districts desperately need this help. At a press conference where she announced it, Douglas made it clear it isn’t her job to find the funding. “I don’t appropriate money“she said, and went on to make the point that, “the state has about $450 million in it’s ‘rainy day’ fund” and it is up to the governor and lawmakers to decide to spend it on education.

Business leaders don’t appropriate state dollars either, but they are pushing full-day kindergarten because they know it is critical to moving Arizona out of 48th in quality of education. Prior to 2010, state lawmakers recognized that as well and were funding it. Then, when times got tough; the GOP-led Legislature cut $218 million from the program on the backs of some of our youngest students. That price tag was from 2010; today’s bill for reinstating full-day kindergarten is estimated at $240 million.

The total cost of funding these requirements is almost $1 billion. What’s the chances our state lawmakers will work to fund what amounts to only about $100 more per Arizona K-12 district student? I wouldn’t give odds on it. Governor Ducey has promised to reduce taxes every year he’s in office and so far, he’s on track ($8 million for business in 2016 alone.) And, cuts continue to be made to district budgets such as the move from prior-year funding to current year funding for districts, one that will cost districts statewide a total of $33 million. Then, there is the $380 million cut to District Additional Assistance funding (soft capital monies for items such as textbooks, curriculum, technology, school buses and some capital funding.) Additionally, the six-tenths of a cent per dollar sales tax provided by Prop. 301 is set to expire in 2020. If not renewed, that would be another $624 million (2015 collection) loss to our districts.

The Governor and Legislature have made it clear that raising additional tax revenue is not going to happen. Given their position, there are only two ways they can deliver any of the badly needed assistance identified above. Either they take the funding from some other part of the K-12 budget or other important program (Department of Child Safety perhaps), or they push the funding requirement down to the local level.

In the case of full-day kindergarten for example, they likely would mandate the districts fund it with the budgets they already have. Of course, many districts are already funding the program by underfunding something else because they’ve deemed it so critical to a student’s success. A mandate from state lawmakers absent additional funding does nothing to help districts and in some cases, would hurt. As far as pushing requirements down to the local level, it is a good thing that 75 percent of the bond and override measures passed this year because locally funded support has become increasingly critical as Arizona districts try to deal with the deepest cuts in the nation in K-12 per pupil funding from 2008 to 2014.

We, the voters, have culpability in this mis-match of funding to requirements. A poll of Arizonans taken after Proposition 123 passed showed that 74 percent of registered voters think the state is spending “too little” on K-12 education. Sixty-three percent also indicated they’d support extending the one percent sales tax to help pay for it.

But, politicians don’t usually respond to what voters say, they respond to how they vote and this year, as in many years past, Arizona voters have reelected legislators committed to not raising taxes. Arizona voters must realize a per pupil funding level that places us 48th in the nation, isn’t going to allow us to significantly move the achievement needle statewide. David Daugherty, Director of Research at ASU’s Morrison Institute said it well. “If Arizonans want a bright, successful, fiscally strong future for the state, a top-rate education system must be its primary investment.” If we fail in this regard, he said, “the future will be far less attractive and everyone will feel the effect.” Voters must elect legislators that believe education is an investment in our future and that have the political will to do what needs to be done to effect real change. The choice is ours, but pretending to care and then not acting in concert with that care, is duplicitous at best.

Our Kids Have Given Enough!

God, I’m tired of the whole district versus commercial (private and charter) school debate.  But, I feel strongly that district schools should be our Nation’s first choice to educate the majority of our children. I will therefore, continue to fight for not only their survival, but also success.

Usually, that means I’m at odds with school choice proponents. Today though, I read a blog post by Robin J. Lake and found myself agreeing with much of what she wrote. Ms. Lake is the Director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington. In her piece titled “Will the New Administration Love School Choice to Death?” she writes “Our study of Detroit’s current choice environment, now at 50 percent charter schools, offers an important caution: choice alone is no panacea. In fact, ”School choice“, she writes, ”presented as a panacea is dangerous, both rhetorically and as policy.” She points out that in Detroit, charter schools slightly outperform district schools [I found dissenting stories about this], but their students are still some of the lowest-performing in the nation. Detroit school management is dysfunctional to say the least. There are a dozen different government agencies sponsoring schools without any coordination. This results in a parental nightmare with no one managing transportation, no one taking responsibility for closing low-performing schools, and no one making sure special needs students are well served.

Providing the complete package is one of the things district schools generally do well. They transport your child to and from school and they feed him or her breakfast, lunch and maybe even during the summer if need be. They provide both special need and advanced placement education, usually some sort of tutor support where required, and have a full range of programs such as sports, band, art, and much, much, more. And, most importantly, they take all comers, regardless of their socio-economic status, special needs, ethnicity, etc.

The real truth I have come to believe, is that no matter what school option (including district schools) one looks at, it takes sufficient funding, quality administrators and teachers, engaged parents and high expectations to produce real, positive results. It also takes an environment where if the child starts at a disadvantage in school and life, he or she can get help (especially if there is none at home) to rise above it. I once heard a presentation making the point how just one caring adult can make a huge difference in a child’s life. It struck me as incredibly sad to think that some children don’t even have that. That’s right…some children don’t even have one adult that cares about them.

When adults do care, good things usually happen. But, the more focused attention to a problem, the more likely the solution will be successful. Ms. Lake writes, “Choice is a powerful force, but it must be accompanied by thoughtful government oversight and supports for quality. There must be mechanisms to ensure that schools of choice serve the most challenging students. And there must be coordinated efforts across localities to empower parents with information, transportation, and other support systems. Without these efforts, families most often end up with a lot of choice and very little in the way of better options.” If there’s one clear lesson she has gleaned from the last 25 years of charter school implementation, she writes, it’s that “choice and competition are necessary but by no means sufficient to dramatically improve outcomes for students.”

I couldn’t agree more with Ms. Lake that, “To avoid choice becoming permanently polarized…scholars and advocates need to fight new programs that don’t promote quality and accountability.” They must advocate for policies that promote collaboration among school providers, ALL school providers, both district and commercial. They also must address equitable access for students with disabilities and other special needs and, maximize the effectiveness and accountability of any private voucher/scholarship and education savings account proposals.

And to her statement that “The new Department of Education should invest in strategies to prevent harm to students in districts facing major enrollment losses”, I say AMEN! Instead of fighting each other over who has the best answer, just imagine what we could do if we recognized there is good in all options and worked together for the best overall solution. Unfortunately, the pie is only so big and with the GOP fixation on tax cuts, it is getting smaller all the time. As long as the various school choice options are pitted against each other for resources, it is hard to see how we can work together for a better outcome. Something though, has to give and it damn well shouldn’t be our district school kids and their teachers. They’ve given enough.

What a wonderful world it would be

Recently, Matthew Ladner, Senior Advisor, Policy and Research for the Foundation for Excellence, posted as a guest on a conservative blog: Ladner’s attack on a parent of a 3rd grader. Here’s my response:

Matt, Matt, Matt, look at you, calling a parent of a 3rd grader your opponent. Really? In both your current capacity and your previous positions at the Goldwater Institute and the Alliance for School Choice, you’ve proven yourself a leading advocate for school choice and charter schools. Makes this back and forth seem a little like a David and Goliath match up doesn’t it? I’d like to suggest that instead of the Copa Cabana, perhaps you should be singing ole blue eyes’ “I’ve got you under my skin?”

I get it. For you and yours to win, district schools have to lose. The really unfortunate part of this argument is that district schools are where over 80 percent of Arizona’s K-12 students go to school–almost one million of them. No doubt some of them continue to attend their neighborhood district school because socio-economic factors keep them from exercising their school choice options, but for most, it’s because their district school is the place they want to be; yes, their first choice.

You mention that the majority of the 3,000 students participating in the Arizona Empowerment Scholarship Account program are children with disabilities. That’s not surprising in that this voucher program was originally started under the guise of serving disabled students. I say “guise” because that was just the start as proven by the Legislature’s expansion of eligibility every year since the program’s inception in 2011. Fortunately, public outcry has kept the Legislature from fully expanding the voucher program. Reasons for opposition include the lack of transparency and accountability for the taxpayer dollars siphoned off to private and parochial schools and, the fact that return on investment cannot be adequately assessed.

Your narrative that public school advocates are focused more on funding than improvement is totally false, as is your position that the state does not have the money to dedicate more to education. The state has only one way to raise revenue and that is through taxation. State lawmakers can choose to raise revenue for education or give it away in the form of corporate tax breaks. The voters in turn, can choose to elect candidates who best represent their priorities or, they can choose not to participate. Thus far, the majority of Arizona voters have voted for candidates that favor corporate tax breaks over public education. As the exit polls from the Prop 123 elections showed though, 75 percent of voters favor spending more money on public education, so I’m confident the tide is turning.

You also make the allegation that district schools can pick which students they accept through open enrollment. This is misleading at best. Districts do have some control over the acceptance of open enrollees, but only when the locally elected school board has predetermined space-based caps. You and I both know it is more the case that charter schools manage to exclude certain students or, force them out after the 100th day so the charter keeps the per-student funding, and sends the student back to the district school with no accompanying funding. And yes, a lack of equity amongst districts is still a problem to be solved and one the Governor’s Classrooms First Council is looking at as it tries to determine how to rework Arizona’s school funding formula.

You are badly mistaken that district public education proponents desire a near monopoly of district schools. Unlike you, we live in the real world, and understand today’s education dynamics. What we do want is for there to be a level playing field with full transparency and accountability for all use of taxpayer dollars and we want the focus of funding and support to be first on the 80 percent of students attending district schools versus the 20 percent at charters or private schools.

In the end, the ongoing argument between charters and district schools serves no one but the Legislature who, by keeping us fighting for the same scraps, doesn’t have to serve up a better meal. I imagine sometimes, what it would be like if we could all just work together for all the students we serve. To end with one more song title, “What a wonderful world it would be. “