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.