New Year’s resolution suggestion for Finchem

I have a suggestion for Representative Mark Finchem, (R-Oro Valley). How’s about one of his New Year’s Resolutions be that he sponsors a bill this session that actually improves the lives of his constituents?

Instead, the latest bill he is sponsoring, according to the AZ Capitol Times, is HB2022 (empowerment scholarships; financial oversight; treasurer) intended to broaden the state treasurer’s authority over the financial management of school vouchers. The bill “would add language to existing law that says the treasurer may contract with private financial management firms to manage the state’s Empowerment Scholarship Accounts (ESAs).” Evidently, Finchem believes the answer to ensuring more oversight over fraudulent ESA spending is to “grant the treasurer exclusive authority to issue requests for proposals from potential vendors, select payment processors and execute vendor contracts.”

But Chuck Essigs, lobbyist for the AZ Association of School Business Officials, questions the need for the bill since the Treasurer’s office only pays the vendor bills. It is up to Arizona’s Department of Education to ensure families have used their state-issued ESA debit card for only appropriate expenditures.

Yes, there have been problems, and tighter controls are needed. According to an October 2018 AZ Auditor General Report,

Arizona parents made fraudulent purchases and misspent more than $700,000 in public money allocated by the state’s school-voucher style program and state officials have recouped almost none of that money.“

Arizona’s Department of Education (ADE) has repeatedly failed to flag accounts at high risk for fraud allowing parents to ”make numerous improper purchases on state-issued debit cards, even after the accounts should have been frozen or closed.” And although ADE sent 142 collection cases to the attorney general totaling about $500,000, only two of those cases were closed and only $11,000 has been repaid in full.

But, according to the Diane Douglas, AZ Superintendent of Public Instruction (a Republican), the failure of her department to catch the offenders was a result of decisions by the Republican-controlled Legislature to deny her department money needed to properly administer the program. Under the law, 4% of the program’s funding is supposed to go to ADE to administer and oversee the program. This year, it is getting about 2%, or $1.2 million.

Douglas said ADE needs the full 4 percent to properly oversee the program and although $5.7 million is sitting in a fund that is allocated for program oversight, the Legislature has not authorized the department to spend that money. She claims lawmakers resist properly funding oversight because they want a private entity to oversee it, telling the AZ Republic,

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

A key Republican senator, Bob Worsley, doesn’t discount Douglas’ assessment saying,

”My guess is just that the (Republican) caucus — my caucus — has been, probably, overly enthusiastic about ESAs, and vouchers in general, and therefore anything that would … make it more difficult, it would not be a high priority for them,“ said Worsley, of Mesa. Worsley said it is neither fiscally sound nor ethical for lawmakers to inadequately fund oversight of the program. ”In our capacity, we should be making sure the taxpayer dollars are going for what taxpayers intended, even if it’s your pet project … but I’m probably a lone voice in my caucus on that front,“ he said.”

I’m thinking Finchem’s bill is more about continuing to reduce government so it “can be drowned in the bathtub” than it is about catching parents buying big screens with their ESA debit card. This situation after all, follows the pro-privatizer playbook which says: 1) chronically underfund a government agency, 2) promote its failures to properly perform, and then 3) outsource to the private sector as a way to “save the day”. It’s a twist on the old “start the fire so you can be the hero and put it out” routine. In this case, start the fire, so you can burn down the existing structure and rebuild it the way you want it.

The GOP-led Legislature knows they haven’t properly funded ADE efforts to deal with the ever-increasing ESA expenditures. But, they want to shrink the department, not grow it. Especially when an educator who just happens to be a Democrat is about to take the reins. And before you ask, yes, Arizona’s new treasurer is a Republican. But I’m sure that has nothing to do with it…

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Wealth Redistributed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Balance is the key

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Balance is the key. As Simon Sinek said, “The trick to balance is to not make sacrificing important things become the norm.” One of the most “important things” in my mind, is to care for those who do not have the capacity to care for themselves. To ensure ALL OUR children have the opportunity to lead healthy, productive lives, no matter the circumstances of their birth, or the zip code in which they live. In the words of John Dewey, “What the best and wisest parent wants for his child, that must we want for all the children of the community. Anything less is unlovely, and left unchecked, destroys our democracy.”

Oh No She Didn’t!

AZ Capitol Times reported today that in response to a Save Our Schools suggestion that voucher expansion should be “sidelined” while the battle for public education funding continues, Kim Martinez, a spokeswoman for the American Federation For Children, said she was “unimpressed”. Martinez also said that, “It is unfortunate that Save Our Schools continues to take a stance against children who need ESAs, a program that helps disadvantaged students who are slipping through the cracks at their neighborhood schools. It is short-sighted to put funding concerns above children whose learning requirements have to be met today.”

Bravo Ms. Martinez, I couldn’t have said it better myself, at least not your words about the urgency of meeting children’s learning requirements. It totally IS short-sighted to put funding concerns above children whose learning requirements have to be met today. It IS totally unacceptable that public school students entering high school next year, have yet to be in an adequately funded classroom. It IS totally unacceptable that the Arizona Legislature continues to favor corporate welfare over ensuring our public schools are adequately funded.

As for your swipe at Save Our Schools for their “stance against…disadvantaged students who are slipping through the cracks at their neighborhood schools”, give me a break! We know that Save Our Schools is fighting for exactly these children and all one million Arizona public school students. We also know that you are fighting for Betsy DeVos and her privatization movement. Neither Save Our Schools, nor our public schools at large, are responsible for “disadvantaged students who are slipping through the cracks. The enemies of these students are 1) poverty and 2) our failure to deal with it.

Our children cannot continue to wait for the adults to understand that education is not an expense, it is an investment. They cannot wait for us to realize that every child matters and deserves the opportunity to succeed. Every day that passes without this as our driving force, is another day of lost opportunity for us all.

Sine Freakin’ Die Already, Why Don’t Ya?

4EC2FB45-63F4-42DD-AE2A-C4B9A3A2348DEver since becoming involved in Arizona public education in 2012, I’ve heard people ask “why don’t teachers stand up for themselves?” Well, they aren’t asking that now. At about 6 am this morning, Governor Ducey signed the K-12 portion of the Arizona budget into law. It doesn’t contain everything educators wanted, but it contains much more than it would have without the brave, collective action of Arizona teachers.

Here’s a quick summary of some of the key elements of the approved budget with my comments or additional facts, interspersed:
– Increases the base level in FY2019 by a 1.8% inflation increase ($276.80) to $3,960.07 (without teacher compensation).
– Provides for an increase to teacher compensation of $176.2M in FY2019, $164.7M in FY2020, and $124.4M in FY2021.
— Keep in mind that FY2020 and FY2021 are “advance appropriations” which basically means a “promise” made now that future Legislatures are asked to keep.
— And because of the way the funding will flow to districts, Dr. Anabel Aportela, director of research for the Arizona School Boards Association and the Arizona Association of School Business Officials says, “it’s going to be difficult to show that every single teacher received a 9 percent raise,” this year, or a 20 percent raise by 2020. Likewise, an “initial analysis by The Arizona Republic, based on figures provided to the Arizona Auditor General by school districts, shows that 59 districts would not receive enough funding to give all teachers a 20 percent pay raise.”
– Requires districts and charters to post compensation data on their websites and ADE to compile this info and submit to Legislature and Governor.
— Local control means governing boards make the decisions they were elected to make and I believe they will have no problem standing behind their decisions.
— This requires more transparency of charters, and that’s a good thing.
– Requires ADE to reduce the formula suspension for district additional assistance (DAA) statewide by $100M in FY2019 and $64.4M each year thereafter.
— In other words, begin to restore 85% in cuts to capital funding made by AZ lawmakers since 2009.
— Exempts districts with a student count of fewer than 1,100 students from any DAA reductions, providing them 100% of DAA allocation in FY2019.
– Restores Charter School Additional Assistance (CAA) to full formula funding by FY2022 and increases it by 1.77% for the annual inflation adjustment with no increase to the DAA formula.
– Continues to exclude charter schools from procurement rules designed to ensure maximum competition, contract award to lowest qualified bidder, and that a contractor has a valid license to practice in Arizona.
— This is, in my opinion, is fiscally irresponsible. We should be demanding more transparency and accountability from all institutions that receive taxpayer dollars, not less.
– Increases the State Support Level per Route Mile for FY2018 by 1.77% for the required inflation adjustment.
– Requires each district to prominently post on its website home page a copy of its profile pages that displays the percentage of every dollar spent in the classroom by that district from the most recent status report issued by the Auditor General.
— Note that charter schools, although they are required to conduct audits, get to choose their auditors and the resulting information is not included in the AZ Auditor General schools efficiency report as it is for district schools.
— Also, note there is still a disconnect between what the Auditor General counts as classroom spending and the broader definition used by the governor, Legislature and Arizona public school leaders shows support for the classroom is holding steady. An infographic by AZEdNews illustrates the disconnect.
– Appropriated in FY 2018, $4,145,600 to ADE for the school safety program compared to $3,646,500 in FY 2017. The program will now be repealed on December 31, 2019 instead of December 31, 2018.
– Establishes the Computer Science Program Fund under ADE who will distribute grants on a first come first serve basis to schools that do not currently provide high school computer science instruction.
– Terminates the Schools Facilities Board (SFB) on July 1, 2022 and repeals AZ statutes relating to the SFB.
— It is important to note that the SFB was established in response to a 1994 court decision that found “Arizona’s system of school capital finance unconstitutional because it failed to conform to the state constitution’s “general and uniform” clause. That system relied on the secondary property tax, driven by the property wealth of a school district, and general obligation bonding. In 1996, the Arizona Superior Court imposed on the state a deadline of June 30, 1998 to develop a constitutional system of school capital finance or risk closure of K-12 public schools. On July 9, 1998 Governor Jane Dee Hull signed legislation that dramatically reformed the way K-12 schools are constructed in Arizona. This ended the four-year legal and legislative battle and established Arizona as the nation’s school finance reform leader. This legislation/law is known as Students FIRST (Fair and Immediate Resources for Students Today). On November 18, 1999, the Board adopted Building Adequacy Guidelines that now serve as the minimum standards for existing and new school facilities in Arizona.”
— It is also important to note that 24 years later, education groups have been forced to sue the state again, for capital funding, (now called District Additional Funding), that has been cut 85% since 2009.

Four Arizona Education Association (AEA) and Arizona Educators United (AEU) demands that were not funded, include:
– Cap class size at 25 students per classroom
– Define “Teacher” as: any non-administrative personnel who teaches students or supports student academic achievement as defined by the school district governing board or charter school governing body including, but not limited to nurses, counselors, social workers, psychologists, speech pathologists, librarians and academic interventionists.
– Cap student-to-counselor ratio at 250:1
– Provide student support services personnel a 10% increase equal to the teacher pay proposal, which should also go into base level, and be paid for by tax conformity.

Of the failure to meet these demands, Joe Thomas, president of Arizona Education Association said,

While this bill moves the needle, it still does not go far enough. It does not restore the more than $1 billion taken from our students and it leaves out school support staff like counselors, bus drivers, librarians, and many more who are vital to the success of our students. The truth is that this budget is far from perfect. Lawmakers brokered it behind closed doors as a partisan deal, without input from us. We were not able to change the minds of lawmakers, so the next step will be to change the faces of our lawmakers.

The elephant still in the room (pun intended), is whether the revenue sources identified, make this budget deal sustainable, especially in future years. According to Tucson.com,

Republicans spurned several proposals to raise more money to ensure that there will not only be the dollars for future promised teacher pay raises but to finance some of the other priorities and restore per-student funding back to at least 2008 levels. That included phasing out some tax exemptions and eliminating the ability of individuals and corporations to divert some of what they owe in state income taxes to help children attend private and parochial schools.

For his part, Governor Ducey said in an email that,

The budget does not compromise essential state services to accommodate our teacher pay package. It maintains the state’s commitment to fund developmental disabilities, skilled nurses, Medicaid, critical access hospitals [sic], the arts, food banks, Alzheimer’s research and higher education. It accomplishes all of this, without raising taxes on hardworking Arizonans.

All I can say is, “for my next act, I’ll pull a rabbit out of a hat.”

About the time I was finishing this post, the Legislature was reconvening for what should be their last meeting of this session. One can only hope, so that we can all breath a collectively sigh of relief. Unfortunately, their havoc wreaking is likely not yet done. Sources say Senator Yarborough is still looking to push through his SB 1467 which would increase eligibility for private school tax credits via School Tuition Organizations and therefore drain more funding from our public schools. These same sources predict an end run to repeal SB 1467, signed into law last year, which provided for the full expansion of vouchers. I don’t know for sure what GOP lawmakers’ motivation is here, but there can be no doubt that Prop. 305, (the initiative brought by the SOS AZ’s amazing petition signature collection effort last year), if it is on the ballot, will bring even more pro-public education voters (many of whom are Democratic), to the ballot box. It will be really interesting to see just how much disdain this Legislature has for their bosses — you know — Arizona voters.

On one more final note, I don’t agree entirely with Joe Thomas that he and the 50,000+ teachers that marched on the AZ Capitol were “not able to change the minds of lawmakers”. I think they, and other education advocates did make an impact, but years of free reign have calcified lawmakers’ unwillingness to bend to the people’s will. But, as Martin Luther King, Jr., said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Or, said another way, “karma’s a bitch”. Joe is definitely right that, “the next step will be to change the faces of our lawmakers.” It is in my opinion, the only step that will make a lasting positive change.

 

 

Not Fake News, Just Propaganda

Yesterday, a friend emailed me a copy of a Goldwater document that had been placed in all the “mail” boxes at his “Life Plan Community” (retirement/assisted living). The document was titled, “The Truth about Teacher Pay”, and dated April 12, 2018.

Even without the Goldwater logo at the top, I could have easily identified it as a right-wing propaganda piece. In it, the Goldwater Institute Director of Education Policy, Matthew Simon, began by making the point that “though fingers are pointed at state legislatures with calls for higher teacher salaries, the reality is that in many cases, locally elected school district governing boards are responsible for the size of paychecks.” He went on to write that, “independently elected governing boards wield considerable power in their positions by creating policies, crafting school district budgets and setting teacher pay.”

Simon provides a couple of examples of the significant difference in pay between various school districts to make his point. He then writes that, “teachers in Arizona have launched their demands at legislators in a well-coordinated campaign.” Of course, this “well-coordinated campaign”, is just a dog-whistle to infer the big bad “union” is driving the train. Truth is, the #RedForEd effort comes from a grassroots movement. There is no statewide collective bargaining unit in Arizona, because our state is a “Right to Work” state. Which means, employees really have no rights at work.

“If Arizona teachers and the public have a gripe with elected officials”, Simon continued, “the elected officials they should be targeting with this anger need to be their locally elected school district governing boards. When a school district governing board prioritizes teacher pay, teacher pay is higher.”

The problem with Simon’s piece isn’t that it isn’t factual, but rather, that he propagandizes the facts. As defined by Merriam-Webster, is “ideas, facts, or allegations spread deliberately to further one’s cause or to damage an opposing cause.” I believe, the “particular political cause” in this case, is to try to take the pressure off the state legislature for their failure to adequately fund public education, and instead, put it on the backs of governing board members. If I wanted to be really cynical, I could say it is just another attempt by the Goldwater Institute and monied out-of-state interests, to force the privatization of our public schools down Arizonans’ collective throats. You know, discredit governing board members and local control and tout that the only way to fix the resulting dysfunction is to turn our kids over to the profiteers.

Yes, it is true that the Arizona Constitution gives school board members the authority to set salaries for their district’s teachers. Arizona Revised Statute 15–341.A.17 states, “The governing board shall: Use school monies received from the state and county school apportionment exclusively for payment of salaries of teachers and other employees and contingent expenses of the district.” The phrase “contingent expenses of the district” however covers a wide range of other costs governing board members must ensure are not only budgeted for and appropriately allocated.

Therein, they say, lies the rub. You see, governing board members can only allocate that which the state Legislature, (which oh by the way, has responsiblity for the “establishment and maintenance of a general and uniform public school system”), provides. In fact, education, along with public safety, roads and infrastructure, is one of the three constitutionally-mandated functions the Legislature is responsible for. Thing is, over the past decade, that has been woefully inadequate. You’ve probably already heard that Arizona had the highest cuts per pupil in the nation, 2008 to 2014, that the average salary of our elementary teachers is 50th in the nation and high school teachers is 49th, and that our capital funding, (for facility maintenance and repair and other big-ticket items like buses), was cut 85% in the last decade. You’ve also probably heard that the Legislature continues to funnel public tax dollars to private and religious schools with almost zero accountability and transparency; passing the full expansion of vouchers for all school children last year.

You may not have heard, that in the past couple of years, two non-partisan, serious studies of education funding determined that there can be no meaningful fix to the way Arizona’s education funding is allocated, until additional funding is resourced. In 2016, the Governor Ducey appointed chair of the Governor’s Classrooms First Council said, “that, ”the schools aren’t going to significantly improve unless they get more money.“ In a previous post, I wrote about the statewide, non-partisan 2017 AZ Town Hall on PreK–12 Education Funding, which determined that the problem is not so much the percentage of the state budget allocated to our districts, but the size of the overall state budget ”pie”.

And yet, Arizona governing board members continue to lead to deliver with the resources they are provided. After Proposition 123 was passed, they ensured 90% of the additional funding was allocated to teachers. Between FY 2015 and FY 2018, they enabled their districts to hire almost 1,800 more full-time equivalent teachers, and raised teacher salaries across the state by an average of $2,044.

Governing board members know that the number one in-school factor for determining student success is a high-quality teacher and with our ongoing critical shortage of teachers, they are eager to incentivize good teachers to stay in their classrooms. But, teachers aren’t the only critical need. After all, when 30% of Arizona buses fail safety inspections, schools are closed for emergency repairs to fix unsafe facility conditions, and some classrooms are forced to use 12-year old computers, governing board members must make tough decisions about resource allocation.

Matthew Simon did not write his piece to inform, but rather, to deflect blame for the funding crisis we find ourselves in. A funding crisis which is largely self-manufactured. Yes, our Legislature also had to make tough calls during the recession in 2008, but “economists say the real culprit is the cumulative impact of two decades of Arizona governors and lawmakers chipping away at the bottom line.” In 2016, tax cuts over that period cost the state’s general fund $4 billion in revenue according to an analysis by economists with Arizona State University. These economists also wrote “More than 90% of the decline in revenue resulted from tax reductions.”

According to an AZ Capitol Times article from May 2017, data compiled by the Arizona Department of Revenue showed that more than 50% of all state taxes hadn’t been collected for at least the past ten years. ‘Called “tax expenditures,” they amount to $136.5 billion since fiscal year 2007, roughly equivalent to the sum of the state budgets spanning the past 15 years.’ In FY 2016 alone, over $12 billion was excluded from sales tax collection. Governor Ducey has continued the trend, vowing (and thus far keeping that promise) to cut taxes every year he is in office.

Governing board members share no more, and no less blame for this situation than does the average voter. After all, they are also voters and the reason our lawmakers have gotten away with pursuing the repeatedly failed “trickle-down” (Kansas anyone?) philosophy is that Arizona voters continue voting the same lawmakers into office. The bottom line is that until voters truly draw the nexus between the results they want and the candidates they elect, we can’t expect any different or better.

Yet Another Scheme to Raid School Funding

An article titled, “Proposed GI Bill Model For K–12 Schools Would Impact Arizona Education Funding” by Claire Caufield on KZJJ.org recently caught my attention. Ah…coming to a state near us I thought, the latest school privatization effort to be shoved down our throats. Evidently, the conservative Heritage Foundation has written policy that would make all children of active-duty military members eligible to receive education savings accounts (ESAs) to attend private schools. These ESA would provide “from $2,500 to $4,500 annually to help parents send their child to a private or online school or to pay for tutoring and special education services.”

The idea of ESAs for military children is not new, we already have that in Arizona. What is new, is that the proposal calls for the funding to come from Impact Aid, a fund established by Congress in 1950 to assist districts with the cost of educating children who live on federal lands, and therefore don’t pay local taxes that support the districts. “Today, Impact Aid is disbursed to schools connected to tribal lands, military bases, low-rent housing and other federal properties.”

“Because of the state’s high number of students on tribal lands, Arizona districts received $169 million last year in Impact Aid, the highest total in the country. Over $11 million was for children of military and uniformed services families, according to data from the U.S. Department of Education.”

This initiative shouldn’t surprise us, as when there is money to be had, you can bet the school privatizers will be bellying up to the trough. Of course, Lindsey Burke, director of education policy at Heritage said, “We need to ensure we are providing the children of our armed services with an education option that serves them, as well as their parents who are serving the United States.” In other words, it’s “all about the kids.”

Eileen Huck, government relations deputy director for the National Military Family Association, said, “This kind of proposal would disadvantage far more military kids and families than could benefit from it” and pointed out that about 80% of military children attend their local district school. Huck also made the point that “Public schools offer a great way for military families to become connected to their communities.” Having grown up in an Army family and then serving for 22 years in the Air Force myself, I can personally attest to the value of both military children attending local community schools and, in military families establishing ties to their local communities.

The solution to underperforming public schools isn’t to subsidize attendance at private schools, but rather, to get these underperforming schools the resources and support they need to do better. After all, if the local community schools are inadequate for military children to attend, they shouldn’t be considered adequate for any of our children to attend. Fixing these schools though, is much easier to say, than do. That’s because, as public school proponents know, underperforming schools are often schools in high poverty areas. It is hard enough for schools to address factors they actually have control over, let alone get saddled with trying to fix overarching societal issues like poverty.

Privatizers of course, recognize they can profit from our lack of political and societal will to address these problems. Rather, they are intent on selling us Trojan horses that look like solutions, but in the end, just exacerbate the real problem. An example of this is the fact that segregation in our schools is now as high as it was in the mid–1960s and plenty of research shows this segregation doesn’t help either children of color, or white ones, achieve to their fullest.

Nonetheless, Heritage’s Burke supports her organization’s desire to provide military families options by citing a Military Times survey that found “35 percent of respondents said dissatisfaction with their child’s education was a “significant factor” in their decision to continue or end their military career.” Guess what? During Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) reviews, the military looks closely at the quality of local schools in determining whether or not to keep a base open in a certain area. Quality corporations also look at the schools in a community when they consider locating there. In fact, back in 2011, the former CEO of Intel, Craig Barrett said, “The educational system in the United States and in Arizona in particular is not particularly attractive”, indicating that Arizona won’t be a real magnet for new business until it turns out more qualified high school and college graduates. That’s why I believe investing in our district schools is often a much better incentive to bring quality businesses to Arizona, than offering tax incentives. At least this is true for those businesses we really want…those that invest in our people and our local communities.

Burke goes on to say, “It is a national security issue, it’s a retention issue, it’s a recruitment issue for the U.S. armed services.” To that I respond with, ensuring a quality public education for ALL of America’s children is a more critical national security issue and is not getting the attention it deserves. Yes, there are likely some children who can be better served in non-traditional public education environments. But, the only way to ensure ALL children have equal opportunity to be all they can be, is in our public district schools.

I suspect Arizona lawmakers are all for this effort as in our state, both children of military families and children on tribal lands were already eligible for vouchers or, as we call them here, “Empowerment Scholarship Accounts”, even before the 2017 expansion. I assume that if Impact Aid is made available for these ESAs, that will relieve the state from having to fund the accounts. It doesn’t hurt that Secretary Devos, whose “American Federation for Children” contributed $275K to AZ Republican candidates in 2016 alone, has also expressed support for the proposal.

Never mind, that at least in Arizona, the majority of children attending private school on vouchers could have afforded to do so without taxpayer help. After all, the average basic voucher is worth around $5K and the average private elementary school tuition is $6K and the high school $18K. Vouchers alone are not going to get disadvantaged students in these private schools.

Impact aid is designed to ensure school districts on federal lands are not negatively impacted by the lack of property tax that support other districts. It is designed, to ensure adequate funding for all the students in the affected district, not to be doled out for just a few who can take advantage of it.

It all gets back to a couple of key fundamental questions. One, do we still believe in the common good and thereby recognize the role each of us plays to make it possible? Two, who do taxpayer dollars belong to? I fervently believe in the need for the common good and our responsibility toward it. I also believe that taxpayer dollars, both those that have actually already been paid, and those still owed, belong to all of us.

That’s why I will continue to fight for full transparency and accountability anytime our tax dollars are expended. As I’ve said many times, your right to send your child to the school of your choice, doesn’t trump my right to know the return on my investment. And, your right to ensure a quality education for your child, doesn’t abrogate the responsibility for all of us to work for the same for every child.