Teachers are the real patriots

These are tumultuous times. It seems every single day brings a rollercoaster of emotions over what is going on in our country.

A couple of days ago, I read this letter to the editor in the AZ Star that floored me.

Not only that it had been written, but that the Star printed it (hope they also sent it to the FBI). But after further reflection, I realized that it is better to shine the light on hate like this. It is better to understand the threat so that we can be prepared to counter it.

This guy gets so much wrong. I too am a veteran who served 22 years in the Air Force. I too took an oath to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same…”. But, I don’t equate defending the President with defending the Constitution. Not, when that President has told over 10,000 lies since taking the Oath of Office and not when he refuses to respect the Constitution himself.

What is most galling and actually frightening about this letter though, is that Mr. Theriot thinks that Democrats are the enemy, not the Russians who hacked our elections and continue to conduct cyber warfare against us daily to disrupt our operations and sow hate and divisiveness.

Ultimately though, I remain hopeful. For every Theriot, there are dozens of others like a group of teachers in Flagstaff who recently pushed back on an invite from the Arizona Chamber. Saying they “recognize the gesture of a Teacher Appreciation Dinner, we respectfully decline the invitation. We feel attending your dinner would be condoning the AZ Chamber’s many coordinated attacks on public education over the years. You see, educators have been pleading with the state of Arizona for adequate public education funding for an entire decade, and it seems that at every turn, the Chamber of Commerce has been there to block our efforts and work against us.”

There is much to be proud of with these almost 100 teachers’ not only taking the stand, but individually putting their names on the letter to the Chamber. In our hyper-polarized nation, it is increasingly difficult to take a stand. But, these teachers understand that, “if you stand for nothing, you’ll fall for anything.” So, they stood and said “we cannot and will not ignore the Chambers’ agression toward public education funding, and we refuse to allow your organization to bask in the glow of a feel-good PR campaign while consistently working against the interests of educators and working families across our great state.”

The teachers were also clear that they “will always welcome any collaboration with the business community designed to achieve positive educational outcomes for all of Arizona’s children.” They aren’t closed off to innovations for the betterment of all students, they just aren’t going to accept a system that is increasingly stacked to benefit those who “have” over those who “have not”.

I’m guessing Mr. Theriot would be as aghast at these teachers’ letter, as I was at his. The difference though is that the teachers’ words are aligned with the Constitution and good old American values, not at odds with it. They are exercising their 1st Amendment Rights to call out hypocrisy, not promising the “wrath of Hell will descend” on fellow Americans. The teachers are also standing up for their public school students, not a President who is a pathological liar and of whom, Mitt Romney said he was “sickened at the extent and pervasiveness of dishonesty and misdirection”.

Where Theriot said, “there are many retired military who will protect our president” (in spite of the Constitution one might surmise), the teachers called out the AZ Chamber for their work in scuttling a ballot initiative supported by the voters and for giving “enormous tax breaks to corporations and the wealthy instead of requiring them to pay their fair share for the benefit of all”. They also called out the Chamber for making “it a top priority to devastate educators’ retirement security by privatizing our pensions”, demanding “the Chamber of Commerce leave our retirement funds as the earned, defined benefit they are.

These teachers, standing up for those most vulnerable among us, are the real patriots. They know there can be no great democratic republic when there is no educated citizenry and that our public schools are the only ones that can address the problems we face at the scale demanded. Over 90% of America’s K–12 population attends public schools and that is where our singular educational focus should be. No. That is where it MUST be. Yes, to provide an engaged citizenry who can think creatively and determine fact from fiction.

The focus must also be on public schools to ensure our country stays strong. According to The American Conservative in 2018, one in three potential recruits are disqualified from service because they’re overweight, one in four cannot meet minimal educational standards (a high school diploma or GED equivalent), and one in 10 have a criminal history. In plain terms, about 71 percent of 18-to–24-year-olds (the military’s target pool of potential recruits) are disqualified from the minute they enter a recruiting station: that’s 24 million out of 34 million Americans. The article didn’t mention that the frenzied focus on high-stakes standardized tests and siphoning money from public schools have largely not improved achievement, but often robbed our students of opportunities such as physical education, art, music and more. Research shows curriculums must be robust to adequately develop all parts of the mind and to keep students engaged in school. Unfortunately, students in schools that are able to offer more, have plenty of other choices besides military enlistment.

Yes, we have much work to do. But, allowing ourselves to be divided and conquered, whether by Russia, partisan politics, or school privatizers is not going to help us get it done. To stay strong and prosperous, we must be true to what is referred to as the “immortal declaration”. From the Declaration of Independence, it states that, “We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness”.

America is undoubtedly a long way from realizing this dream. But even the aspiration itself is one of the things that sets us apart from most other nations and is one that we should fight tooth and nail to achieve. As patriots, we must steadfastly reject the nightmare Theriot and others like him would have us embrace and continue to fight with all our power for this American ideal and the Dream it promises.

Our very different pains rhyme

During this week of Martin Luther King Day, I’ve found myself reflecting on both the state of equity in America and my personal journey toward the greater understanding of such.

In the Air Force, we received annual training designed to teach respect for differences and promote the value of diversity. We were taught that in spite of any “deeply held beliefs”, we must not act in a manner inconsistent with Air Force values. The Commander of Air Mobility Command General Darren McDew, wrote in 2015 that,

“Diversity is part of our DNA. America’s strength is even greater than the sum of its parts. Our best qualities as a nation shine through when we embrace different cultures, backgrounds, and ways of thinking.”

While serving, I felt the Air Force believed this ideal even if it wasn’t always successful at achieving it.

It wasn’t until I retired from the Air Force and managed a nonprofit with social justice as one of its core tenets, that I gained deeper insight into the meaning of equity. In fact, I was some 50 years old before I can remember hearing the term “white privilege”, especially used in reference to me.

The job was an ill fit for a hard-charging retired Colonel who wasn’t really prepared for the vastly different culture I would encounter. One example was my effort to learn more about each staff member by taking them to lunch. One of my goals was to learn what was important to them and how I could support them. One, an African-American transgender male, seemed very distrustful of me and was not interested in opening up to me or helping me navigate the new environment. He indicated early on that I didn’t understand and when I asked him to help me understand, he said that wasn’t his job. I was incredibly put off by his response and did not try again to reach out to him.

A decade later I understand more about what he meant when he said it was not his job to make me understand. When I think back on it now, I’m mortified at how ignorant I was about the real state of equity (or rather inequity) in America. I credit the Arizona School Boards Association for much of my increased awareness and understanding. I’ve gained great insights via attendance at conferences, tuning in to webinars, being a part of the Black and Hispanic and Native American Indian caucuses, or just talking to the very diverse membership. I’ve also enhanced my understanding of equity challenges by reading a variety of books and articles on the subject.

One such book is “A People’s History of the United States” by Howard Zinn. According to the publisher’s summary, it “is the first scholarly work to tell America’s story from the bottom up – from the point of view of, and in the words of, America’s women, factory workers, African-Americans, Native Americans, the working poor and immigrant laborers.” My perspective is that it lays bare, the truth about American exceptionalism. Yes, our founding fathers set out to create a “more perfect union”, but they did not do it on their own. They did it through a combination of grit and ruthlessness and on the backs of those who largely, were not white.

White settlers n America and the soldiers that paved their way, were for all practical purposes, a conquering force. And let’s face it, those being conquered always get the raw end of the deal. As we know though, America’s indiginous people were not the only ones used, abused and slaughtered. There has always been some group of people who paid the price for the rest of us to succeed and prosper. Another book I recently listened to, poignantly drove that message home. It is a novel called “Washington Black” by Esi Edugyan and tells the story of the fear and brutality of slavery in the 1800s.

These books helped me understand the sins of our American past that set the stage for the inequities many of our citizens continue to experience. I’ll be honest, I didn’t really understand that connection earlier in my life. I didn’t understand what impact centuries of systematic oppression could have on people living today. I didn’t know that poverty is the greatest barrier to student success and that those students in poverty are overwhelmingly of color. I certainly didn’t know about our discriminatory policies such as “redlining” to deny blacks homes in certain neighborhoods (still happening today), that insidiously creates barriers almost impossible to overcome.

These aren’t the only barriers that seem almost impossible to overcome. According to the Pew Research Center, in the twenty-five years they’ve been surveying Republicans and Democrats about how they view the other party,

“the majority of respondents in both parties answered ”very unfavorable“ for the first time in 2016. More than half of Democrats (55%) say the Republican party makes them ‘afraid’ while 45% of Republicans say the same about Democrats. And just half of the members of both parties say that the other party makes them feel ‘angry’.”

I’m not trying to equate racial hatred and oppression with political polarization. Isn’t it all though, tied together in some way? Hate crimes in the US are up by 20% since 2016 and in the first three months of 2017 alone, anti-Semitic incidents were up by 86%. We know it has always existed, but a political environment unmoored from norms has unleashed the ugliness.

That’s why I was drawn to a book called “The Opposite of Hate: A Field Guide to Repairing Our Humanity”, by Sally Kohn. Tired of the 24/7 vitriolic bombardment and of feeling helpless to affect the change we need, I was looking for some nuggets of wisdom. Kohn offered many such nuggets, primarily gleaned by going into the field to talk to people in situations where they have every reason to hate, but then overcame that inclination and exhibited just the opposite. From the Palestinian vs. Israeli conflict, to the Rwandan genocide, to the real and very painful hate played out everyday in our own country (on-line and in-person), Kohn provides hope via examples of people who have “listened to their better angels.”

“Our identities and experience in the world in our skin aren’t the same”, she writes, “but can we all perhaps notice how, as the writer Anand Giridharadas says, ’our very different pains rhyme”’?”

LOVE this! We all are after all, just and equally, human.

Unfortunately, that concept often eludes us. The concept of “cultural hegemony” Kohn writes, is that

“whereby the worldview of the elite becomes the accepted social norm. The dominant view in the United States that white people should rightfully have more privilege and power is a form of cultural hegemony. And groups who benefit from hegemony don’t see their own bias – they just think that’s the way things should be. As the saying goes, ‘When you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression.’”

So, not understanding that I have “white privilege” doesn’t necessarily make me a bad person, but not being willing to learn about it and work to mitigate its potentially deleterious impacts (at least on a personal level), just might. As Kohn points out, “writer Audre Lorde suggests that forgiveness is injustice:

“Black and Third World people are expected to educate white people as to our humanity. Women are expected to educate men. Lesbians and gay men are expected to educate the heterosexual world. The oppressors maintain their position and evade their responsibility for their own actions. There is a constant drain of energy which might be better used in redefining ourselves and devising realistic scenarios for altering the present and constructing the future.”

So, I suspect, my former employee didn’t want to waste energy trying to educate me, when he didn’t believe I would either “get it”, or be part of the solution.

I understand now that the equality is not the same as equity. I also understand that the real question is not whether we are biased but rather how much bias we have and what we do to counteract it. Research shows it benefits all of us to do just that. We know that racial and ethnic diversity is great for communities, increases home values, and lowers crime (without putting up fences and gates). It also raises the achievement of all students in a school, not just those disadvantaged. But, as Kohn points out,

“it is too easy to believe that poverty and crime afflicting urban black communities is their fault, not seeing it as the result of centuries of violence and oppression, economic discrimination, and white flight. Just as it’s too easy to believe that poverty and crime afflicting rural white communities is their fault, not the product of discrimination and perverse health system incentives and the massive shift of manufacturing jobs from those rural towns to overseas. Because if it’s their fault, then there’s nothing for us to try to understand, let alone have to address. If it’s hard enough to overcome our own individual prejudices and biases, overcoming systemic hate is an even steeper uphill battle.”

Key to “Repairing Our Humanity” according to Kohn, is understanding our commonality.

“All hate is premised on a mind-set of otherizing. It doesn’t matter whether that “other” is someone of a different color, or gender, or race, or political party. The sanctimonious pedestal of superiority on which we all put ourselves while we systematically dehumanize others is the essential root of hate. In big and small ways, consciously and unconsciously, we constantly filter the world around us through the lens of our explicit and implicit biases [which we ALL, every single one of us has]. We think we’re good people, but we don’t see how that sphere of moral concern is constricted by hate, by the history and habits and culture of who matters and who doesn’t in our society, which we have all bought into, whether we mean to or not. The opposite of hate is the beautiful and powerful reality of how we are all fundamentally linked and equal as human beings. The opposite of hate is connection.“

One great example of this concept is the movie ”Green Book” which I just saw. I won’t go into it here, but trust me, it is a great illustration of the difference connection can make.

So, connection is key, but so is the personal responsibility to work for it. We must, as Kohn writes,

“become more conscious of our own hate – in all its forms, and work to catch and challenge our ideas and assumptions. We must support policies and institutions that bring us together, rather than divide us.”

That, she writes, will take talking to each other differently. “With the generosity and open-mindedness and kindness and compassion of connection-speech, instead of hate.” Again, a pearl of wisdom from Anand Giridharadas in a 2017 speech,

“Real change is systemic and self-implicating, urging us to see our role in vast, complex problems.”

We ALL, each and EVERY one of us, have a responsibility and role to play, to get us out of the gutter. No one has a free pass that relieves them of that responsibility.

Kohn spoke to me throughout her book to include this sentence,

“I haven’t arrived at some place of enlightenment. I’ve simply realized I need to turn on the light – and start noticing things differently and trying to be different.”

There is not a person on earth who does not have a bias. Realizing our biases exist is the first step. The second one is taking the required actions to see through them so you can be a part of the solution versus part of the problem. Mahatma Ghandi said we must each, “Be the change that you wish to see in the world.” And as the ancient Chinese saying goes, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”

Yeah, Let’s Focus on Our Students!

In a recent Scientific American article, a U.S. Department of Education spokesperson for Betsy DeVos said “The secretary believes that when we put the focus on students, and not buildings or artificially constructed boundaries, we will be on the right path to ensuring every child has access to the education that fits their unique needs.” As good as that sounds, it is total bullshit.

Here’s the deal. As much as its proponents try to tell us otherwise, school choice does NOT put the focus on students, because the “choice” is largely that of the commercial school, not the student. We know for example that private schools have total control over what students they accept, irrespective of the students’ funding sources (taxpayer-funded vouchers included.) Charter schools are by law required to accept all, but we also know they enroll much lower percentages of special needs students, those of color, and those in poverty.

As for the secretary’s belief that we should put the “focus on students, and not buildings or artificially constructed boundaries,” puhleeeeeeeaaasssee! This is just a thinly veiled swipe at community district schools. In Arizona, over 80% of our students attend these district schools where facility maintenance and repair is severely underfunded and there are no “artificially constructed boundaries” since we’ve had open enrollment since 1994.

Incidentally, “ensuring every child has access” is not the same as “providing every child….” Access refers to “the right or opportunity to use or benefit from something.” But, it takes more than the right or opportunity, it takes the means not only to get into the school, but to get to the school and survive the school. That’s not how it works in a district school which takes all comers, and works to provide each student what they need to succeed. And, they continue to serve the student even if that student’s test scores don’t make the school look good.

The piece de resistance in the DOE statement though, is “that fits their unique needs.” Wow! Isn’t that a great sound bite? Unfortunately, it is totally undoable and DeVos knows it.

In America, one in five children live in poverty. This reality, not inadequately funded schools and under appreciated teachers, is their major hurdle to a good education. What these students need is more than district schools are charged with, or have the capacity to provide. There is just no way commercial schools will do better at bridging that gap.

It amazes me how adept the privatization advocates have been at messaging. They’ve convinced parents that school choice is the answer and that “voting with their feet” is empowering. But as a fellow blogger pointed out recently, when parents “vote with their feet” to leave district schools for greener grass, all they are really doing is relinquishing influence. There is no school choice option (aside from homeschooling) that provides a parent as much say in their child’s education as does the district school with its locally-elected governing board. Parents and taxpayers alike have the right to be heard at public board meetings and, if their elected governing board members are not responsive to parent’s concerns, they can be recalled or replaced via elections.

Yes, we should all be focused on the students. So let’s do that, okay? Let’s properly fund our local community district schools where over 80% of our students are, instead of reaching for the shiny object being dangled to distract us. Let’s demand our tax dollars are spent where there is full accountability and transparency with locally-elected governing boards responsible for producing a good return on our investment. Let’s demand our teachers are adequately compensated and treated like professionals. Let’s in other words…put our money where our mouth is. The bottom line is that parents shouldn’t have to make a choice about where to send their kids. Every public school should be a high quality one.

 

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

 

Ooops, there it is!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Festering Wound

First, let me be absolutely clear. I will applaud any modicum of success Donald Trump realizes as POTUS. It’s currently hard to envision, but if it does happen, I will give credit where credit is due. My bottom line is that I want our country to succeed and flourish.

Second, although I didn’t vote for him, I don’t believe President Trump is the worst threat to our democracy. He is just the most visible symptom…the metaphorical “pus” that oozes from the infected wound. Yes, part of reason he was elected is that middle America is tired of being ignored and wants change. I get that. I wish our system had offered them better choices. But, he was also propelled to victory because of the “bacteria” of racism and hatred, fed by the “talking heads” and Internet content of questionable veracity. Over time, this bacteria infected the wound, generating the “pus” which indicated a problem.

What was the original wound? Well, it depends on how far back you want to go. In my lifetime, I think it would have to be the denial of civil rights that led to the civil rights movement that led to resentments (that I believe were unjustified) that so significantly wounded our national psyche. Please don’t get me wrong. President Lyndon Johnson was absolutely right to sign the Civil Rights Act in 1964. It helped right many of the wrongs that had permeated for too long against way too many. Unfortunately, the change in law was, in some ways, just a band-aid that masked the wound. It helped the healing begin, but did not deliver the antibiotics to cure the sickness. No doubt, the antibiotics (eradicate poverty, fix the criminal justice system, win the war on drugs) were huge pills that we weren’t willing to swallow. As a result, the wound never properly healed.

The more optimistic part of me says, “at least now the hatred and resentment is out in the open. At least now we can see the extent of the sickness and begin to deal with it.” Problem is, it will now take even more powerful and costly antibiotics to heal the wound, assuming we could even agree what the wound is.

A couple of days ago, I was listening to NPR’s “On Point.” The discussion was about President Obama’s legacy and a caller said he was really glad Obama was gone because of “the hate he sowed.” The show’s host was obviously incredulous and asked the caller why he thought this. The caller said, “when Trayvon Martin was killed, Obama immediately came out with a statement about how ‘it could have been my son.’” The host said he didn’t think there wasn’t anything racist in that statement, rather, President Obama was trying to empathize with Trayvon’s family. The caller though seemed undeterred. I don’t think he was trying to be inflammatory, but sincerely believed Obama was stoking racism. Try as I might, I can’t begin to understand how he came to that conclusion and it makes me really sad for our country and our democracy. Day after day, especially since Trump’s election, I encounter viewpoints from neighbors and acquaintances that are 180 degrees different from mine on a myriad of issues. How did we get to this place and more importantly, what are we going to do about it?

Obviously there were a combination of factors that brought us here. First, the choice of “news” sources we now enjoy ensures there is much less homogeny in our perspectives than when Walter Cronkite told all of us “that’s the way it is” at the end of each day. Not only that, but algorithmed social media continually feeds us “news” that only serves to ingrain the beliefs we already hold. This is compounded by the “echo chambers” “that allow us to promote our favorite narratives, form polarized groups and resist information that doesn’t conform to our beliefs.”

Second, some of us have lost the true meaning of patriotism. I contend patriotism is not about symbolism such as wearing a flag pin or flying the flag. In fact, George Washington implored Americans to “Guard against the impostures of pretended patriotism.” Rather, as John F. Kennedy said, patriotism is about asking “what we can do for our country” versus what “our country can do for us.” Patriotism is also, as Republican President Theodore Roosevelt said, “to stand by the country. It does not mean to stand by the president or any other public official, save exactly to the degree in which he himself stands by the country. It is patriotic to support him insofar as he efficiently serves the country. It is unpatriotic not to oppose him to the exact extent that by inefficiency or otherwise he fails in his duty to stand by the country. In either event, it is unpatriotic not to tell the truth, whether about the president or anyone else.”  Our nations’ newest President would do well to heed the words of his 26th predecessor who was after all, immortalized on Mt. Rushmore for being one of the most popular and important of our Presidents.

Third, is our “me-first” attitude at the expense of any concern for the common good. Government is evil and should be reduced in size “where we can drown it in the bathtub” said Grover Norquist. And yet, government is us. It is our collective voice. It is the entity that we elect to ensure the safety and security of our citizens and the education of our children. In fact, our lack of national committment to a well-rounded, well-resourced, and truly public, educational system is a great example of the “me-first” attitude. The school choice movement, pushed by corporate profiteers, is cleverly devised to take advantage of this. It is not about ensuring ALL children have every opportunity to succeed, just “my” kid. It IS about resegregating our society by socio-economic status thereby over the long-term, ensuring wealth inequity is only exacerbated. It is also about reducing the people’s voice in our democracy and funneling as much of the $700 billion education market to the private sector as possible. It should be no surprise this is the goal of the rich and powerful. After all, as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., said, “The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically.” The less we all think it seems, the more our leaders can…well…“stink”, without us calling them on it.

Last, is our collective laziness surrounding the exercise of our civic duties. “Somebody” we say, should vote, should call, should march, should write letters, should run for office. Truth is, all of us should do most of those things. Charles de Montesquieu, a French philosopher who lived in the 17th and 18th century, said, “The tryanny of a prince in an oligarchy is not so dangerous to the public welfare as the apathy of a citizen in a democracy.” A democracy simply must have an engaged citizenry to be successful. I believe one of the important ways to be engaged is for each of us to pay our fair share of taxes. Author Alain de Botton eloquently said, “Paying tax should be framed as a glorious civic duty worthy of gratitude – not a punishment for making money.” Performing jury service or signing up for the draft are two other ways we fulfill our civic duties. The important point is that each of us realizes that the freedoms we enjoy don’t come free.

As for what we can do to turn things around, well therein lies the rub, right? I’m pretty sure that it starts with listening to each other again. As the saying goes, “that’s why God gave us two ears and one mouth.” It’s not just enough to listen though, we must actually hear and respond with compassion because even though it doesn’t seem like it now, we really are all in this together. If we could just find some common ground, we could start to rebuild. This rebuilding would initially look like tolerance of each other but hopefully would work its way up to acceptance. It would require respect for one another’s right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness; and that each of us strive to develop a “more perfect union.” Of course, to truly be a “more perfect union” we must understand that there are blue states and red states, white people and people of color, Christians and Muslims, men and women, etc. We must understand that our diversity doesn’t “ruin” America, it is what makes us great. It is what has always made us great. United we stand, divided we fall. Words to live by, now more than ever.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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