Arizona’s Voucher Battle Continues

The Arizona Republic reported today that Save Our Schools Arizona will now hire paid circulators to “boost the chances that voters get the last word on the legislatively approved expansion” of Empowerment Scholarship Accounts (vouchers.) According to The Republic, leaders of SOSAZ had intended to gather the required 75,321 valid signatures with only volunteers by the August 8, 2017 deadline. Now though, the organization finds itself with unexpected money and has decided to hire paid circulators for the last push to get at least 120,000 petition signatures for sufficient cushion.

As is often the case in Arizona though, GOP leaders in the Legislature are already working to undermine the effort. Senator Debbie Lesko, a Republican from Peoria has been the prime proponent of the effort to expand vouchers and is coincidentally (or maybe not), the Arizona Chair for the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC.) As the likelihood of getting the repeal referendum on the ballot increases, she is planning ways to end run the effort. One of those is for the Legislature to repeal SB 1431 thereby eliminating the need for a public vote. Then Lesko and her GOP pals would just pass another expansion in the next legislative session. This move would not only require opponent vouchers to start a new referendum drive from scratch, but would also prevent the voucher vote from drawing more Democrats to the polls in November 2018.

Whether the petitions are being circulated by paid circulators or volunteers, they must contain sufficient valid signatures to qualify the referendum for the ballot. If you are an Arizona voter who hasn’t yet signed one of the petitions, please go to http://sosarizona.org/events or https://www.facebook.com/SaveOurSchoolsArizona/ to locate signing opportunities. If there is no opportunity in your area, you can email SOSAZ at SaveOurSchoolsAZ@gmail.com to make other arrangements.

There is no doubt that Lesko and her buddies will do what they can to continue to thwart the will of Arizonans, as has been their modus operandi in the past. For now though, “we the people” must do what we can, to ensure our government stays “of the people.” When it comes to slowing down the attack on our public schools, repealing the full expansion of vouchers is where we need to focus our efforts now. The 95% of Arizona’s students that attend our public schools are counting on us and the future of our state depends on our engagement. Please do your part and sign a petition this week, or for sure, by August 8th!

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The Bucks Stop Here

The latest talking point about education funding coming out of GOP leadership at the AZ Legislature is that “teacher raises are the responsibility of school districts, not the state.” Senate Education Committee Chair Sylvia Allen, recently said this as week as that districts “did not use Prop 123 monies to give teacher raises” and then that “some did and some didn’t.” And, she made the point that districts also used the funds to give administrators raises.

Well, technically, she is not wrong. School district governing boards are responsible for approving the budgets for their districts, or rather, how those budgets are sliced and diced. Some districts used more of the Prop 123 monies than others to give teachers raises. And, yes, some administrators were also given raises, but keep in mind that these “administrators” aren’t necessarily just district superintendents and principals. The administration line item also includes business managers, clerical and other staff who perform accounting, payroll, purchasing, warehousing, printing, human resources and administrative technology services. And, even if some districts gave raises to superintendents and principals so what? Truth is, the state has a shortage of these personnel as well.

Toward the end of 2016, the Arizona School Boards Association asked 83 districts across the state how they used their Prop 123 funds for FY2016 and how they budgeted for them to be used for FY2017. The survey showed that a majority of the school districts spent the 2016 funds on teacher or staff raises. For 2017, 75 percent was budgeted toward compensation increases. Some districts were forced to also use the funds to restore cut classes and programs, purchase classroom resources and technology, replace out-of-date textbooks, make overdue facility repairs, and replace old buses.

Let’s face it, Prop 123 provided very little “new” funding to school districts, it really was just 70% of that which was already owed. It did not provide sufficient monies to make up for increasing general operating costs and severe funding cuts made by the state – $4.56 billion since 2009. These cuts included $2 billion to capital funding (including technology, textbooks, desks, building repair and maintenance and school bus purchases) and $1.5 billion for full-day kindergarten (which many districts still provide out-of-hide because it is critical to student achievement.) The Legislature also currently funds just 20% of what the law requires them to for building of new schools and major school repairs via the School Facilities Board. That’s why public education plaintiffs have filed another lawsuit (the first suit over this same issue was in 1994) to force compliance with the state’s obligation to “adequately fund the capital needs of public schools under a 1998 court ruling.” In fact, Arizona is one of only a handful of states still cutting today, even in a steadily improving economy. Because of these cuts, district governing boards have been faced with very tough decisions about which holes to plug first and as the ones closest to the ground, they are the right ones to make it.

But, it is totally disingenuous of Senator Allen to intimate that school boards “chose” to not give their teachers sufficient raises. First of all, the vast majority of districts did give teachers significant raises (my very small district for example, gave 7%.) Secondly, forced to deal with the highest cuts in per pupil funding in the nation, Arizona school districts are not even remotely close to the “self-actualization” level on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, but just barely at the safety and security level. District leaders are faced with daily decisions about how best to just keep students safe in light of deteriorating facilities and aged buses.

Allen and her legislative cronies can deflect all they want, but the state constitution is clear, “The LEGISLATURE shall enact such laws as shall provide for the establishment and maintenance of a general and uniform public school system…” STATE lawmakers, not school district governing boards, are responsible for ensuring adequate funding for the “maintenance of a general and uniform public school system.” District governing boards may have responsibility for slicing up the pizza pie they are served, but just like a personal pan pizza won’t serve a family of four, state education funding that has been cut 23.3% since 2009, just doesn’t provide enough to go around. And, with the 0.6% state sales tax funding from Prop 301 set to expire in 2021 (not to mention the Prop 123 monies disappearing in 2025), it is only going to get worse. If only Senator Allen would remember and act on the saying: politicians think of the next election, leaders think of the next generation. And just in case she didn’t quite understand the nuance, President Truman’s famous saying appropriate here is “the buck stops here”, not “the bucks stop here.”

Vouchers: Some Common Sense Questions

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last few years, you know corporate reformers are anxious to implement vouchers as a way to expand school choice. The secret sauce they say, is that the dollars follow the student because parents know best about what is best for their child’s education.

Just for a few moments though, I’d like to ask you to please forget whether or not you believe school choice and vouchers are the answer to “Make American Education Great Again.” Forget all the hype and promises, just ask yourself which of these scenarios makes more sense?

  1. Which is more accountable and transparent to parents, the taxpayers and voters and therefore less likely to experience less fraud, waste and abuse? #1 Hint to the answer. #2 Hint to the answer. #3 Hint to the answer.
    a. District schools that must report every purchase, competitively bid out purchases over a certain amount, have all purchases scrutinized by a locally elected governing board, undergo an extensive state-run audit each year, and are publicly reported on for performance efficiency and student achievement by the AZ Auditor General’s office each year?
    b. A voucher system which puts the onus on recipient parents to submit proof of expenditures to an understaffed AZ Department of Education office responsible for monitoring the $37 million ($99.7 million since 2011) in voucher expenditures for 4,102 different students?
  2. Which is more likely to be held accountable for student achievement and thereby taxpayer return on investment? Hint to the answer.
    a. A district school where students are given a standardized state test with scores rolled up to the state and made public, where data is reported (following federal guidelines for data protection) by subgroups to determine achievement gaps, and where high school graduation and college attendance rates are reported?
    b. A private school that does not provide any public visibility to test results and where the state (per law) has no authority to request or require academic progress from voucher recipients or the school?
  3. Which is more likely regarding the portability (with no impact) of per student funding when students leave their district schools?
    a. When a student leaves a district school with their education funding in their backpack, they take all associated expenses with them?
    b. That there are fixed costs left behind (approx. 19%) that the school is required to still fund such as teachers and other staff that cannot be eliminated just because a couple of students left a classroom, or a bus route that can’t be done away with just because one student is no longer taking that bus, or a building air conditioner that can’t be turned off because the occupancy in the classrooms is down by three students. That what the “drain” causes instead, is larger class sizes, less support services, less variety in the curricula, etc.?
  4. Which is more likely to serve disadvantaged students — the ones most in need of our help? Hint to the answer.
    a. A district school, where the vast majority of educational expenses are covered by the taxpayer, where students are transported from their home to school, where free and reduced lunches are provided and which must accept all comers?
    b. A $5,200 voucher to a private or parochial school which has total control over which students they accept, does not provide transportation and according to PrivateSchoolReview.com costs an average of $6,000 for elementary schools and $18,000 for high schools in 2016-17?

I hope you came to the same conclusions I did some time ago, that when it comes to transparency, accountability and equity, district schools outperform private schools. I’d also like to make the unequivocal claim that district schools also (across the board) produce more achievement than private schools, but as you can see, they don’t report their results so I don’t know that for sure.

And yet, the Arizona Legislature continues to push expansion of vouchers in our state. A push for full expansion last year by Debbie Lesko (Peoria-R) was killed, largely due to its potentially negative impact on the passage of Proposition 123, but she has revived the effort this year in the form of SB 1431. This bill, which would fully expand vouchers to ALL 1.1 million Arizona students by the 2020-2021 school year has been assigned to the Senate Education and Rules Committees and is scheduled to be heard by the Senate Ed Cmte on 2/9/17. Senator Steve Smith (Maricopa-R) has sponsored an associated bill, SB 1281, that requires the AZ DOE to contract with an outside firm (I’m sure that’s much better…just like private prisons) to help administer the ESA program, and makes various changes to the program. The bill stipulates that AZ DOE may request (not MUST request) confirmation toward graduation from high school or completion of a GED. This is obviously an attempt to defuse the argument there is insufficient accountability in the AZ voucher programAZEDNEWS also reports that Lesko supports adding a requirement to her bill to track achievement of ESA students, but that requirement would be only to report test results to parents, not the AZ DOE.

No matter how much sugar the commercializers try to coat vouchers with, they are still just a vehicle for siphoning tax dollars away from our district community schools to private and parochial (religious) schools with no accountability or transparency. For every person who says “parents have the right to use their child’s education tax dollars as they see fit”, I say, “and taxpayers have the right to know the return on investment for their tax dollars.” The former right in no way “trumps” the latter.

We must stop this terrible legislation. If you are signed up for the Legislature’s Request to Speak system, please click here to log in today and leave a comment for the Senate Education Committee about why you oppose SB 1431 and SB 1281. If you aren’t signed up, please leave me a comment to this post and I will get you signed up and ensure you are trained to use it. The system allows you to comment on pending legislation from your home computer or mobile device, you don’t have to go to the Legislature and speak in person unless you want to.

If you don’t want to use RTS, please call or email the members of the Senate Education Committee (listed below) and your district legislators (click here to find out who they are) to let them know how you feel. There is strength in numbers and the people do have the power, we just have to exercise it!

Senate Education Committee Members

Sylvia Allen, Chairman – 602.926.5409

David Bradley – 602.926.5262

Kate Brophy McGee – 602.926.4486

Catherine Miranda – 602.926.4893

Steve Montenegro, Vice-Chairman – 602.926.5955

Steve Smith – 602.926.5685

Kimberly Yee – 602.926.3024

 

School Choice: Get informed, then join the fight!

This week is National School Choice Week and not surprisingly, there is a fair amount of confusion about just what school choice is. Maybe because even in Arizona, (the state the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) rates as #1 for its school choice policies), over 80% of Arizona students actually “choose” their community district schools and therefore don’t pay much attention to the school choice debate. But, that percentage may be at risk since corporate profiteers are well-funded and persistent and continue to purchase influence with lawmakers who chip away at district resources and ease the way for the commercialization of our community schools.

This commercialization has been fed by a lucrative $700 billion education market and the Conservative mantra that all human endeavors placed in the hands of private enterprise succeed, whereas those run by the government do poorly. President Reagan famously quipped after all, “Government is not the solution to our problems; government is the problem.”

I believe though, there are some services that government is best suited for. These include those that provide for our security, safety such as our military, fire and police services, and  yes, those whose mission is to ensure the education of ALL children. Can private entities provide these services? Yes, but from my 22 year experience in the military, they are likely to cost more (contract creep), less likely to serve all equitably, and more likely to be concerned about making a profit than focused on meeting the needs of those they are hired to served.

One thing the private sector does very well though, is spin and marketing and when it comes to privatizing education, they have spin in spades. But facts still matter, and the facts are that: 1) charter schools produce no better results (across the board) than district schools, 2) we don’t know how private schools are performing because they don’t have to tell us (even when they accept taxpayer dollars), and 3) high-quality district schools and widespread, aggressive school choice cannot co-exist; the pie is only so big.

That latter point means that those of us who believe district schools are critical to ensuring every student has equal opportunity, must understand what we are up against. In my advocacy work, I often see we have much work to do in that regard. So, I provide the list of definitions below to further the conversation. If we are to successfully battle the powerful forces attacking our district schools, we must first ensure we are equipped with the right intelligence to strategically bring our limited resources to bear.

  1. Accountability. Conservatives love to talk about accountability for taxpayer dollars until it seems, we are talking about commercial schools (charters and privates.) Arizona statute requires district schools to be fully accountable for the tax dollars that fund them and the academic results they achieve. Those same requirements do not apply to any other type of school in the state and in some cases, state law prohibits such accountability.
  2. Achievement Gap. There are real differences in student’s ability to achieve that have very little to do with the district schools they attend. This term usually refers to disparities in achievement levels of student groups based on race, ethnicity or family income. We already know that poverty and the education attainment of one’s parents are the greatest predictors of a student’s success. We also know that the more challenges a student experiences outside the classroom, the more challenging it is to educate them in the classroom. Commercial schools also know this and that’s why they generally accept fewer of these “at-risk” students.
  3. Administrative Expenses. This term makes some people think about highly paid superintendents and principals. The expenses involved though, include administrative staff and support services (such as school nurse, librarian, speech therapists, etc.); superintendent’s office and governing board; and the business office and central support services. Governor Ducey has focused much attention on the need to decrease district administrative expenses thereby increasing dollars in the classroom even though Arizona has among the lowest administrative expense percentages in the nation, at one-third less than the national average. Additionally, although some see district schools as beaurocratic, charter schools in Arizona actually have double the administrative expenses of district schools.
  4. At-Risk Students. Students or groups that have a higher likelihood of academic failure—broad categories often include those who are: not fluent in English; experience high poverty, homeless, etc.
  5. Average Daily Membership (ADM). The average number of students registered or enrolled (as opposed to in attendance) in a school during the time it is in session. This number is especially important on the 100th day of public schools because it determines the amount of funding the schools receive from the state. Sometimes, charters wait until after this date to attrit students who then return to the district schools. When this happens, the charter keeps the funding associated with that student and the district must educate him/her for the rest of the year without any associated funding.
  6. Blended Learning Programs. These combine online classes and classes taught in a school building. All types of schools (including districts) are using these types of programs along with the “flipped classroom” concept where students watch on-line instruction at home and then do hands-on work at school.
  7. Certification. Process by which a state or approved board authorizes a person to teach in public schools; also called licensure. Important because the state does not require (as they do with districts) for commercial schools to hire certified teachers.
  8. Charter Penetration. The higher the charter penetration, the higher the adverse impact on district finances, as districts are confronted with plummeting student enrollment and with a rising population of students in need of special education services.
  9. Charter Schools. Privately managed, taxpayer-funded “public” schools that contract with the state to provide tuition free educational services and are exempted from some rules applicable to district schools (such as the requirement to hire certified teachers.) They were initially designed to serve as incubators of teacher innovation for exportation to all public schools. Over time, they have become more autocratic, (empowering management versus teachers) and more segregated (by race and income.)
  10. Commercial Schools. A term I use to refer to for-profit charter and private schools in response to the corporate reformers insistence on referring to district schools as “government schools” and, to accurately characterize (in most cases) their profit motive.
  11. Community Schools. District schools located in the communities their students live. Previously referred to as “traditional schools,” these schools are increasingly innovative while continuing to serve as the hubs of their communities.
  12. Corporate Reformers. A term used to describe those who are more seemingly more interested in the profit to be made off the nation’s $700 billion K–12 education market than they are with actually improving the academic and “whole-child” achievement of all our students.
  13. District Schools. These schools were originally known as “public schools” until charters came along, then “traditional public schools.” They are the only schools to be governed by locally elected boards responsive to voters and constituents. They are also the only schools that are fully accountable and transparent to taxpayers for the public funding they receive. They were created as the instrument through which the legislature carries out its constitutional mandate to provide for a system of K–12 public education.
  14. District Charter Schools. For a time, some districts opened charters. In 2015, however, the Arizona Legislature attached a provision to the 2015 state budget prohibiting school districts from sponsoring charters and dissolving those created after June 30, 2013.
  15. Education Management Organizations (EMOs). Usually for-profit firms that provide “whole-school operation” services to public school agencies. EMOs contract with school districts and charter-granting bodies to use tax money and venture capital to operate public schools. The growth and prevalence of EMOs is controversial as they are seen as substantially contributing to the privatization of public education and the associated profiteering from tax dollars supporting that public education.
  16. English Language Learners (ELL). Also known as Limited English Proficient (LEP) students, this term refers to students who are reasonably fluent in another language but who have not yet achieved comparable mastery in reading, writing, understanding, or speaking English. Arizona statute defines “English learner” or “limited English proficient student” as “a child who does not speak English or whose native language is not English, and who is not currently able to perform ordinary classroom work in English.” Per statute, “children who are English learners shall be educated through sheltered English immersion during a temporary transition period not normally intended to exceed one year.”
  17. Empowerment Scholarship Accounts (ESAs). The Arizona Legislature’s answer to vouchers. Currently there are some eight general categories of students that qualify for vouchers ranging from those with disabilities to those living on tribal lands; and as of fall 2016, 0.28% of Arizona’s students were attending private or parochial schools via a voucher. For the second year in a row, legislation is underway (pushed by ALEC’s Arizona Chair Sen. Debbie Lesko) to fully expand eligibility for the vouchers, worth a basic value is $5,200 (special needs students get more), to ALL students in Arizona. The legislation was killed last year to prevent it from impacting Prop. 123’s passage, but it may get legs this year. If passed, it will enable the accellerated drainage of district resources.
  18. Fixed Costs. These are expenses that a district has regardless of the number of students in a classroom. They include administrative and teacher salaries, utilities, facility maintenance, and technology and transportation costs. When students leave district schools to attend charter schools or attend private schools via a voucher, they leave behind approx. 19% of the costs associated with their attendance at that district school. That is important because the corporate profiters would have you believe that the funding should be completely portable because there is no negative impact on district schools.
  19. Free and Reduced Lunch. This term describes the program by which students are provided discounted or free meals while at school based upon their families meeting federal guidelines for poverty. In 2016, 58% of Arizona district school children qualified for free and reduced lunch which is at least 12% more than charter schools. It is generally seen as a more accurate way to describe the poverty challenges present in schools than referring to the Census poverty rate. For example, in my school district, we have a free and reduced lunch percentage of 62%, but because of the active adult communities that surround the district, the Census poverty rate is 14%.
  20. For-Profit Charters. There are both non-profit and for-profit charter schools but in practice, there isn’t much difference. Unlike what many may believe, a non-profit designation does not mean that entity may not make a profit. Rather, it means it uses its surplus revenues to further achieve its purpose or mission, rather than distributing its surplus income to the organization’s shareholders (or equivalents) as profit or dividends.
  21. Government Schools. A perjorative term used by corporate reformers and some school choice advocates to refer to district schools. (In the vein of “government is the problem.”)
  22. Homeschooling. The education of children within the home versus in a school. Although it is difficult to find information on how many children are being homeschooled in Arizona, one source showed it as 22,000 in 2011, or approximately 2% of total students. There are no formal requirements for how students are homeschooled, to do so, all parents must do is send a letter of such intent to their county schools superintendent. Arizona statute does not require homeschooled students to be tested unless that is, they wish to enroll in a district school. Then, they are required to be tested to determine in which grade they should be placed.
  23. Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). A federal funding statute requiring schools that receive monies under this law to provide a free, appropriate public education to all eligible children with disabilities. A specially designed plan for student services called an I.E.P. (Individual Education Plan) must be developed to meet the needs of each eligible student. As can be imagined, students with disabilities cost more to educate and rarely are all the required dollars provided. Commercial schools, as a result, manage to enroll a much smaller percentage of these students.
  24. On-Line Schools. Also known as “virtual” schools, these schools have proliferated with the privatization movement. Online schools provide virtual classes a student takes from home. These schools are notorious for low achievement results, high dropouts and fraudulent operations.
  25. Parochial Schools. A private primary or secondary school affiliated with a religious organization, whose curriculum includes general religious education in addition to secular subjects, such as science, mathematics and language arts. In Arizona, taxpayer dollars are siphoned to these schools through both vouchers and tax credits.
  26. Private Schools. A school supported by a private organization or private individuals rather than by the government. The Merriam-Webster dictionary says a private school is “a school that does not get money from the government and that is run by a group of private individuals.” The Cambridge English Dictionary says a private school is: “a school that does not receive financial support from the government.” I cite these definitions to point out that both of them say private schools are schools that “do not get funding from the government.” In Arizona, taxpayer dollars are siphoned to these schools through both vouchers and tax credits.
  27. Privatization. Giving everything public over to market “forces,” i.e., market rule.
  28. Right to Work. A term that describes the law that prohibits union security agreements, or agreements between employers and labor unions, that govern the extent to which an established union can require employees’ membership, payment of union dues, or fees as a condition of employment, either before or after hiring. I included this term because unlike what people think, Arizona is a right to work state and does not collective bargaining in place for teachers.
  29. School Choice. Billed as the right of parents to select the right school for their child. In reality, when it comes to charter and private schools the choice actually belongs to the schools. Charters, although mandated by law to accept all, manage to be selective of who they accept or, weed out those who aren’t exccelling. Private schools have total control over who they accept.
  30. School Tax Credits. Arizona allows five separate types of tax credits taxpayers may take. There are three individual, one for public schools and two for private schools. It should be noted that the amount that an individual can claim for private schools is five (5) times that which can be claimed for public schools. There are also two types of corporate tax credits that may be taken through school tuition organizations (that award funding to private and parochial schools.) The first one is for corporate contributions for low income students and the other one is for displaced/disadvantaged students.
  31. School Tuition Organization. A School Tuition Organization (STO) is one that is tax exempt under Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code and allocates at least 90% of its annual revenue to tuition awards, and makes its tuition awards available to students from more than one qualified private or parochial school. In 2008, three-fourths of Arizona companies paid only the minimum $50 in corporate taxes and with a 20% increase in cap allowed every year, the program is causing significant impact to the general fund.
  32. Teacher Shortage. You may have heard about Arizona’s severe teacher shortage. A recent survey of Arizona school districts revealed that a full 53% of teacher positions are either vacant or filled by uncertified teachers. It isn’t so much that we don’t have enough certified, qualified teachers in Arizona, but just that they’ve turned to other types of employment to enable them to support their families.
  33. Transparency. A term related to accountability that describes how open a school is to the scrutiny of parents, taxpayers and voters. Only district schools, governed by locally-elected boards, are fully transparent.

Hopefully these definitions have clarified for you, some of the issues surrounding school choice. If you don’t agree with any of my definitions or, you have additional ones I should add to the list, I’d love to hear from you. If you care about truly public (district) education, the time to show it is now, more than ever. Now, before what Betsy DeVos espouses for educations shifts the Overton Window, (a term coined by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a conservative think tank she supports), on what is acceptable to the public. Now, before the bedrock of our democracy, that which once built the greatest middle class in the world, is auctioned off brick by brick and student by student. Now, before it is too late.

Ooops, there it is!

We knew it was coming and awaited it with dread. And, drumroll please…crash goes the cymbal! Yes, here it is, this year’s attempt to exponentially expand Arzona’s voucher (Empowerment Scholarship Accounts, or ESA) program. Of course, the American Legislative Exchange Council’s (ALEC) chief water carrier for Arizona, Senator Debbie Lesko, R-Peoria, is the one proposing the expansion. Lesko claims the expansion of ESAs will “not lead to a mass exodus of children from public schools.” I, for the most part, agree with that statement since Arizona parents have made it clear district schools are their choice with 80% of students attending district schools and another almost 15% in charter schools.

But, to infer a massive voucher expansion will have no negative impact on district schools is disingenuous at best. No matter how slowly students may attrit from district schools, each student’s departure leaves behind a 19% budget shortfall. That’s because there are numerous fixed costs (teacher salaries, facility maintenance, utilities, buses, etc.) that cannot be reduced student by student. The siphoning of dollars from our district schools has been steadily increasing and just exacerbates an already inadequately resourced system.

This isn’t the first year the Legislature has attempted to expand the voucher program. In fact, they’ve been successful in expansions every year since the ESA program was launched in 2011. This isn’t even the first time a full expansion has been attempted, with a very similar proposal going down in flames last year due to public outcry and a perceived conflict with securing voter approval of Prop. 123. This year though, Lesko has sweetened the deal by requiring the testing of students attending private schools on vouchers. She says she “doesn’t personally think this requirement is necessary,” but obviously is trying to defuse the argument from voucher opponents that there is no accountability or return on investment for vouchered students.

She is right about one thing, district education advocates want more accountability and transparency where taxpayer dollars are spent on the myriad of school choice options. As the only schools governed by locally elected school boards and with annual efficiency reports published by the Office of the AZ Attorney General, district schools are the only schools fully accountable and transparent to the taxpayers. Pro-choice advocates tout that parents should have the right to choose where they send their child to school at government expense. As a taxpayer, I maintain I have the right to know the return on investment of my tax dollars. Their right should not trump mine.

Senator Lesko also infers that vouchers will save money because the average voucher amount for students without special needs is $5,200, yet it costs $9,529 to educate Arizona’s average student in public schools. This is misleading because she is comparing apples and oranges and she knows it. The $9,529 figure she quotes is a total of all funding sources, federal, state and local (bonds and overrides) while the $5,200 is only state funding. So, if a student transfers from a district where state funding is offset by locally supported funding (due to the equalization formula), that student’s voucher will actually cost the state general fund more than if that student had remained in their district school. Lesko also notes that vouchers and school choice are a national trend as evidenced by President Trump’s nomination of Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education.

Oh no, she did NOT go there! Trying to sell vouchers as mainstream by pointing to Trump’s nomination of DeVos is akin to denying global warming by citing colder temperatures in parts of the country. After all, DeVos’ success with promoting school choice in Michigan has been dismal. In the two-plus decades she has championed this crusade (those knowledgeable about DeVos will understand my choice of that word), she has purchased legislative influence to expand charters and greatly reduce accountability. She has also worked hard to introduce vouchers in the state, but thus far, the voters have prevailed to keep those “wolves” at bay. And the improvements she has promised haven’t materialized with scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) for 4th graders declining from 28th in reading and 27th in math in 2003, to 41st in reading and 42nd in math in 2015.

According to the Arizona Capitol Times, the American Federation for Children (AFC) is pushing vouchers nationwide. I’m only going to give you three guesses as to who the chair of AFC is, and the first two don’t count. Yep, none other than Betsy DeVos. In addition to pushing for school choice and vouchers around the country, AFC has spent big bucks on rewarding those legislators working to expand privatization and punishing those who try to stand up for the 90% of students attending our nation’s districts schools. As reported by Richard Gilman on his website BringingUpArizona.com, AFC is a 501(c)4 free to pour dark money into political campaigns. And pour they have. Gilman writes, “Since its inception in 2010, the organization has poured nearly three-quarters of a million dollars into Arizona elections in a largely successful effort to sway the makeup of the Legislature.” The state’s “demonstrated appetite for school choice” is what AFC cites for its focus on Arizona. Of course, common causes make “strong” bedfellows and Gilman tracks AFC’s interest in Arizona back to Clint Bolick (once Vice President of Litigation at the Goldwater Institute and now AZ Supreme Court Justice.) Bolick served as the first president and general counsel for the Alliance for School Choice (AFC’s predecessor.)

But, I digress. The point is that no matter what snake oil the corporate reformers try to sell us, there is an incredibly well-funded, high-powered effort to have two school systems in Arizona. One is the commercial system of charters, private, parochial, virtual and homeschools that serve the whiter and wealthier students, and the other is the district schools, starved for resources, that will have the poorer, browner, and more challenged students to educate. According to recent polls, this is not what the vast majority of Arizonan voters want. But, until Arizonans clearly draw the nexus between voting for Legislators who don’t support our public district schools (most of them with an “R” after their name), and the fact that our district schools are way under resourced, nothing will change. If we want something different, we have to do something different. To continue doing the same thing and expecting different results, is as you know…the definition of insanity.

Money matters, maybe it’s just public education that doesn’t?

Maureen Downey, on her blog getschooled.blog.myajc.com writes, “I have never understood the disagreement over whether money matters in education.” After all she points out, “top private schools – the ones that cater to the children of highly educated parents – charge tuition two to three times higher than the average per pupil spending at the local public schools. And these private schools serve students with every possible learning advantage, kids nurtured to excel from the first sonogram. The elite schools charge $17,000 to $25,000 a year in tuition and hit parents up for donations on a regular basis.”

I get where she is coming from, but also think she is taking literary license in writing she doesn’t understand the disagreement. I suspect just like me, she does understand, because it really isn’t that complicated. The “disagreement” is stoked by a myriad of those who would stand to gain from continued underfunding of public education. These include state lawmakers, who would rather divert public education funding to other special interests; commercial profiteers who look to get their piece of the nation’s $700 billion K–12 education market, and the wealthy who want to keep their piece of the pie as big as possible and not have it eaten up by more taxes to pay for “those children’s” education.

One of the most common refrains I hear from the “money doesn’t matter” crowd is “just look at how much they spend in Washington D.C. yet their schools continue to underperform.” Of course, those of us “in the know”, know that where there is concentrated poverty, there are a myriad of challenges presented that are very difficult for schools alone to overcome. We also know that how the money is spent is a key factor in how well it works. No, money is not the only answer, but there is plenty of proof that it does matter.

As reported by Rutgers professor Bruce Baker in an Albert Shanker Institute report, “On average, aggregate measures of per-pupil spending are positively associated with improved or higher student outcomes.” He goes on to write, “Clearly, there are other factors that may moderate the influence of funding on student outcomes, such as how that money is spent. In other words, money must be spent wisely to yield benefits. But, on balance, in direct tests of the relationship between financial resources and student outcomes, money matters.” Plain and simple, the things that cost money “(smaller class sizes, additional supports, early childhood programs and more competitive teacher compensation) are positively associated with student outcomes.” A study by “Jackson, Johnson & Persico in 2015, evaluated long-term outcomes of children exposed to court-ordered school finance reforms, finding that “a 10 percent increase in per-pupil spending each year for all twelve years of public school leads to 0.27 more completed years of education, 7.25 percent higher wages, and a 3.67 percentage-point reduction in the annual incidence of adult poverty; effects are much more pronounced for children from low-income families.” Likewise, a study of Kansas school finance reforms in the 1990s found that “a 20 percent increase in spending was associated with a 5 percent increase in the likelihood of students going on to postsecondary education. “There is” writes schoolfinance101wordpress.com, “a sizeable and growing body of rigorous empirical literature validates that state school finance reforms can have substantive, positive effects on student outcomes, including reductions in outcome disparities or increases in overall outcome levels.”

Of course, I’ve no doubt the “money doesn’t matter” crowd can dig up some “facts” of their own. But, I ask you to forget all the facts (after all, they don’t matter anyway, right?) and just think about what makes common sense?
– Is the critical shortage of teachers in Arizona classrooms good for student achievement? (Average AZ teacher salaries are the 48th lowest in the nation.)
– Can students learn as well when the ratio of students to teachers is 23:1 versus having 7 less children in the classroom? (Nationwide, the average number of students per teacher was 16:1 in the 2013–14 school year.)
– Can students concentrate in a classroom that is too hot or too cold, or where water leaks into it when it rains, or where lighting is insufficient? (From 2008 to 2012, districts received only two cents of every dollar they should have received for facility maintenance and renewal and a pending new lawsuit is evidence the trend isn’t improving.)school-funding-011817
So, we know that money can make a difference, and wealthy parents that pay big bucks for their children to attend elite private schools know that it matters. Small class sizes, highly qualified teachers, beautiful facilities and campuses all make a difference and that’s why parents with significant means are willing to pay for those things.

Arizonans are willing to pay more for education as well, as indicated by recent polling which shows 70% think we need to plus-up education spending and with 61% willing to pay higher taxes to do it. “Read my lips” Governor Ducey though, is determined not only to not raise taxes, but cut them every year he is in office while also continuing his steadfast committment to corporate welfare in the form of tax cuts. The $114 million he has proposed for the FY 2018 budget isn’t nothing (and it is new money as opposed to that which already belongs to education), but it also isn’t nearly enough. As David Safier points out in TucsonWeekly.com, it moves us all the way from 49th in per student spending to well…49th. And, this is just the Governor’s proposal, the Legislature is the entity actually charged with passing the budget. In addition, it isn’t just that our districts are currently underfunded, but that the funding continues to be siphoned away by commercial schools’ choice. The impacts of a “leaking bucket” with an insufficient stream of water to keep ahead of the losses are really starting to stack up. Money matters alright, maybe its just public education that doesn’t (at least to our Legislature.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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