Disadvantaged students 3+ years behind more affluent peers

A recently-released study by Harvard and Stanford universities shows the “achievement gap is as big today as it was for children born in 1954, with disadvantaged students three to four years behind their more affluent peers.” There are of course, multiple reasons offered for this stagnation, but the Boston Globe reports that researchers Eric Hanushek and Paul Peterson suggest “a decline in teacher quality through the years may be offsetting gains made in education reforms such as head start school desegregation, and federal aid to districts with low-income students.” Peterson said, “There is every reason to believe that the quality of the teaching profession will have a particularly adverse effect on low income…disadvantaged students, because those are the students who are unfortunately encountering the most inexperienced teachers.”

Hanushek and Peterson (H&P) write in EducationNext, that, “while some might see income inequality as the result of adult life choices about matters such as how hard to work or where to live, educational inequality seems unfair, because the economic status of a child is outside the child’s own control. It is an inequality of opportunity that runs counter to the American dream.” This is my point when I hear someone say something like, “it isn’t the school’s job to feed kids breakfast…their parents should be feeding them at home.” Uh, well yes, their parents should be feeding them. But…what do we do about those children that come to school hungry because their parents don’t properly care for them or, those who don’t even have parents in the picture?

H&P agree there is an achievement gap affected by socioeconomic status, writing that,

“A variety of mechanisms link socioeconomic status to achievement. For instance, children growing up in poorer households and communities are at greater risk of traumatic stress and other medical problems that can affect brain development. College-educated mothers speak more frequently to their infants, use a larger vocabulary with their toddlers, and are more likely to use parenting practices that respect the autonomy of a growing child. Higher-income families have access to more-enriching schooling environments, and they generally do not face the high rates of violent crime experienced by those in extremely impoverished communities. All these and other childhood or adolescent experiences contribute to profound socioeconomic disparities in academic achievement.”

But, they disagree with past research is that the gap is widening to correspond with ever-increasing wealth inequality. They posit that negative and positive factors in family demographics such the increased age of the mother at birth, higher number of single-parent households at the lower end of the socioeconomic spectrum, higher overall education attainment levels, and the number of siblings, could result in a stagnant impact of the family contribution to the achievement gap.

Likewise, opposing forces in the educational system could be helping maintain the status quo there. Positive moves such as Head Start, Brown v. Board of Education and the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Disabilities Education Act, a quadrupling in overall funding between 1960 and 2015, and accountability mandates disproportionately directed toward schools serving low-income students, may have all been largely countered by a “decline in the quality of the teaching force.”

Critics of H&P’s findings are pushing back. Sean Reardon, a Stanford professor of poverty and inequality in education, says growing income inequality is linked to an expanding achievement gap, and says the H&P report “paints an oversimplified picture of the issue”. Likewise, Richard Rothstein, author and fellow at the Economic Policy Institute, says H&P’s report showed results from desegregation, indicating that reforms do work. He also chided H&P for not owning up to their past support of the failed No Child Left Behind law and their previous criticism of people making the very same points they are making now, regarding the ties of socioeconomic status on achievement.

When answering why the achievement gap hasn’t closed, Peterson says,

“the simple answer is that nothing has changed out there that is relevant”.

And, what he and Hanushek believe is relevant is improving teacher quality, especially for disadvantaged students, and focusing on improving high school achievement (where any gains made are lost) is key.

Arizona is on the right track with its Arizona Teachers Academy, but until the pipeline is flowing at an adequate rate to compensate for the 25% of teachers eligible to retire, and those who just choose to do something that either pays better or is less frustrating, it is an uphill battle. Salaries that are still well below the U.S. median, and a lack of adequate autonomy in the classroom and respect for the critical work they do, aren’t helping. Quality teachers are the most significant in-school factor to improve student achievement. Doesn’t it then, stand to reason that educating, hiring, and retaining them, should be our collective focus?

The right to know how tax dollars are spent

The just released AZ Auditor General’s Office report on Arizona School District Spending – Fiscal Year 2018 states that,

“In fiscal year 2018, Arizona districts spent 54% of available operating dollars on instruction—the second consecutive increase in the instructional spending percentage in 14 years.”

It also stated that,

“Arizona school districts spent about $3,500 less per pupil than the national average and allocated their resources differently, spending a lower percentage of resources on instruction and administration and a greater percentage on all other operational areas.”

Six key takeaways from an article about the report in the AZ Daily Star are:
1. Even with recent increases to teacher pay, Arizona’s teacher salaries remain over $11,000 below the national average. According to Lindsey Perry, the AZ Auditor General, part of the lower salary may be due to an AZ average teacher experience of 11 years compared to 13.7 for nation.
2. After adjusting for inflation, total per pupil spending is $177 less now than in 2004 and $861 below that of 2008.
3. Arizona spends $8,300 per student with 54% of that being in the classroom, compared with a national average of $11,800 and 60.9% in the classroom.
4. The lower amount Arizona spends in the classroom isn’t due to high administration costs which are only 10.4% of total dollars versus a national average of 11.2%. Rather it can be attributed in part, to higher energy costs due to extreme temperatures, more money spent on food services, higher transportation costs to serve rural and remote areas and higher class sizes.
6. Student support cost is high due to the large percentage of students living in poverty or those with special needs.

Also important to note when discussing classroom support expenditures, is that Arizona lawmakers and educators disagree with the AZ Auditor General’s exclusion of instruction and student support when calculating classroom support dollars. In 2015 in fact, the governor, legislators and educators agreed to a change in state law that required, (beginning with the FY 2016 budget) to include reading and math intervention specialists, media specialists, librarians, counselors, social workers, nurses, psychologists and seed, occupational and physical therapists in the classroom support line item. They understood that these specialists directly contribute to improved academic outcomes for students and should be included in the classroom support totals.

The Auditor General report goes on to state that,

“Although factors outside a district’s control—such as district size, type, and location—can affect its efficiency, some districts operate efficiently and have lower costs despite these factors, while others do not. What the report does not discuss, and is what has never been included, is how charter and private schools perform with the taxpayer dollars they receive.”

Yes, at least charter schools do get audited (not by the state, but an auditor of their choice), but it is a compliance audit, not one to determine efficiency of operations. And, it is the State Board for Charter Schools rather than the AZ Auditor General who is responsible for audit and compliance oversight, so the results of audits are not reported by the latter which makes it difficult to compare them with those of district schools. We do know however, that administration costs in charter schools have typically been double that of district schools. So much for charter schools being models of efficiency.

What we are in total darkness about, is the efficiency of private and parochial school tax dollar spending (via corporate and individual tax credits and vouchers) which in 2017 was about $200M and grows exponentially every year. Funny how those who rail about inefficiencies at public district schools, seem to never be as concerned about tax dollars spent by alternative options. Fortunately, this tide has been turning lately, given all the charter school scandals in the news. As for what’s going on in private schools, that’s anyone’s guess.

Here’s the bottom line. WHEREVER public tax dollars are spent, the public has a right to know the efficiency and effectiveness of that spending. If educational entities accept our money, they should be forced to accept our oversight. It is that simple.

corruption and greed

Greed Fueling Arizona’s 48th Ranking for Anti-Corruption

We currently have many crises in America, but one that affects our ability to deal with them all, is the crisis of confidence in our public institutions. Some might argue this lack of confidence is fueled by those seeking power and profit via privatization of said institutions. Whether manufactured or organically grown, the lack of accountability and transparency among public officials is no doubt contributing to the crisis.

In 2015, PublicIntegrity.org ranked the Arizona Legislature 22nd in the nation for state government accountability and transparency. And although the scores are not directly relatable, a 2018 report by the anti-corruption Coalition for Integrity, ranking Arizona 48th in the nation, leads me to believe we are not headed in the right direction. The Coalition’s scorecard is called the “States With Anti-Corruption Measures for Public officials” or “S.W.A.M.P. Index”. It “analyzes the laws of the 50 States and District of Columbia regarding the establishment and scope of ethics agencies, the powers of those agencies, acceptance and disclosure of gifts by public officials, transparency of funding independent expenditures and client disclosure by legislators.” This is important said the Coalition’s CEO Shruti Shah, because

“There is a strong link between an ethics regime and trust in government—and state laws are the first line of defense against corruption.”

Unfortunately, Arizona state laws are lax when it comes to school choice, once again earning the state a #1 ranking for a favorable privatization environment by the conservative bill mill American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). According to its website, the Report Card on American Education is

“part of its mission to promote limited government, free markets and federalism.”

Note that accountability, transparency and ethical governance, are not mentioned. ALEC exists after all, to support legislation favorable to the corporations that finance their work and influence. Instead, the ALEC report card discusses private school choice, purchasing power, flexibility, and freedom. Hey, I like freedom as much as the next gal and served 22 years in the military to help preserve it. But as the saying goes, “freedom isn’t free” and it isn’t maintained by just the ultimate price that some have paid, but other “costs” such as rules, laws, responsibilities and accountability without which, we would have anarchy.

The “A” in Arizona doesn’t yet stand for anarchy, but there are those lawmakers who evidently don’t see a problem working around a few ethical conflicts of interest to benefit themselves at our expense. At least the Arizona Constitution prohibits lawmakers from employment by state, county or city governments, with the exception of serving as school board members, teachers or instructors in the public school system. Where lawmakers act ethically, this exception can help ensure we have those with educational experience helping shape educational policy. Where that is not the case however, unethical actors interested in self-enrichment, can take advantage of a system that doesn’t hold them accountable.

Take for example, Senator Yarborough who termed out in 2018. For many years now, he has run a highly profitable Student Tuition Organization (STO), while sponsoring the majority of legislation expanding the diversion of state income tax liability to STOs. Likewise, According to the AZ Republic, Representative Eddie Farnsworth (now President Pro Tempore of the Senate) profited greatly on the sell of his charter school business (the one built with taxpayer funds) to a nonprofit company after voting for legislation favorable to the non-profit’s board members. In addition to the $13.2M from the sale, he will earn $478K on a loan he made to the school, another $80K in rent on his building that serves as the school’s corporate headquarters, and a consulting fee. And of course, there are numerous GOP lawmakers who have pushed the expansion of vouchers session after session, without sufficient accountability, despite numerous instances of fraudulent expenditures by parents. At the very least, many of them benefited from campaign contributions for their trouble, from Betsy DeVos’ American Federation for Children and other pro-privatization forces.

And now, the Arizona Republic recently reports that Arizona Speaker of the House, Rusty Bowers,

“was paid more than twice the going rate ($216.62 per day versus $90) for substitute teachers in the East Valley Institute of Technology (EVIT)”.

Interestingly, Bowers was EVIT’s director of external affairs (basically a lobbyist) from July 2011 to June 2015 and was paid $62K to $64K per year for this part-time work (double what a legislator makes incidentally.) In conducting an investigation of allegations related to operational and legal compliance concerning the East Valley Institute of Technology“ lawyer Susan Segal found that,

”Bowers had no class roster and didn’t have proper certification to teach his JTED classes.“ She also found that Bowers took it upon himself to scratch out the part of his contract that required certification, and wrote in ”permanent certification of substitute teacher.“

But, as reported by the Capitol Times, the district governing board never approved that change, and Segal noted that, ”there is no such thing as a permanent substitute certification. In another instance, on top of this sentence in his contract:

“If the Legislature fails to fund fully or partially, for any reason, the amounts appropriated for the salary and benefits categories of the District budget, the Board shall reduce pro-rata the total amount of compensation due under this Contract”;

he wrote (exhibiting great hubris in my opinion):

“who gets to decide whether or not the legislature appropriates enough?”

Maybe he thinks it is the AZ Speaker of the House?

Of course, that’s mere conjecture on my part. What is not, is the fact that Bowers has failed to allow even a modicum of increased legislator accountability to move forward this legislative session. Remember former Representative Paul Mosely driving close to 100 mph in a 55 zone, (his seventh time being pulled over for excessive speeding) and then bragging about his immunity to the police officer? The incident prompted Governor Ducey to call for repeal of legislative immunity and Representative T.J. Shope to sponsor HCR 2008 to do just that. Unfortunately Speaker Bowers did not assign it to be heard in any committee, so it is basically DOA at this point. Maybe he figures passing the bill would be a slippery slope toward more ethical governance?

As long as the foxes are in charge of the hen-house at the state Legislature and we don’t hold them accountable for the carnage they wreak, the unethical behavior will continue. After all, I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve had people ask me how in the hell did Senator Yarborough continue to get away with creating and voting for legislation that personally profited him? My answer is that there was no consequence for his actions. After all, he wasn’t violating any laws or existing ethics standards, and he continued to get reelected. From his perspective, why should he do anything differently?

There is a reason greed is one of the seven deadly sins within Christian teachings. Mahatma Gandhi said,

“Earth provides enough to satisfy every man’s needs, but not every man’s greed.”

We should be able to count on our government to ensure a fair shake for all of us. But, when those governing write and enforce the rules to give themselves a leg up, we need to do our job and give them the boot out. The voters of LD5 did the right thing in voting Mosely out of office in 2018. We need to all do the right thing by demanding ethics standards for our elected representatives at every level and then holding them accountable for not only illegal, but also unethical behavior. Government can work, but it takes ALL of us doing our part.

Mark Finchem, the master of condescension

As one of LD11 ‘s Representative Mark Finchem’s constituents, I’m thinking he largely penned today’s shared op-ed in the AZ Daily Star titled “Bills see to improve oversight of education vouchers”, and asked Senator Sylvia Allen (AZ Senate Ed Cmte Chair) to give it some credibility by lending her name to it. His attack on the Save Our Schools Arizona folks as “lobbyists” is soooooo “him”. Give me a break. They are grassroots advocates led by a group of moms who were sick and tired of being ignored by school privatization zealots like Finchem. Their movement caught fire over the last couple of years because it was obvious they actually were/are “in this to help our children”.

Contrary to what Finchem would have you believe, they and other public education advocates don’t argue for a lack of choices for parents. In fact, public education advocates and education professionals work hard to ensure our district schools offer an increasingly wide variety of programming to appeal to our diverse student population. This has been one of the good impacts of open enrollment and charter schools which have been providing choice since 1994.

Finchem’s claim that “100 percent of current [Empowerment Scholarship Accounts, or vouchers] ESA students have unique challenges” is purposefully misleading. Education professionals understand that every child has unique challenges and the ideal way to educate them would be to ensure an education program individualized to meet each of their specific needs. Unfortunately, Arizona’s public school funding doesn’t allow that sort of personalized attention as it is still $600 million short of even 2008 levels. Compounding the problem are the 1,693 teacher vacancies and 3,908 individuals not meeting standard teacher requirements as of December 12, 2018. This adds up to a total of 75% of teacher positions vacant or filled by less than fully qualified people, contributing to the highest class sizes in the nation and likely helped push 913 to abandon or resign their positions within the first half of the school year. When quality teachers have proven to be the #1 factor to in-school success, this is not a winning strategy to improving outcomes.

Those requiring the most personal attention, our special needs students, have had access to vouchers since the ESA began in 2011 and made up 58 percent of students on vouchers in 2017. Yet, our district schools still educate the vast majority of these students even though the state’s formula funding for such was $79 million less than what it cost in 2017 to provide the services required under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. This shortfall requires districts to fund the special ed programs (mandated by state and federal law), from non-special education programs (i.e. mainstream students). And while special education enrollment remains steady at 11.5 percent, the severity of disabilities (more expensive to administer to), have been increasing.

Of course, Finchem is “all about” those students “who have been bullied or assaulted and need ESAs to find a healthier environment in which to learn”. Again, open enrollment and charter schools already provide that option. And maybe, just maybe, if Finchem really wants to help students who have been bullied, he should focus on decreasing class sizes, providing more music and art education, and working to increase the number of counselors at Arizona’s schools? After all, there is nowhere to go but up in this area given our 903:1 ratio which puts us in “first” (worst) place for the number of students per counselor. (The national average was 482:1 in 2018 and the industry recommended ratio 250:1.)

As for his HB2022 providing increased transparency and accountability because it turns over financial administration of ESAs to a private firm, I call total BS. Just look at private schools and private prisons and the amount of transparency they afford the public. The best way to ensure transparency and accountability is to keep public services in the public domain and hold elected officials responsible for ensuring such.

Wait a minute. Maybe I’m on to something. After all, when ESAs were first implemented, Arizona lawmakers were told that the auditing requirements were so weak they were “almost a sham”, but the warnings went unheeded. Not only did the Legislature expand the program almost every year, but “resources to scrutinize the expenditures – made using state-provided debit cards – never kept pace. Yes, some improvements have been made, but an AZ Auditor General audit released in October 2018 found that ”Arizona parents have made fraudulent purchases and misspent more than $700,000 in public money allocated by the state’s school-voucher style program, and state officials have recouped almost none of that money.” Could it be that these lawmakers just don’t want to be held accountable?

Far be it from me to point out that Finchem was first elected in 2014 and is now serving his third term in the Legislature. Why is he only now taking an interest in making the ESA program transparent and accountable? I’d hate to think it has anything to do with the fact that our new Superintendent of Public Instruction is a Democrat who is committed to finally tackling the problem. Upon taking office after all, Superintendent Hoffman immediately launched an audit of the Department of Ed and has now established a bi-partisan task force to look at ESA accountability.

If Finchem really wanted to show our kids how to work together,” he should be working to properly fund ADE’s oversight of the ESA program. Even the former Superintendent of Public Instruction, Diane Douglas (Republican), said “the misspending of the voucher money is the result of decisions by the Republican-controlled Legislature to deny her department money needed to properly administer the program.” Douglas claimed lawmakers resisted properly funding oversight because they wanted a private entity to oversee it.

“If you’re not willing to put the resources into the oversight, then it doesn’t happen appropriately,” Douglas told the Arizona Republic.

Likewise, Republican Senator Bob Worsley said,

“My guess is just that the (Republican) caucus – my caucus – has been, probably, overly enthusiastic about ESAs, and vouchers in general, and therefore anything that would…make it more difficult, it would not be a high priority for them.” He went on to say that it is “neither fiscally sound nor ethical for lawmakers to inadequately fund oversight of the program.”

But, this is exactly what they’ve done. “Under the law, 4 percent of the program’s funding is supposed to go to the department to administer and oversee the program.” In 2018, the Arizona Department of Education (ADE) only received about 2 percent or $1.2 million. Douglas said the full 4 percent was needed to properly oversee the program, but the Legislature had not authorized the department to spend $5.7 million sitting in a fund allocated for program oversight. Let that sink in. Finchem is up in arms about the need to introduce more transparency and accountability into the ESA program, but is part of the GOP-led legislature that hasn’t allowed oversight funds to be spent.

Most galling to me of any of his positions in the op-ed though is Finchem’s admonishment that,

“it’s time for adults to start acting like adults and show our kids how to work together, even if it means working with people with which you may not always agree.”

This also is “him being him” as condescension is a tool Finchem has mastered. I guess when he showed total disdain for teachers (to their faces), during the #RedforEd walkout (and at every opportunity since), he was/is demonstrating how to work with others? I’m not buying it and neither should you. He is a blight on southern Arizona and I hope all those who care about public education, (regardless of where you live), work very, very hard to deny his reelection in 2020.

Wealth Redistributed

I was recently in a public forum on education when a school board member asked me whether my call to address inequities in our schools was a call for the “redistribution of wealth”. I told him local control dictates that our Governing Boards, representing the communities in which they live, are best positioned to decide how to allocate district resources for the maximum benefit of all their students.  I hoped, I said, they would do that.

His question though, caused me to think about this term, and why it seems to be a lightning rod for conservatives. Social scientist researcher Brené Brown believes it is because of the “scarcity” worldview held by Republicans/conservatives. “The opposite of scarcity is not abundance” she writes, “It’s enough.” Basically, “they believe that the more people they exclude from “having”, the more is available to them.” And, in this binary way of thinking, the world is very black and white (pun sort of intended), e.g., if you aren’t a success, you’re a failure, and should be excluded. Of course, this sort of mindset is a gold mine for those who fear-monger to garner support for their exclusionary agendas. “We’ve got to stop the illegal hoards from coming across the border” the narrative goes, or “they’ll be stealing our jobs and elections.”

I offer that the redistribution of wealth can also flow the other way as with the            privatization of our public schools. Those who already “have” are redistributing the “wealth” of those who “have not”. They do this by encouraging the siphoning of taxpayer monies from our district public schools, for charters, home and private schools. Once slated for the education of all, our hard-earned tax dollars are now increasingly available to offset costs for those already more advantaged.  

In Arizona, approximately 60% of our one million public K-12 students qualify for the free and reduced price lunch program, with over 1,000 schools having over 50% of their students qualifying. As you might guess, schools with the highest number of students qualifying for “free and reduced” are located in higher poverty areas and with few exceptions, have lower school letter grades. Zip code it turns out, is an excellent predictor (irrespective of other factors) of school letter grade. According to a study by the Arizona Partnership for Healthy Communities, “Your ZIP code is more important to your health than your genetic code” and a life-expectancy map for Phoenix released three years ago, “found life expectancy gaps as high as 14 years among ZIP codes.”

Clearly, when it comes to inequities in our public schools, the “public” part of the equation is at least as important as the “schools” part. In other words, the problem is bigger than our schools and must be dealt with more holistically if it is to be solved. Poverty is obviously a big part of the problem and is nothing new. What is relatively new, is the purposeful devaluation of concern for the common good and the marketing of privatization as the solution to all our problems. 

Privatization has not however, proven itself to be the panacea for fixing our “failing schools”, rather, it is exacerbating their problems. In Arizona, all forms of education privatization (vouchers, tax credits, home schooling, for-profit charters) are taking valuable resources out of the public district school system while delivering mixed results. We’ve also seen countless examples of shameless self-enrichment and outright fraud with taxpayer dollars. Meanwhile, some 80% of Arizona students are left in underresourced district schools, many of which are seeing (not by accident), their highest level of segregation since the 1960s. 

Noliwe M. Rooks, director of American studies at Cornell University and author of  “Cutting School: Privatization, Segregation, and the End of Public Education, coined the term “segrenomics” to define the business of profiting from high levels of this segregation. In an interview with Valerie Strauss of the Washington Post, Rooks said that, “Children who live in segregated communities and are Native American, black or Latino are more likely to have severely limited educational options. In the last 30 years, government, philanthropy, business and financial sectors have heavily invested in efforts to privatize certain segments of public education; stock schools with inexperienced, less highly paid teachers whose hiring often provides companies with a “finder’s fee”; outsource the running of schools to management organizations; and propose virtual schools as a literal replacement for — not just a supplement to — the brick and mortar educational experience. “ She went on to say that, “The attraction, of course, is the large pot of education dollars that’s been increasingly available to private corporate financial interests. The public education budget funded by taxpayers is  roughly $500 billion to $600 billion per year. Each successful effort that shifts those funds from public to private hands — and there has been a growing number of such efforts since the 1980s — escalates corporate earnings.”

This shift of taxpayer dollars from public to private hands is clearly a redistribution of wealth. Worst of all, in Arizona, it is a redistribution of wealth with little to no accountability nor transparency. Private, parochial and home schools are not required to provide the public information on their return on investment. And make no mistake, this investment is significant and continues to grow. In 2017 alone, taxpayer dollars diverted from district schools to private school options, amounted to close to $300 million. About $160 million of this, from corporate and personal tax credits with the other $130 million from vouchers. All told, according to the Payson Roundup, “vouchers have diverted more than $1 billion in taxpayer money to private schools. These dollars could have instead, gone into the general fund to ensure the vast majority of Arizona students were better served. In a 2016 study reported in USA Today, “a 20 percent increase in public school funding corresponds with low-income students completing nearly a year of additional education — enough to drastically reduce achievement gaps and adulthood poverty.” Of course, corporate reformers argue that school choice affords poor, disadvantaged children the opportunity to access the same education as their wealthier counterparts. But, does it?

The Arizona Republic reported in 2017 that, “75% of the voucher money came from school districts rated “A” or “B” and only 4% from those rated “D” or lower.“ And, not only were the tax payer dollars disproportionately siphoned from better (at least by the state’s grading system) performing schools, but “students leaving the ‘A’ and ‘B’ rated districts had an average award of about $15,300, while for those leaving the ‘D’ or lower rated schools, the average award was only about $6,700.” With the average private elementary school cost at about $6,000 and high school at $18,000, it is easy to see, even without the added hardships of having to provide transportation and lunches, that opportunity does not equal access for low-income students and that those students are not the ones taking advantage of other than district school, school choice options.

Unfortunately, low-income parents are sometimes lucrative targets to the promise of school choice. As Professor Rook writes, “What I learned writing this book is that parents in poor communities care so deeply about education that they are willing to go to almost any lengths, both tested and experimental, to find the silver bullet that might possibly provide their children with the educational access that has been so long denied.”

I believe the answer lies in recognizing that the common good matters and in the long run, is important to everyone, rich, poor, or in between. As Mark Baer wrote on Huffington Post, “ the more people you essentially exclude from participating in the economy, the worse the economy becomes because the money isn’t circulating.” There are after all, only so many yachts a billionaire needs (Betsy DeVos and her 10 yachts aside).

The point is, the more people we have participating in the American Dream, the stronger that Dream and our country, will be. Our system of public education for all, that created the greatest middle class in the world, is at risk and if we aren’t careful, will take our communities, the very fabric of our society, with it.  

Balance is the key

I just listened to “The Coming Storm”, by Michael Lewis. I didn’t carefully read the description before diving in, and thought it would inform me about the increasing violence of weather. Rather, I learned about the privatization of weather, or at least the reporting of it, and the Department of Commerce.

Turns out, the Department of Commerce has little to do with commerce and is actually forbidden by law from engaging in business. Rather, it runs the U.S. Census, the Patent and Trademark Office, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology. Over half of its $9B budget though, is spent by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to figure out the weather. And figuring out the weather, is largely about collecting data. “Each and every day, NOAA collects twice as much data as is contained in the entire book collection of the Library of Congress.” One senior policy adviser from the George W. Bush administration, said the Department of Commerce should really be called the Department of Science and Technology. When he mentioned this to Wilbur Ross, Trump’s appointee to lead the Department, Ross said, “Yeah, I don’t think I want to be focusing on that.” Unfortunately for all of us, Ross also wasn’t interested in finding someone who would do it for him.

In October 2017, Barry Myers, a lawyer who founded and ran AccuWeather, was nominated to serve as the head of the NOAA. This is a guy who in the 1990s, argued the NWS should be forbidden (except in cases where human life and property was at stake) from delivering any weather-related knowledge to Americans who might be a consumer of AccuWeather products. “The National Weather Service” Myers said, “does not need to have the final say on warnings…the government should get out of the forecasting business.”

Then in 2005, Senator Rick Santorum (a recipient of Myers family contributions) introduced a bill to basically eliminate the National Weather Service’s ability to communicate with the public. Lewis asks his readers to “consider the audacity of that manuever. A private company whose weather predictions were totally dependent on the billions of dollars spent by the U.S. taxpayer to gather the data necessary for those predictions, and on decades of intellectual weather work sponsored by the U.S. taxpayer, and on the very forecasts that the National Weather Service generated, was, in effect, trying to force the U.S. taxpayer to pay all over again for the National Weather Service might be able to tell him or her for free.”

It was at this point in my listening that I began to think how this privatization story was paralleling that of education’s. In both cases, those in the public sector are in it for the mission, not the money. In both cases, the private sector only “wins” if the public sector “loses”. In both cases, it is in the interest of the private sector to facilitate the failure of the public sector or make it look like it is failing.

Just as private and charter schools profit when district schools are perceived to be of lower quality, Barry Myers has worked hard to make government provided weather services look inferior to that which the private sector can provide. As Lewis points out, “The more spectacular and expensive the disasters, the more people will pay for warning of them. The more people stand to lose, the more money they will be inclined to pay. The more they pay, the more the weather industry can afford to donate to elected officials, and the more influence it will gain over the political process.”

Myers clearly understood the private weather sector’s financial interest in catastrophe and had no qualms about maximizing on it. One of those opportunities presented itself in Moore, Oklahoma when the NWS failed to spot a tornado that had spun up quickly and rapidly vanished. AccuWeather managed to catch it and immediately sent out a press release bragging that they’d sent a tornado alert to their paying corporate customers 12 minutes before the tornado hit. But, they never broadcast the warning…only those who had paid for it got it. This focus on profit above all else is why when the Trump Administration asked a former Bush Commerce department official to provide a list of those who should lead NOAA, Barry Myers’ name was not on it. “I don’t want someone who has a bottom line, or a concern with shareholders”, said the official, “in charge of saving lives and protecting property.”

That sentiment is how I feel about the provision of “public” education by private and charter schools. I don’t want someone who has a bottom line, or a concern with corporate shareholders, in charge of educating America’s children without full transparency and complete accountability to taxpayers and the public. Rather, when taxpayer dollars are funding a service previously provided by the public sector, the potential must be weighed, for damage to the common good caused by the motive to profit.

Unfortunately, that’s not what’s happening today. As described by Jim Sleeper in a recent Salon.com article titled “Republic derangement: A party I used to respect has gone off the cliff”, “the disease of turbo-marketing [is] reducing American education, entertainment, social media, politics and the dignity of work itself to levels determined by a mania to maximize profits and shareholder dividends, no matter the social costs.

No, I’m not saying there aren’t problems with the public sector. But, the idea that the public has more control over a private corporation than it does over a public entity is ludicrous. The idea that parents have more say over a charter school’s Education Management Organization (EMO) or a private school’s owner, than they do over a school district governing board is ludicrous. Ever try to attend an EMO’s board meeting, let alone be allowed to make a “call to the public” at one? How about gaining visibility to the financial documents of a private school? Not happening.

The key to public sector performance is public engagement. For-profit corporations are generally motivated by profit. That is as it should be. Public entities are generally motivated by doing good for the public, again, as it should be. Neither is inherently bad or good, they each have their place and purpose. In some cases, there can even be a good mix of the two, such as with the U.S. Postal Service. But, the focus on privatization is currently being overplayed, to the detriment of our public institutions and the common good of our Nation and our world.

Truth is, government can provide a valuable check on corporate greed. Likewise, fair competition from the private sector can provide a check on the potential for government complacency or really, that of any monopoly, private or public.

Balance is the key. As Simon Sinek said, “The trick to balance is to not make sacrificing important things become the norm.” One of the most “important things” in my mind, is to care for those who do not have the capacity to care for themselves. To ensure ALL OUR children have the opportunity to lead healthy, productive lives, no matter the circumstances of their birth, or the zip code in which they live. In the words of John Dewey, “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.”

LD 11 Incumbents on Support for K-12 Ed

Note: In the interest of full disclosure, I should note that I am a campaign manager for a candidate challenging Mark Finchem for the AZ House in LD 11.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock this year, you probably know that this is an election year where K-12 education has been on center stage, at least here in Arizona. Here in LD 11, where I live, both Representatives Mark Finchem (running for reelection to the AZ House) and Vince Leach (running this year for the AZ Senate), have intimated they are supporters of education and have worked to restore funding back to 2008 levels.

First of all, I believe that if a politician doesn’t specify they are a supporter of PUBLIC education, they probably aren’t. Secondly, funding for Arizona public education is still almost $800 million short per year from 2008 levels, even with the plus-up in budget approved this year. And oh by the way, bringing our funding back up to 2008 levels isn’t exactly something to brag about, and the 5 percent raises promised teachers in 2019 and 2020 don’t count until they actually happen. For now, they are just promises that future legislators will need to make good on.

Secondly, the only way to really know where an incumbent stands on an issue is to look at the votes they cast, to include the budget they voted for. As former Vice-President Joe Biden once said,

Don’t tell me what you value, show me your budget and I’ll tell you what you value.

That’s why it is important for all of us to delve a little deeper. One resource for learning about incumbents’ voting records on K-12 education bills is the Friends of ASBA (Arizona School Boards Association) “Educating Arizona” voting guide. It is published each year to show how Arizona legislative candidates voted on key bills impacting K-12 education. Votes on bills however, aren’t the only measurement ASBA uses to track support for public education. They also assess “how helpful (or not) a given legislator was in advancing the ASBA political agenda during the legislative session, and how the legislator acted toward public education in general.” (Note: ASBA’s political agenda is brought forth by Arizona school boards all around the state and contains agenda items from across the political spectrum. It is then condensed by a Legislative Committee made up of a very diverse group of school board members and finally, is voted on by representatives from each school board at our annual delegate assembly.) Helpful actions legislators take are considered for extra credit and include helping to get bills heard (or not) in committee and helping to prevent bad bills from advancing. Based on this total assessment, ASBA awards legislators a thumbs up (Champion), thumbs sideways (Friend), or thumbs down (Foe).

I thought I’d go back to the 2015 guide to see how my legislators have voted on K-12 education bills since they first got in office. That year, both Representatives Finchem and Leach voted with the ASBA position on only two of the ten bills. Among other bills, they voted to expand Empowerment Scholarship Accounts to children living on tribal lands and grandchildren being raised by their grandparents, as well as to replace common core.

In 2016, Finchem voted with the ASBA position on only three of seven of the bills and Leach only three of eight. They voted to establish caps on additional state aid, to phase-in empowerment scholarship accounts (ESAs), and to expand and modify administration of ESAs (vouchers). They also voted against eliminating the freeze on KidsCare.

In the 2017 legislative session, Finchem voted with ASBA on three of six bills and Leach on four. They both however, voted in opposition of ASBA, for SB 1431, the full expansion of ESAs. It really can’t get more anti-public education than that, and their “thumbs down” rating reflects that reality.

2018 saw both Finchem and Leach vote on eight key K-12 education bills and each of them voted with ASBA on six of them. The most significant bill passed was SB 1390/ HB 2158 which renewed Prop 301 for 20 years and kept public education funding from going off a cliff in 2021. Although they both voted for this bill, their lack of support in general, earned them another “thumbs down” and “Foe” moniker with regard to public education.

Just in case there is any lingering doubt about their focus when it comes to support for public education, Finchem writes on his website, “School Voucher Program expansion is an important element to creating a diverse and well qualified employment pool, a factor that many job creators look for when deciding on which state to locate in.” Leach does not include education as one of his top five issues, prioritizing the 2nd Amendment and support for Pro-Life over opportunity for students.

Elections matter, and I encourage all voters to be informed where candidates stand on the issues that matter most to them. As Franklin Roosevelt said,

Democracy cannot succeed unless those who express their choice are prepared to choose wisely. The real safeguard of democracy, therefore, is education.