The needs of the many…

Spoiler Alert: I am really glad I didn’t drive to Phoenix today for the House Ways and Means Committee meeting during which they considered HB 2842, Empowerment Scholarship Accounts (ESAs); Expansion; Phase-In. I’m glad I stayed home because I’m sure my presence would have made no difference. Instead, I watched live streaming of the meeting and gleaned from the testimony that ESAs are lacking in accountability and transparency and serve the few at the expense of the majority.

The first “against” speaker I viewed was Ms. Stacey Morley from the Arizona Education Association. She talked about how when the full cap is reached, 5,500 students could have accepted ESAs at a cost of $13M to the state. Tory Anderson, from the Secular Coalition of Arizona expressed her organization’s opposition to any use of taxpayer dollars to fund religious schools. An AZ Department of Education representative said DOE is neutral on the bill, but wants to ensure they get their full 5% portion of the ESA funds for ensuring accountability. These funds are prescribed by law, but haven’t always been fully included in the budget. He talked about the importance of adequate oversight and referred to the 700 to 1 ratio currently in place for program liaisons that work with families to provide that oversight. As high as that number is, he wanted to ensure further budget cuts don’t make the challenge even tougher.

Mike Barnes, from the Arizona Superintendent’s Association talked about how ESAs make it very difficult for districts to determine their potential enrollment and therefore the impact on their budget. He said he doesn’t see how under this structure, the state doesn’t end paying for students that were going to attend private school anyway. He mentioned that the funds given in an ESA equal about $5,200 which is $600 more than is given to a district, but $600 less than what a charter costs. Representative Bruce Wheeler asked him if we knew how many of those students who take ESA have parents that make in excess of $100K. He said he did not.

The next speaker was Julie Horwin, a grandparent of two children who attend private schools. I assumed she was going to advocate for ESAs but that was not the case. She opened by saying that ESAs mean we are paying with two separate school systems with public funds. She then relayed a story of a private school principal who is paid $40K per year and found out that his board members each get paid $150K per year with public monies. She finished by saying that this bill will not help the greater majority of our students.

Janice Palmer from the Arizona School Boards Association (ASBA) said school choice is robust and noted that ASBA was the first school boards association to participate in National School Choice Week. She said the bill is disconcerting because in a competitive environment, it is important to be fair. Parents she said, definitely need to have the largest voice in their children’s education but when public dollars are involved, taxpayers also need to be part of the equation. Finally, she noted that this is not a zero sum game. If we choose to press ahead with the expansion of ESAs, but refuse to increase taxes, other programs will suffer to cover the additional expenses to the state budget.

The “for” speakers were three parents or grandparents of special needs children and Michael Hunter from the Goldwater Institute. Those who spoke regarding the value of ESAs for their special needs students were eloquent and convincing. There could be no doubt that the ESA program has provided them options they might not have otherwise had. But, the option for special needs students already exists in the law the expansion of HB 2842 is well beyond just them, but ultimately for all students in Arizona. Michael Hunter of the Goldwater Institute pointed out that changes like this are always met with resistance. First, there was open enrollment and then charter schools, both which were touted by opponents as being detrimental to district schools. He said that instead of looking at the impact on district schools, we should look at each family’s situation. Representative Reginald Bolding went back and forth with him a couple of times trying to pin him down (with little avail) about the difference in accountability and transparency, especially with regard to academic standards, but in the end Bolding was left to make his points on his own.

When the committee members voted, only Representative Bruce Wheeler and Reginald Bolding explained their votes. Wheeler called it subsidization of the rich and voted no and Bolling said he just wanted to ensure we have good schools for all our students and he was worried that individuals who might benefit from the program wouldn’t know about it. In the end, the vote was not surprisingly, along party lines and the measure passed (5-3-1.) The vote was predictable, but still depressing. I am convinced it will do nothing to improve education in Arizona and will do very little to help those who most need it. The Senate Education Committee meets this Thursday, February 4th at 9:00 am in Senate Hearing Room 1 and will be considering SB 1279, also about ESA expansion. If you are registered in the Request to Speak system, please make a request to speak on this bill and if not, please email or call your legislators to let them know you do not support it. Anyway you look at it, ESAs are vouchers and, they are siphoning valuable taxpayer dollars to private (to include religious) schools. Register your concerns and let your voice be heard. In this case, the needs of the many, must take precedence over the needs of the few.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Bottom Five List – Discouraged but Hopeful

A recent article in The Atlantic magazine featured experts on K-12 education who offered their reasons for hope and despair with regard to education. It was an interesting read and prompted me to come up with my own list for Arizona. In this first of two posts, I share my “Bottom Five” list of what discourages me and what I’m hopeful about. First, what discourages me:

10. The extremely well funded efforts of the corporate “reformers.” Make no mistake about it, the effort by the corporate “reformers” to make sweeping changes to the Nation’s public education system is as much about making a profit as it is an interest in making a difference. The exact number is up for debate, but The Nation magazine says the American K-12 public education market is worth almost $800 billion. Now, everyone from basketball players to Turkish billionaires want a piece of the pie. It is no accident that the Koch brothers backed, corporate bill mill ALEC is pushing many of the reforms, and the technology magnates Bill Gates and Mark Zuckenberg are heavily involved in the “reforming.” All you have to do is follow the money and the intent becomes clear.

9.  The apathy of Arizona voters. I worked on three Arizona Legislative campaigns in the past few years and although I mostly enjoyed talking to voters, I was beyond dismayed when I learned that in 2014, not even half of the LD11 voters with mail-in ballots bothered to mail them in. These are people who are registered to vote and are on the Permanent Early Voters List (PEVL). They are mailed their ballots and can fill them out in the comfort of their home. They don’t even have to put a stamp on them, postage is pre-paid. These votes should have been the “low-hanging fruit.” Combined with the overall Arizona voter turnout of 27%, this is pathetic by anyone’s definition.

8.  The fact that Arizona leads in all the wrong metrics. Does Arizona care about children? Let me count the ways maybe not so much. According to the Annie E. Casey’s “Kids Count Databook”, Arizona ranks: 46th in overall child well-being, 42nd in economic well-being, 44th in education achievement, and 42nd in children’s health. The Databook also reports that 26% of Arizona’s children live in poverty, 4% more than the nationwide average. The personal finance website WalletHub reports much the same, ranking Arizona 49th for child welfare which shouldn’t surprise anyone given the dysfunction in our Department of Child Safety. I don’t know about you, but these statistics disgust me and should absolutely drive what our Legislature spends our taxpayer dollars on. It is about defining what kind of people we are, it is about helping those who can’t help themselves and it is about the future of our state.

7.  Some seem to think the path to success is to lower the bar. Even though there are people whose opinions I value that think Senator Sylvia Allen will do a good job as the Chair of the Senate Education Committee, I remain hopeful but have my doubts. Call me crazy, but I think the legislator with the most sway over what education bills see the light of day should actually have more than a high school education. Along those same lines, Arizona Representative Mark Finchem (LD11-Republican) evidently doesn’t think teaching experience is valuable for our county schools superintendents. He has already submitted House Bill 2003 for this legislative session, which seeks to delete the requirement for county schools superintendents to have a teaching certificate. Instead, it will require only a bachelor’s degree in any subject, or an associate’s degree in business, finance or accounting. I know some would ask why should county schools superintendents have certificates when the state superintendent of public instruction doesn’t require one. Well, I’d rather see us make it a condition of both jobs.

6.  The polarization of our county makes it seem impossible to come together to find real, workable solutions. I was recently speaking to a friend of mine who I’ve known for over 25 years. We started talking about education and he started railing about how all public schools do is waste money. He talked about the fancy new high school in his town that was built (in his opinion) much more ostentatious than necessary. “Why do the kids need that to learn” he asked? “Why not just give them a concrete box?” Really?? Where do I begin? Truth is, I didn’t even try because I knew he wouldn’t listen. He knew what he knew and no amount of fact was going to sway him.

But all is not lost and I am more optimistic than pessimistic about Arizona’s public education. Here’s what makes me hopeful:

10.  Across the Nation, more and more charter school scandals come to light every day highlighting the need for more transparency and accountability. I’m not glad there are charter school scandals, but I am glad the public are learning more about the dangers of a profit-making focus with inadequate oversight. That’s one of the reasons district schools have rules and controls; they are after all, dealing with taxpayer dollars. And oh by the way, it’s no longer just charter schools we need to watch. The continuous expansion of vouchers exponentially broadens the potential for abuse and requires the same kind of public oversight. There just is no magic pill to student achievement. It takes resources, dedicated professionals, and hard work. Short cuts in other words, don’t cut it.

9.  The fact that we still have dedicated professionals willing to teach in our district schools. Despite low pay, higher class sizes than the national average, insufficient supplies, inadequate facilities, and ever-changing mandates, Arizona still has close to 50,000 district teachers willing to be in our classrooms because they love the kids and they love their work. They are underappreciated and sometimes even vilified, but they know their work is important. Now, if only our Legislature acted like they knew this too.

8.  Recognition is growing that early childhood education is really important. Even Governor Ducey said in April 2015: “Research shows that a quality early childhood education experience can yield significant long-term benefits on overall development of a child. It’s the most profitable investment we can make in their future.” A recent review of 84 preschool programs showed an average of a third of a year of additional learning across language, reading and math skills. Preschool has also been shown to have as much as a seven-fold return on dollars spent over the life of the child. The public is starting to “get it” and support for preschool funding is growing.

7.  Speaking of Common Core, it seems to be working okay. Yes, I saw the recently released AzMERIT results, but we knew they would be low. That’s what happens when you raise the bar. Despite no additional funding or resources to implement Common Core (oops, I mean Arizona College and Career Standards), our districts made it happen and the numerous teachers and administrators I’ve talked to say our students are now learning more. Efforts are underway to determine what should be changed about the Arizona standards, but my guess is that they will be minor.

6.  If nothing else, the passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) saves us from the really bad legislation that was No Child Left Behind. Everything I’ve read about the new ESSA touts it an improvement over its predecessor. It reduces what some considered Federal overreach and provides states more flexibility in implementing their K-12 education programs. Which, oh by the way, makes me concerned our state legislature will look to relax requirements where it serves them, at the expense of those children who most need our help. At least now though, they won’t be able to blame everything on “the Feds”, to include whatever version of the Common Core standards we end up with.

Please stay tuned, still to come are the top five reasons I’m discouraged and hopeful.

AZ Public Education Funding is Far From Fixed!

Unless you’ve had your head under a rock, you’ve probably heard about movement on the Prop. 301 Inflation Funding lawsuit. The plaintiffs (Arizona School Boards Association, Arizona Education Association, and several school districts) on the public education side have agreed to the Governor’s proposed resolution, but now it is up to the AZ Legislature to vote to comply.

As with any compromise, no one got everything they wanted and there is still plenty of concern about various parts of the agreement. One of the more contentious is the Governor’s plan to increase the withdrawal percentage on the State Trust Lands Fund. AZ’s state treasurer, Jeff DeWitt, does not concur with any plan to pull more than 3.75 percent out per year, the Governor’s plan calls for 6.9 and will, says DeWitt, significantly reduce the amount of money available for public education down the road.

Public education supporters would certainly have liked to receive all districts were legally due. But, I’m guessing they think a bird in the hand trumps a bird in the bush. The real harm as far as I am concerned isn’t that the agreement wasn’t as favorable as it could have been. Rather, it is that this agreement has proven to the AZ Legislature they can defy the people’s mandate and court orders with little impunity. I am guessing they will feel emboldened by the compromise reached, which because of all the loopholes they’ve put into place doesn’t really cost them anything in terms of doing whatever they want in the long run.

Secondly, I fear the settlement of the inflation lawsuit will convey to the general public that public education funding has been fixed in Arizona. This is far from the truth, but with 45 districts’ bonds or override requests on the ballot this November, anything that drives doubt in the mind of the voters about the need could be very damaging.[i] Never mind the fact that it was the AZ Legislature that caused the necessity for local funding in the first place. After all, the Legislature made Arizona first in the nation in public education funding cuts since 2008 and these cuts just shifted the tax burden the local level in the form of bonds and overrides.   Unfortunately, this type of funding provides very little stability due to voter whim and is not the solution. An example is the Oracle School District override continuation that failed in 2013 by only 62 votes, costing the District $140,000 in funding the next year. Fortunately, the continuation passed in 2014, but numerous have had multiple years of failed override initiatives.

A big part of the problem is political. The Republican Party of Maricopa County recently announced their opposition to all 28 ballot initiatives in the Phoenix Valley, claiming that districts haven’t been fiscally responsible.[ii]  This allegation just isn’t true, as annual Auditor General Audits prove. Our public districts have also worked very hard to become more efficient and according to the AZ Office of the Auditor General 2014 report, administrative costs continue to decline. Yes, costs for plant operations, food service and transportation increased slightly,[iii] but with only two percent of the funding requirement provided for facility renovations and repairs between 2008 and 2012, increased expenses can be no surprise.

Of course, this is about much more than just our public schools. It is about an assault on our communities, our way of life and our very democracy. As Garrison Keillor said: “When you wage war on the public schools, you’re attacking the mortar that holds the community together. You’re not a Conservative, you’re a vandal.” No offense meant to our GOP brethren who support public education.

Arizona’s school children need your support on November 3rd. Six straight years of state cuts to education combined without success in seeking locally approved funding have led four school funding referendums on the ballot in Pinal County this year. Apache Junction is seeking an M&O Override for 15 percent, J.O. Combs Unified is pursuing a bond measure for $40 million, and Florence Unified and Coolidge Unified are seeking a consolidation/boundary change. Each one of these measures is critical to providing their students the opportunities they deserve. Each of these is in fact, critical to moving our communities, our county and our state forward.

Apache Junction has been forced to operate without override funds since 2010 and J.O. Combs has been unable to pass an override continuation for three years resulting in a loss of $2 million. The Florence and Coolidge Unified consolidation/boundary change will decrease the tax rate for CUSD, provide necessary classroom space for FUSD, provide more efficient use of taxpayer monies. Tax payer monies will be saved because FUSD will accept $16 million in CUSD debt bringing three schools and 40 percent of San Tan Valley area, vs. laying out $60 million for a new high school. These ballot measures make sense, are about our children, and make long-term best interest for the voter.

Now it is up to you. Ensure you are registered to vote, get informed and then actually vote. If not for Arizona’s children, then for yourself. Arizona can’t compete if our students can’t compete. Our students can’t compete if their teachers are underpaid, their schools are poorly maintained and their technology is yesterday’s. Today’s students, are tomorrow’s leaders, whether they are ready or not.   Let’s ensure they are ready!

[i] http://www.azcentral.com/story/news/local/arizona/education/2015/10/28/many-arizona-school-bond-override-races-face-polarized-voters/74416714/

[ii] http://www.azcentral.com/story/news/local/arizona/education/2015/10/28/many-arizona-school-bond-override-races-face-polarized-voters/74416714/

[iii] http://www.azauditor.gov/sites/default/files/AZ_School_District_Spending_FY2014_State_Pages.pdf

Taxpayer dollars belong to all of us

It was very interesting to read of the Washington Supreme Court’s recent decision on charter schools. On September 4, 2015, the Court declared the state’s charter school law unconstitutional. As reported in the Washington Post, Wayne Au, an associate professor at the University of Washington Bothell, was a plaintiff in the charter school legal challenge.   At the hear of the ruling Au said, “was the idea that charter schools, as defined by the law, were not actually public schools.” This stems from the provision in Washington’s state constitution that only “common schools” shall receive tax dollars for public education. In Washington State evidently, an appointed board, not an elected one, governs charter schools. The Washington State Supreme court decided the lack of oversight this allowed did not meet the definition of “common schools.”

While reading the article, I found myself thinking of the frenzied march in Arizona, toward the privatization of public education. Arizona has long been a leader in the number of charter schools established and our Legislature has established numerous work-arounds to divert taxpayer dollars into private and for-profit school coffers.

The Post article’s allegation that “ALEC’s influence on Washington State’s charter law is unmistakable”, is no surprise to me. The American Legislative Exchange Council is no friend of public education, the common good, or our democracy. As pointed out by the Post, ALEC is known for promoting a broad privatization agenda, “stand-your-ground gun laws, and anti-democratic voter registration laws.   ALEC’s agenda to privatize public education includes the promotion of charter schools (corporate charters and virtual schools specifically), private school vouchers, anti-union measures, “parent trigger” laws, increasing testing, reducing or eliminating the power of local school boards and limiting the power of public school districts.

Of course, anyone tuned into Arizona education or politics knows that ALEC has also had significant influence in our state. The Goldwater Institute acts, as the ALEC’s Mini-Me in Arizona and AZ Senator Debbie Lesko, as the AZ ALEC chair, has been the organization’s chief water carrier. Half of our state Senators and one-third of our representatives are known members of ALEC and there may be more.  It should be no surprise then that Arizona earns a “B” grade (3rd best) in education policy as the state leads the nation in number of charter school and has a very robust program to divert tax payer dollars to alternatives to traditional public education.

A disturbing similarity between Arizona and Washington State charter operations is that neither is overseen by a locally elected governing board. This fact ensures there is virtually no transparency nor accountability on how our tax dollars are spent therefore, no ability to ascertain the effectiveness of the programs or return on investment in general. This design is not by accident. As Peter Green has pointed out on his Curmudgucation blog, “charter supporters seek to redefine public schools as schools that have public money but without public accountability and regulation.” ALEC likes it this way because this smoothes the path to privatization. It goes like this: 1) drive a market for privatization by selling the story that public education is failing, 2) starve public education of funding to make it increasingly difficult for them to succeed, 3) continuously expand ways to divert taxpayer dollars from public education to private options, 4) sell the idea that public tax dollars for education should follow each child to the school of their choice, and 5) prevent the requirement of transparency and accountability such as is required of community district schools.

That is not the only similarity between the states’ two education systems. Just like Washington State, Arizona’s Legislature continues to withhold funding they owe the school districts. In Arizona, the funding in immediate question is the $300M in inflation funding from the Proposition 301 law. The people voted this issue into law in 2000 and the courts ruled in 2014 that the districts are indeed owed the funding and still, the Legislature refuses to pay up. In 2012, the Washington State Legislature was ordered to fully fund education, but they failed to do so. In August of this year, the WA State Supreme Court ordered fines of $100,000 per day until the Legislature complies. They have yet to do so.

The Washington State Supreme Court said: If a school is not controlled by a public body, then it should not have access to public funds.” We should all agree with this concept and demand full transparency and accountability whenever public funds are involved. Taxpayer dollars don’t belong to any one of us, they belong to all of us. We as the primary stockholder of our government, have the right and responsibility to know how they are spent and what our return on investment is. Anything less is more than suspect, it is un-democratic and un-American.

Ed Feulner and your Heritage Foundation, me thinks thou protesteth too much…

Nothing like some conservative propaganda first thing in the morning to get a liberal’s blood flowing. Yesterday morning, my Google alert on Arizona public education sent me a commentary from “The Daily Signal” which is the multimedia news organization of The Heritage Foundation. I try to be well read, especially on matters of public education, but I also know the source is important. So, I noted this commentary was 1) written by Ed Feulner who for 36 years, served as president of The Heritage Foundation and “transformed the think tank from a small policy shop into America’s powerhouse of conservative ideas”; 2) was originally published in the Washington Times; and 3) The Heritage Foundation (a 501(c)(3) charitable organization, touts itself as “the trusted conservative leader” and probably more telling, has endorsements by Senator Ted Cruz, Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity on its website home page.

Okay, so this is a commentary from a hard-core conservative. That got me thinking about what being a conservative really means. Wikipedia says conservatism is a political and social philosophy that promotes retaining traditional social institutions in the context of culture and civilization. It also says that there is no single set of policies that are universally regarded as conservative, because the meaning of converts depends on what is considered traditional in a given place and time. According to Merriam-Webster.com, conservative describes someone who: believes in the value of established and traditional practices in polities and society and is not liking or accepting of changes or new ideas.

It seems to me, somewhere along the line what it means to be a conservative became perverted. Conservatives today seem to be about exploring new ways to do things (when it provides profit), keeping government small and out of business (unless it is the private business of same-sex couples or a woman’s medical choices), and tearing down traditional social institutions (such as public education.)

Mr. Feulner’s commentary makes the point that children deserve more options than just public schools. What our children (all of America’s children) DESERVE, is well-funded, high quality public schools. Thomas Jefferson said, “Educate and inform the whole mass of the people…they are the only sure reliance for the preservation of our liberty.” Public schools have always been what best served to “educate and inform the whole mass of the people” and even today, in a state that leads the nation in the number of charter schools, a full 83 percent of Arizona’s students attend community public schools. Among the reasons for this is that no matter how much school choice is expanded, choice doesn’t guarantee opportunity or availability and, it is hard for the kids to be the priority when profit is the motive.

I’m on the governing board of a small rural district. Of the 410 students in my district, about 150 students living in our District have opted to exercise their school choice options. The other 410 students that attend our District are either happy with their community school, or they can’t take advantage of the opportunity. It is ironic that those who can’t take advantage of the opportunity are often the same disadvantage students those promoting school choice claim they want to “help.”

Mr. Feulner says that Education Savings Accounts (vouchers) enable families to deposit their children’s state per-pupil” funding in an account that can be used for a variety of education options. Since when did the state per-pupil funding belong to each child? I thought it belonged to all Arizonans collectively. In 2014, the average state and local taxes paid were $5,138. The primary funding source for K-12 education in Arizona is property tax, both at the primary and secondary (where approved) rates. The rest of it comes from the state general fund in the way of equalization funding, where required. The average property tax collection per capita in Arizona was $1,052. The amount deposited in ESA accounts is much more however, than parents pay in “school tax.” The range of funding for ESAs is from $2,000 to $5,500 for non-disabled students, and $2,000 to $30,000 for disabled students. The average ESA funding in 2014-15 was $5,300 per student without special needs and $14,000 when special needs students were factored in. As you can see, it isn’t only the parent’s taxes that provide for the per-pupil funding, the rest of us contributed as well. That’s why I don’t buy the assertion that the funding should follow the child, as if it belongs to them. It doesn’t belong to them or their parents, it belongs to all of us and we deserve transparency and accountability for how it is spent.

In addition to questions as to how my tax dollars are spent, I question the education being offered these students. Yes, unlike when you take your child and educate them with your money (not public tax dollars), I believe I have a legitimate say in what children are taught, when my tax dollars are used to teach them. In community public schools, locally elected school boards provide oversight of District operations and parents and community members are welcome and encouraged to stay tuned into what is taught, how it is taught, and who is teaching it. Locally elected school boards even approve textbooks. This process is not always perfect (such as with the Gilbert School Board recently voting to put abstinence-only avocation stickers in their science textbooks), but at least it is done in the light of day and can be addressed by those in disagreement.

Feulner is incensed that the ALCU is suing Nevada to keep its Education Savings Account law from taking affect. The ALCU says the ESA program “violates the Nevada Constitution’s prohibition against the use of public money for sectarian (religious) purposes.” He makes the point that the ESA funds go from the state to parents, not from the state to religious schools as if this makes all the difference. This is the same logic the Arizona Supreme Court used in legalizing Empowerment Scholarship Accounts (vouchers) in Arizona. Sounds like hair splitting to me.

Then, Feulner cites the example of a legally blind student and his parents used his ESA to provide him a great alternate education and save money for his college as well. Sure there are going to be many examples of how ESA’s serve children, especially those with special needs. I’m not against all use of ESAs, just as I’m not against all charter schools. There are special needs and circumstances these alternatives provide well. But, I don’t buy that ESAs are the best way to educate the majority of our children. I also don’t buy the pretense that this is all about parental choice, saving taxpayer dollars, or improving education. I believe this is about 1) making the education of your child YOUR problem thereby relieving legislators of the responsibility, 2) providing more profit opportunities for private business, 3) hiding conservative education agendas, 4) giving taxpayers less say over how their tax dollars are spent and ultimately, and 5) weakening our democracy.

You might think that tying ESAs to the weakening of our democracy is a bit much. Well, as those who desire to, take advantage of vouchers, they reduce the funding available to our community district schools. As the funding is reduced, more parents will be dissatisfied with the quality of educational opportunity in their public schools and more will leave. Those eventually left in our public schools will be those with no alternative and most likely those of color whom, for the most part, live at the lower end of the socio-economic scale. Our public schools are already experiencing the worst segregation seen since the 1960; it will only get worse.

In addition to the downward spiral of funding school choice forces upon community public schools, those who leave these schools also take with them their parent’s support and involvement. These parents are those who have typically worked for improvement in their community public schools and they are missed when they leave. Local governance (as does our entire democratic process) counts on informed and involved community members. Make no mistake. The war currently being waged on public education is a war on our democracy. As for those who would point out our nation is a republic, not a democracy, I say “get over yourself.” In the United States, we each have a voice and a vote. Assaults on those most precious rights are decidedly “un-American” and “un-patriotic”, and must be met head on.  Oh by the way, did I mention that ESAs (whether they are Education Savings Accounts or Empowerment Scholarship Accounts or vouchers) are one of the primary weapons of the American Legislative Council (ALEC) in their war on public education?  Don’t know what ALEC is?  You should.

Our Brother’s Keeper

I find myself these days, thinking about how America seems so less kind than when I was younger. Am I’m just less naïve now? Or, as Charles Pierce recently wrote in Esquire, is the system really “too full now of opportunities to grind and to bully? We have politicians, most of whom will never have to work another day in their lives, making the argument seriously that there is no role in self-government for the protection and welfare of the political commonwealth as that term applies to the poorest among us. The rising rates of poverty no longer surprise us. The chaos of our lunatic public discourse no longer surprises us. We make policy based on being as tough as we can on the weakest among us, because cruelty is seen to be enough, seen to be the fundamental morality behind what ultimately is merely the law of the jungle. We do all these things, cruelty running through them like a cold river, and we call it our politics”.

I see cruelty at work in the corporate reform movement. Not only are teachers not properly valued for their contribution to society, but the corporate reformers have managed to vilify them as a blockage to improvement. Not only have they spread the message that public schools are failing, but they’ve also managed to push budget cuts and competition for resources intended to make their allegations a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Yes, the national corporate reform of education movement claims public education is failing and the only solution is to privatize our system to let market forces produce better results. What they fail to acknowledge though, is that it is not the schools that are failing, but our social policies. Poverty is the issue, not public education. When we compare apples with apples in the area of developed world education performance, we are very near the top. The problem is that we educate and test all comers, not just the best performing ones as the countries at the top do. We will never get our public education where it needs to be until we address the affects of poverty on public education success.

Open enrollment is not the answer; it only serves to create competition amongst public schools for precious resources. School choice is not the answer; it only shifts the responsibility from the state to the parent. Parents shouldn’t have to make a choice; every public school should be a good school. Vouchers for disadvantaged students to attend private schools aren’t the answer. Very few of those students will have access to take advantage of the opportunity and those that can’t, will be left in schools sucked dry by the privatization movement. The only real solution is to buckle down and address our real issues.

None of this is complicated, but neither is it easy. For all to have equal opportunity, all must start at the same place or, have access to a “bridge” to cross the divide. Building the “bridges” is hard work and will take serious funding. There isn’t a quick fix politicians can claim with sound bites on the evening news. But, it also takes commitment from the voters as well – to hold their representatives accountable, to be willing to provide funding, and to be patience to let the real, good work be done. It also takes the outlook advocated by John Dewey over a century ago: “What the best and wisest parent wants for his child, that must we want for all the children of the community. Anything less is unlovely, and left unchecked, destroys our democracy.”

Survival of the fittest is the law of the jungle, but it shouldn’t be the law of a civilized, democratic republic that considers itself the “city on the hill.” Contrary to what our talking heads spew forth, concern for the common good is not socialistic or communistic. It is patriotic, it is democratic, it is, some might even argue, quite Christian-like. What would Jesus do? I suspect he would be kind and tell us that yes; we are our brother’s keeper.