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!

False Choices for Arizona

Just when I was starting to think highly of the AZ Republic Editorial Board’s judgement, they came out today with: “The focus of this budget was clearly education – from kindergarten through the university level. It is the beginning of a long climb to provide Arizona’s schools with the resources they need to serve our youth and help drive the state’s economic growth.” Wow! Talk about drinking the Koolaid!

After all, this headline a couple of days ago: Gov. Doug Ducey gets much of what he wanted for education, was bad enough. Those in Ducey’s camp no doubt read it as him being successful, but those who know what he proposed against what our districts need, know that his getting “much of what he wanted” wasn’t well…all that much.

Instead, it is clear that his commitment to delivering tax cuts every year he is in office is much more important to him than fixing our state’s severe teacher shortage. That’s clear in his woefully inadequate proposal of a permanent 2% increase, rolled out over five years which amounted to only $15 per month  in the first year for the average teacher. As it turns out, the Legislature funded a 1% increase for next year with a “promise” to fund it again the following year. This funding is only for existing teachers, is more a stipend than a “raise” since it is not distributed on a per-student basis and therefore doesn’t increase with inflation. It amounts to about $500 per year, or about $40 per month. The Republic Editorial Board writes that, educators “will be watching next year to see if this is a good-faith effort.” Not so much I think. I mean, fool us once, shame on you. Fool us twice, shame on us. I don’t think educators or public education advocates have much faith in any promises the GOP-led Legislature or this Governor make to public education.

The Results Based Funding Plan of $37.6M he proposed for students attending excelling district or charter schools was pushed by none other than the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry (led by “teachers are crybabies” Glenn Hamer.) That tells me up front this isn’t going to be a great deal for our district schools. Appears I am right with The Republic reporting that 65% of this funding ($25M) will go to middle and higher-income schools. And, 26% of the monies would go to charters schools (and 12% of that to BASIS and Great Heart chains exclusively) versus districts, even though charters only educate 16% of the state’s public-school students. The money is misplaced infers Dr. Anabel Aportela, director of research for the Arizona Association of School Business Officials and Arizona School Boards Association. “BASIS is receiving a lot of attention for its top spots in the rankings and that’s great, but collectively the five BASIS school graduated just over 200 students, according to the latest data,” Aportela said. This a mere drop in the bucket of the 94% of the 13,778 students district high schools graduated in 2015, and doesn’t even begin to represent the diversity of those district graduates or the state at large. In addition, Ducey’s results-based funding uses only AzMERIT scores to determine where the money goes, but Arizona’s new A-F school accountability plan uses a more realistic set of factors that gives any school in the state the opportunity for a higher grade, not just those in higher socio-economic areas. Public education advocates would much rather have seen this funding added to teacher compensation where they believe it would have done the most good.

Speaking of good, that may be what Ducey’s proposed $10M next fiscal year and $20M the following year (the final budget allocates $8M and $12M) for full-day kindergarten or early literacy programs at schools looks like, but there is more to the story. This program provides additional funding where at least 90% of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch (FRPL), but will help certain charter schools much more than it is likely to help school districts. That’s because in order to qualify, the entire school district must meet the 90% threshold even though they may have several schools that meet it. Charter schools though, are each considered separate districts, even if they are managed by the same for-profit corporation. Once again, Ducey leans in for school choice over our 1.1M district students.

Yes, Ducey’s plan included $20M the Legislature didn’t fund, to help school districts deal with the negative impact of the change to current-year funding. Keep in mind though, that this change to current year funding versus prior year funding was totally a self-inflicted wound on the part of the Legislature last year. This, even though they had tried current year funding prior in 1980 and it proved to not work. The GOP-led Legislature didn’t care about that last year when they saw it as a way to save $31M in the budget. This change will hit districts with declining enrollment hard this year, making long-term planning difficult and making it even harder for them to attract and retain teachers.

Our Governor also asked for and got $17.2M in one-time money for school construction and building maintenance and the Legislature added $63M more for new school construction projects. But – and this is a big but – districts have been denied about $2B in funding in this area since the AZ Supreme Court ruled that the state needed to fund it. This is why now, 20 years after the Arizona Supreme Court originally ruled that the state’s method for capital funding to districts was unconstitutional, education plaintiffs are forced to file suit again. “Districts are funded at about 15 cents on the dollar for capital” and Joe Thomas, president of the Arizona Education Association said, “When you give a child an option of you’re going to have an air-conditioned room or you’re going to have a teacher, that’s a false choice for Arizona.”

In my mind, these are all “false choices for Arizona.” We know what needs to be done to recruit and retain quality teachers, properly maintain our facilities and buses, and give our students every opportunity to succeed. We, and I mean the collective “WE”, just don’t have the political will to do it. Money is not the only answer, but it is definitely a big piece of the equation and all this pretension that it isn’t is just freakin’ exhausting.

A Cautionary Tale

Arizona may be at, or near, the bottom in many education related statistics, but when it comes to a school choice friendly environment, we are #1. That’s why, when executive committee members of their state school boards associations got together last year in Oakland for the Pacific Region National School Boards Association meeting, the Arizona team shared their story of eroding legislative support (funding and supportive legislation) for our district schools as a cautionary tale.

It all began in Arizona with the Legislature’s authorization for charter schools in 1994 and of course, open enrollment so parents could choose to enroll their children in any public school in the state, not just in their district. This mattered because 1) it told parents they were free to look for greener grass elsewhere, versus watering the grass they had, and 2) all that mattered was their child’s education, the hell with the rest.

Arizona’s first charter school opened in 1995. Now 180,000 students attend about 550 charter schools in Arizona equating to 16% of the students and 30% of the public schools. In 2010 in fact, Arizona had the highest number of charter schools per capita in the nation. The competition created with district schools wasn’t all bad. Many district schools offer fuller curriculums with more specialty programs than they once did. But, for corporate reformers, that wasn’t enough.

The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) ranks our state as #1 with regard to school choice policy. This should not surprise anyone, since ALEC has been aggressive in working with corporations and state lawmakers all over the country to create legislation favorable to school choice and the privatization of education. Likewise, the American Federation for Children (previously led by our new SecED, Betsy DeVos) has been very active in pushing school choice around the nation through both significant campaign contributions and strong arming of legislators.

These organizations and others with the same agenda, have enjoyed much success. When vouchers for private and parochial schools were first introduced in Arizona in 2009, the AZ Supreme Court deemed them unconstitutional since the state constitution (as most do) requires that “No public money or property shall be appropriated for or applied to any religious worship, exercise, or instruction, or the support of any religious establishment.” The Court stipulated though, “[t]here may well be ways of providing aid to these student populations without violating the constitution. School choice proponents such as the Center for Arizona Policy (CAP) jumped on that and according to their website, ”CAP and its attorneys were heavily involved in the drafting and development of this [Empowerment Scholarship Accounts or ESAs] program.” Then in 2013, the AZ Supreme Court, in Niehaus v. Huppenthal approved ESAs, (vouchers or Educational Subsidies for the Affluent as AZ’s 2016 Teacher of the Year calls them), saying that the fact the funding goes to the parent and the parent decides what to do with it, makes the program constitutional.

Initially, only students with disabilities were eligible for vouchers but the Arizona Legislature managed to expand ESAs each year to eight different categories including students living on tribal lands, wards of the state, military dependents, students from D or F rated district schools and more. Then, on April 6, 2017, the Legislature passed and the Governor signed, a law making all Arizona children eligible for vouchers. For now, there is both an annual cap of 5,500 and an overall cap of 30,000 by 2022. In addition, there is a by-grade implementation that staggers eligibility over several years.

With Arizona’s conservative and libertarian public-policy think tank, the Goldwater Institute, already promising donors they would eliminate the cap before the Governor even signed it into law, these speed bumps undoubtedly won’t be in place long. That’s because the end game for the corporate reformers and the lawmakers they’ve purchased is to commercialize our public schools. It doesn’t matter what innocuous name you give a voucher, it is still about siphoning taxpayer dollars away from our district schools, to private and parochial schools. And, vouchers aren’t the only way these tax dollars are siphoned away.

Remember I wrote that ALEC thinks Arizona is #1 in school choice policy? Well, that’s because we not only have open enrollment, charter schools, and Empowerment Scholarship Accounts, but also individual tax credits, School Tuition Organizations and the corporate tax credits that feed them. And yes, we even have legislators that have ownership of, or vested interests in, all of the above. But that discussion is for another day.

As for school tax credits, Arizona allows five separate types. There are three individual; one for public schools and two for private schools. The private school tax credit, begun in 1997, is now worth five times as much as the amount that can be claimed for public schools. Maybe that’s part of the reason why the program the legislative budget staff estimated would cost $4.5 million a year 20 years ago, topped $140 million in 2015 without including the $50 million in tax credits taken for public schools.

Tax credits were originally sold as a way to help special-needs and low-income students, but it hasn’t largely worked out that way. According to the AZ Republic, “Only about 3 percent of the money is designated specifically for special-needs students.“ As for the ”low-income” families, only 32% of the money went to them. Aside from the fact they don’t serve the most needy, tax credits divert funding away from the state coffers and in the case of district schools, give the taxpayers the impression they are doing their part to support public education when the reality is the funding isn’t really allowed for classroom expenses, but for extracurricular, fee-based activities. In the case of private schools, the tax revenue is diverted away from the general fund directly into private education.

Corporate tax credits are made to School Tuition Organizations (STOs) which are 501(c)(3) tax exempt organizations that must allocate at least 90% of their annual revenue to tuition awards for students to attend private and parochial schools. The two types of corporate tax credits allowed are one for corporate contributions for low-income students and another for displaced/disadvantaged students. The definition of “low income” though, is misleading. For these scholarships, a family of four with an annual income of $82,996, qualifies leading many to claim that the scholarships are going to families that could afford the private schools without the taxpayer welfare. Critics also say it is fairly impossible for the poor to benefit because even if they get a scholarship, they still have to come up with the rest of the tuition. Regardless of who else is benefiting from the tax credits, the general fund and therefore district schools and other critical programs and services are not. 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 state’s general fund. In fact, the “low-income corporate tax credit alone is expected by 2025 to grow to more than $250 million a year.”

In the end, one thing has been abundantly clear here in Arizona. The corporate reformers are dead set on commercializing our district schools. That’s why every legislative session, we public education advocates gear up for battle and “look for incoming.” And that’s why, one of our favorite phrases is “sine die” which literally means “without assigning a day for a further meeting or hearing”, but in layman’s terms, signifies the end of the legislative session. It is a very sad state of affairs that rather than counting on our Governor and GOP-led Legislature to do good for our one-plus million district school students, the best we can usually hope for is for them to do no harm. This year, with the full expansion of vouchers, they did tremendous harm that will be hard to recover from. A word to the wise…if you give them (corporate reformers) an inch, they will take a mile and stretch it out to 10. Stay focused and vigilant, this really is a war and the stakes couldn’t be higher.

AZ Legislators: Listen Up or Get Out!

Night before last, at the West Campus of the Pima Community College in Tucson, AZ Schools Now held the second of three statewide Community Budget Hearings. I’m guessing over 100 people attended the Tucson event, including teachers, administrators, school board members, faith leaders and community advocates. AZ Senator Dalessandro and Representatives Friese, Gonzales, and Engle, and Pima County Schools Superintendent Williams were also in attendance to hear from their constituents.

AZ Schools Now is a coalition of public education advocate organizations from around the state focused on reinvesting in public schools to boost student achievement. The members are Support Our Schools Arizona, Pima County and Valley Interfaith organizations, Friends of Arizona School Boards Association, Christine Marsh (Arizona 2016 Teacher of the Year), Children’s Action Alliance and the Arizona: Education and Business Coalition, Center for Economic Progress, Education Association, School Administrators, Education Network, and Parent Teacher Association.

Moderators Julie Erfle, Jen Darland, David Lujan and Michelle Crow opened up the hearing aand provided information comparing the 2018 budget proposals from Governor Ducey, AZ Schools Now, and the Legislative Democrats prior to opening up the hearing to well…hear what the attendees had to say. All statements were being videotaped as part of the public hearing, so the attendees words could eventually be shared with AZ legislators.

David Lujan of the Arizona Center for Economic Progress gave a detailed description of the three proposals and told the audience that 65 percent of the Governor’s FY2018 education budget goes to high performing schools and 12 percent goes to two charter operators. Of the $10 million Ducey sets aside for kindergarten/early literacy for schools with highest percentage of low-income students, only one school in Pima County qualifies.

As far as funding sources go, Ducey proposes all of it to come from the General Fund and still wants to give a $3 million tax corporate tax cut. Republican legislators on the other hand, are looking to give $11 million in cuts to their corporate benefactors. This, despite 77 percent of Arizona voters wanting (in a Dec 2016) poll, to better fund education and 61 percent willing to pay more taxes to do end.

The AZ Schools Now proposal advocates for a 4 percent raise versus the 0.4 percent Ducey desires. The proposed raise cost of $134 million plus $2 million for building maintenance and repair would be paid for by shifting funding from Ducey’s Credit Enhancement District (which provides tax dollars as collateral for lower cost loans, primarily for charters), freezing growth in corporate tax credits which have grown from $12 million in 2009 to $127 million today, and a pause on new tax cuts.

Legislative Democrats want $136 million for teachers, $38 million for classroom funding and $14 million for building maintenance and repair, the latter two both phasing up over 10 years. They propose paying the bill with $56 million from the General Fund, along with all the methods AZ Schools Now favor plus $50 million in General Fund lottery revenue and $61 million in revenue from additional tax collections. Interestingly, we learned this revenue would come from rehiring 70 or so Department of Revenue tax collection staff who prior to their release by the current administration, each brought in about $1.2 million dollars a year in outstanding tax collections.

Once the microphones were passed to the audience, those wishing to speak lined up behind them and the floodgates opened. First up was a music teacher from Tucson Unified (TUSD) who wondered why our legislators continue to cut funding unless their intent is to kill public education. Needless to say, the audience immediately shouted in unison that is exactly their intention.

Next up was Judith, a grandmother and Pima County Interfaith leader who expressed concern about teachers buying their own supplies and needing second jobs to pay their bills. She said we don’t need more choice and instead of small increases, we should stop tax cuts, give teachers pay increases, stop vouchers, roll back tax credits allowed to School Tuition Organizations (STOs), and just stop taking any of her tax dollars to privatize our public education.

Elizabeth, a teacher, says she is just scraping by with one of her two monthly paychecks dedicated to her rent. She expressed great pride in her students saying they aren’t any less intelligent than others, they just don’t have the same background that initially sets them up for success.

A local business owner, Nicole, said the state should invest in teachers for the long-term because retention will produce the best return on investment (ROI). She talked about how teacher salaries have not only kept up with inflation, but have lost ground. Robert, an Oro Valley taxpayer and Interfaith community leader, said the problem is that the state’s tax structure has been systematically hollowed out and we must get back to collecting the taxes that are owed.

Ceasar, a parent who is a member of the newly formed Tucson Unified Parent Action Council (TUPAC) said parents need to be engaged. On his daughters’ school site council, he said it was a shock to have to deal with a 66 percent cut in funding. He also said he gets really tired of hearing old timers talk about “back in the day.” It’s not your day he said, it’s my kid’s day.

Rebecca, a teacher from Sunnyside Unified said she took a $35K pay cut when she moved here as a teacher from another state and to those who want to blame it on cost-of-living, said she pays more rent in Tucson. She doesn’t teach for the money, but for the love of her students — 90 percent of whom quality for free and reduced lunch and may not be highly proficient on AzMERIT, but have grown three grade levels in reading this year alone.

Another member of TUPAC and a resident of the Catalina Foothills Unified District, Lisa said it wasn’t until she open enrolled her gifted autistic child in TUSD that she was able to get him the type of help he needs to thrive. She appreciates her son’s teachers and wants them to be able to afford a house and a car and not have to get another job to do it.

Nate, a 6th grade ELA teacher in Sahuarita Unified, said 30% of his school’s teachers are in their first year of teaching, there are 35 kids in his 6th grade class, he often doesn’t have enough supplies in his classrooms, and he tires of having tiles fall down from his classroom ceiling when it rains. He also said he is sad to see the 21st Century Classroom program defunded just when they are starting to see tangible benefits to the district.

Another teacher in Sunnyside Unified, April, said her priorities for additional funding are teacher salaries and building maintenance and repair. As an example, her school has had to do away with the rule against traveling during basketball at their school because the gym floor is so worn students can’t stop as they should.

Jennifer, a third grade teacher from Sunnyside, said at the age of 47, that she is just getting too tired to work two jobs to make ends meet. She said she isn’t asking for a life of luxury, just the ability to pay her bills.

A retired kindergarten teacher who taught in Cave Creek for 20 years, Ann said she received no pay increase during the last 10 of those years. During her tenure, her class size increased from 20 kids to 29, she lost some of her support staff, and she gained more special needs students. She said she has friends at Raytheon and through them, understands the company is very pro-education, but very concerned about the education of Arizona’s workforce. Her personal concerns about the direction of Arizona education has caused her to get political for the first time in her life. She said the walking and calling for candidates and causes was not initially easy, but now she finds it empowering.

Sandy, President of the Marana Teacher’s Association, said she is in her 15th year of teaching. She is now within six years of retirement and worries about teachers coming behind her. She then read a letter from a high school teacher who loves her job but now $20,000 in debt, has made the tough decision to leave the career field for better pay. She wrote that by paying teacher wages that are less they could get in most other jobs, the legislature has shown they don’t really care about our kids.

Kevin, another Interfaith leader, teacher, and grandparent, said the hearing had been a good public processing of pain. But, he said, we need to do more than process. We are at a point in this nation that if we don’t come together to save our Democracy, we are going to lose it. If we allow that to happen, we will only have ourselves to blame for the untenable, unethical and immoral state of our affairs.

There were a few other speakers, but Judy, a librarian in three different school districts, was the last. She expressed great concern about our students’ literacy and lack of critical thinking skills. She then looked into directly the camera and told legislators she hopes will eventually listen, “if you are not moved by what you heard tonight, shame on you!”

Kudos to AZ Schools Now for holding these important hearings. Not only does the public need to be much better informed about the issues challenging our district schools, but they also need to be heard. It was great to see all the teachers in the house. They, along with the parents are really the ones who have the loudest megaphones to spur action. That action, retired Air Force Colonel Holly Lyon said, is to elect more pro-district education candidates to the Arizona Legislature.

That is the real bottom line. If the voters of Arizona really do support district education, the choice of over 80 percent of our students, they must look beyond the party and vote for pro-district education candidates. Two more Democratic Senators will bring parity to that chamber and hopefully the need to compromise for the best solutions. As Martin Luther King said, I have a dream…”

Something Borrowed, Something Blue

Let me be clear from the onset that I am “borrowing” this article. In fact unless the words are in bold italics, they are hers, not mine. I’m hoping the author, Athens Banner-Herald columnist Myra Blackmon, a resident of Washington, Ga., sees my “borrowing” as the “sincerest form of flattery. I chose to use her piece titled “School vouchers raise too many questions,” because I found it both very well written and remarkable in that I needed only change the state name and some of the numbers to make it apply to Arizona.

With the confirmation of Betsy DeVos as U.S. secretary of education, we can expect to see a flurry of new “initiatives” designed to address the so-called education problem in our country. For the moment, let’s set aside the relationship of poverty and poor academic achievement. Ignore for a moment the fact that our schools are actually performing pretty well.

We will likely see a renewed push for voucher programs, where parents can supposedly take the tax money allocated for their children and use it to enroll them in private, religious or charter schools, many of which are combinations of those categories.

If I believed vouchers would improve educational outcomes for Arizona’s poorest children, I would be the first to jump on that bandwagon. The reality is that even vouchers aren’t likely to improve the lives of the 421,000 Arizona children who live in poor or low-income families, despite efforts of reformers to convince us otherwise.

First, the average worth of  $5,600 for mainstream students that vouchers provide just isn’t enough to fully fund private school tuition. I chose not to spend an hour looking at websites (as Myra did) of private schools in all parts of the state to determine the range of tuition, but did find a school in Phoenix that charges $24,000 a year, and the average school tuition is almost $6,000 for elementary, and $18,000 for high school. Does this even seem possible for a disadvantaged child, even if a scholarship is available?

Second, not all non-public schools are open to all children. The majority of private schools in Arizona are religious schools, many of which set very strict standards for admission that have little or nothing to do with academic potential. They would exclude children from families of same-sex couples, or families whose moral standards are, in the judgment of the school, not consistent with the school’s values. That might exclude children whose parents are not married, or who were behavioral problems at their previous school.

Third, few private schools provide special education. Of those that do, many limit that special education to mild learning disabilities, or limit them to mild ADHD or other learning differences. Many private special education schoolsdon’t address severe or complex disabilities. Only public schools are required to meet all those needs. In fact, when Arizona parents pull their children out of district schools to educate them with a voucher, they must waive their rights under federal special education  law.”

Fourth, even if a voucher covered tuition at a private school, it would be almost impossible to include allowances for additional fees that would allow the poorest children to attend. Lab fees, textbooks, materials fees and technology fees add up. I found more than one school where those items quickly totaled more than $1,000 a year. And that didn’t include trips – sometimes mission trips in religious schools – or athletic fees, which also ran into the thousands of dollars. What about these costs?

Fifth, about 10 percent of Arizona’s schools are rural schools…with some children on buses more than 60 minutes each way every day. And those are the public schools. Private schools can be even more distant. For public schools, transportation is provided. Bus fees for private schools could run several hundred dollars a year. Who covers this?

And what about homeless students? According to New Leaf, a mesa non-profit human services organization, about 3 percent of Arizona students – nearly 30,000 children – were homeless in 2016. In fact, the National Center on Family Homelessness ranks Arizona as worst for risk of child homelessness. Do you really see these children as able to take advantage of vouchers?

Seventh, I found listings for many private religious schools that enroll fewer than 100 students and have only two or three teachers. Would a voucher to such a school improve a student’s chances over even the most poorly resourced public school? I doubt it.

The bottom line is that vouchers help middle-class families who can almost-but-not-quite afford private school tuition. Those are also the children who score best on standardized tests.

Vouchers help segregate those families from the poor and different in their communities. They isolate students from daily contact with needy families or children from unusual families. Some charge their students for “mission” work, which is a completely different dynamic in relationships with people different from us.

I simply do not see how vouchers for private schools, unregulated and not accountable to any elected officials, can do anything but set up our public schools as the place for the poorest, neediest and most severely disabled students.

That is wrong. I know it. You know it. Yes we do Myra, and that’s what the “something blue” in the title of this post refers to. This kind of misery shouldn’t have any kind of company. 

Open Letter to Senators Flake and McCain

Dear Senators Flake and McCain,

First of all, let me thank you for your service to our state and our country. I realize your job is not an easy one, but hope you understand this is also not an easy time to be an engaged patriot. Millions of us are incredibly anxious about the future of our country and our world. At this time, more than almost anytime in my adult life, we need real leadership.

As a school board member, I am really worried about President Trump’s and his SecED nominee’s intentions with K–12 education. He thinks our nation’s current education system is “flush with cash” and that our children are “deprived of all knowledge.” For Arizona at least, both of these statements are ridiculous. Our per pupil funding is 48th in the nation and our teachers the 47th lowest paid. Even so, our student’s National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) scores continue to rise and we led the nation in growth on the science test from 2009 to 2015.

If however, Betsy DeVos is confirmed, she will no doubt try to do for the nation what she did for Michigan. There she pushed for vouchers (even though she could never “sell” them in her home state) and for-profit publicly funded charters with as little accountability and transparency as possible. The results speak for themselves, with Michigan’s 4th grader scores on the NAEP from 2003 to 2015 declining from 28th to 41st in reading and from 27th to 42nd in math. This is not a formula for success.

I understand the pressure you are under to toe the party line, but the people of Arizona and our nation need you to look deep inside yourselves and determine what is really best for our country? Truly public education, that which is governed by locally elected boards, is the bedrock of our democracy and built the greatest middle class in the history of the world. It also taught us yes, we are all different, but there is strength in those differences. It can continue to support the American Dream, or, we can just give up on that dream and sell out to the highest bidder. We are at a tipping point and you have the ability to pull us back from the edge or propel us over the cliff. Please cast your vote in favor of our democracy and say NO to DeVos and her privatization agenda. We (the people) are counting on you!

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

 

AZ Chamber Prez says AZ Teachers are “Crybabies”

Glenn Hamer, President of the Arizona Chamber of Commerce, said, “It’s amazing to me that the teachers unions are out there like a bunch of crybabies screaming about the difficult of getting additional pay to teachers.” His comment was in response to why teachers union should support reforms to the initiative process.

There are so many things wrong with this comment, I don’t even know where to start. First of all, Hamer makes about six times the amount the average Arizona teacher makes. After all, Arizona’s teachers are the 47th lowest paid in the nation with the average teacher pay falling nationally 1.6 percent over the past decade, but 7.6 percent in Arizona. The low pay is a big part of the reason 53 percent of Arizona teacher positions were either vacant or filled by uncertified personnel in January 2017. And oh by the way, teacher colleges enrollment is down and 25 percent of AZ teachers will be eligible for retirement by 2020, further exacerbating the problem.

Secondly, just what teachers’ unions is he talking about? Arizona is a “right to work” state (which basically means workers have no rights.) This means that our teachers don’t enjoy the collective bargaining power a union would afford. The Arizona Education Association (AEA) advocates for support of our public schools and works to improve the professional lives of teachers and school staff members.

Thirdly, if education advocacy organizations like AEA aren’t “out there…screaming…for additional teacher pay,” who will ensure our teachers are paid enough so they can feed their families on their teaching salaries. Teachers don’t teach to get rich. They do it because they love their students. They don’t want to be out advocating for pay raises, they want to be in the classroom teaching our kids. Teachers earn just 62.8 percent of the salary that other college degree-holders do in the state – the lowest nationwide. Wallethub scored the state the third-worst for teachers in terms of “job opportunity and competition” and academic & work environment.” To bring all our teachers up to more in line with national averages, it would cost about $600 million ($10K per teacher.)

Hamer no doubt has an agenda. He recently teamed up with Lisa Graham Keegan to publish an exuberant support piece for Betsy DeVos on the website “A for Arizonahttp://www.aforaz.org/blog/two-enthusiastic-thumbs-up-for-education-secretary-pick-betsy-devos.” In it, they wrote, they are “very pleased with her nomination” writing that it, “signals a shift in the conversation around education policy in exactly the right way.” That “right way” no doubt is the full-steam ahead commercialization of our district community schools.

You’ve no doubt seen the national backlash to President Trump’s nomination of Betsy DeVos for Secretary of Education. You also probably saw at least snippets of her confirmation hearings. She has proven herself entirely unqualified by her lack of credentials and experience with public education, her responses to questions during her hearings and the total lack of positive results she affected on education in Michigan. And yet, Glenn Hamer sings her praises.

But let me return to where I began, and that is with Hamer calling Arizona teachers “crybabies” for asking they be paid a wage that allows them to stay in the classroom AND feed their families. I don’t think that is asking too much and according to recent polling, most Arizonans (77 percent) think our schools need more funding with teacher pay a high priority. If you, like me, would like to send a message to Hamer that he doesn’t speak for most Arizonans who value our teachers and want them properly compensated, click here to link to the corporate members page on the Arizona Chamber of Commerce. I encourage you to look through the various levels of membership and note those companies that belong. Then click on a few of their logos or links to get their contact info and let them know you do not appreciate their Chamber President’s words. You can also click here to go to the Chamber’s contact page to express your displeasure with Mr. Hamer himself.We DO have power, we just need to use it!

 

 

 

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.