Living in La-La Land?

Not one to give up on any ALEC-concocted or promoted government shrinking effort, AZ Senator Debbie Lesko, R-Peoria, managed to gain traction this week on her latest version of this year’s voucher expansion. The zombie voucher expansion effort was resurrected when it became apparent the House couldn’t pass its original version to make every AZ student eligible.  HB 2482 stalled due to public outcry over lawmakers trying to settle the inflation funding lawsuit with a reduced payment via Prop. 123, while siphoning even more away from public schools with the proposed total expansion of vouchers.

“To the rescue”, rides Senator Lesko, the Arizona ALEC Chair, with her bill, SB-1279. Introduced as a “strike-everything” bill, it was fast-tracked for consideration and met the Appropriations versus the Education Committee to no doubt provide some cover for the contentious bill. Instead of full expansion, Lesko’s bill settles for expansion to free- or reduced lunch program eligibility which for a family of four translates to an annual income of no more than $44,863. The bill passed on an 8-5 vote.

In that the voucher is only worth $5,400 and the average cost of private school tuition is Arizona is about $10,000, it is highly unlikely that those lower on the socio-economic scale will be lining up anytime soon to ditch their district schools. Rather, Lesko’s bill serves to again chip away at the foundation of our public school system and yes, the very core of our democracy.

To my point, Representative Rick Gray, R-Sun City, was quoted by Howard Fischer as saying that it is wrong to look at how the legislation will affect public schools. ” it really comes down to that child, and what’s best for that child” he said. What a crock of BS! Gray is saying that state legislation shouldn’t be concerned with how it affects the largest portion of the state budget and the 900,000 district school students it provides for? That’s like a U.S. Congressman saying that federal legislation regarding the military shouldn’t be concerned with its affect on national defense, but rather on the individual soldier. The soldier might appreciate the consideration, but the misplaced focus would no doubt weaken our ability to defend our Nation.

These efforts aren’t about the individual child, or even children in general. What they are about is shrinking the government and reducing the ability of the people to participate in their democracy. Our Tea-publican Legislature won’t be happy until they have total control over every aspect of an extremely limited government which is all about keeping them in power and making their wealthy supporters even more wealthy. That’s the real bottom line and anyone who believes otherwise is living in La-La Land.

 

Winners and Losers

Donald Trump likes to talk about winners and losers, mostly that he’s a winner and that pretty much everybody else is a loser. It seems his definition of a winner is someone who is bold, strong, and of course, successful in business. Of course there are many who question whether he really is the “yuuuuge” business success he claims, but at the very least, he has made himself appear successful.

Of course, we know that things are not always how they first appear.  Trump may appear to be strong, decisive and ready to “Make America Great Again” but he truly has not offered one viable solution to do that. Take K-12 education for example. The only plan he has voiced is to rid us of Common Core (something he wouldn’t have the power to do.)  Given his focus on business, I’m guessing “The Donald’s” plan for education involves making our students commodities to be traded on the open market; where for-profit schools compete for the spoils and students are turned into winners and losers.

Problem is, I don’t think the American public really wants a “winners and losers” outcome from our public education system. Rather, I believe the vast majority want first, their child to be a “winner” and then, for all children to have the opportunity to win. Most of us recognize it behooves us all to ensure we keep all students “in the game” and moving toward the goal line.

Of course there are many who aren’t losing as a result of the corporate reform movement of public education. There are those who are profiting from the semi-or full privatization of K-12 education, a $700 billion market in the U.S. There are state legislators who would deflect their responsibility for educating the state’s children by encouraging parents to give up their child’s right to public education so they can use the voucher system. There are also parents who are wealthy enough to send their children to private schools on their own dime, but are happy to take our money (tax dollars) and pocket their own.

The bottom line if we continue to allow a system of education that produces winners and losers, is that we all lose. There is a significant cost to our society whenever a student does not succeed in school and it is a cost we likely bear in one form or another for the entire life of that student. Only when all students regardless of socio-economic status, graduate ready to become productive citizens of our democracy do we all win. In this time of “it’s all about me and mine” it would serve us best to remember we really are “all in this together.”

 

The color of accountability

I wasn’t surprised by The Republic’s recent findings that during the 2015-16 school year, the vast majority of funding ($20.6 million) for vouchers was taken from public schools rated A or B, but only $6.3 million was taken from schools rated C or D. I’d previously seen a statistic that in 2012, about 92 percent of students taking advantage of the voucher (Empowerment Scholarship Account) program would have attended private schools anyway regardless of voucher availability. Let’s face it; this was never about helping the poor, disadvantaged minority child. The reality is that vouchers were never for poorer Arizonans who can’t cover the average private-school tuition costs of $10,421 when a voucher provides only $5,200.

And yet, the AZ Legislature is pushing two bills to fully open the floodgates on voucher availability, making every student in Arizona eligible for vouchers for homeschooling, tutoring, private school, or to save for college. This, despite the fact that there is little accountability in the program. Yes, recipients must provide quarterly reports of their spending, but DOE staffing for oversight is reportedly insufficient and the schooling options that vouchers pay for have no responsibility for reporting any kind of results. The taxpayer then, has no way to determine return on investment.

Here’s where I start to get confused. The GOP nay, Teapublican-led Arizona Legislature, loves to tout the need for accountability of taxpayer dollars. They are great however, at picking and choosing their targets for applying this accountability. [Please read on, this post isn’t really about vouchers.]

In 2015 for example, Representative Mark Finchem, R-LD11, basically accused both the Phoenix Union High School (PUHSD) and Tucson Unified (TUSD) school districts of using desegregation (deseg) funding for purposes other than what they were intended for. TUSD Superintendent H.T. Sanchez said he was not aware of any misuse, citing the fact that there is a strict review process for every deseg dollar spent. In fact, oversight of this funding is provided by the plaintiffs in a deseg suit against the district, the DOJ, a federal judge and the special master, a deseg expert overseeing the district’s efforts all get to weight in on how deseg funds can be used. Finchem though was undeterred and demanded forensic audits that the schools would have to pay for because “these are taxpayer dollars and we want to make sure those dollars are being spent wisely, that they’re not being misappropriated. And I think that’s an obligation this body has to see to it that those dollars are spent that way.”

Fortunately, SB 1120 failed. Senator Steve Farley, D-LD9, who had a child in TUSD, said, “Finchem represents no part of the Tucson Unified School District.” Finchem never took the time to discuss the issue first with Sanchez, meet with district officials or review audits already done according to Farley.

So, why don’t AZ Legislators care about accountability when it comes to vouchers, but are all over it when it comes to desegregation funds? Could it just have something to do with the socio-economic status and color of most voucher (private school) students versus those who are beneficiaries of deseg funds? Just sayin’…

I must admit I hadn’t really taken the time to learn the details about deseg funding (my district doesn’t get any) until a recent email exchange with Representative Vince Leach, R-LD11. In his email, he intimated that “districts continue to violate civil rights after billions of dollars have been spent to fix the problem” and asked, “Where is the accountability in that?” Again, that whole accountability thing. Yet, when I asked him to please vote no on the voucher expansion, citing in part the lack of accountability, he said “I think you know I am going to vote for them.”

So yes, I took the time to learn more about desegregation funding. The issue dates back to at least 1974 when two families filed separate lawsuits against TUSD and the court found TUSD “had acted with segregative intent” and failed to fix the problem. In 1979, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) launched an investigation against PUHSD and a lawsuit was filed in 1982 for allegedly engaging in segregation practices. Problems were also found in the Tempe Elementary School District to include deliberately segregating minority and non-English speaking students, assigning minority teachers to the district’s poorest schools and placing a disproportionate number of English language learners in special education classrooms. Schools in wealthier parts of the District also had full-day kindergarten, nurses and librarians, but the others did not.

In 1985, Arizona enacted legislation to allow districts under federal court orders or OCR agreements to bring racial and ethnic balance to their schools and provide equal access to high quality education, to levy property taxes above their revenue control limit. As a result, those districts were able to levy a limited amount of higher local property taxes without voter approval. Although there were some problems along the way, in 2005, PUHSD gained “unitary status” followed by TUSD in 2009. This status meant that these districts had formally fulfilled their desegregation court order. Plaintiffs in the TUSD suit disagreed the problem was fixed, filed an appeal of the District’s unitary status designation and in 2011; the Appeals Court reversed the decision and appointed a highly paid special master (in Massachusetts) to help TUSD develop a new “road map.” This road map outlines required activities including student assignment, transportation, faculty and staff assignment, quality of education, discipline, family engagement, access to facilities and technology and transparency and accountability.

There are now 19 school districts with almost 250,000 students (about 23% of the total) around Arizona that receive $211 million for racial and ethnic discrimination remediation (unchanged since 2009.) Since 1986, the total comes to $4.3 billion, with 97 percent going to Phoenix and Tucson Schools. Only PUHSD and TUSD actually receive “desegregation funding”, the other 16 districts have administrative agreements with OCR. Two bills in the AZ Legislature, seek to reduce and eventually eliminate all this funding (within 5 years for those with OCR agreements and 10 years for those in unitary status.) SB 1125 (a follow-on to last session’s unsuccessful 1371), sponsored by AZ Senator Debbie Lesko, R-LD21, passed by the Senate Finance committee on 2/11/16 and claims state property tax rate caps require the general fund to make up some $23 million in 2015 in desegregation funding garnered at the local level. HB 2401 sponsored by Representatives Vince Leach and Mark Finchem is a companion bill which has been retained on the calendar as of 2/23/16.

Of her bill, Lesko said “That’s money from all over the state that shouldn’t just go to a couple districts.” She thinks that rather then relying on deseg funding, districts should ask voters to approve budget overrides. According to the Senate Fact Sheet for SB1125 however, although the state funded this “cap gap” through FY 2015, the Legislature has now capped the state’s cost of the 1 percent cap program to $1 million per county, i.e., the state passed on a portion of the cost for the gap to the counties (who must then pass these costs on to the taxpayer.) Irrespective of the caps however, affected districts contend they would be violating a federal agreement and a lawsuit will ensue if the funding is discontinued. Additionally, according to a recent analysis by The Republic, districts receiving desegregation funding did not spend more per pupil than all others in 2014. This is because there are many different funding sources for schools including varying amounts of federal dollars, bonds and overrides.

For PUHSD, the largest in the state with over 27,000 students, the loss of deseg funding would translate to about $53 million and would require closing four high schools with a loss of 702 teaching and staff jobs (estimates put the state-wide loss of jobs at about 2,500.) The superintendent, Dr. Chad Gestson, says, “The proposed elimination of desegregation funding is simply a huge tax cut on the backs of our poorest students.” He goes on to say that the ramifications go beyond public education and will affect property values, crime rates, reduced tax base, more burden on the city, county and state and a lower quality of life. Superintendent Robbie Koerperich of Holbrook Unified School District says “we all deserve it…we [shouldn’t] bring Holbrook [down] to the same level as similar school districts, but we should fund the other districts to bring them up.”

Proponents of the funding however say the results speak for themselves with the graduation rate at PUHSD at 80 percent up from 55 percent 15 years ago. Same thing with dropout rates that went from 15 percent over 20 years ago to 3.4 percent today. The Districts grads are also earning more scholarships for college than only six years ago, $50 million now, versus $13 million then.

The $211 million currently spent in deseg funding works out to an average of $844 per student. The question we should be asking isn’t “is it unfair for the 19 districts under deseg orders or with OCR agreements to receive this funding”, but what is the appropriate level of funding for all our students. Arizona k-12 education saw the highest cuts in per pupil funding in the Nation from 2008 to 2014 and to move up to even 45th place, we would need to spend $1 billion more, or almost $950 per pupil. Of course, other than the badly needed Prop 123 monies, our Legislature isn’t talking about education plus-ups, only cuts. (Sorry, but the recent restoration of all but $2 million of JTED funding doesn’t count, that was just about rectifying the bad decision made in last year’s budget.)

To the Arizona Legislature I say, the voters are waking up to your pretension that you give a damn about All Arizona’s children. To the voters, I say NOTHING speaks louder than your vote.

 

 

 

 

The Real Super Bowl

Capitol Media Services reported this morning that a “New deal could restore $28M, keep JTEDs alive.” Even though Governor Ducey has said he won’t support any bill that doesn’t keep the budget balanced, a Legislative veto-proof majority organized by Senator Don Shooter might save the day. That is of course, unless Senate President Andy Biggs refuses to have the bill considered. Biggs has said that although JTED started out as a good idea, it “has become a way for schools to get extra tax dollars for programs that really do not qualify for as CTE.” Shooter’s bill however, includes a requirement for audits and will include a new grading system, and Bigg’s has indicated these changes will help.

I predict the bill will pass given wide support by both the education and business communities and the fact that for the most part, the Legislature knows they made a dumb mistake in cutting the program in the first place. Or, I could give them credit for being really smart and cutting the program last year without the cuts taking affect until next year so they could be big heroes in restoring it this year if the voters put up a fuss. Nah…let’s stick with the first scenario. The bigger issue to me though, is the duplicity with which our state leaders are dealing with education. After all, they have no problem with exponentially expanding the amount of taxpayer dollars that go to private schools (92% of which are religious), but absolutely can’t stomach districts schools trying to improve their programs and ensure sustainability.

I’ve written before how CTE is a win-win-win, so I won’t belabor that point again. If the Legislature wants to place more rules on uses for JTED funds, that’s one thing. But it is entirely hypocritical for them to have cut the funds in the first place when the districts are just following the established rules. That reminds me of how districts followed the rules to create their own charter schools and then the legislature changed the law to prevent them from doing so.

It’s like this. Imagine the Super Bowl this Sunday isn’t between the Panthers and Broncos but between the Districts (underfunded district schools) and the Privates (well supported private schools.) Both sides have been training as hard as they can with the resources available to them. Unfortunately, the Privates have several advantages not afforded the Districts. First, the Privates were able to have all their first picks in the draft before the Districts could weigh in. Second, the Privates aren’t required to divulge any information about their team or their strategy whereas the Districts must divulge all, to include their playbook. Third, the Privates have unlimited potential for funding which allows them to hire and hold on to good coaches and trainers while the Districts struggle to recruit and retain sufficient numbers of each. Fourth, the Privates are flown to the game in first class style aboard their private jet. The Districts however, can’t afford a jet and they make the day long trip via bus to the game location. Fifth, the night before the game, the Privates are treated to a steak dinner at Ruth’s Chris Steak house while the Districts have a meal at McDonalds. Finally, the morning of the game, the Privates prepare in a luxurious locker room with all the amenities, while the Districts crowd into one of the stadium restrooms. Finally, to cinch the deal, the Privates have lobbied for government subsidies designed to lure players from the Districts. Of course, the costs for the Districts to maintain their team infrastructure remains fairly constant despite the attrition of players, so the funding they have left makes it even tougher for them to compete.

Who do you think would win the game? Not hard to figure it out is it? And yet, the Districts do more than their fair share of winning. As I have said before, I am not anti-choice. I just believe that the choice should be made with all the cards on the table. Corporate reformers have managed to sell the narrative that public schools aren’t working and the only way to save American education is to turn it over to the private sector. Truth is though, it is easy for the privatized schools to claim they work when they make the choice about who they admit, what rules they follow and what results, if any, they divulge. As many have said, it seems like school choice is more about choice for the schools than choice for the students or their parents.

I say let parents make the choice, but let’s demand both teams play by the same rules, particularly when it comes to return on taxpayer investment. More importantly, let’s all of us ensure that our overall system of education is producing the results needed for our students, our state and our Nation. To achieve the right result, we must focus on the right goal, that which made our country great. A free public education for all provided the fuel that allowed our economy to thrive and inspired the American Dream. It is too bad that keeping that dream alive isn’t the real Super Bowl that captures our attention.  The path we are on now will only serve to exacerbate income inequality and the death of that dream. It is about choice…a choice that is ours to make. It is our duty to make it wisely.

AZ again at bottom in “50 States Report”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The needs of the many…

Spoiler Alert: I am really glad I didn’t drive to Phoenix today for the House Ways and Means Committee meeting during which they considered HB 2842, Empowerment Scholarship Accounts (ESAs); Expansion; Phase-In. I’m glad I stayed home because I’m sure my presence would have made no difference. Instead, I watched live streaming of the meeting and gleaned from the testimony that ESAs are lacking in accountability and transparency and serve the few at the expense of the majority.

The first “against” speaker I viewed was Ms. Stacey Morley from the Arizona Education Association. She talked about how when the full cap is reached, 5,500 students could have accepted ESAs at a cost of $13M to the state. Tory Anderson, from the Secular Coalition of Arizona expressed her organization’s opposition to any use of taxpayer dollars to fund religious schools. An AZ Department of Education representative said DOE is neutral on the bill, but wants to ensure they get their full 5% portion of the ESA funds for ensuring accountability. These funds are prescribed by law, but haven’t always been fully included in the budget. He talked about the importance of adequate oversight and referred to the 700 to 1 ratio currently in place for program liaisons that work with families to provide that oversight. As high as that number is, he wanted to ensure further budget cuts don’t make the challenge even tougher.

Mike Barnes, from the Arizona Superintendent’s Association talked about how ESAs make it very difficult for districts to determine their potential enrollment and therefore the impact on their budget. He said he doesn’t see how under this structure, the state doesn’t end paying for students that were going to attend private school anyway. He mentioned that the funds given in an ESA equal about $5,200 which is $600 more than is given to a district, but $600 less than what a charter costs. Representative Bruce Wheeler asked him if we knew how many of those students who take ESA have parents that make in excess of $100K. He said he did not.

The next speaker was Julie Horwin, a grandparent of two children who attend private schools. I assumed she was going to advocate for ESAs but that was not the case. She opened by saying that ESAs mean we are paying with two separate school systems with public funds. She then relayed a story of a private school principal who is paid $40K per year and found out that his board members each get paid $150K per year with public monies. She finished by saying that this bill will not help the greater majority of our students.

Janice Palmer from the Arizona School Boards Association (ASBA) said school choice is robust and noted that ASBA was the first school boards association to participate in National School Choice Week. She said the bill is disconcerting because in a competitive environment, it is important to be fair. Parents she said, definitely need to have the largest voice in their children’s education but when public dollars are involved, taxpayers also need to be part of the equation. Finally, she noted that this is not a zero sum game. If we choose to press ahead with the expansion of ESAs, but refuse to increase taxes, other programs will suffer to cover the additional expenses to the state budget.

The “for” speakers were three parents or grandparents of special needs children and Michael Hunter from the Goldwater Institute. Those who spoke regarding the value of ESAs for their special needs students were eloquent and convincing. There could be no doubt that the ESA program has provided them options they might not have otherwise had. But, the option for special needs students already exists in the law the expansion of HB 2842 is well beyond just them, but ultimately for all students in Arizona. Michael Hunter of the Goldwater Institute pointed out that changes like this are always met with resistance. First, there was open enrollment and then charter schools, both which were touted by opponents as being detrimental to district schools. He said that instead of looking at the impact on district schools, we should look at each family’s situation. Representative Reginald Bolding went back and forth with him a couple of times trying to pin him down (with little avail) about the difference in accountability and transparency, especially with regard to academic standards, but in the end Bolding was left to make his points on his own.

When the committee members voted, only Representative Bruce Wheeler and Reginald Bolding explained their votes. Wheeler called it subsidization of the rich and voted no and Bolling said he just wanted to ensure we have good schools for all our students and he was worried that individuals who might benefit from the program wouldn’t know about it. In the end, the vote was not surprisingly, along party lines and the measure passed (5-3-1.) The vote was predictable, but still depressing. I am convinced it will do nothing to improve education in Arizona and will do very little to help those who most need it. The Senate Education Committee meets this Thursday, February 4th at 9:00 am in Senate Hearing Room 1 and will be considering SB 1279, also about ESA expansion. If you are registered in the Request to Speak system, please make a request to speak on this bill and if not, please email or call your legislators to let them know you do not support it. Anyway you look at it, ESAs are vouchers and, they are siphoning valuable taxpayer dollars to private (to include religious) schools. Register your concerns and let your voice be heard. In this case, the needs of the many, must take precedence over the needs of the few.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Part 2 – Why Ducey’s Promise to Lower Taxes is a Lie

In my previous post, I showed why Governor Ducey’s focus on tax reduction is a disastrous recipe for our state. Now let’s look at how those tax reductions we’ve been seeing aren’t really helping the average Arizonan. Instead, we continue to see the tax burden transferred from those who have, to those who can least afford.

Governor Ducey is intent on eliminating income tax in Arizona. Why might you ask? Because, for this Governor and others like him, it is ALL about business. And although corporate tax breaks are good for large business, 97% of the employers in Arizona are small businesses like S-corporations, LLCs and partnerships. These businesses amount to over 40% of the private workforce and are currently taxed by the state via income tax. I’m not sure whether ASU’s Center for the Study of Economic Liberty 2015 policy report by Stephen Slivinski is the “policy roadmap to elimination of the Arizona income tax” as it claims, or, if it was written to support Governor Ducey’s tax reduction plan. At any rate, Slivinski concludes in the report that: “The best hope Arizona policymakers have to eliminate the income tax is to phase it out over a number of years while maintaining budget balance.” He also makes the point that now that the state is on “surer fiscal footing”; it is time for Arizona policymakers “to look at important and necessary reforms over the next couple of years.” Waiting longer he claims, “may result in losing a golden opportunity.” Sounds like a Ducey talking point commercial to me.

Arizona already has though, the 13th-lowest individual income tax and the 10th-lowest combined state and local income tax in the Nation. Additionally, according to an article in Business Insider in August 2014, Arizona’s economy was ranked the 4th fastest growing in the US after Colorado, California and Texas. Of course, we also have the 4th highest poverty rate in the US with one in five Arizonans living in poverty. Obviously, there are winners and losers in Arizona’s current economy and Governor Ducey’s insistence on eliminating the state income tax and shifting state revenue collection to increased sales tax will do nothing to help those who most need it. Although sales tax is said to be a less volatile form of revenue than income tax, it also is the most regressive, hitting the poorest the hardest.

Of course, income and sales taxes are just two ways a state can tax its residents, there are a multitude of others. Here’s just a few examples of how we continue to be “taxed” all the while Governor Ducey claims he is reducing our tax burden.

 1.  The highest per-pupil cuts in K-12 education funding in the Nation from 2008 to 2012 caused Arizona school districts to seek more locally controlled funding as a way to survive. The number of districts asking their communities for funding through bonds and overrides in 2015 was up 150 percent since 2008. The good news for districts is that the voters recognized the need for the funding and the approval rate for these measures was also high. The bad news is that this was no reduction in taxes, but just a shifting from the state to the local level. Unfortunately, often the communities with districts most in need have the least amount of capacity to help.

2.  Another solution many districts were forced to try in order to make ends meet was to reduce their school week from five days to four. As of May 2015, 43 districts (most in rural communities) in Arizona have already gone this route with many others considering following suit.  Arizona districts make up one-third of all four-day week districts in the Nation. There is debate over whether this move really produces the touted savings in the long run, but parents certainly don’t come out on top.  Rather, a four-day school week often requires parents to find childcare or, reduce the hours they work in order to care for their children when they are not in school. It also results in decreased wages for cafeteria workers and bus drivers. These people (especially in rural areas) may not have any real options to make up the difference.

3.  The state’s push of school choice via charters and Empowerment Scholarship Accounts (essentially vouchers) has been another way to transfer education costs to the local level. Charters usually require parents to transport their children to the school, do not offer any free and reduced lunch programs, and often require donations of parents. Schools in the Great Hearts Academy schools for example, “recommend parents contribute at least $1,200 to $1,500 per year per child to the school. There are also a variety of fees that are either not charged at all in district schools, or are much lower than what the charters charge.

4.  Even before Governor Ducey and the Legislature cut $99 million from our state universities and $19 million from our community colleges, Arizona had the deepest cuts in the Nation to higher-education spending. Those cuts drove the significant fee hikes and steepest tuition hikes as well, rising 83.6% since 2008.

5.  The Highway User Revenue Fund (HURF) which includes several taxes and fees such as the gasoline and vehicle license tax, was established to maintain roads, bridges and other transportation needs in the state. The Legislature swept about $860 million from this fund from 2000 to 2014 for other priorities. This forced local government to try to keep up with a more than $455 million in backlogs (with only 70% of cities reporting) for construction, repair, and maintenance of municipal streets. This isn’t just a double tax on Arizona residents (pay taxes to maintain the roads, then pay for car repairs after unmaintained roads cause damage), but also translates into a significant loss of jobs that could employ Arizonans to repair infrastructure and ensures that if and when the repairs occur, they will cost significantly more than if we had just maintained the infrastructure to begin with.

6.  In 2015, the state shifted 25% of the cost (about $12 million) for housing juvenile offenders to the counties, based on total population of the county. The counties are now required to raise the funds for this bill either through increased taxes or reduced services.

7.  Also in 2015, the cost to pay the Arizona Department of Revenue to collect and distribute sales taxes was passed down from the state to cities and counties. The change is expected to cost cities and counties about $17 million. This change applied even in counties that don’t charge a sales tax (such as Pima whose share of this new bill is $1.6 million.)

8.  In the past, the state picked up most of the cost of presidential primary elections. In 2016 however, the cost for these elections will be pushed down to the counties who will pay more than $3 million extra to cover those costs.

There are countless examples of this shifting of real costs, and even more in lost opportunity costs. Local governments say the state merely balanced its budget on their backs and saddled them with a huge financial burden that will continue to result in layoffs, tax increases and crumbling roads. Governor Ducey’s office responded that it is up to local government leaders to make responsible decisions. Really? How can local government leaders make responsible decisions when budget expenses they had no part in approving, are forced upon them without any vote in the process? Leave it to Ducey and Company to not only make a really bad brown matter sandwich for local governments to eat, but then also blame them for complaining how it tastes.

In this, as with any debate, it is possible to find a source to support any point of view. For me it is really this simple…does it make sense that you would tax the poor more to provide tax relief for the rich? Does it make sense that corporations are lured to locate in a state so they can pay even less than the under one percent they generally pay in corporate taxes? Or, does it make more sense that corporations are savvy and look at a variety of indicators to determine where to locate such as the quality of local schools, availability of a quality workforce, or a solid infrastructure? One doesn’t need to be a genius to understand basic economic concepts, all it really takes is a little common sense. A strong middle class is the best path to prosperity for our communities and our nation and economic policies that support its growth are the solution. Our tax policies should incentivize the behavior we need for the health of our communities, states and nation, not for the enrichment of a few. Finally, business definitely has a critical role to play, but so does government. It should ensure we are provided the basic essentials of safety, security, infrastructure and education and our tax policies should ensure sufficient revenue to do that properly. And, it should do that at the right level so as to ensure proper oversight and economies of scale.

No one party has the right answer here and there is no one right solution. It takes a smart application of available tools, wise employment of lessons learned and yes, a whole lot of common sense. Alas, as Voltaire is credited with saying in the early 1700’s: “Common sense is not so common.”

 

Ducey on Education…What’s he really saying?

Governor Ducey’ State of the State address today at the AZ Legislature’s opening day was a fairly typical “state of” address. He talked about what he’s accomplished thus far and provided sound bites about what else he’ll do. He promised he’ll lower taxes each year and still invest in education. He claimed it doesn’t have to be either/or, it can be both. He did not of course, dilineate any specific plan to do this, but that isn’t really what a “state of the state” address is for. He provided examples of good things happening in public education, and stated that Prop 123 will give us opportunity to make substantial progress.” Have to inject here that although I am supporting Prop 123, it won’t really help us “make substantial progress.” Even if with the passage of Prop 123, Arizona won’t move up from 49th in per pupil funding. After all, it is only going to provide about $300 per student, still less than has been cut since the recession began. Not nothing, but not a game changer either.

Governor Ducey then made the prediction that: “In the years ahead, Arizona will be among the states investing the most new dollars in public education – all without raising taxes.” Just to be clear here, the Prop 123 monies aren’t “new monies”, they are monies that were already owed to our schools. Not sure the Governor sees it that way, but that is the truth. More funding, much more funding is needed and every bit will be welcome, but I just don’t see how we can make a dent in the need without raising taxes. I am positive we can’t do it by cutting taxes and giving our surplus away as corporate handouts. We just need to look at what Governor Brownback did to Kansas with his tax cuts.   When he took the reins in Kansas, he dropped the top income-tax rate by 25%, lowered sales taxes and created a huge exemption for business owners filing taxes as individuals. He claimed it would spur investment, create jobs and bolster the state’s coffers through faster growth, sound familiar? Now, five years after doubling down, his state lags in job creation, tax revenue is far short of expectations and bond and credit ratings have been downgraded. Rating agencies claimed the tax breaks were unsustainable and that the promised economic growth would be elusive. It is with great hubris this lesson would be ignored.

Ducey then touted the conservative mantra that more money doesn’t equal better education with “We know spending is not the measure of success. And it shouldn’t just be about the billions of dollars we are putting into public education; it must be about what our kids are getting out of their education.” He’s right, it shouldn’t be just about the spending. But again, just look at the schools wealthy people send their kids to. Those schools aren’t bargain basement…they cost big money because they have small class sizes, highly qualified teachers (some with PhDs from Harvard, Yale and Stanford), extensive curricula, fabulous facilities and the very latest in technology. Money is not the only solution, but it does matter.

Facts also matter, so I have to call a “not so fast” on the Governor’s reference to “until the thousands of kids on public school wait lists have access to our finest teachers and principals, our job isn’t done.” Firstly, although Ducey refers to “public school wait lists”, he means “charter school wait lists.” Yes, charter schools are technically public schools, but district schools don’t really have wait lists, they must take all who reside in their boundaries and also accept the vast majority of those students who apply via open enrollment. So how about those much touted charter school wait lists? Although the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools (NAPCS) claims that waiting lists for charters across the Nation would top one million for the first time in 2014, a May 2014 report by the National Education Policy Center (NEPC) gave nine reasons we should be skeptical of these numbers. Among the reasons were: students apply to multiple charter schools; waitlists can’t be confirmed and record-keeping is unreliable; charters accept applicants for students they have no intention of ever admitting; and many charter schools choose not to “back-fill” students who vacated during the school year (because accepting new students mid-year can create turmoil in the classroom), which would reduce their waiting list. Without the ability to verify the wait list data to determine its reliability, the NEPC study concluded that “policymakers would be wise to set aside NAPCS’ claims and wait for verifiable data.” After all, where charter schools are managed by for-profit corporations, the facilities built with taxpayer funding assistance eventually become property of the corporations. Paint me cynical, but when a governor cites waiting lists as the reason to expand these schools and says he is going to provide more dollars for this expansion, it is easy to see it is in the corporation’s interest to inflate those lists. He also though, talked about the “need to provide resources for aging schools to repair and rebuild their facilities for future students.” I’m hoping he is including district schools here since their facility maintenance and repair has been funded at only two percent of the need over a recent four year period.

Of course, Governor Ducey continues to want to reward those schools that are already succeeding. In his speech he spoke of “the need to reward schools that are helping kids reach their full potential…and that under our plan, schools that produce students who successfully complete AP-level, college-prep courses will be rewarded with more dollars.” Likewise, he said: “Schools in low-income areas – where educators and students face added challenges – will receive an even greater boost for helping kids beat the odds.” I totally understand his wanting to reward “good behavior”, but am concerned about a lack of concern about helping those schools and their students who are struggling. In my former Air Force life, higher-heaquarters inspection teams routinely visited bases to evaluate their performance. Where there were significant problems, “staff assistance teams” would be sent in to help fix them. Although the boss (wing commander) might be fired if the dysfunction was severe, the assistance provided after the fact was not punitive, but meant to help things get back on track. The vast majority of our struggling schools have administrators, teachers and staff working hard to make a difference. They need help, not punishment likely to accelerate their race to the bottom.

I was very happy to hear him acknowledge the importance of career technical education (CTE): “I know not every child plans to go to college – their K-12 experience also needs to prepare them for life. Which is why I’m targeting high-need employment sectors with a new focus on career and technical education. There is bipartisan support for this – so let’s get it done.” Of course, this wouldn’t be quite as critical this legislative session if it weren’t for the Legislative mandated cut of $30 million scheduled to go into effect next year. Nonetheless, he’s right, CTE is a win-win-win and the funding must be restored and hopefully, increased.

The Governor also gave note to the fact that “The state isn’t the only player in public education. Every day, philanthropic foundations in Arizona are investing in our schools. They are developing new school leaders, expanding educational opportunities for low-income children and funding the arts and sciences. I intend to partner with the heads of these foundations to provide an even greater opportunity and impact in our schools.” Good for you Governor! Just don’t forget that it isn’t the job of these philanthropic foundations to provide for public education. That, as outlined in the Arizona Constitution, is the primary job of the Legislature and you! Irrespective of how much you promote the growth of for-profit charter schools and the expansion of Empowerment Scholarship Accounts (essentially vouchers), the responsibility for the public education of Arizona’s one million plus students is still ultimately rests on your shoulders. I hear you saying many of the right things, I just hope your intent is pure and your commitment is real. Our students are not a talking point, they are young people who deserve every opportunity to succeed and reach their full potential.  Not only for themselves, but for the future of our State and our Nation.

 

 

Top Five – Discouraged but Hopeful

So hopefully you already read my Bottom Five – Discouraged but Hopeful, here’s the rest of the story. First, the rest of what gets me really discouraged:

5.  The Legislature seems intent on killing the CTE/JTED, a critical program for our state. Career and Technical Education (CTE) offered by Joint Technical Education Districts (JTED), includes a variety of “votech” programs for which students earn high school credit, and in some cases, may earn college credit, industry certifications, and/or a state license through combination of hands-on training and classroom instruction. Since 2011, the Arizona Legislature has cut CTE funding by more than 53%. Some $30 million will leave the program next year and Districts will also take a 7.5% cut to their per-pupil funding for their students who participate. These cuts are stupid for Arizona! As I’ve previously written, CTE is a win-win-win. It has proven to decrease dropouts by as much as 72% and the Alliance for Excellent Education estimates that “if half of Arizona’s 24,700 high school dropouts in 2010 had instead graduated from high school, the economic impact on Arizona would include $91 million in increased earnings and $7 million in increased state tax revenue.” The Phoenix Business Journal also made a great case for CTE: “By destroying one of Arizona’s most successful education initiatives – one with real economic returns – the state will not be able to provide the skilled workforce that companies demand before they relocate or expand operations here. That means we can expect reduced workforce development, fewer young people escaping poverty and achieving economic independence, and higher social services costs.” There is still time to help. Please click here to sign a petition to restore CTE/JTED funding.

4.  Arizona’s teacher shortage. Actually, Arizona doesn’t have as much a teacher shortage as it has a shortage of certified professionals willing to work for salaries that won’t pay the bills. As of December of last year (according to the AZ Daily Star), 84 districts in Arizona had more than 1,200 teaching position open and 700 of those occurred during this school year. The state also had at least 1,000 vacant teacher positions to fill before the start of the current school year. The Arizona Educator Recruitment & Retention Task Force reported in January 2015 that there is a 7% decrease in teacher prep program enrollment, that Arizona loses 24% of first year and 20% of second year teachers and that 24% of the current education workforce is eligible to retire within the next four years. We have a huge problem that is only going to get worse and I haven’t even mentioned the school administrator shortage that is right around the corner.

3.  Proposition 123. Okay, so earlier I said I had hope because a settlement was reached in the inflation-funding lawsuit. Unfortunately, we are a long way from actually getting the requisite funding to our schools. First, the voters must approve it in a special election on May 17th  and those against the settlement filed almost 50 statements in opposition. There is also the matter that the state Treasurer is against the deal but he hasn’t been able to get much traction on his fight. That fact, combined with the $1.75 million proponents have raised to sell the prop to the public will probably carry the day. I do though, worry about the long-term impact to education funding and, I don’t really don’t like Governor Ducey and his buddies claiming a victory on this one. An example is Ducey’s “hay making” tweet on December 30, 2015:

ducey tweet

 

Sorry Guv, but no, you really just paid 70% of what the people mandated and the courts adjudicated and technically, you are paying the schools with their own money. You’ll be “shifting the trend line upward” when you plus up the K-12 public education budget this year. After all, its not like we don’t have the money. Arizona realized $150.5 million more revenue than expected in October and November of 2015 after ending the fiscal year with $266 million more in the bank than expected. Add that to a $460 million in the state’s rainy day fund and you’re starting to talk real money. And, Arizona voters are pretty clear about what they want done with that money. A recent poll of Arizona voters showed 72% believe investing in public schools should be a priority for this surplus. If the Legislature and Governor were listening to the citizens of Arizona (who are the “boss of them”), they would give some of this funding to public education and truly begin to reverse the trend, instead of following the abysmal fiscal example of Governor Brownback in Kansas by reducing taxes and giving more corporate handouts.

2.  Voting records of our legislature when it comes to support for public education. I already talked about this in a previous post but it bears repeating. The bottom line is that on average, Arizona’s Democratic legislators scored 48 percentage points higher for voting in accord with ASBA’s position, than the Republicans. There are of course, anomalies, but it is clear that in general, the GOP-led legislature is anti-public education. Want support for public education? Vote more pro-public education candidates into office. Some suggestions of those running for the first time are: Jesus Rubalcava running in LD4, Courtney Frogge in LD10, Corin Hammond in LD11, and Larry Herrera in LD20. I’m sure there are many more but I know all these individuals personally and they are young up and comers…just what we need to lead Arizona forward.

1.  ALEC’s influence on Arizona legislation, especially where it affects public education. The American Legislative Exchange Council’s (ALEC) agenda to privatize public education includes the promotion of charter schools (corporate charters and virtual schools specifically), private school vouchers, anti-union measures, “parent trigger” laws, increasing testing, reducing or eliminating the power of local school boards and limiting the power of public school districts. Anyone tuned into Arizona education or politics knows that ALEC has also had significant influence in our state. The Goldwater Institute acts, as ALEC’s “Mini-Me” in Arizona and AZ Senator Debbie Lesko, as the AZ ALEC chair, has been the organization’s chief water carrier. Half of our state Senators and one-third of our representatives are known members of ALEC and there may be more.  Corporations fund their trips to ALEC Conference where model legislation is handed out for Legislators to take back to their states for implementation. The organization awarded Arizona a “B-” grade in education policy for 2015. The state’s charter school laws and school choice programs were awarded “A” grades, teacher quality and policies were graded “C-.” This most certainly means we’ll see more ALEC-drafted bills coming down the pike.

Now, for what most gives me hope:

5.  Superintendent Douglas finally seems to be focusing on the education of our kids. It’s been a tough year for the Superintendent, much of it apparently of her own making. But, she went on not one, but two listening tours around the state and evidently, really listened. Her “AZ Kids Can’t Afford to Wait” plan is focused on how to make things better for Arizona’s students, much of it revolving around improving teacher support to include increased salaries. This report shows that at least she understands what needs to be done. She survived the attempt to recall her; time will tell whether she can lead real change.   Current leadership aside though, I share Representative Randy Friese’s question as to why the Superintendent of Public Instruction is an elected position. After all, Arizona is one of only 13 states where this is the case and, the position is basically just an administrator who is only one member on the state Board of Education which is responsible for exercising general supervision over and regulating the conduct of the public schools system. AZCentral.com reported this week that Representative Friese intends to introduce a bill to make the change.

4.  Christine Marsh, Arizona’s Teacher of the Year, is really, really impressive. She is poised, articulate, and passionate and when she talks about public education, she takes no prisoners. In a recent article published AZCentral.com, she said that giving each individual student an equal chance to succeed is the point of public school education.   She pointed out that over 26% of Arizona’s children live in poverty, 4% more than the national average. “People need to understand the impact of poverty on students…and when we discuss school funding, we need to understand the impact our decisions have on each student,” she said. “[We need to] make sure that our policies and funding formulas don’t contribute to the problems they are supposed to be helping.” It is clear this outstanding teacher won’t be shy about speaking “truth to power.” Of course, I’m sure Christine would be the first to say that there are many, many more teachers just like her out there. I’m hopeful because of all of the great teachers serving Arizona’s students and am so very grateful for their service.

3.  District schools are still the school of choice for 85% of Arizona’s students. Despite having open enrollment and charter schools since 1994 and Empowerment Scholarship Accounts (basically vouchers) since 2011, almost one million students still attend district schools. The primary reason is that district schools are community schools with locally elected leadership that is responsive to the needs of the community. Charter schools and voucher provided alternatives will never serve the majority of students, that’s just not realistic. As members of the more than 240 school boards govern to improve achievement for the almost one million students in their care, they work to ensure the bedrock of our democracy/republic, “an educated citizenry” according to Thomas Jefferson, is realized.

2.  Arizona’s education advocates are really getting their act together, literally! The Arizona School Boards Association (ASBA), the Arizona Education Association (AEA) and the Arizona Association of School Business Officials (AASBO) worked together to craft a palatable compromise to settle the inflation-funding lawsuit. I know many are not happy about the settlement, but these three organizations worked tirelessly for five years to get Arizona districts the funding they were due. Yes, it is only two-thirds of what was owed, but two-thirds is better than nothing and nothing was a distinct possibility. This is especially true with Governor Ducey’s appointment of Clint Bollick to the Arizona Supreme Court. Had this issue come before him, it most certainly would have died a quick death. Another public education advocate, Support Our Schools AZ (SOSAZ), saw its “Arizona Parent Network” grow wings and take flight. In October, the organization hosted the first-ever Education Excellence Expo at Salt River Fields with 26 districts from all over the state showing off the excellence in Arizona’s public schools.

1.  Maybe, just maybe, Arizona voters are waking up. 2015 saw some encouraging upticks in support for public education. In early March, two mothers sparked a day of peaceful protest at the state Capitol. Close to 1,000 parents, students, teachers, and community members showed up to protest Governor Ducey’s proposed education budget cuts. I was there, and it was exciting to be a part of a genuine grass-roots movement that helped bring education to the forefront. That renewed focus no doubt aided in the successful passage of so many bonds and overrides such as in Maricopa County, where 23 of 26 districts had successful ballot measures. Results elsewhere were not as good such as in Pinal County, where only half of the measures passed, but overall, the numbers were up and that bodes well for public education in general.

What this exercise made me realize is that I really am more optimistic than pessimistic about public education’s future. I had to work harder to come up with the “what’s discouraging” than “what gives me hope.” Maybe that’s who I am, or maybe, I just believe that ultimately, “good” wins. “Good” in public education is that which serves the majority of our children; that which recognizes each of them deserves equal opportunity to be the best they can be; and that which best serves our communities, our state and our nation.   I believe that “good” in public education is that which is transparent, accountable, and dedicated to helping each child achieve their full potential. Anything else is so very much less than good – it is just plain evil.