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.

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#YouPlusOne

It appears the Arizona Legislature finally has a budget for the coming year . The $9.58B package includes Governor Ducey’s $8 million tax cut for businesses (due to double to $16 million in FY 2018), but does not restore the KidsCare health care program for 30,000 low-income children. Arizona is the only state in the nation that does not provide this program for its poorer children, even though it would cost the state and its taxpayers…wait for it…NOTHING! The deal also doesn’t restore the $116 million in cuts made last year to K-12 funding and it doesn’t delay the move to current year funding for our Districts, originally slated to cost them $31 million. What it does, is provide funding to mitigate the cuts: 1) associated with the move to current year funding; 2) approved last year to district-sponsored charter schools (saving these schools $1.1 million); and 3) to smaller charter schools (that would have cost them about $6.5 million.) Finally, it eliminates a change that determines how certain schools qualify for new construction (which would have cost them funding.)

The Arizona Republic reported that “lawmakers heaped praise on House Appropriations Committee Chairman Justin Olson, R-Mesa, for brokering and agreement” that reversed cuts to public schools. Don’t know about you, but I see a recurring theme here and don’t think it is worth any praise. Our Republican-controlled Legislature makes a bunch of cuts to programs important to the majority of Arizonans so they can provide tax breaks to their corporate buddies. When the people get wind of it and complain, they restore some of the cuts and claim they are heroes for their hard work to restore the funding. Here’s an idea…how’s about you just don’t cut these programs in the first place? How’s about you realize the investment in education is the way forward to a brighter future for Arizona? How’s about you show you care more about children than corporations?

Unfortunately, we don’t get the government we need; we get the government we elect. Doug Ducey promised tax cuts every year, he was subsequently elected and is now doing what he promised. That’s the thing with elected officials, they generally do that which what keeps them in office. That’s why unless the voters of Arizona wake up and elect new representatives, we’ll see all these same cuts and more come back next legislative session. This despite the fact that Arizona is:

A 2008 report titled “Preparing for an Arizona of 10 Million People” prepared by ASU’s W.P. Carey School of Business, recognized how critical an investment education is:

“Yet, the acquisition of knowledge and skills is one of the most important factors for attaining economic prosperity in a knowledge-based economy. Without a quality education infrastructure in Arizona, the standard of living of Arizona residents may lag behind. Enrollments rising slightly faster than population growth, pressures resulting in increasing costs such as higher salaries for quality teachers, and catching up from the state’s low rate of investment will add to future costs.”

This report was written eight years ago and is even more salient today. Arizona’s GOP lawmakers act as if public education is a hungry beast that must be killed rather than a real investment in the future of our people and our state. It is abundantly clear that the only counter to this very wrong thinking is the power of the people with the votes they cast. If we want different results, we must take different actions. We can wail and gnash our teeth all we want, but until we elect candidates that are committed to the future of all our people and our state, we will continue to lead in all the wrong areas. How’s about this? In addition to ensuring you vote in November, promise to get one other new voter to cast their ballot for a better Arizona. Then do it. #YouPlusOne

Toto, we ARE in Kansas!

Open revolt in the Kansas GOP is now plaguing Governor Sam Brownback in his attempt to slash personal income taxes. His reasoning for the cuts was that it would encourage business expansion and hiring (sound familiar Arizonans?) But five years in, his plan hasn’t produced the promised results but rather, has the state budget in a crisis so deep that many of the Republicans that originally backed the plan are now jumping ship.

Brownback and the Kansas Legislature’s (where three-fourths of the seats are held by Republicans) plan was to cut top personal income tax (surprise, surprise) by 29 percent and exempt more than 330,000 farmers and business owners from income taxes. The predicted business expansion didn’t happen, and now the state is in trouble. Kansas Senate President Susan Wagle said the Legislature still supports low income taxes, but they’d “prefer to see some real solutions coming from the Governor’s office.” What a concept!

What’s the chances Governor Ducey and Senator Biggs are paying attention to what’s happening in Kansas and…learning the right lesson from it? Uh yeah, that’s what I thought. It is obvious though that they are working from the same playbook in making cuts. Brownback’s most recent cuts have been to universities and public education (sound familiar?) And yes, just like in Arizona, Kansas has siphoned off big money from highway projects (over $750 million in just two years.)

Thus far, Brownback isn’t backing down and blames a slow global economy for his state’s troubles (guess the buck doesn’t stop on his desk.) An economist for the conservative Tax Foundation however, says those benefitting are pocketing the tax savings rather than using it to expand and create jobs. One former ally of Brownback who is now a critic said the continuing budget turmoil has been “just amateurish.”

I don’t know that I would characterize Arizona’s budget issues as amateurish, maybe self-serving instead. I’ve written before about the fallacy of trickle-down economics, there are plenty of examples that show it is a very flawed theory. Why do GOP lawmakers continue to go down that rabbit hole? Could it be that they are considering donors deep pockets more than the big picture for our state and all its citizens?

I’m currently reading the book “The Political Brain” in which author Drew Westen makes the point that the Democrats don’t have, and haven’t had, “a plan.” Think I prefer that to the Republican plan which seems to be to do the same thing over and over and expect different results. At least there’s a chance the Dems will get it right every now and then. The GOP’s plan is just literally the definition of insanity.

The real trick to making America great again

There is a path to getting America back on track, but it has nothing to do with whom we elect to be our next president. The singular most significant action each of us can take this year is to demand the members of Congress put the good of the country ahead of partisan gamesmanship and special interests. And, if they don’t, vote them out of office!

Here’s the deal. Experts agree the best way to get out economy moving again is for the Federal government to invest big in repairing the country’s infrastructure. It is up to the government to do it because of what Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz calls “a deficiency of aggregate demand, brought on by a combination of growing inequality and a mindless wave of fiscal austerity.” Basically, no matter how much they spend, the wealthy just can’t spend enough to adequately stimulate the economy. At the same time, as of the second quarter of 2015, corporate America had more cash on-hand that the economies of Belgium and Sweden combined ($1.43 trillion for S&P companies excluding those in the financial sector.) Tech companies are especially cash rich with Microsoft having $96 billion in cash, Google $70 billion and Cisco $60 billion. Although this hoarding means companies are positioned to weather tough economic times, it hurts the economy (especially since most of this money is held in off-shore accounts to reduce tax liability.)

We are all aware that our country’s infrastructure is in bad shape. Are roads are pothole laden and our bridges are structurally unsound.   The most recent Infrastructure Report Card from the Americans Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) gives our Nation’s infrastructure a D+, and states that we need to invest $3.6 trillion by 2020 just to get it up to standard. The number one solution toward beginning to raise the grade according to ASCE is to “increase leadership in infrastructure renewal” and the organization maintains, “America’s infrastructure needs bold leadership and a compelling vision at the national level.

Such leadership and vision was provided by President Franklin Roosevelt in his establishment of the Works Progress Administration (WPA.) He designed the public works program “to put more men back to work, both directly on the public works themselves, and indirectly in the industries supplying the materials for these public works,” because “no country, however rich, can afford the waste of its human resources.” 2014 marked the 80th anniversary of the WPA, a Federal government program that provided 8 million Americans jobs during the Great Depression. According to the Smithsonian, “the WPA built, improved or renovated 39,370 schools; 2,550 hospitals; 1,074 libraries; 2,700 firehouses; 15,100 auditoriums, gymnasiums and recreational buildings; 1,050 airports, 500 water treatment plants, 12,800 playgrounds, 900 swimming pools; 1,200 skating rinks, plus many other structures. It also dug more than 1,000 tunnels; surfaced 639,000 miles of roads and installed nearly 1 million miles of sidewalks, curbs and street lighting, in addition to tens of thousands of viaducts, culverts and roadside draining ditches.” The San Antonio River Walk, the development of the park which paved the way for St. Louis’ Gateway Arch, and Camp David in Maryland are also just a few amazing products of the WPA.

Unfortunately, attempts to start even mildly ambitious efforts today have gone nowhere. Ray LaHood, who says, “our infrastructure is on life support”, was the secretary of transportation during Obama’s first administration. He is now co-chairman of Building America’s Future, a bipartisan coalition of current and former elected officials urgently pushing for more spending on infrastructure. In an interview on 60 Minutes, LaHood talked about the federal Highway Trust Fund, which gets its revenue from the federal gas tax of 18 cents per gallon which will be broke in 2016 unless something is done. The last time we raised the gas tax (how we funded the interstate system) was in 1993 said LaHood and spending on infrastructure has fallen to its lowest level since 1947. This reality he said, has caused us to fall from having the best infrastructure in the world, to being ranked 16th according to the World Economic Forum.

Big business recognizes the dire need to find solutions and has been vocal about sounding the alarm. In 2015, the conservative U.S. Chamber of Commerce voiced strong support for raising the gas tax for the first time in 20 years. It isn’t just roads and bridges that they are worried about. Our shortage of airport runways and outmoded air traffic control systems have made US air travel the most congested in the world, only two of our 14 major ports will soon be able to handle the biggest cargo ships, and although there are 14,000 miles of high speed rail around the world, none of it is in the US. ASCE says “by failing to invest in our vital transportation systems by 2020, businesses would pay an extra $430 billion in transportation costs, household incomes would fall by $7,000 and U.S. exports would fall by $28 billion.”

Former Pennsylvania Governor Rendell says, “The cost of inaction is greater than the cost of doing something. It’s become this literally crazed idea that spending money is bad. Federal governments and state governments have to spend money on certain things that are important.” In fact, just to maintain infrastructure as it is, an expert panel at the University of Virginia determined we need to spend $134 to $194 billion more each year through 2035. Total cost estimates to modernize top $2.3 trillion plus over the next decade, just for our transportation, energy and water infrastructure needs. Unfortunately, our infrastructure investment, currently at 2.4 percent of GDP, is only half of what it was 50 years ago.

Continuing to kick this can down the road only means there’s going to be hell to pay. There are over 240,000 water main breaks each year and rail congestion caused Midwest farmers to lose over $500 million in 2013 and 2014 in rail delays. The average ages of bridges and roads exceed 45 years and the average elementary school is 45 years old. “Our substandard roads, for example, cost urban motorists $700 to $1,000 per driver in repairs, wear and tear, and fuel. This doesn’t count the lost time involved in lower speeds and detours.”

And, with the U.S. Treasury’s ability to borrow at essentially zero (low interest rates offset by inflation), this is the perfect time to make the necessary investments in our infrastructure. Even if we only invested $18 billion per year, according to the Economic Policy Institute, it would produce a $29 billion increase in GDP and a net addition of 216,000 jobs within the first year. Of course, our real needs in terms of infrastructure investment are over $1 trillion, so the jobs eventually created could easily top one million.

So why won’t Congress get off the dime on infrastructure spending? There are a number of reasons, but I believe it basically boils down to the exact opposite of “it would be amazing how much we could get done if no one cares who gets the credit” and, the desire to starve the beast that is the Federal government. So, once again, ideology and partisan gridlock is keeping our Nation, and the rest of the world by association, from moving forward. Want to do your part to drive the required action? Use the only power many of us have left. VOTE!

Stay tuned for a subsequent discussion about Arizona’s infrastructure story.

AZ again at bottom in “50 States Report”

The Network for Public Education (NPE), a public education advocacy group headed by the Nation’s preeminent public education expert and advocate, Diane Ravitch, released their “A 50 State Report Card” today. As the name indicates, the report card grades the 50 states and the District of Columbia on six criteria: No High Stakes Testing, Professionalization of Teaching, Resistance to Privatization, School Finance, Spend Taxpayer Resources Wisely, and Chance for Success. Letter grades from “A” to “F” were then averaged to create the overall GPA and letter grade for each state.

I was proud to note the study was conducted with the help of Francesca Lopez, Ph.D. and her student research team at the University of Arizona. They assisted in the identification of 29 measurable factors that guided the ratings of the six criteria and created a 0-4 scale for ratings and then evaluated each state on the 29 factors. The graders were tough, with only 5 states earning an “A” grade and no state’s overall grade exceeding a “C.”

Not surprising to anyone who keeps up with Arizona public education, the state ranked 48th, but I assume only because Arizona begins with an “A.”   Arizona’s grade of 0.67 earned it an overall “F”, numerically tying it with Idaho and Texas (in 49th and 50th place), just above Mississippi.

The first criterion evaluated was “High Stakes Testing” which according to NPE has caused “the narrowing of the curriculum and excessive classroom time devoted to preparing for tests.” The organization also points to peer-reviewed studies highlighting “the potentially negative impacts of this practice, including the dismissal of quality teachers and the undermining of morale.” Five states received an “A” grade for their rejection of the use of exit exams to determine high school graduation, the use of test results to determine student promotion, and educator evaluation systems that include test results. Arizona received a grade of “C” in this area.

The second criterion evaluated was “Professionalization of Teaching”, because “many of the current popular American reforms give lip service to the professionalization of teaching while displaying an appalling lack of understanding of what professionalization truly means.” NPE points to research that “shows that experience matters and leads to better student outcomes, including increased learning, better attendance and fewer disciplinary referrals.” High grades were given to states that exhibited a commitment to teaching as a profession. Unfortunately, no states were awarded an “A” in this area and only two states, Iowa and New York received a “B.” Arizona received a grade of “F” which goes a long way towards explaining our state’s critical shortage of teachers.

In the area of “Resistance to Privatization”, seven states received an “A” grade. The evaluation of this criterion was centered on school choice policies that “move control of schools from democratic, local control to private control.” Market-based approaches (vouchers, charters and parent trigger laws) reports NPE, “take the governance of schools out of the hands of democratically elected officials and the local communities they serve, and place it in the hands of a few individuals – often elites or corporations with no connections to the community.” Such policies drain resources from neighborhood schools and don’t overall, produce better results in general. NPE writes “they also serve to undermine the public’s willingness to invest in the education of all children while creating wider inequities across the system as a whole.” Since NPE believes in strengthening community schools, they evaluated states on whether they have laws, policies and practices that support and protect their neighborhood schools. As an early leader in school choice, Arizona more than earned the “F” grade it was awarded.

Since the level of poverty in a school is the single best predictor of average student performance, “School Finance” was another criterion evaluated. NPE looked at whether states adequately and fairly funded their schools noting that “resources like smaller class sizes and more support staff lead to significantly higher achievement and graduation rates – especially for poor and minority students.” Only one state, New Jersey, received an “A” grade in this area. This is not surprising since in the past decade, the gap in spending between rich and poor districts has grown by 44%. NPE calls for states to sufficiently fund public education and implement progressive financial polices that “provide the most funds to districts that demonstrate the greatest need.” The factors used to determine a state’s grade were: per-pupil expenditure adjusted for poverty, wages and district size/density; resources spent on education in relation to the state’s ability to pay based on gross product; and increased proportion of aid given to high-poverty districts than to low-poverty. Once again, Arizona received an “F” grade in this area.

In evaluating the criterion of “Spend Taxpayer Resources Wisely”, NPE looked at how states’ education dollars are spent. As research shows the significant benefit of early childhood education, high quality pre-school and all-day Kindergarten were a significant factor in the evaluation as were lower class sizes and the rejection of virtual schools.   In this area, Arizona received a “D” grade, with no states receiving an “A” and only Montana receiving a “B” grade.

“Chance for Success” was the final criterion evaluated. It looked at state policies directly affecting the income, living conditions and support received by students and their parents/guardians. NPE says that residential segregation is largely responsible for school segregation. However, the organization says, “state policies that promote school choice typically exacerbate segregation and charters often isolate students by race and class.” The states that had fewer students living in or near poverty, and have the most integrated schools received the highest grades. No states received an “A” grade, but 10 received a grade of “B.” In this final area, Arizona received a grade of “D.”

It can be no coincidence that Arizona continues to finish last, or close to last, in the vast majority of every report on state public education performance. In fact, the only report I’ve found it to be rated better than at the bottom is from the American Legislative Exchange Council’s (ALEC) Report Card on American Education. Not surprising from this highly conservative “bill mill” for the Koch Brothers and the GOP, which works to develop model legislation favorable to its corporate members and provide it to legislators for implementation in their states. It speaks volumes about ALEC’s focus when even though Arizona ranked 47th on the 2013 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), they gave the state an overall B- on education policy. That’s because ALEC values states’ support of charter schools, embrace of home schools and private school choice programs, teacher quality (as defined by the National Council on Teacher Quality) and digital learning. For the most part, the positions ALEC takes on education policy are the exact opposite of NPE’s positions. ALEC pushes school choice and the privatization of public education and in Arizona, the Goldwater Institute does it’s part to support ALEC in it’s efforts to kill public education. What’s in it for ALEC, the Goldwater Institute, their legislators, donors and corporate members? As is often the case, it’s all about money in the form of campaign donations for legislators, profits for those in the for-profit charter and private school business, increased tax breaks for donors and welfare for corporate members. You might ask how privatizing education can lead to increased corporate welfare when such privatization will undoubtedly lead to increased costs? (Think privatization of prisons.) Easy, when the state’s cost for “public” education is passed on to those taking advantage of the privatized option via vouchers and charters. It is well known that both often cost more than the state provided funding covers and parents must pick up the tab.

I attended the first NPE Conference held in 2013 in Austin, Texas where I was privileged to meet and hear Diane and numerous other leaders in the effort to save public education. I, like them, believe (as Diane writes in the NPE report) “educating all children is a civil responsibility, not a consumer good.” And although the phrase “civil rights issue of our time” is way overused, I deeply believe it rings true when, (as Diane writes) it refers to “sustaining our system of free, equitable and democratically-controlled public schools that serve all children.”  I’ve quoted him before, but John Dewey’s words bear repeating until we, as a nation “get it”: “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.” Yes, we should act on public education as our very democracy is at stake, because it is!

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Tale of Two States

As a kid, one of my favorite authors was Charles Dickens. In his 1859 novel, A Tale of Two Cities, he “depicts the plight of the French peasantry demoralized by the French aristocracy in the years leading up to the revolution.” Hmm, peasantry demoralized by the aristocracy…that reminds me of something…wait, I’ll think of it. Maybe, it is the fact that the 62 richest people in the world now own more than the poorest half? In fact, their wealth has increased 44% since 2010 while the bottom half’s has dropped by 41%. And in the U.S., the wealth inequity is now worse than at any time since the Great Depression. The Walton family alone owns more wealth than 42% of American families combined and CEO-to-worker pay-ratio is 354-to-1. Americans haven’t taken to the streets with pitchforks (the “Occupy” movement aside) to demand “off with their heads” yet because for the most part, they still believe in the American Dream. That is if one works hard enough, they can move up the economic ladder. The truth is more like comedian George Carlin joked: “the reason they call it the American Dream is because you have to be asleep to believe it.”

Although reference to the concept of the American Dream was made as early as the 1600s by those who came to America from England for the chance of a better life, it was most likely “codified” in the Declaration of Independence, which proclaims that “all men are created equal” with the right to “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Part of this right and critical to achieving the dream are the opportunities to receive a good education and work that provides at least a living wage. But, the game is now stacked. Stacked in favor of the wealthy, stacked in favor of corporations, stacked against the middle class who is increasingly squeezed, and stacked against children who don’t come from a family of means.

Of course, everyone has a different idea about how to “unstack” the deck. In fact, as I mentioned earlier, some don’t even see the deck as unfairly stacked. I am firmly in the “”deck is stacked” camp and believe if we don’t start to make progress at turning the tide, pitchforks may be in our future. In Arizona, Governor Ducey thinks the way to move our economy forward is vouchers and charter schools, no individual state income tax and very little tax on the corporate side, and oh yeah, the “sharing economy.” Really, a “sharing economy”? Could it be that Ducey and I agree on something? I mean, I think it would be great if we would all share equally in our economy. After all, when Arizona’s top 1% pays only 4.6% of their income in state and local taxes while the bottom 20% pays 12.5%, we could really use some sharing. What you say? He was referring to “sharing” type businesses like Über and Lyft where the services are cheap and convenient, but the workers have no rights or benefits? Oh, okay, that sounds more like current Arizona leadership.

Just for kicks, let’s look at another state’s version of the way forward. Interestingly, Massachusetts has almost exactly the same population as Arizona, 6.8 million. Both states also have the Tea Party in common although with Massachusetts, it is mostly in their past (as in Boston in 1772) and in Arizona it is very much in the present.

Politically, Arizona is GOP led with no statewide Democratic leaders and both the state senate and house under GOP control. Massachusetts conversely, is almost entirely led by Democrats with the exception of their governor who is a Republican. Given the political parties’ priorities, it should be no surprise then that MAZ vs MAassachusetts ranks much better in education and child well being than Arizona. What may surprise some though, is that while Arizona’s economy ranks 25th in the Nation, Massachusetts’ comes in at #6.  

Why might you ask? Well, I have a few theories and as you can imagine, the state’s prioritization of public education is at the top of my list. Take Career Technical Education (CTE) for example. It produces significantly higher graduation rates than traditional district high school programs, often provides living wage jobs to graduates, and helps provide skilled workers for the employers who so badly need them. It is, by all accounts, a win-win-win. Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker obviously gets this as indicated by his recent proposal to add an additional $83.5M for vocational education.   Included in this is a $75 million five-year capital program to finance grants for school equipment and expansion an additional $8.5 million for grants for “school-to-career connecting activities.

At the same time, we have Governor Ducey objecting to restoring the $29 million in cuts to CTE made in last year’s budget. Instead of embracing the AZ Legislature’s veto-proof coalition to restore the funding, Ducey wants to only restore one-third of the funding for only three years and, attach a variety of strings to the money including a requirement for business matching of the funds. This despite a plea for repeal of the cuts signed by 32 business and education leaders as to the importance of CTE.

Maybe Governor Baker just had better advice than Governor Ducey. Tim Murray, a regional chamber of commerce president who toured 64 votech and agriculture education programs when he was the Lieutenant Governor of Massachusetts, said “the single biggest need” of the business community “regardless of the size of the company, regardless of the sector” is a “pipeline” of available workers. Surveys of 352 employers and 475 parents recently conducted by The Dukakis Center in Massachusetts revealed that 90% of employers see a need to increase CTE graduates, while 96% of parents had a favorable opinion of the CTE programs they children attend.K-12 az ma

But wait, there’s more. I believe one of the best determinants of the value someone or an entity places on something is what they are willing to pay for it. Massachusetts obviously values education. I know there are those of you ready to say: “there are plenty of examples of more money not producing better results.” Yes, that is true. But in almost every case, I’d be willing to bet where money doesn’t help, there are significant social issues outside of the schools that keep students from learning and achieving. It is obvious, by Massachusetts’ #1 ranking in education achievement, that their money is well spent.

Of course, as mentioned earlier, we know there are factors outside of the school that determine how children do in school. Massachusetts has lower unemployment, their residents earn higher salaries and they are less likely due to lose their homes to foreclosure. Their residents are also better educated, safer, and healthier. They also have fewer disabilities, likely from the better health care they experience. It should be no surprise that Arizona also has four times the adults in state prison as does Massachusetts, spending hundreds of millions more in this area. Yet, Arizonans are no safer with over double the murder rate.

Some claim that Massachusetts is more successful in some areas because society is more homogenous with 74.3% of its residents being white as opposed to only 56.2% in Arizona. There may be some truth to that since unfortunately in the U.S. today, socioeconomic status often has to do with the color of one’s skin. But, Arizona is doing little to address this issue even though our state’s share of white K-12 students dropped below 50% in 2004 and Latin@s K-12 students are on the cusp of breaking 50%. One example of this blind eye toward the problem is new HB 2401 sponsored by Vince Leach-R SaddleBrooke. The bill, titled “Schools; Desegregation Funding; Phase-Down” phases out funding for desegregation expenses, a cut of about $211 million dollars. These funds will hit some of our most vulnerable children, about 22,500 English Language Learners (ELL) and leave high performing magnet schools, such as Phoenix Union’s Metro Tech High School, without their primary source of funding. It is in two words, extremely shortsighted. Learning English is critical to these student’s future success and by extension, that of our state. They will either be contributing members of our society or drains on it. This is a clear example of “you can pay me now, or you can pay me later.”

So let’s recap. Massachusetts performs better than Arizona in education, child welfare, health and safety, the economy and many other areas. Yes, taxes are a little higher ($1,706 per person in 2013), but look what you get for your money! I’m well aware of course that this line of reasoning will fall on many a deaf ear that think the only good government is a starved one. It can’t be said enough though that taxes are not bad or good, they are the price of living in a well-functioning society with a decent quality of life. There are many things such as education for all and safety that are best provided by the government. It our duty (the voters) to determine our priorities for our hard earned tax dollars and then elect candidates that will ensure those priorities are provided for and secured. That is how we keep ourselves free.