Bottom Five List – Discouraged but Hopeful

A recent article in The Atlantic magazine featured experts on K-12 education who offered their reasons for hope and despair with regard to education. It was an interesting read and prompted me to come up with my own list for Arizona. In this first of two posts, I share my “Bottom Five” list of what discourages me and what I’m hopeful about. First, what discourages me:

10. The extremely well funded efforts of the corporate “reformers.” Make no mistake about it, the effort by the corporate “reformers” to make sweeping changes to the Nation’s public education system is as much about making a profit as it is an interest in making a difference. The exact number is up for debate, but The Nation magazine says the American K-12 public education market is worth almost $800 billion. Now, everyone from basketball players to Turkish billionaires want a piece of the pie. It is no accident that the Koch brothers backed, corporate bill mill ALEC is pushing many of the reforms, and the technology magnates Bill Gates and Mark Zuckenberg are heavily involved in the “reforming.” All you have to do is follow the money and the intent becomes clear.

9.  The apathy of Arizona voters. I worked on three Arizona Legislative campaigns in the past few years and although I mostly enjoyed talking to voters, I was beyond dismayed when I learned that in 2014, not even half of the LD11 voters with mail-in ballots bothered to mail them in. These are people who are registered to vote and are on the Permanent Early Voters List (PEVL). They are mailed their ballots and can fill them out in the comfort of their home. They don’t even have to put a stamp on them, postage is pre-paid. These votes should have been the “low-hanging fruit.” Combined with the overall Arizona voter turnout of 27%, this is pathetic by anyone’s definition.

8.  The fact that Arizona leads in all the wrong metrics. Does Arizona care about children? Let me count the ways maybe not so much. According to the Annie E. Casey’s “Kids Count Databook”, Arizona ranks: 46th in overall child well-being, 42nd in economic well-being, 44th in education achievement, and 42nd in children’s health. The Databook also reports that 26% of Arizona’s children live in poverty, 4% more than the nationwide average. The personal finance website WalletHub reports much the same, ranking Arizona 49th for child welfare which shouldn’t surprise anyone given the dysfunction in our Department of Child Safety. I don’t know about you, but these statistics disgust me and should absolutely drive what our Legislature spends our taxpayer dollars on. It is about defining what kind of people we are, it is about helping those who can’t help themselves and it is about the future of our state.

7.  Some seem to think the path to success is to lower the bar. Even though there are people whose opinions I value that think Senator Sylvia Allen will do a good job as the Chair of the Senate Education Committee, I remain hopeful but have my doubts. Call me crazy, but I think the legislator with the most sway over what education bills see the light of day should actually have more than a high school education. Along those same lines, Arizona Representative Mark Finchem (LD11-Republican) evidently doesn’t think teaching experience is valuable for our county schools superintendents. He has already submitted House Bill 2003 for this legislative session, which seeks to delete the requirement for county schools superintendents to have a teaching certificate. Instead, it will require only a bachelor’s degree in any subject, or an associate’s degree in business, finance or accounting. I know some would ask why should county schools superintendents have certificates when the state superintendent of public instruction doesn’t require one. Well, I’d rather see us make it a condition of both jobs.

6.  The polarization of our county makes it seem impossible to come together to find real, workable solutions. I was recently speaking to a friend of mine who I’ve known for over 25 years. We started talking about education and he started railing about how all public schools do is waste money. He talked about the fancy new high school in his town that was built (in his opinion) much more ostentatious than necessary. “Why do the kids need that to learn” he asked? “Why not just give them a concrete box?” Really?? Where do I begin? Truth is, I didn’t even try because I knew he wouldn’t listen. He knew what he knew and no amount of fact was going to sway him.

But all is not lost and I am more optimistic than pessimistic about Arizona’s public education. Here’s what makes me hopeful:

10.  Across the Nation, more and more charter school scandals come to light every day highlighting the need for more transparency and accountability. I’m not glad there are charter school scandals, but I am glad the public are learning more about the dangers of a profit-making focus with inadequate oversight. That’s one of the reasons district schools have rules and controls; they are after all, dealing with taxpayer dollars. And oh by the way, it’s no longer just charter schools we need to watch. The continuous expansion of vouchers exponentially broadens the potential for abuse and requires the same kind of public oversight. There just is no magic pill to student achievement. It takes resources, dedicated professionals, and hard work. Short cuts in other words, don’t cut it.

9.  The fact that we still have dedicated professionals willing to teach in our district schools. Despite low pay, higher class sizes than the national average, insufficient supplies, inadequate facilities, and ever-changing mandates, Arizona still has close to 50,000 district teachers willing to be in our classrooms because they love the kids and they love their work. They are underappreciated and sometimes even vilified, but they know their work is important. Now, if only our Legislature acted like they knew this too.

8.  Recognition is growing that early childhood education is really important. Even Governor Ducey said in April 2015: “Research shows that a quality early childhood education experience can yield significant long-term benefits on overall development of a child. It’s the most profitable investment we can make in their future.” A recent review of 84 preschool programs showed an average of a third of a year of additional learning across language, reading and math skills. Preschool has also been shown to have as much as a seven-fold return on dollars spent over the life of the child. The public is starting to “get it” and support for preschool funding is growing.

7.  Speaking of Common Core, it seems to be working okay. Yes, I saw the recently released AzMERIT results, but we knew they would be low. That’s what happens when you raise the bar. Despite no additional funding or resources to implement Common Core (oops, I mean Arizona College and Career Standards), our districts made it happen and the numerous teachers and administrators I’ve talked to say our students are now learning more. Efforts are underway to determine what should be changed about the Arizona standards, but my guess is that they will be minor.

6.  If nothing else, the passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) saves us from the really bad legislation that was No Child Left Behind. Everything I’ve read about the new ESSA touts it an improvement over its predecessor. It reduces what some considered Federal overreach and provides states more flexibility in implementing their K-12 education programs. Which, oh by the way, makes me concerned our state legislature will look to relax requirements where it serves them, at the expense of those children who most need our help. At least now though, they won’t be able to blame everything on “the Feds”, to include whatever version of the Common Core standards we end up with.

Please stay tuned, still to come are the top five reasons I’m discouraged and hopeful.

Doing the Right Thing Isn’t Complicated

When I read the recent Cronkite News Service article “20 Years in, Arizona charter schools on firm ground” I wanted to rename it “20 Years in, Arizona charter schools still serve only 15 percent of the state’s students.” That’s when I realized how pointless this debate is. You know, you tout charter school offerings and performance and I come back with “yeah, but charters cherry pick their students and don’t have to put up with the same level of transparency and accountability.” Enough already!

How about we try something different? First, we recognize that charter schools weren’t originally designed to compete with community district schools, but rather, “to allow teachers the opportunity to draw upon their expertise to create high-performing educational laboratories from which the traditional public schools could learn.” Except for the part of allowing “teachers the opportunity” some charter schools have mostly done that. Take BASIS schools for example. Known for their rigor and academic success, these schools have an in-depth enrollment process that includes a placement test, they push their students hard, and they require significant involvement by parents who are likely already more engaged with their child’s education than the average. These factors no doubt contributed to BASIS Scottsdale ranking #2 high school in the nation for 2015 by U.S. News & World Report. There are takeaways from the BASIS model that would likely improve academic success at some district schools, but their high attrition rate is proof enough that it won’t work for the vast majority of students.   District schools can’t “attrit” students – they must educate all.

Unfortunately, our system doesn’t encourage schools to learn from one another. Open enrollment and school choice force schools to compete for the students that bring the dollars they need to exist. This competition comes at a cost. Today’s schools must spend valuable education dollars branding themselves and marketing to attract students. Larger districts now have marketing and public relations people on staff, but there’s no new money to cover these costs. The reality is that in the existing climate of “no new taxes” there is only so much education money to go around and adding more schools to the mix can only dilute the quality for the majority of our students. Instead of focusing on what model can perform better given the right circumstances, we should be looking at what will work best for all the children in our public schools. We need to revise an antiquated school funding model that simply “counts noses” rather than considering student demographics, performance and other measures.

We also must find a way to give our schools more stability in their funding. Our school administrators are professionals and they can make wise adjustments when they know what’s coming. Problem is, education funding has been volatile and unpredictable and even that which is mandated by voters and adjudicated by the courts cannot be counted on. And although charters complain that they can’t go out for bonds and overrides, the $1,100 (in 2014) more per pupil funding they receive is much more stable than the locally controlled funding districts have the option to seek. An analysis from the AZ Republic showed that from 2002 to 2012 69 percent of school districts had not issued bonds (or were shot down by voters when they did) and 73 percent hadn’t gone out for capital overrides or couldn’t win voter’s approval. Of course, school choice also supports instability as when money flows from a district school to a charter; the costs do not go down proportionately at the district school. Rather, the district school cannot shift their costs fast enough as students and revenue leave and the fixed costs for the principal, utilities, building debt, etc. remain often resulting in larger class sizes and cuts to academic programming.

The Payson RoundUp was way on-point recently: “We’re dismayed that Arizona seems more intent on nurturing for-profit charter schools than in adequately supporting our existing public schools. It makes little sense for the state to spend public money supporting a privately operated school that will result in shutting down a school already paid for by those same taxpayers.” They also asked why if the Legislature believes that giving free rein to charters and paving the way for them to thrive is good for our kids, why didn’t they just do that for our district schools? Great question!

So instead of revisiting the 2008 initiative to combine 76 elementary and high school districts into 27 K-12 districts, maybe we should look at whether encouraging the establishment of 600-plus new charter schools (many of them run by for-profit companies) made Arizona’s public education system more cost-effective in general. Although Arizona Charter Schools Association CEO Eileen Sigmund claims that less than 5 percent of Arizona charters operate through for-profit companies, I was unable to verify her claim. In 2012, Arizona had 108 schools managed by for-profit EMOs, the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools reported at least 30 percent of Arizona’s charter schools were run by for-profit EMOs in 2013 and in 2014, Arizona had close to 204 for-profit companies managing the state’s charter schools. In fact, the national trend is for charter schools to be increasingly managed by for-profit EMOs and it is estimated as much as 40 percent of all charter schools are operated by EMOs and account for close to 45 percent of all charter school enrollments. These statistics matter because when decisions are made by for-profit EMOs, they are often made at out-of-state corporate headquarters with profit, not students, in mind such as when they divert higher amounts of funding to administration. BASIS schools for example, directed close to $2,000 per pupil for administrators in 2014 while Peoria Unified School District only spent $732 per pupil for administration. Additionally, EMOs take advantage of the virtually non-existent requirements for accountability and transparency as well as favorable tax codes.

Ultimately, you can’t get the right result going after it for the wrong reason. I have to believe that if all we really cared about all our students receiving the best education possible, we could make it happen. In fact, if we only didn’t care who got the credit, we would be light years ahead. We know what we are doing now is more profit- and politics-based than truly pupil-based.  I know this is true, because we aren’t doing what we already know helps students thrive: high expectations, quality teachers who are respected as professionals, preschool, lower class sizes for at least the younger students, wrap-around services and community support for high poverty students, after school programs, remedial programs, home visitation programs and high quality child care. It won’t be easy, but it really isn’t that complicated. Of course, doing the right thing rarely is.

Ed Feulner and your Heritage Foundation, me thinks thou protesteth too much…

Nothing like some conservative propaganda first thing in the morning to get a liberal’s blood flowing. Yesterday morning, my Google alert on Arizona public education sent me a commentary from “The Daily Signal” which is the multimedia news organization of The Heritage Foundation. I try to be well read, especially on matters of public education, but I also know the source is important. So, I noted this commentary was 1) written by Ed Feulner who for 36 years, served as president of The Heritage Foundation and “transformed the think tank from a small policy shop into America’s powerhouse of conservative ideas”; 2) was originally published in the Washington Times; and 3) The Heritage Foundation (a 501(c)(3) charitable organization, touts itself as “the trusted conservative leader” and probably more telling, has endorsements by Senator Ted Cruz, Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity on its website home page.

Okay, so this is a commentary from a hard-core conservative. That got me thinking about what being a conservative really means. Wikipedia says conservatism is a political and social philosophy that promotes retaining traditional social institutions in the context of culture and civilization. It also says that there is no single set of policies that are universally regarded as conservative, because the meaning of converts depends on what is considered traditional in a given place and time. According to Merriam-Webster.com, conservative describes someone who: believes in the value of established and traditional practices in polities and society and is not liking or accepting of changes or new ideas.

It seems to me, somewhere along the line what it means to be a conservative became perverted. Conservatives today seem to be about exploring new ways to do things (when it provides profit), keeping government small and out of business (unless it is the private business of same-sex couples or a woman’s medical choices), and tearing down traditional social institutions (such as public education.)

Mr. Feulner’s commentary makes the point that children deserve more options than just public schools. What our children (all of America’s children) DESERVE, is well-funded, high quality public schools. Thomas Jefferson said, “Educate and inform the whole mass of the people…they are the only sure reliance for the preservation of our liberty.” Public schools have always been what best served to “educate and inform the whole mass of the people” and even today, in a state that leads the nation in the number of charter schools, a full 83 percent of Arizona’s students attend community public schools. Among the reasons for this is that no matter how much school choice is expanded, choice doesn’t guarantee opportunity or availability and, it is hard for the kids to be the priority when profit is the motive.

I’m on the governing board of a small rural district. Of the 410 students in my district, about 150 students living in our District have opted to exercise their school choice options. The other 410 students that attend our District are either happy with their community school, or they can’t take advantage of the opportunity. It is ironic that those who can’t take advantage of the opportunity are often the same disadvantage students those promoting school choice claim they want to “help.”

Mr. Feulner says that Education Savings Accounts (vouchers) enable families to deposit their children’s state per-pupil” funding in an account that can be used for a variety of education options. Since when did the state per-pupil funding belong to each child? I thought it belonged to all Arizonans collectively. In 2014, the average state and local taxes paid were $5,138. The primary funding source for K-12 education in Arizona is property tax, both at the primary and secondary (where approved) rates. The rest of it comes from the state general fund in the way of equalization funding, where required. The average property tax collection per capita in Arizona was $1,052. The amount deposited in ESA accounts is much more however, than parents pay in “school tax.” The range of funding for ESAs is from $2,000 to $5,500 for non-disabled students, and $2,000 to $30,000 for disabled students. The average ESA funding in 2014-15 was $5,300 per student without special needs and $14,000 when special needs students were factored in. As you can see, it isn’t only the parent’s taxes that provide for the per-pupil funding, the rest of us contributed as well. That’s why I don’t buy the assertion that the funding should follow the child, as if it belongs to them. It doesn’t belong to them or their parents, it belongs to all of us and we deserve transparency and accountability for how it is spent.

In addition to questions as to how my tax dollars are spent, I question the education being offered these students. Yes, unlike when you take your child and educate them with your money (not public tax dollars), I believe I have a legitimate say in what children are taught, when my tax dollars are used to teach them. In community public schools, locally elected school boards provide oversight of District operations and parents and community members are welcome and encouraged to stay tuned into what is taught, how it is taught, and who is teaching it. Locally elected school boards even approve textbooks. This process is not always perfect (such as with the Gilbert School Board recently voting to put abstinence-only avocation stickers in their science textbooks), but at least it is done in the light of day and can be addressed by those in disagreement.

Feulner is incensed that the ALCU is suing Nevada to keep its Education Savings Account law from taking affect. The ALCU says the ESA program “violates the Nevada Constitution’s prohibition against the use of public money for sectarian (religious) purposes.” He makes the point that the ESA funds go from the state to parents, not from the state to religious schools as if this makes all the difference. This is the same logic the Arizona Supreme Court used in legalizing Empowerment Scholarship Accounts (vouchers) in Arizona. Sounds like hair splitting to me.

Then, Feulner cites the example of a legally blind student and his parents used his ESA to provide him a great alternate education and save money for his college as well. Sure there are going to be many examples of how ESA’s serve children, especially those with special needs. I’m not against all use of ESAs, just as I’m not against all charter schools. There are special needs and circumstances these alternatives provide well. But, I don’t buy that ESAs are the best way to educate the majority of our children. I also don’t buy the pretense that this is all about parental choice, saving taxpayer dollars, or improving education. I believe this is about 1) making the education of your child YOUR problem thereby relieving legislators of the responsibility, 2) providing more profit opportunities for private business, 3) hiding conservative education agendas, 4) giving taxpayers less say over how their tax dollars are spent and ultimately, and 5) weakening our democracy.

You might think that tying ESAs to the weakening of our democracy is a bit much. Well, as those who desire to, take advantage of vouchers, they reduce the funding available to our community district schools. As the funding is reduced, more parents will be dissatisfied with the quality of educational opportunity in their public schools and more will leave. Those eventually left in our public schools will be those with no alternative and most likely those of color whom, for the most part, live at the lower end of the socio-economic scale. Our public schools are already experiencing the worst segregation seen since the 1960; it will only get worse.

In addition to the downward spiral of funding school choice forces upon community public schools, those who leave these schools also take with them their parent’s support and involvement. These parents are those who have typically worked for improvement in their community public schools and they are missed when they leave. Local governance (as does our entire democratic process) counts on informed and involved community members. Make no mistake. The war currently being waged on public education is a war on our democracy. As for those who would point out our nation is a republic, not a democracy, I say “get over yourself.” In the United States, we each have a voice and a vote. Assaults on those most precious rights are decidedly “un-American” and “un-patriotic”, and must be met head on.  Oh by the way, did I mention that ESAs (whether they are Education Savings Accounts or Empowerment Scholarship Accounts or vouchers) are one of the primary weapons of the American Legislative Council (ALEC) in their war on public education?  Don’t know what ALEC is?  You should.

Teach for America is NOT the Answer!

Arizona Legislators think spending $2 million on Teach for America (TFA) recruits is a solution for “supporting our teachers?” Get real. You don’t support teachers by bringing in “scabs” to take their jobs or, by claiming that young college graduates, with five weeks of training are “highly qualified teachers.” You support teachers by providing them what they need to do their jobs and paying them equitably.

I get that politicians want quick wins to show their constituents. But as the saying goes, politicians think of the next election, leaders think of the next generation. We need more leaders who understand sound bites don’t equal solutions. Using TFA corps members to supplant much more qualified teachers in an attempt to save long-term costs (such as earned retirement entitlements) is a short-term outlook that only hurts our children in the long run.

TFA recruits have shown some slightly higher gains on students’ assessments over comparable new teachers, but these “wunderkids” are far from the solution to our teacher shortage. Turnover, always a challenge with new teachers, is much higher with TFA recruits with 56% of them leaving after their initial commitment is up and a full 85% leaving by their fifth year.[i] TFA founder Wendy Kopp’s description of the organization as a “leadership development organization, not a teaching organization” is likely part of the problem.[ii] Corps members aren’t usually drawn to the program because they want to become teaching professionals. Their “gig” in the classroom is a jumping stone to more.

The real problem with using TFA corps members in place of teaching professionals though, is that it reinforces the thought that “if you can, you do…if you can’t, you teach.” Until we recognize that teaching is a critically important profession and invest in the education and retention of these valuable professionals, our country will never move the needle forward on education achievement. I wouldn’t consider five weeks of training sufficient for my doctor, lawyer, or accountant and I don’t consider it enough for our teachers.

Helping our schools succeed isn’t rocket science, but neither will it be easy. Money isn’t the total answer, but it is part of the equation. Yes, we have a teacher shortage in Arizona, but we can’t succumb to the quick fix. The solution lies in: 1) paying our teachers equitably so we can attract and retain the best, 2) keeping classroom sizes moderate so teachers can give each child the attention they deserve, 3) providing well-rounded curriculums that allow our children to explore their interests and fortify their strengths (since we never know where the next Einstein or Maya Angelou will come from) and 4) providing stability for our schools, staffs and students so they can focus on quality and growth, not churn and burn.

Diane Ravitch, our nations’ leading public education advocate, said recently at Lehigh University that: “public schools are the people’s schools, their doors are open to all…public education must be, as we once hoped, a bastion of equal opportunity. Public education is a public trust. It is not a business opportunity.”[iii] When a politician claims they support education, listen for the word “public” as part of their claim. If they don’t say it, they don’t mean it and don’t truly support quality education for everyone. It really is that simple.

[i] http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2011/10/04/kappan_donaldson.html

[ii] http://www.thenation.com/article/179363/teachers-are-losing-their-jobs-teach-americas-expanding-whats-wrong?page=0,1

[iii]https://www1.lehigh.edu/news/case-public-education

A million here, a million there, pretty soon we’re talking real money…

Yesterday, I was listening to NPR and heard a story about how Arizona House Bill, HB2128 just passed the third read and was transmitted to the Senate. This bill allows those who lease land to churches to claim a tax exemption as a result. The law change will result in an additional $2.1 million from the state’s general fund ending up in private coffers instead. Yet another example of our representatives looking out for the privileged few versus the average Arizonan.

Okay, $2.1 million isn’t all that much compared to a state budget of about $9 billion, but it all adds up. I started thinking what our district schools could do with $2.1 million. Again, just a drop in the bucket compared to what has been shortchanged our schools over the last few years, but it would help us begin to make a dent in the need.

Although my primary focus tends to be early childhood education when discussing where to apply resources, $2.1 million wouldn’t even begin to address the need. Arizona does not fund full-day kindergarten, let alone preschool, so although I believe quality early childhood education is critical to improved outcomes, I also recognize it will take some real political courage and time to get us there.

When considering mission success in the Air Force, we were taught to consider what limiting factors (LIMFACS) could impact our chances. The fact that poor children start school having heard as many as 30 million fewer words than their wealthier counterparts is a significant LIMFAC that quality preschool can help address. Another LIMFAC in Arizona is our significant shortage of school counselors. Arizona does not mandate school counselors, but their benefit is well documented.[i] They work as a team with school staff, parents and the community to help all children achieve academic success by providing education, prevention, early identification and intervention.[ii] “Counselors generally spend 80 percent of their time with students, and the remainder of their time collaborating with teachers implementing Arizona’s College and Career Ready Standards, supporting testing, and using test data to create, monitor and evaluate student academic interventions. Helping students develop strong interpersonal skills, and identify and cope with social, emotional and mental health issues is an equally important part of the job, at all grade levels, and one being felt more acutely in some parts of the state.”[iii] The downturn in the economy created significant stressors for families, especially in rural areas and a school counselor can really help bridge the gaps.

Sadly, Arizona leads the nation (only California has a higher ratio) in counselor to student ratio. The American School Counselor Association recommends a 1:250 counselor to student ratio. The national average in the 2010-2011 school year was 1:471 and the Arizona average was 1:861.[iv] Why is this important? To understand how significant this is, one needs only to look at the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s “Kids Count Databook” which ranks states in four categories (economic well-being, education, health, and family and community) to determine child well-being within each state. For 2014, Arizona ranked 46th in the nation overall and 44th in education. [v]

Obviously, Arizona’s children have significant stressors placed on them. Counselors in schools can do much to help identify and address these stressors before they manifest themselves in a variety of less than desirable ways. After the Sandy Hook shootings, there was much discussion in Arizona and around the nation about putting school resource officers (cops) back in schools or even more drastic, arming teachers. Under the guise of “an ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure”, I believe our efforts and money would have been much better spent on ensuring every school had a counselor.

So, back to the $2.1 million the AZ Legislature just gave away to wealthy property owners. Assuming a counselor costs a school district about $60K (with benefits), the $2.1 million the legislators just voted to siphon out of the general fund could pay for 35 school counselors. Granted, that would only meet about 3.5 percent of the additional need, considering Arizona’s deficit just to meet the national average versus the idea. But, it is a start. In my small school district (about 450 students) our administrators, teachers and staff are stretched thin. Both the superintendent and the principal also teach advanced math classes, must provide coverage for student watch duties and, the principal is the grant writer for the district. It is hard for them to be everywhere at once and a counselor would go a long way to ensuring the health and well being of all students.

The Arizona Legislature is marching steadily on in their assault on public education. Their refusal to look for additional revenue, while also finding new ways to divert taxpayer dollars from the public sector to the private sector continues to widen the gap between the haves and the have-nots and is not producing better outcomes for the majority of Arizonans. We, the public, really must wake up and demand better. Of the people, by the people, for the people. The common denominator in all that is “the people.” If we aren’t involved, we can’t complain. The bottom line is that we get the government we deserve.

[i] http://www.schoolcounselor.org/school-counselors-members/careers-roles/state-school-counseling-mandates-and-legislation

[ii] http://www.schoolcounselor.org/school-counselors-members/careers-roles/why-elementary-school-counselors

[iii] http://azednews.com/2014/03/31/arizona-students-access-to-school-counselors-decreases-while-need-increases/

[iv] http://www.schoolcounselor.org

[v] http://www.aecf.org/m/databook/aecf-2014kidscountdatabook-rankings-2014.pdf

Angry About the Apathy

Ever since election day, I’ve been very frustrated about the low voter turnout. After working very hard on two state legislative campaigns for the better part of a year, it is very disheartening to see how few people really care.  This is somewhat understandable when times are good. But how can the average Arizonan be happy with our current state of affairs?

I have to believe people voted or not based on their perceptions of who can deliver a better result.  “Perceptions” is the key word here.  I just have to say that the Regressives may have their own opinions, but they don’t get to have their own facts. Let’s just take a look at a few the myths they work hard to make us believe:

1. Trickle down hasn’t worked and doesn’t work.  The stats are clear, we have the biggest divide between the rich and poor we’ve ever seen.

2. Today’s wealthiest aren’t by and large job creators.   Hedge fund managers don’t contribute to our country’s economic well-being the way Henry Ford did.

3.  Charter schools and private school vouchers aren’t for the disadvantage children.  The vast majority of them won’t be able to go to them.

4.  Tax cutting our way to success just won’t work. Kansas anyone?

5.  The economy is recovering, but not for the average American and not at the pace it should.  With the wealthiest 40 Americans having more wealth than the bottom half of our population, the few richest just can’t buy enough houses, cars and appliances to move our economic engine forward.

We’ve all heard the saying “the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.”  Sounds like the AZ legislature in recent years.

But, I place the real blame for our current state of affairs on all those people who didn’t vote.  Many of these same people have the most reason to vote because they are most adversely affected by the trickle down philosophy the Regressives continue to push.  How anyone can believe voting can’t make a difference is beyond me.  Just think if Ron Barber had been successful in convincing only 167 more Democrats in two counties to get up off their butts and vote for him.

Yes, money in politics has always been an issue and now is a very mega major player in our electoral system.  At the end of the day though, each voter owns their own vote to use how they see fit.  If the rich and powerful exert undue influence on any of us, it is our own fault.

 

 

 

 

No, Spending Alone Won’t Fix Education. But…

No, money alone won’t fix education, but neither will starving public schools of resources and vilifying teachers. The US leads the developed world in children living in poverty. That is a problem our teachers can’t solve.

If money isn’t at least part of the solution, why is it that wealthy people spend thousands of dollars to send their children to costly private schools with small class sizes and highly qualified teachers? Those schools also have the advantage of picking and choosing what children they accept, unlike public schools, which must help every child who comes through their doors.

From 2008 to 2013, Arizona led the nation in per pupil cuts to K-12 education. Maybe that’s why the Kids Count Data Book shows Arizona as 46th in education performance and even the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) shows us at 36th?

It is beyond time to quit blaming each other and work together to solve our problems. Our kids deserve nothing less!

At the table, or on the menu?

I don’t think the average American begrudges wealth, not even great wealth. What we don’t like is when the wealthy get that way by ignoring the rules and playing unfairly. After all, the American Dream said that if you worked hard and played by the rules, you could end up better than where you started. With the deck increasingly stacked against the average Joe though, that dream is no longer a reality for most.

One example of the deck being stacked is the full-steam-ahead drive to privatize public education in Arizona. Oh sure. The “reformers” try to claim this is about giving parents choice and helping the most disadvantaged children. Just a little digging though uncovers it is really about helping the rich get richer.

Arizona has been a leader in school privatization since 1997 when the legislature first began pushing personal tax credits and “voucher” workarounds. Now, there are Empowerment Scholarship Accounts (ESAs), Student Tuition Organizations (STOs), and individual tax credits. An attempt to expand ESA eligibility from approximately 20 percent to over 70 percent last year was thwarted at the last minute, but you can bet the proponents will be pushing it again this year.

Why the big push for privatization in Arizona? Mostly, because Arizona is one of the leading water carriers for the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC.) ALEC is comprised of both corporate and legislative members who work in tandem to create and then legislate laws favorable to business. ESAs are an ALEC sponsored initiative, as are STOs. “ALEC-member legislators are unabashedly continuing to push legislation straight from corporate headquarters to Arizona’s law books,” said Marge Baker, Executive Vice President at People For the American Way Foundation. “Well-heeled special interests are circumventing the democratic system and bypassing Arizona’s citizens, who can’t match the level of access that ALEC provides. As a result, Arizonans are facing an endless assault from laws that serve the interests of the rich and powerful instead of everyday people.”

As Paul Horton writes in Blogs.EdWeek.org, “toward this end, public schools and public teachers have been subjected to a relentless barrage of negative propaganda for almost thirty years. Many corporations want to force open education markets, Microsoft and Pearson Education to name two of the largest, demand “free markets,” “choice,” and “free enterprise.” Public schools are defunded and closed, so that parents can choose among competing charter schools supported by city, state, and Federal policies. Politicians of both parties at every level are funneled campaign contributions from charter school investors for their support of “school choice.””

Of course, it all comes down to money. Money to be saved by the state, and money to be made by profiteers. Unfortunately, when profit becomes the driving factor, children become collateral damage. Already in the United States, students in the top quartile of family income have an 85% chance of going to college, compared to 8% of those in the bottom quartile. Although it used to be true in America that your children would likely end up better off than you had been, that is no longer the case. In Arizona, children have an uphill battle as evidenced by the state’s ranking of 46th in child well-being by the Annie E. Casey Foundation in its 2014 Kids Count Data Book. On top of that, Arizona has seen the nation’s highest percentage increase (77 percent) in college costs in the past five years, brought about by the most drastic cuts to higher-education funding.

Now, ALEC is poised to muddy the water even more with an assault on public universities in the form of their Affordable Baccalaureate Degree Act. This model legislation will require all four-year public universities to offer bachelor’s degrees costing no more than $10,000. To get there, the universities would need to capitalize on efficiencies provide by web-based technology and competency-based programs. If ALEC members endorse the bill, they will begin circulating and promoting it in state legislatures while, no doubt, continuing to starve the schools of funding.

These policy directions aren’t about making things work better for the citizens of Arizona and other states, they are about making money for corporations. In fact, “deep cuts in funding for schools undermine school quality in part because they limit and stymie the ability of states to implement reforms that have been shown to result in better outcomes for students, including recruiting better teachers, reducing class sizes, and extending student learning time.”

Out of one side of their mouth, the politicians say we must send everyone to college so we can be “globally competitive,” but out of the other, they vote for continued cuts in education funding which almost assuredly ensure only advantaged kids will get there. Diane Ravitch asks: “How will we compete with nations that pay workers and professionals only a fraction of what Americans expect to be paid and need to be paid to have a middle-class life? How can we expect more students to finish college when states are shifting college costs onto individuals and burdening them with huge debt? How can we motivate students to stay in college when so many new jobs in the next decade–retail clerks, fast-food workers, home health aides, janitors, construction workers, truck drivers, etc.–do not require a college degree? (The only job in the top ten fastest growing occupations that requires a college degree is registered nurse.)”

These are big questions that demand serious solutions, not single dimensional responses designed to benefit a fortunate few. The only way to ensure the right outcome, is to ensure the right players are in the game. Educators, administrators, school board members, parents, community leaders, and business people must all engage to help us change course before the promise of education as a great equalizer becomes ancient history. As Michael Enzi , senior U.S. Senator from Wyoming once said, “if you’re not on the table, you’re on the menu.

Our Brother’s Keeper

I find myself these days, thinking about how America seems so less kind than when I was younger. Am I’m just less naïve now? Or, as Charles Pierce recently wrote in Esquire, is the system really “too full now of opportunities to grind and to bully? We have politicians, most of whom will never have to work another day in their lives, making the argument seriously that there is no role in self-government for the protection and welfare of the political commonwealth as that term applies to the poorest among us. The rising rates of poverty no longer surprise us. The chaos of our lunatic public discourse no longer surprises us. We make policy based on being as tough as we can on the weakest among us, because cruelty is seen to be enough, seen to be the fundamental morality behind what ultimately is merely the law of the jungle. We do all these things, cruelty running through them like a cold river, and we call it our politics”.

I see cruelty at work in the corporate reform movement. Not only are teachers not properly valued for their contribution to society, but the corporate reformers have managed to vilify them as a blockage to improvement. Not only have they spread the message that public schools are failing, but they’ve also managed to push budget cuts and competition for resources intended to make their allegations a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Yes, the national corporate reform of education movement claims public education is failing and the only solution is to privatize our system to let market forces produce better results. What they fail to acknowledge though, is that it is not the schools that are failing, but our social policies. Poverty is the issue, not public education. When we compare apples with apples in the area of developed world education performance, we are very near the top. The problem is that we educate and test all comers, not just the best performing ones as the countries at the top do. We will never get our public education where it needs to be until we address the affects of poverty on public education success.

Open enrollment is not the answer; it only serves to create competition amongst public schools for precious resources. School choice is not the answer; it only shifts the responsibility from the state to the parent. Parents shouldn’t have to make a choice; every public school should be a good school. Vouchers for disadvantaged students to attend private schools aren’t the answer. Very few of those students will have access to take advantage of the opportunity and those that can’t, will be left in schools sucked dry by the privatization movement. The only real solution is to buckle down and address our real issues.

None of this is complicated, but neither is it easy. For all to have equal opportunity, all must start at the same place or, have access to a “bridge” to cross the divide. Building the “bridges” is hard work and will take serious funding. There isn’t a quick fix politicians can claim with sound bites on the evening news. But, it also takes commitment from the voters as well – to hold their representatives accountable, to be willing to provide funding, and to be patience to let the real, good work be done. It also takes the outlook advocated by John Dewey over a century ago: “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.”

Survival of the fittest is the law of the jungle, but it shouldn’t be the law of a civilized, democratic republic that considers itself the “city on the hill.” Contrary to what our talking heads spew forth, concern for the common good is not socialistic or communistic. It is patriotic, it is democratic, it is, some might even argue, quite Christian-like. What would Jesus do? I suspect he would be kind and tell us that yes; we are our brother’s keeper.