This week is National School Choice Week and not surprisingly, there is a fair amount of confusion about just what school choice is. Maybe because even in Arizona, (the state the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) rates as #1 for its school choice policies), over 80% of Arizona students actually “choose” their community district schools and therefore don’t pay much attention to the school choice debate. But, that percentage may be at risk since corporate profiteers are well-funded and persistent and continue to purchase influence with lawmakers who chip away at district resources and ease the way for the commercialization of our community schools.
This commercialization has been fed by a lucrative $700 billion education market and the Conservative mantra that all human endeavors placed in the hands of private enterprise succeed, whereas those run by the government do poorly. President Reagan famously quipped after all, “Government is not the solution to our problems; government is the problem.”
I believe though, there are some services that government is best suited for. These include those that provide for our security, safety such as our military, fire and police services, and yes, those whose mission is to ensure the education of ALL children. Can private entities provide these services? Yes, but from my 22 year experience in the military, they are likely to cost more (contract creep), less likely to serve all equitably, and more likely to be concerned about making a profit than focused on meeting the needs of those they are hired to served.
One thing the private sector does very well though, is spin and marketing and when it comes to privatizing education, they have spin in spades. But facts still matter, and the facts are that: 1) charter schools produce no better results (across the board) than district schools, 2) we don’t know how private schools are performing because they don’t have to tell us (even when they accept taxpayer dollars), and 3) high-quality district schools and widespread, aggressive school choice cannot co-exist; the pie is only so big.
That latter point means that those of us who believe district schools are critical to ensuring every student has equal opportunity, must understand what we are up against. In my advocacy work, I often see we have much work to do in that regard. So, I provide the list of definitions below to further the conversation. If we are to successfully battle the powerful forces attacking our district schools, we must first ensure we are equipped with the right intelligence to strategically bring our limited resources to bear.
- Accountability. Conservatives love to talk about accountability for taxpayer dollars until it seems, we are talking about commercial schools (charters and privates.) Arizona statute requires district schools to be fully accountable for the tax dollars that fund them and the academic results they achieve. Those same requirements do not apply to any other type of school in the state and in some cases, state law prohibits such accountability.
- Achievement Gap. There are real differences in student’s ability to achieve that have very little to do with the district schools they attend. This term usually refers to disparities in achievement levels of student groups based on race, ethnicity or family income. We already know that poverty and the education attainment of one’s parents are the greatest predictors of a student’s success. We also know that the more challenges a student experiences outside the classroom, the more challenging it is to educate them in the classroom. Commercial schools also know this and that’s why they generally accept fewer of these “at-risk” students.
- Administrative Expenses. This term makes some people think about highly paid superintendents and principals. The expenses involved though, include administrative staff and support services (such as school nurse, librarian, speech therapists, etc.); superintendent’s office and governing board; and the business office and central support services. Governor Ducey has focused much attention on the need to decrease district administrative expenses thereby increasing dollars in the classroom even though Arizona has among the lowest administrative expense percentages in the nation, at one-third less than the national average. Additionally, although some see district schools as beaurocratic, charter schools in Arizona actually have double the administrative expenses of district schools.
- At-Risk Students. Students or groups that have a higher likelihood of academic failure—broad categories often include those who are: not fluent in English; experience high poverty, homeless, etc.
- Average Daily Membership (ADM). The average number of students registered or enrolled (as opposed to in attendance) in a school during the time it is in session. This number is especially important on the 100th day of public schools because it determines the amount of funding the schools receive from the state. Sometimes, charters wait until after this date to attrit students who then return to the district schools. When this happens, the charter keeps the funding associated with that student and the district must educate him/her for the rest of the year without any associated funding.
- Blended Learning Programs. These combine online classes and classes taught in a school building. All types of schools (including districts) are using these types of programs along with the “flipped classroom” concept where students watch on-line instruction at home and then do hands-on work at school.
- Certification. Process by which a state or approved board authorizes a person to teach in public schools; also called licensure. Important because the state does not require (as they do with districts) for commercial schools to hire certified teachers.
- Charter Penetration. The higher the charter penetration, the higher the adverse impact on district finances, as districts are confronted with plummeting student enrollment and with a rising population of students in need of special education services.
- Charter Schools. Privately managed, taxpayer-funded “public” schools that contract with the state to provide tuition free educational services and are exempted from some rules applicable to district schools (such as the requirement to hire certified teachers.) They were initially designed to serve as incubators of teacher innovation for exportation to all public schools. Over time, they have become more autocratic, (empowering management versus teachers) and more segregated (by race and income.)
- Commercial Schools. A term I use to refer to for-profit charter and private schools in response to the corporate reformers insistence on referring to district schools as “government schools” and, to accurately characterize (in most cases) their profit motive.
- Community Schools. District schools located in the communities their students live. Previously referred to as “traditional schools,” these schools are increasingly innovative while continuing to serve as the hubs of their communities.
- Corporate Reformers. A term used to describe those who are more seemingly more interested in the profit to be made off the nation’s $700 billion K–12 education market than they are with actually improving the academic and “whole-child” achievement of all our students.
- District Schools. These schools were originally known as “public schools” until charters came along, then “traditional public schools.” They are the only schools to be governed by locally elected boards responsive to voters and constituents. They are also the only schools that are fully accountable and transparent to taxpayers for the public funding they receive. They were created as the instrument through which the legislature carries out its constitutional mandate to provide for a system of K–12 public education.
- District Charter Schools. For a time, some districts opened charters. In 2015, however, the Arizona Legislature attached a provision to the 2015 state budget prohibiting school districts from sponsoring charters and dissolving those created after June 30, 2013.
- Education Management Organizations (EMOs). Usually for-profit firms that provide “whole-school operation” services to public school agencies. EMOs contract with school districts and charter-granting bodies to use tax money and venture capital to operate public schools. The growth and prevalence of EMOs is controversial as they are seen as substantially contributing to the privatization of public education and the associated profiteering from tax dollars supporting that public education.
- English Language Learners (ELL). Also known as Limited English Proficient (LEP) students, this term refers to students who are reasonably fluent in another language but who have not yet achieved comparable mastery in reading, writing, understanding, or speaking English. Arizona statute defines “English learner” or “limited English proficient student” as “a child who does not speak English or whose native language is not English, and who is not currently able to perform ordinary classroom work in English.” Per statute, “children who are English learners shall be educated through sheltered English immersion during a temporary transition period not normally intended to exceed one year.”
- Empowerment Scholarship Accounts (ESAs). The Arizona Legislature’s answer to vouchers. Currently there are some eight general categories of students that qualify for vouchers ranging from those with disabilities to those living on tribal lands; and as of fall 2016, 0.28% of Arizona’s students were attending private or parochial schools via a voucher. For the second year in a row, legislation is underway (pushed by ALEC’s Arizona Chair Sen. Debbie Lesko) to fully expand eligibility for the vouchers, worth a basic value is $5,200 (special needs students get more), to ALL students in Arizona. The legislation was killed last year to prevent it from impacting Prop. 123’s passage, but it may get legs this year. If passed, it will enable the accellerated drainage of district resources.
- Fixed Costs. These are expenses that a district has regardless of the number of students in a classroom. They include administrative and teacher salaries, utilities, facility maintenance, and technology and transportation costs. When students leave district schools to attend charter schools or attend private schools via a voucher, they leave behind approx. 19% of the costs associated with their attendance at that district school. That is important because the corporate profiters would have you believe that the funding should be completely portable because there is no negative impact on district schools.
- Free and Reduced Lunch. This term describes the program by which students are provided discounted or free meals while at school based upon their families meeting federal guidelines for poverty. In 2016, 58% of Arizona district school children qualified for free and reduced lunch which is at least 12% more than charter schools. It is generally seen as a more accurate way to describe the poverty challenges present in schools than referring to the Census poverty rate. For example, in my school district, we have a free and reduced lunch percentage of 62%, but because of the active adult communities that surround the district, the Census poverty rate is 14%.
- For-Profit Charters. There are both non-profit and for-profit charter schools but in practice, there isn’t much difference. Unlike what many may believe, a non-profit designation does not mean that entity may not make a profit. Rather, it means it uses its surplus revenues to further achieve its purpose or mission, rather than distributing its surplus income to the organization’s shareholders (or equivalents) as profit or dividends.
- Government Schools. A perjorative term used by corporate reformers and some school choice advocates to refer to district schools. (In the vein of “government is the problem.”)
- Homeschooling. The education of children within the home versus in a school. Although it is difficult to find information on how many children are being homeschooled in Arizona, one source showed it as 22,000 in 2011, or approximately 2% of total students. There are no formal requirements for how students are homeschooled, to do so, all parents must do is send a letter of such intent to their county schools superintendent. Arizona statute does not require homeschooled students to be tested unless that is, they wish to enroll in a district school. Then, they are required to be tested to determine in which grade they should be placed.
- Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). A federal funding statute requiring schools that receive monies under this law to provide a free, appropriate public education to all eligible children with disabilities. A specially designed plan for student services called an I.E.P. (Individual Education Plan) must be developed to meet the needs of each eligible student. As can be imagined, students with disabilities cost more to educate and rarely are all the required dollars provided. Commercial schools, as a result, manage to enroll a much smaller percentage of these students.
- On-Line Schools. Also known as “virtual” schools, these schools have proliferated with the privatization movement. Online schools provide virtual classes a student takes from home. These schools are notorious for low achievement results, high dropouts and fraudulent operations.
- Parochial Schools. A private primary or secondary school affiliated with a religious organization, whose curriculum includes general religious education in addition to secular subjects, such as science, mathematics and language arts. In Arizona, taxpayer dollars are siphoned to these schools through both vouchers and tax credits.
- Private Schools. A school supported by a private organization or private individuals rather than by the government. The Merriam-Webster dictionary says a private school is “a school that does not get money from the government and that is run by a group of private individuals.” The Cambridge English Dictionary says a private school is: “a school that does not receive financial support from the government.” I cite these definitions to point out that both of them say private schools are schools that “do not get funding from the government.” In Arizona, taxpayer dollars are siphoned to these schools through both vouchers and tax credits.
- Privatization. Giving everything public over to market “forces,” i.e., market rule.
- Right to Work. A term that describes the law that prohibits union security agreements, or agreements between employers and labor unions, that govern the extent to which an established union can require employees’ membership, payment of union dues, or fees as a condition of employment, either before or after hiring. I included this term because unlike what people think, Arizona is a right to work state and does not collective bargaining in place for teachers.
- School Choice. Billed as the right of parents to select the right school for their child. In reality, when it comes to charter and private schools the choice actually belongs to the schools. Charters, although mandated by law to accept all, manage to be selective of who they accept or, weed out those who aren’t exccelling. Private schools have total control over who they accept.
- School Tax Credits. Arizona allows five separate types of tax credits taxpayers may take. There are three individual, one for public schools and two for private schools. It should be noted that the amount that an individual can claim for private schools is five (5) times that which can be claimed for public schools. There are also two types of corporate tax credits that may be taken through school tuition organizations (that award funding to private and parochial schools.) The first one is for corporate contributions for low income students and the other one is for displaced/disadvantaged students.
- School Tuition Organization. A School Tuition Organization (STO) is one that is tax exempt under Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code and allocates at least 90% of its annual revenue to tuition awards, and makes its tuition awards available to students from more than one qualified private or parochial school. 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 general fund.
- Teacher Shortage. You may have heard about Arizona’s severe teacher shortage. A recent survey of Arizona school districts revealed that a full 53% of teacher positions are either vacant or filled by uncertified teachers. It isn’t so much that we don’t have enough certified, qualified teachers in Arizona, but just that they’ve turned to other types of employment to enable them to support their families.
- Transparency. A term related to accountability that describes how open a school is to the scrutiny of parents, taxpayers and voters. Only district schools, governed by locally-elected boards, are fully transparent.
Hopefully these definitions have clarified for you, some of the issues surrounding school choice. If you don’t agree with any of my definitions or, you have additional ones I should add to the list, I’d love to hear from you. If you care about truly public (district) education, the time to show it is now, more than ever. Now, before what Betsy DeVos espouses for educations shifts the Overton Window, (a term coined by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a conservative think tank she supports), on what is acceptable to the public. Now, before the bedrock of our democracy, that which once built the greatest middle class in the world, is auctioned off brick by brick and student by student. Now, before it is too late.