#1 Way to Build Back Better

I am a currently serving school governing board member of nine years and the past president of the Arizona School Boards Association (ASBA). As such, I have been closely following the stories of school board meetings, especially in Arizona, that have become especially contentious.

The ugliness probably shouldn’t be surprising in the uber-polarized environment we now find ourselves. As Michelle Cottle (editorial board member) points out in the New York Times,

while the drama may feel bound up in the angry, ugly, polarized politics of the moment, it is nothing new. Public schools have long been an irresistible battleground for America’s culture warriors. On issues ranging from sex education to desegregation, public prayer to evolution to the Pledge of Allegiance, cultural cage matches are frequently fought on the backs of local schools, with board members, educators and students too often caught in the fray.

And that my friends, is the saddest part of what we see being played out – students caught in the fray. Even those who have never been parents understand that children learn from our actions, as well as our words. What does it say to our students when parents show up to their school to threaten, harass, and vilify teachers, administrators and school board members? Director of ASBA’s governmental relations, Chris Kotterman, described it well when he said,

Threatening public officials for advancing policy you don’t agree with is fundamentally opposed to the behavior we expect from our students. It sends the message when we aren’t getting what we want or we disagree, the thing to do is to try and intimidate the opposition into compliance. That’s a terrible example to set.

Cottle gives plenty of examples of school board meeting protestors around the country being incredibly ugly and scary, screaming profanity and threats like ““You will never be allowed in public again!” one raged. “We know who you are,” another warned. “You can leave freely, but we will find you!” and after another school board passed a mask mandate, another saying, “you made Dr. Mengele proud” (while giving the Nazi salute). Even locally though, we’ve had protestors in Vail try to elect a new school board outside the board meeting and blocking staff members from leaving the building shouting obscenities at them and saying, “You’re surrounded. You can’t leave.”

It is not okay to treat each other this way and the lack of respect shown each other at the most fundamental level – as human beings – is sorely lacking these days. I personally know of an administrator who was called a “cunt” by a grandmother of a student. And again, this shouldn’t surprise me when we just suffered through four years with a U.S. President who normalized all sorts of actions and words that wouldn’t have been acceptable before his time.

Let me just point out though, that at least in Arizona, school board members don’t get paid for their service. In fact, this is true for most school board members around the country. And yet, during my travels all around Arizona and to national conferences with ASBA, I met countless dedicated school board members who really care about their students and work hard to improve their educational experience. Yes, just like in every other endeavor on the planet, there are those few who either have agendas that aren’t focused on the kids or don’t take their roles seriously enough, but they are the rare exception, not the rule.

And although I can understand how the current climate would discourage good people from wanting to serve on school boards, it is exactly the time that they must. Otherwise, the bad guys win. What we’ll end up with is school board members who thrive on hateful discourse and self-destructive environments. We’ll end up with an exodus of good school board members, good administrators, and good teachers. Eventually, we’ll end up with a system of public education that is circling the drain.

I don’t think of myself as a conspiracy theorist, but neither do I think we should be so naive, to think that all this is happening organically. Of the April Vail protests for example, Superintendent Carruth said,

“There was a handful of people – I don’t know exactly how many – who either don’t have kids in the school district, don’t live in the school district, don’t live in the county, who came with the express purpose of whipping up that group.”

Yes, around the country, administrators and school board members have suspected outsiders of coming in to school board meetings to wreak havoc for political purposes. This is not a new strategy, as conservative strategist Ralph Reed, (former executive director of the Christian Coalition), once said he would “exchange the presidency for 2,000 school seats”. But the current political climate and ease message spreading via social media has whipped it into a frenzy.

For those who are shocked at how low we’ve sunk at a country, and are committed to do their part to “Build Back Better”, there is almost no better place to start than to serve on your local school board. Ensuring our students are prepared to build a better future is why I first ran for the school board in 2012, and why I continue to serve. I can assure you that the other side is feverishly working to ensure they win this battle for hearts and minds and they’ve been very successful thus far in using school board seats as stepping stones to higher political offices.

Elections happen every two years and the paperwork to run is usually due in the summer of election year. Our kids need you, will you step up in 2022? For more information about running for school governing boards, please contact the office of your County Schools Superintendent (Pima and Pinal), or the Arizona School Boards Association.

Groundhog Day

We held another petition signing event at our house over the past couple of days and it occurred to me what long shots citizen driven ballot initiatives are. And, that they are often, reactive, not proactive. It may feel as though we are in the driver’s seat when pursuing ballot measures, but just as in Vegas, the “house” always wins, it seems that no matter what statutory changes we can force, the Legislature will always figure a way to fight back.

The real answer of course, is that we MUST take back the Legislature, or at the very least, one of the chambers. We do that by building a bench of qualified candidates through training them, supporting them with funding and ground game, and then winning seats on school boards, water boards, fire boards, city councils, and in county government.

Unfortunately, it takes time to be strategic and we are running out of that time. While the Democrats were focused on the White House during President Obama’s time, Republicans were busy taking over state governments. In fact, 29 state legislative chambers in 19 states flipped from Democratic to Republican during Obama’s presidency. Of course, Arizona Democrats lost control of our Legislature way back in 1966 and haven’t won it back since.

And although Arizona is one of the 13 states that use independent redistricting commissions to exclusively draw electoral districts boundaries, Democrats can’t necessarily count on that effort to help us. Yes, if the district boundaries are fairly drawn, demographics could deliver wins for Democrats. But, those who would vote for Democrats have to actually show up to vote and the Legislature is working hard to put even more roadblocks in their way. A good example is the July Supreme Court decision that gave states more latitude to impose restrictions on voting. The Arizona laws that drove the SCOTUS decision were that 1) voters who vote in the wrong precinct, will not have their vote counted and 2) it is a crime for any person other than a postal worker, an elections official, or a voter’s caregiver, family member or household member to knowingly collect an early ballot – either before or after it has been completed. Adam Liptak, for the New York Times, wrote:

[A]mong the most consequential in decades on voting rights, and it was the first time the court had considered how a crucial part of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 applies to restrictions that have a particular impact on people of color.

This SCOTUS ruling, no doubt helped clear the way for Texas to recently enact a slew of new voting restrictions, “including limits on early voting hours and other measures opponents say will raise new barriers for marginalized voters, especially voters of color, who tent to vote Democratic, and those with disabilities”. Where Texas (and Florida) go, can Arizona be far behind?

So, Democrats can win in Arizona if we can get liberals and left-leaning (or maybe just reasonable) independents to vote. Unfortunately, that’s a huge “IF”. Many of the people we need to vote are people of color who already feel disenfranchised or don’t trust the system, and the GOP’s incessant attack on those same people’s ability to vote, just makes it that much harder to persuade them to step up.

Of course, we can’t give up. We just have to be focused and strategic. That’s how Stacey Abrams and a network of activists, ten years to flip Georgia. In an interview with Politico before the 2020 election, she said,

“When you’re trying to not only harness demographic changes but leverage low-propensity voters, you cannot simply hope that they’ll hear the message. You have to treat them as persuasion voters. Only the message is not trying to persuade them to share Democratic values.  Your message is to persuade them that voting can actually yield change.”

So, Arizona Democrats need to focused, strategic, cohesive and demonstrate where we have the power, we know what to do with it. We need to use every opportunity to demonstrate that we know how to make government work. We also need to develop a bench of candidates to move up through the system. We do this by not leaving any seats unchallenged without Democratic candidates. And, we ensure those candidates receive training and support before they hit the streets. At the same time, we’ll need to continue to pursue whatever means we have to push back on the terrible laws our Legislature enacts. For now, at least, those means are initiatives, referendums and recalls which have been a part of Arizona’s governance from the beginning with women’s suffrage, passing by a margin of greater than two to one in 1912.

Both referendums and initiatives are processes for collecting and verifying signatures. According to the Arizona Secretary of State’s Initiative and Referendum Guide, “An initiative is the method by which voters may propose new laws or amend existing laws”, and a referendum is “the method by which voters may veto a law (or part of a law)”. A petition refers to the physical piece of paper used to collect signatures in order to qualify for the ballot. Recalls are a way to remove office holders who weren’t responding to their constituent’s wishes. 

The process for initiating initiatives is fairly simple, consisting of gaining clearance from the AZ Secretary of State to circulate a petition and then gathering the required number of signatures from registered voters. “If the signature requirements are met, (statutory changes require a number of signatures equal to at least 10 percent of the last gubernatorial vote, 15 percent for a constitutional initiative), the measure is placed on the next general election ballot for voters to decide by a simple majority.

But bringing an initiative home is another matter entirely. According to Dr. David R. Berman, Senior Research Fellow at the Morrison Institute for Public Policy, 425 initiative petitions had been “taken out” between 1970 and 2013, but only 67 (16%) made it to the ballot. And, less than half of those (32) were approved by voters, “making for an overall success rate – from petition to passage – of just 8 percent.” In fact, Berman writes that a “commonly employed rule of thumb is that one out of four gathered signatures will be rejected – often because the signee is not officially recorded as a registered voter.” 

And although Arizona has led the nation in using the Internet for voting-related matters such as online voter registration, to include gathering signatures for candidates, our Legislature has not supported making the initiative signature gathering process simpler. They’ve effectively ensured the signature gathering process is cumbersome (as in requiring that petition signers may not touch any part of the box lines on the petition as they fill them out) and expensive (upwards of $1 million for a statewide effort).

And sometimes we are our own worst enemy when we run numerous ballot measures in the same election. Of course, the Legislature doesn’t help by placing multiple ballot measures of their own on the ballot.

In his 2013 report titled, “Initiative Refore in Arizona: Exploring Some Ideas”, Dr. Berman expressed concern about a large number of ballot measures appearing on the ballot at the same time:

“[W]hen faced with a large number of initiative propositions, voters are less willing or able to examine each individual proposition in detail. In this situation, many decide not to vote – in any given election, 10 percent to 25 percent of those who vote for candidates at the top of the ballot fail to vote on one or more of the proposition measures. Others play it safe by simply voting “no” on all or most of the propositions. Those who plunge ahead and vote on numerous initiatives may wind up voting for something they do not like or against something they do like. In either case, they may later regret their decision.”

It gives me pause then, to have had six petitions lined up for signature at one time. Three, seeking to repeal voter suppression laws and three to repeal laws designed to circumvent Prop 208 (to raise more funding for schools), by implementing a new flat tax rate. The final petition in circulation at this time is a Voter’s Right to Know initiative to stop Dark Money from influencing our elections. This is our third try for this one. And according to Ballotpedia, there are six other ballot measures that were filed with the Secretary of State’s office, as well as three Legislature driven referendums that will be on the ballot.

What are the chances voters will take the time to understand these laws and then vote to repeal them? Isn’t there already a problem with voters taking time to vote down ballot even when they do show up to vote? I am concerned about the viability of these efforts. Yes, Arizonans have had some recent success with initiatives such as Props 123 and 208, but seven initiatives (plus whatever else comes) are a lot for voters to get behind.

And although signing petitions makes voters feel like they’ve taken real action, in the end they may just feel even more discouraged when yet again, we are unsuccessful in driving change. If we really want things to change, we must be laser-focused on gaining seats in the Legislature. Otherwise, we’re just watching Groundhog Day on automatic replay.  

Perfect the Enemy of Good

I wrote a blog post on February 15, 2015, called, The Real Trick to Making America Great Again. Although the title plays off Trump’s MAGA, it really had nothing to do with Trump. Rather, I wrote that, “[t]he singular most significant action each of us can take this year is to demand the members of Congress put the good of the country ahead of partisan gamesmanship and special interests.”

Six-plus years later, and the problem is even worse. So is the problem the post was really about, which is the state of America’s infrastructure and Federal government’s responsibility to do something about it – because ultimately, they are the only entity that can because the problem is so huge.

The most recent Infrastructure Report Card from the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) gives our Nation’s infrastructure a D+, and states we need to invest $3.6 trillion by 2020 just to get it up to standard. The number one solution toward beginning to raise the grade according to ASCE is to, “increase leadership in infrastructure renewal” and the organization maintains, “America’s infrastructure needs bold leadership and a compelling vision at the national level”.

Fortunately, Americans demanded action and leaders stepped up, [sarcasm cued], raising our country’s infrastructure score all the way up to a C- since 2015. Okay, okay, at least we are moving in the right direction. But, way too little has been done as the ACSE points out on its website:

There is a water main break every two minutes and an estimated 6 billion gallons of treated water lost each day in the U.S., enough to fill over 9,000 swimming pools.

Growing wear and tear on our nation’s roads have left 43% of our public roadways in poor or mediocre condition, a number that has remained stagnant over the past several years.

There are 30,000 miles of inventoried levees across the U.S., and an additional 10,000 miles of levees whose location and condition are unknown.

These are just three examples of the scope of the problem and the cost of addressing them is increasing every day. In 2015, an expert panel at the University of Virginia determined we needed to spend $134 to $194 billion more each year through 2035 just to maintain current infrastructure.

The ASCE Infrastructure Report is comprehensive, addressing 18 different categories of infrastructure including: aviation, bridges, broadband, dams, drinking water, energy, hazardous waste, inland waterways, levees, public parks, ports, rail, roads, schools, solid waste, stormwater, transit, and wastewater. It also provides a state-by-state look at these infrastructure categories. The good news is, Arizona is slightly better than the national score with a C grade. Our worst areas are roads with a D+ and no one who drives on them should be surprised by that grade. And the problem isn’t just the jarring rides we experience but also the additional “tax” we pay because our roads aren’t properly maintained. Even in 2015, “[o]ur substandard roads, cost urban motorists $700 to $1,000 per driver in repairs, wear and tear, and fuel. This [didn’t] even count the lost time involved in lower speeds and detours.” At least Arizona’s bridges are okay, earning a B+ score. Our drinking water, levees, dams and wastewater need work though, earning a C-.

The really good news is that Congress is closer than they’ve been in a very long time, to actually taking action to help remedy the problem. The U.S. Senate actually passed a $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill by a 69-30 vote on August 10th, after months of negotiation. This was down from the $2 trillion or so President Biden wanted, but he supports the bipartisan bill because as stated in a White House fact sheet,

President Biden believes that we must invest in our country and in our people, creating good-paying union jobs, tackling the climate crisis, and growing the economy sustainably, and equitably for decades to come. The Bipartisan Infrastructure Framework is a critical step in accomplishing these objectives.

He also knows that “democracy requires compromise“, and that is why I side with the nine moderate U.S. House Democrats threatening to oppose Biden’s $3.5 trillion social policy package unless the infrastructure bill is first signed into law. Yes, I get that we need to go big. But…going big can also result in a bust and we just can’t take that risk. Our nation, as well as the rest of the world, is already dealing with a third COVID resurgence and the devastating impacts of climate change, do we really need to add more crumbling infrastructure to the existing chaos?

It is sad that a critically needed bipartisan infrastructure bill should be such a heavy lift but that’s today’s reality. Adding another very complex layer of political maneuvering on top of the achievable for a slight chance of the possible, just doesn’t seem smart. That is evidently the feeling of the nine moderate Dems promising to hold out on $3.5T until the $1.2T is passed. Obtained by the New York Times, they wrote a letter to Nancy Pelosi in which they said,

Some have suggested that we hold off on considering the Senate infrastructure bill for months until the reconciliation process is completed. We disagree. With the livelihoods of hardworking American families at stake, we simply can’t afford months of unnecessary delays and risk squandering this once-in-a-century, bipartisan infrastructure package. Time to get shovels in the ground and people to work. We will not consider voting for a budget resolution until the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act passes the House and is signed into law.

This certainly puts Pelosi in a pickle since House progressives are insisting the Senate must vote on the social spending package before she moves the infrastructure bill in the House. I have faith that if anyone can navigate this minefield, it is the 17th-term U.S. Representative from California. I’m pretty confident actually, that she is working it extremely hard. She knows after all, that this isn’t just about fixing America’s infrastructure. It is also, as President Biden said of the infrastructure bill passage in the Senate, “we proved that democracy can still work”. Yes, $3.5T for social policies would be great and is badly needed. But let’s not let perfect be the enemy of good. It would be really good to get some stuff fixed. It would be even better to prove our democracy isn’t totally broken. Yes, that would be really, really good.

If We Want Better, We Must Do Better

Hello. Let me reintroduce myself. Linda Lyon. Retired Air Force Colonel, school board member, very happily married to my best friend, who is also a woman. Previously married to a great guy. Enthusiastic fly fisher, own a gun, love to camp. A patriot who believes in our Constitution and progressive policies but also that our system works best when we have a balance of power between two parties so they must compromise to get things done. In other words, please don’t write me off with just one label. You’d be wrong. That is of course, true of all of us.

I’ve been blogging on RestoreReason.com since 2013, with a hiatus since mid-2019. There are multiple reasons for my break to include some hard-fought political losses that were near and dear to my heart. More than anything though, I thought there was just too much craziness in the news and I didn’t think I had anything constructive to add. Whatever I had to say would just be drowned out, and even if anyone was listening, it was probably only the people who agreed with me.

The last post I wrote on in 2019 titled “Teachers are the Real Patriots”, was written in response to a letter to the editor in the Arizona Daily Star. In it, a veteran made the point that “Now all enemies are Democrats and liberals” and he went on to say, “There are many retired military who will protect our president. He has only to say where and when, we will be there and the wrath of Hell will descend. We will take our country back.”

At the time, I had no clue what was to come, and in my response as an ardent public education advocate, I focused on teachers as patriots:

Teachers, standing up for those most vulnerable among us, are the real patriots. They know there can be no great democratic republic when there is no educated citizenry and that our public schools are the only ones that can address the problems we face at the scale demanded. Over 90% of America’s K–12 population attends public schools and that is where our singular educational focus should be. No. That is where it MUST be. Yes, to provide an engaged citizenry who can think creatively and determine fact from fiction.

I went on to implore continuing the fight for the “immortal declaration”:

Yes, we have much work to do. But, allowing ourselves to be divided and conquered, whether by Russia, partisan politics, or school privatizers is not going to help us get it done. To stay strong and prosperous, we must be true to what is referred to as the “immortal declaration”. From the Declaration of Independence, it states that, “We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness”.

America is undoubtedly a long way from realizing this dream. But even the aspiration itself is one of the things that sets us apart from most other nations and is one that we should fight tooth and nail to achieve. As patriots, we must steadfastly reject the nightmare Theriot and others like him would have us embrace and continue to fight with all our power for this American ideal and the Dream it promises.

Two years later, I found myself responding to another letter to the editor in the Star in which that writer claimed “progressives destroyed our election integrity” and that “government overreaches in our basic liberties”. I’m guessing he believes that Trump really won the election and that the January 6th Capitol insurgents were just sightseeing tourists. As for January 6th, I guess the 2019 letter writer was correct. Trump did only have to say “where” (the U.S. Capitol) and “when” (January 6th), and “they” were there and the wrath of Hell did descend. Fortunately, his prescience was only partially correct and they did not “take our country back”.

Still, there can be little doubt that America and the democratic republic it has enjoyed for almost 244 years is in trouble, and although outside forces are exacerbating our problems, we are currently our own worst enemy. Political polarization, racial animus, and gun violence are all off the charts and it is incredibly hard to see any path to positive progress. Little did we know just how bad things could get. Just how far from the long-standing norm our politics and priorities would drift.

I don’t have any answers, but think a starting point might be to take a cue from Aretha Franklin and first work to R-E-S-P-E-C-T each other. I have long believed it is the number one key to a healthy marriage and, would go a long way toward giving us space to heal. Okay, I know this is much harder said than done. That’s one of the reasons I took up fly fishing instead (fish don’t talk back). I mean how can I even begin to respect the guy who believes that “democrats and liberals” are the enemy of our country? Truth is, I don’t have to respect him, I just have to recognize that as an American, as a fellow human being, he has the right to think what he wants. It is when he acts on his thoughts in a way that infringes on my rights that we have a problem. Or as someone wisely once said, “your right to swing your fists ends where my nose begins”.

I’m reminded of a speech from one of my favorite movies, The American President, with Michael Douglas and Annette Bening, released in 1995. In it “President” Douglas gives a speech that is even more fitting today:

America isn’t easy. America is advanced citizenship. You’ve gotta want it bad, ’cause it’s gonna put up a fight. It’s gonna say, “You want free speech? Let’s see you acknowledge a man whose words make your blood boil, who’s standing center stage and advocating at the top of his lungs that which you would spend a lifetime opposing at the top of yours.” You want to claim this land as the land of the free? Then the symbol of your country cannot just be a flag. The symbol also has to be one of its citizens exercising his right to burn that flag in protest. Now show me that, defend that, celebrate that in your classrooms.

Then you can stand up and sing about the land of the free.

Lately though, we are too ready to label, to negate, to vilify. On a personal level, we join in the behavior of our chosen “tribe” because it makes us feel like we belong. This is not a new phenomena, but is all the more dangerous now because of the ubiquitous Internet and the social media platforms it has spawned. On a broader level, it has allowed our worst proclivities to be exploited by foreign and domestic enemies alike. Again “President Douglas” in The American President:

We have serious problems to solve, and we need serious people to solve them. And whatever your particular problem is, I promise you Bob Rumson [the GOP] is not the least bit interested in solving it. He [they] is [are] interested in two things, and two things only: making you afraid of it, and telling you who’s to blame for it. That, ladies and gentlemen, is how you win elections. You gather a group of middle age, middle class, middle income [or just disenfranchised white] voters who remember with longing an easier time, and you talk to them about family, and American values and character, and you wave an old photo of the President’s girlfriend [the flag] and you scream about patriotism. You tell them she’s [“illegal” immigrants are] to blame for their lot in life. And you go on television and you call her [them] a whore [rapists and murderers].

The older I get, the more I realize there’s really nothing new under the sun. The words in the brackets above are mine and update the speech to fit the era we find ourselves in now.

No, manipulation of voters by politicians and others is not new. What is new, is the speed and volume at which the influence is coming, especially from foreign powers. Unfortunately, in this time of unprecedented access to information, it is harder than ever to find the truth and many Americans don’t realize they are being manipulated. Just like in the movie The Matrix, many of us are unwittingly cocooned in information bubbles that shield us from the truth. We listen to/read/watch only that which reinforces our beliefs. In many cases, we don’t even see critical thinking as a valuable skill. The problem then in coming together, is that not only do we have different opinions, but entirely different facts upon which they are based. Not only that, but a CBS News poll released in January 2021 showed that more than 50 percent of Americans believe the greatest danger to our way of life comes from their fellow citizens. That led Dave Isay, founder of StoryCorps, to ask in a February 5, 2021 USA Today op-ed, “Is it possible for Americans to achieve unity when they cannot agree on their common humanity?”

Wow, that is a low bar and we likely haven’t yet hit the bottom. But, I continue to find comfort that we’ve been through worse times and still recovered (albeit imperfectly). Recognizing each other’s humanity and the respect each of us is due by virtue of that humanity is a place to start. It is up to each and every one of us and none of us should expect better, unless each of us does better.

Teachers are the real patriots

These are tumultuous times. It seems every single day brings a rollercoaster of emotions over what is going on in our country.

A couple of days ago, I read this letter to the editor in the AZ Star that floored me.

Not only that it had been written, but that the Star printed it (hope they also sent it to the FBI). But after further reflection, I realized that it is better to shine the light on hate like this. It is better to understand the threat so that we can be prepared to counter it.

This guy gets so much wrong. I too am a veteran who served 22 years in the Air Force. I too took an oath to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same…”. But, I don’t equate defending the President with defending the Constitution. Not, when that President has told over 10,000 lies since taking the Oath of Office and not when he refuses to respect the Constitution himself.

What is most galling and actually frightening about this letter though, is that Mr. Theriot thinks that Democrats are the enemy, not the Russians who hacked our elections and continue to conduct cyber warfare against us daily to disrupt our operations and sow hate and divisiveness.

Ultimately though, I remain hopeful. For every Theriot, there are dozens of others like a group of teachers in Flagstaff who recently pushed back on an invite from the Arizona Chamber. Saying they “recognize the gesture of a Teacher Appreciation Dinner, we respectfully decline the invitation. We feel attending your dinner would be condoning the AZ Chamber’s many coordinated attacks on public education over the years. You see, educators have been pleading with the state of Arizona for adequate public education funding for an entire decade, and it seems that at every turn, the Chamber of Commerce has been there to block our efforts and work against us.”

There is much to be proud of with these almost 100 teachers’ not only taking the stand, but individually putting their names on the letter to the Chamber. In our hyper-polarized nation, it is increasingly difficult to take a stand. But, these teachers understand that, “if you stand for nothing, you’ll fall for anything.” So, they stood and said “we cannot and will not ignore the Chambers’ agression toward public education funding, and we refuse to allow your organization to bask in the glow of a feel-good PR campaign while consistently working against the interests of educators and working families across our great state.”

The teachers were also clear that they “will always welcome any collaboration with the business community designed to achieve positive educational outcomes for all of Arizona’s children.” They aren’t closed off to innovations for the betterment of all students, they just aren’t going to accept a system that is increasingly stacked to benefit those who “have” over those who “have not”.

I’m guessing Mr. Theriot would be as aghast at these teachers’ letter, as I was at his. The difference though is that the teachers’ words are aligned with the Constitution and good old American values, not at odds with it. They are exercising their 1st Amendment Rights to call out hypocrisy, not promising the “wrath of Hell will descend” on fellow Americans. The teachers are also standing up for their public school students, not a President who is a pathological liar and of whom, Mitt Romney said he was “sickened at the extent and pervasiveness of dishonesty and misdirection”.

Where Theriot said, “there are many retired military who will protect our president” (in spite of the Constitution one might surmise), the teachers called out the AZ Chamber for their work in scuttling a ballot initiative supported by the voters and for giving “enormous tax breaks to corporations and the wealthy instead of requiring them to pay their fair share for the benefit of all”. They also called out the Chamber for making “it a top priority to devastate educators’ retirement security by privatizing our pensions”, demanding “the Chamber of Commerce leave our retirement funds as the earned, defined benefit they are.

These teachers, standing up for those most vulnerable among us, are the real patriots. They know there can be no great democratic republic when there is no educated citizenry and that our public schools are the only ones that can address the problems we face at the scale demanded. Over 90% of America’s K–12 population attends public schools and that is where our singular educational focus should be. No. That is where it MUST be. Yes, to provide an engaged citizenry who can think creatively and determine fact from fiction.

The focus must also be on public schools to ensure our country stays strong. According to The American Conservative in 2018, one in three potential recruits are disqualified from service because they’re overweight, one in four cannot meet minimal educational standards (a high school diploma or GED equivalent), and one in 10 have a criminal history. In plain terms, about 71 percent of 18-to–24-year-olds (the military’s target pool of potential recruits) are disqualified from the minute they enter a recruiting station: that’s 24 million out of 34 million Americans. The article didn’t mention that the frenzied focus on high-stakes standardized tests and siphoning money from public schools have largely not improved achievement, but often robbed our students of opportunities such as physical education, art, music and more. Research shows curriculums must be robust to adequately develop all parts of the mind and to keep students engaged in school. Unfortunately, students in schools that are able to offer more, have plenty of other choices besides military enlistment.

Yes, we have much work to do. But, allowing ourselves to be divided and conquered, whether by Russia, partisan politics, or school privatizers is not going to help us get it done. To stay strong and prosperous, we must be true to what is referred to as the “immortal declaration”. From the Declaration of Independence, it states that, “We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness”.

America is undoubtedly a long way from realizing this dream. But even the aspiration itself is one of the things that sets us apart from most other nations and is one that we should fight tooth and nail to achieve. As patriots, we must steadfastly reject the nightmare Theriot and others like him would have us embrace and continue to fight with all our power for this American ideal and the Dream it promises.

What if Trump Wins a Second Term?

I try hard to value others’ opinions, especially when they are informed. That’s tougher in the digital age, because we are increasingly entrenched in information silos which don’t always provide us unfiltered truths. Still, I’ve tried to moderate my publicly stated positions on President Trump because I’d rather inform than alienate. At this point though, I feel silence is complicity.

A great article in the Atlantic explains some of the potential dangers of a second Trump presidency. The Pulitzer Prize winning author, Paul Starr, writes that

“the biggest difference between electing Trump in 2016 and re-electing Trump in 2020 would be irreversibility.”

He points to the areas of “climate change, the risk of a renewed global arms race, and control of the Supreme Court ”to make his case. The first two he writes, “will become much harder to address as time goes on.” The third one, “stands to remake our constitutional democracy and undermine capacity for future change.”

One specific example Starr points to, is Trump’s work to hinder the reduction of CO2 emissions. “According to the Global Carbon Project, a worldwide decarbonization effort begun now, would require a 5% per year emissions reduction to keep us below 2 degrees Celsius of warming. If put off another decade, it will take 9%. “In the United States” Starr writes,

“the economic disruption and popular resistance sure to arise from such an abrupt transition may be more than our political system can bear.”

Starr also warns that a Trump re-election will likely result in a “stepped-up” arms race, with countries in the Middle East and Asia pursuing nuclear weapons because they no longer believe they can rely on “American security guarantees”. These aren’t the only regions of concern. When Trump suspended U.S. participation in the INF treat, Putin did the same and promised a “symmetrical response” to new American weapons. In his State of the Union address shortly after, Trump threatened to “outspend and out-innovate all others by far” in weapons development.

A two-term Trump may also, writes Starr, have the opportunity to appoint four Supreme Court justices. Nixon was the last president to have this opportunity, and not since FDR has there been such an opportunity for a president to shift the Court’s ideological balance. At risk are not only “Roe v. Wade, and other decisions expanding rights protecting free speech, and mandating separation of church and state”, but also worker protections such as minimum wage provided by the federal government’s authorization to regulate labor and the economy. All a fully conservative Court need do, is reverse the previous decision from 1937 regarding the Constitution’s commerce clause, to “sharply limit the government’s regulatory powers”. The first casualty of that change might very well be the Affordable Care Act, which was saved in 2012 only by Justice Roberts holding it was a constitutional exercise of taxing power by the government due to the commerce clause.

Starr concludes,

“with a second term, Trump’s presidency would go from an aberration to a turning point in American history”.

Both “the effects of climate change and the risks associated with another nuclear arms race are bound to be convulsive”. And, the country would be dealing with these global threats in an increasingly hostile environment of “deeply alienated from friends abroad and deeply divided at home”. The Supreme Court would also likely be far out of line with public opinion, thereby positioning itself at the center of political conflict.

The key it appears, is for Americans to wake up from the matrix in which they’ve been living, and fully understand the stakes of the 2020 election. Whether we will do that, remains to be seen. As Starr writes, “the master of distraction will be back at it next year” and concludes with

“if we cannot focus on what matters, we may sleepwalk into a truly perilous future.”

I just hope and pray that enough of us wake up before Donald Trump and Mitch McConnell walk our country off the proverbial cliff.

Take No Prisoners

During the last legislative session in Arizona, lawmakers approved a full expansion of vouchers to all 1.1 million Arizona students against very vocal opposition. In response, Save Our Schools Arizona conducted a grassroots petition drive with over 2,500 volunteers collecting over 111K signatures to get the issue on next year’s ballot.

To fight back, privatization proponents have recently ramped up their “take no prisoners” war on public education in Arizona with attacks on Arizona’s 2016 Teacher of the Year, Christine Marsh. According to The Arizona Republic, the American Federation for Children (AFC), (“dark money” group previously led by Betsy Devos), recently “unleashed robocalls” in the Phoenix area targeting Marsh. In a related effort, a Republican state legislator, Rep. David Livingston, R-Glendale, also filed an ethics complaint against Rep. Isela Blanc, D-Tempe, accusing her of disorderly conduct.

What is the egregious violation these women are accused of? According to voucher proponents, (during the drive to gain petition signatures for an anti-voucher referendum), both circulated petitions without a box at the top of the petition checked. The box, according to state law, is required to be checked prior to petitions being circulated, to reflect whether the circulator is a volunteer or paid petition gatherer. In Livingston’s complaint and in AFC’s robocall, Blanc and Marsh respectively, are accused of “falsifying petition sheets” by marking the boxes after the signatures were collected.

I understand the law is the law, but I’ve circulated many petitions and I can tell you that not one signatory has ever given a damn about whether that little box was checked. They don’t care who is circulating the petition, just that it is legitimate and for a cause they care about. The “box” in question likely matters to someone, but certainly not to the voting public.

Yet, AFC chose to reach into Arizona to demand Marsh “come clean on who altered” her petition. “I’m calling from the American Federation for Children with an alert about an election scandal in this district,” the call said. “Christine Marsh, candidate for state Senate, circulated a petition sheet which was later falsified and filed with the Arizona Secretary of State, a felony. Christine Marsh won’t say whether it was she or someone else who broke the law by tampering with the document. Christine needs to come forward with the truth. Christine, stop hiding behind the 5th amendment and come clean.”

Always one to cut right to the heart of the matter, Marsh told The Republic “she was ‘incredulous’ that an out-of-state special-interest group was spending money in her race 15 months before the election.”

I personally know Christine Marsh, am very proud to have had her representing our state, and understand why AFC and the pro-privatization lobby is threatened by her. Christine has taught English Language Arts for almost a quarter century and she still thinks she has the best job in the world. She is passionate about her students’ success and is a great example of the type of excellent teachers we have in our public district schools. She doesn’t do it for the money, but because she absolutely loves the students. She is also a vocal advocate for her students and public education and is not afraid to speak out to combat injustices. She is now running for the AZ Legislature (a job that will pay even less than she makes as a teacher), because she knows that is the only way she’ll have a chance at affecting real change.

Dawn Penich Thacker, spokeswoman for Save Our Schools Arizona (leaders of the referendum effort) said, “It’s telling that robocalls are coming from a Washington, D.C., area code to attack an Arizona teacher for volunteering to give Arizonans a vote on how our tax dollars are used,” she said. “For all their talk of choice, it seems our state’s pro-voucher groups have chosen a flawed national agenda over the basic respect and rights due Arizona citizens.”

The majority of AZ voters (the actual people on the ground in Arizona) are not in favor of vouchers that siphon funding from our public district schools to private and religious schools. That’s not only true in Arizona, but all across our Nation. There has not in fact, ever been a time, in ANY state, where vouchers, when referred to the ballot, were approved by the voters. Privatization proponents have only succeeded in expanding vouchers when they don’t ask voters what they want.

In Arizona, we know this is all about profit and power. We also know we are ground zero in the fight for our public district schools and in the long run, our very Democracy. Blogger Jan Resseger wrote in June about Gordon Lafer’s new book, “The One Percent Solution: How Corporations Are Remaking America One State at a Time”. In it, he explains that “far-right tax-slashers have attacked public education, including all the money to be made by privatizing large parts of our nation’s biggest and most pervasive civic institution, in which, “the sums involved… are an order of magnitude larger than any other service.” But, Jan writes, ”he believes another motive of the privatizers is far more significant:“ “Finally” says Lafer, “the notion that one’s kids have a right to a decent education represents the most substantive right to which Americans believe we are entitled, simply by dint of residence. In this sense… for those interested in lowering citizens’ expectations of what we have a right to demand from government, there is no more central fight than that around public education.”

Make no mistake, this is a war…for the very soul of America. Will we continue to be a country “of the people, by the people and for the people”, or, will we continue to move toward a complete oligarchy where the rich call all the shots and the rest of us live in a matrix of their making?

Thomas Jefferson understood civic engagement is critical for the survival of a democracy. He said, “An educated citizenry is a vital requisite for our survival as a free people”, and “Educate and inform the whole mass of the people… They are the only sure reliance for the preservation of our liberty.” This latest assault on civic engagement in Arizona, from both within and outside the state, says volumes about the true intentions of the privatization proponents. If you believe it’s really about the kids, I’ve got some Arizona ocean front property to sell you.

AZ Legislators: Listen Up or Get Out!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The New Civil War

I don’t remember my parents being political at all. My Step-Dad was an Army Green Beret and my Mom a naturalized American citizen via Germany. I’m sure they voted, but it wasn’t like we sat around the dinner table discussing geopolitics. Neither of them had attended college while I was still living at home and being politically active wasn’t really congruent with my Dad’s military service.

After I joined the Air Force, that was also the case for me, especially when I became a commander. After retirement though, it was a different story. Since moving to Tucson in 2008, I ran for and won a seat on my local school board and worked on three Arizona campaigns, two Senate and one House, and supported various other campaigns in one way or another. It has been my service as a school board member though, that really led to my activism. Public K–12 education and the children it serves, (as it turns out) is my new passion.

Our recent Presidential election was traumatic for many and some people are totally shell-shocked. In my mind, much of the consternation is not about partisanship, but rather about the values we collectively subscribe to as a nation. Do we as stated in our Declaration of Independence, “hold these truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness”? Or rather, do we believe that (as with the Citizen’s United decision), corporations are people and should have as much say in our nation’s governance as “the people?” Do we still aspire to be Ronald Reagan’s “shining city on the hill” (words originally spoken in a sermon by Puritan John Winthrop), that serves as a beacon of democracy to the rest of the world or, do we only care about ourselves; about “America First”…and last.

I had for the most part managed to have a more pragmatic perspective about the recent turn of events until about two weeks ago when I visited our Nation’s Capitol. Seeing the multitude of protestors everywhere, in many cases controlled more tightly by increased police presence,  brought home to me the very real shift in our national direction. Then yesterday morning, I had a contentious conversation with my Mom about politics (whom I once could talk to about anything) and it occurred to me that what we are now experiencing is the New Civil War.

As with America’s original Civil War, this one is pitting family members against family members, friends against friends, and neighbors against neighbors. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t at all mean to minimize the 620,000 lives lost in the original Civil War, to this date the deadliest in our nation’s history. But, this New Civil War has the potential to be just as fractious to our country. It may be a war of words versus guns; but the divisions surrounding economics, equal rights, freedom of speech, state’s rights, and free trade vs. protectionism, all with a dose of nationalism mixed in, are every bit as real.

And just like the original Civil War, this one is comprised of “battles” of significance. The fight over Betsy DeVos is one. It was well-fought on the part of public education advocates, but in the end, they were out-gunned by the corporate reformers and the lawmakers they purchased. It would appear the Dakota Pipeline is another battle where “the people” have lost to corporate interests. There will be many more battles such as the one  over the Muslim travel ban currently underway. I’m guessing we are going to have at least four years of such battles. It is tiring to contemplate.

Wars are often though, contests of attrition. The side that remains better resourced in terms of troops and weapons and the intelligence and supplies to support them, is usually the victor. There are numerous examples however, of a grass-roots resistance (because it is supported by the hearts and minds of the people), that achieves victory against all odds.

If our nation is to remain a democracy, one which is “of the people, by the people and for the people”, we must all (each of us), remain engaged and vigilant. I understand it would be easier just to bow out and ride the “ignorance is bliss train,” until it jumps off the tracks. Believe me when I say I’ve considered that option more than once. But, as the American educator and author (born in 1899) Robert M. Hutchins said, “The death of democracy is not likely to be an assassination from ambush. It will be a slow extinction from apathy, indifference, and undernourishment.”

To those who care about our democracy and our right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, I implore you to not let current events discourage you or detour your resolve. Now, more than ever, we must keep our heads in the game. After all, (as attributed to Edmund Burke) “All it takes for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” Let it not be said that was our course.

Open Letter to Senators Flake and McCain

Dear Senators Flake and McCain,

First of all, let me thank you for your service to our state and our country. I realize your job is not an easy one, but hope you understand this is also not an easy time to be an engaged patriot. Millions of us are incredibly anxious about the future of our country and our world. At this time, more than almost anytime in my adult life, we need real leadership.

As a school board member, I am really worried about President Trump’s and his SecED nominee’s intentions with K–12 education. He thinks our nation’s current education system is “flush with cash” and that our children are “deprived of all knowledge.” For Arizona at least, both of these statements are ridiculous. Our per pupil funding is 48th in the nation and our teachers the 47th lowest paid. Even so, our student’s National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) scores continue to rise and we led the nation in growth on the science test from 2009 to 2015.

If however, Betsy DeVos is confirmed, she will no doubt try to do for the nation what she did for Michigan. There she pushed for vouchers (even though she could never “sell” them in her home state) and for-profit publicly funded charters with as little accountability and transparency as possible. The results speak for themselves, with Michigan’s 4th grader scores on the NAEP from 2003 to 2015 declining from 28th to 41st in reading and from 27th to 42nd in math. This is not a formula for success.

I understand the pressure you are under to toe the party line, but the people of Arizona and our nation need you to look deep inside yourselves and determine what is really best for our country? Truly public education, that which is governed by locally elected boards, is the bedrock of our democracy and built the greatest middle class in the history of the world. It also taught us yes, we are all different, but there is strength in those differences. It can continue to support the American Dream, or, we can just give up on that dream and sell out to the highest bidder. We are at a tipping point and you have the ability to pull us back from the edge or propel us over the cliff. Please cast your vote in favor of our democracy and say NO to DeVos and her privatization agenda. We (the people) are counting on you!