The House Always Wins

I’m not a gambler, but I do know that Sin City isn’t prospering because those who visit its casinos win more than they lose. Rather, the casinos of Las Vegas and those all around the world, prosper because in the end, the house always wins.

That truism comes to mind when I think about our Arizona Legislature and their non-stop assault on the state’s public education system. Yes, it is sad that on the day Save Our Schools Arizona turned in over 111,000 petition signatures for a voucher expansion veto referendum to our Secretary of State, I’m thinking about how the battle has just begun. Not only that, but I’m worrying the battle is likely to not end in the people’s favor because just like the casinos, the game is rigged against us.

Senator Debbie Lesko, the sponsor of SB 1431, (full expansion of vouchers) is no doubt already planning repeal of the law should the referendum actually qualify for the ballot. Why would she do that? Well, for one, because when Arizonans are given the opportunity to vote on public education, they usually support it. For another, if the repeal of the voucher expansion actually gets on the ballot in November 2018, she and her GOP colleagues know that the issue will bring public education supporting voters out to the polls. We know which party the majority of those voters are likely to come from, right?

Of course, there is no guarantee the referendum will qualify for the ballot in the first place. First, there is the hurdle of actually having 75,321 valid signatures and even what a valid signature is. That’s because in the last legislative session, Arizona lawmakers passed a bill to enforce “strict compliance” for voter initiatives. The AZ GOP Chairman, back in April 2017, admitted that the purpose of the new law was to make it possible for the GOP-controlled Legislature to throw out ballot initiatives for “minor errors regarding language and paperwork.” Just to be clear, those minor errors could be something as trivial as a signer’s “g” or “y” in their name dipping below the line of the box on the petition they are signing. Lawmakers know it is hard enough to collect the required number of signatures; and yet they set out to make it impossible. Organizers believe this law doesn’t yet apply, but others fully expect lawmakers to deny that claim and if so, a court of law will no doubt be the place the issue is resolved.

It is heartbreaking to know all the tremendous effort that went into this effort may be all for naught because our lawmakers are determined to thwart the will of the people. It is also sobering to realize that they will continue to get away with it, until we gain more parity between parties in the Legislature to force solutions that work for all of us. The only thing that will really make a difference is for us to elect more pro-public education candidates to our Legislature. Then, when “the house” wins, our students and their teachers win.

No matter what happens in the end, this petition signature gathering effort is an example of what Margaret Mead was referring to when she said, “Never doubt a small group of concerned citizens can change the world. It is the only thing that ever has.” Started by a few Moms, it blossomed into a statewide effort of grassroots organizing that at the very least, sent a clear message that Arizonans value our public education.

Even though I started out by saying “the house always wins”, I also believe in karma. You know, that concept that in the end, everyone gets what they deserve. I believe pro-public education advocates are on the good side of history and we will win in the long run. Let’s just hope we can recover from the damage done.

Arizona’s Voucher Battle Continues

The Arizona Republic reported today that Save Our Schools Arizona will now hire paid circulators to “boost the chances that voters get the last word on the legislatively approved expansion” of Empowerment Scholarship Accounts (vouchers.) According to The Republic, leaders of SOSAZ had intended to gather the required 75,321 valid signatures with only volunteers by the August 8, 2017 deadline. Now though, the organization finds itself with unexpected money and has decided to hire paid circulators for the last push to get at least 120,000 petition signatures for sufficient cushion.

As is often the case in Arizona though, GOP leaders in the Legislature are already working to undermine the effort. Senator Debbie Lesko, a Republican from Peoria has been the prime proponent of the effort to expand vouchers and is coincidentally (or maybe not), the Arizona Chair for the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC.) As the likelihood of getting the repeal referendum on the ballot increases, she is planning ways to end run the effort. One of those is for the Legislature to repeal SB 1431 thereby eliminating the need for a public vote. Then Lesko and her GOP pals would just pass another expansion in the next legislative session. This move would not only require opponent vouchers to start a new referendum drive from scratch, but would also prevent the voucher vote from drawing more Democrats to the polls in November 2018.

Whether the petitions are being circulated by paid circulators or volunteers, they must contain sufficient valid signatures to qualify the referendum for the ballot. If you are an Arizona voter who hasn’t yet signed one of the petitions, please go to http://sosarizona.org/events or https://www.facebook.com/SaveOurSchoolsArizona/ to locate signing opportunities. If there is no opportunity in your area, you can email SOSAZ at SaveOurSchoolsAZ@gmail.com to make other arrangements.

There is no doubt that Lesko and her buddies will do what they can to continue to thwart the will of Arizonans, as has been their modus operandi in the past. For now though, “we the people” must do what we can, to ensure our government stays “of the people.” When it comes to slowing down the attack on our public schools, repealing the full expansion of vouchers is where we need to focus our efforts now. The 95% of Arizona’s students that attend our public schools are counting on us and the future of our state depends on our engagement. Please do your part and sign a petition this week, or for sure, by August 8th!

State Sponsored Discrimination

Some parents don’t know best. There. I said it. Let’s face it, some parents aren’t present, some are abusive, and some are drug addicts. Then there are those who are trying their damnedest to provide for their children but their minimum wage jobs (without benefits) just don’t pay enough to make ends meet. Bottom line is, not all parents know how, or care enough to provide, the best they can for their children. Where that is the case, or, when hard working parents need a little help, it is up to all of us in a civil society, to ensure all children are safe and that their basic needs are met. As education reformer John Dewey said 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.”

Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos evidently doesn’t agree. In recent testimony to Congress, no matter what question she was asked about how far states would be allowed to go in discriminating against certain types of students, she kept deflecting to “states rights” and “parental rights,” failing to say at any point in the testimony that she would ensure states receiving federal dollars would not discriminate. From watching her testimony, if she had been the Secretary of Education with Donald Trump as President back in the early 1960s, the Alabama National Guard would undoubtedly never have been called up to integrate the schools.

This should surprise no one. After all, the entire school reform agenda is really about promoting survival of the fittest. Those who “have” and already do well, will be set up for even more success while those dealing with the challenges poverty presents, will continue to suffer. As far as Betsy DeVos is concerned, the U.S. Department of Education has no responsibility to protect students from discrimination based on race, ethnicity, religion, sexual preference, gender identity. The hell with Brown vs. Board of Education, she will not step in to ensure states do the right thing for their students. As Jack Covey wrote recently to Diane Ravitch, to Betsy, “choice” is everything and parents should be able to send their children to a black-free, LGBT-free, or Muslim-free school on the taxpayer’s dime if they want to.

Does that EVEN sound remotely like America to you? How can it be okay for our tax dollars to promote blatant discrimination? This is essentially state-sponsored discrimination. Yes, discrimination has always occurred via self-funded choice. The wealthy have always been able to keep their children away from the rest of us but, it was on their own dime. As it has always been with parents who stretched budgets to live in neighborhoods with the “best” school district as a way to ensure their child had the best chance.

And despite some attempts to even out the inequity inherent in the system, it persists. Texas superintendent and public school advocate John Kuhn recently wrote about “a phenomenon called ‘inequitable equilibrium’ wherein states are forced by judges to adjust school spending to make it more fair but then, over time, without fail, the state legislatures pass new laws and find workarounds to return to socially acceptable maximum level of school funding inequity.” John goes on to write that, “Voters in centers of power and influence are able to ignore something as esoteric as inequity so long as it only affects relatively voiceless populations in inner cities, border towns, and fading farm towns.”

Now though, we are saying that taxpayers must pay for the right for parents to segregate their children from those they consider less desirable. Today’s narrative is “the hell with ensuring all kids have equal opportunity, you only have to care about your kid and the taxpayer will help you.” Kuhn writes about “voting majorities in Texas primaries [who] nominate candidates who are religious but not moral, who play-act as righteous representatives of the people’s hearts and values but who, in the crucible of leadership, more and more of the time reveal themselves to be really pretty bad people who are effectively incapable of moral leadership.” John may be talking about Texan candidates and lawmakers, but I’ve seen plenty of the same at the Arizona Capitol. And when he writes that Texan voters “keep electing carnival show barkers who are better at sound bites than sane decisions,” you have to admit you can recognize how that applies to Arizona voters as well. I also find myself identifying with his statement that “Governance has devolved into something like pro wrestling, but it’s school children in underfunded schools who are getting hit with folding chairs.” Of course here in Arizona, I would add that “teachers are getting hit with those folded chairs too.”

Then, as Kuhn points out, legislators require schools be graded with “uniform criteria while refusing to fund schools uniformly.” This system then ensure schools in poorer communities are branded as bad schools, driving down property values, making it harder to raise local funds for schools or attract new businesses or jobs. “Test-based school accountability combined with inequitable school funding” John says, “is state-sponsored sabotage of cities.”

It is a sign of the times I am afraid, that it is acceptable to “pick on the little guy” and to “kick a guy when he is down.” It is acceptable for those in power to decide who “wins” and who “loses” and for our nation therefore to be moving toward a caste system where many will never ever have a shot at the American Dream no matter how hard they study and work.

I’ve been streaming “The Handmaid’s Tale” and find it very disturbing. If you haven’t watched it, you should. It is a clear commentary on how accepting the previously unacceptable, no matter how small and seemingly insignificant, can eventually result in horrific consequences no one would have ever believed could come to pass. Prior to the past year, it would never have crossed my mind that something like “The Handmaid’s Tale” could happen in America. Now, I’m not so sure.

Are You Ready to Die Empty?

This past weekend in Brooklyn, I had the opportunity to spend some time with Diane Ravitch and many other heroes of public education. We were gathered for a Network for Public Education (NPE) project that left me buoyed about the future of public education. For those who might not know, the NPE is a national grassroots public education advocacy group founded by Diane Ravitch and Anthony Cody. I won’t go into the details of the project, but here’s an NPE notice about it.

It was to say the least, an amazing experience! I heard Texas Superintendent John Kuhn speak eloquently about how “education malpractice doesn’t start in the schoolhouse, it starts in the statehouse.” I had first heard of John Kuhn when he gained national prominence by speaking at the Save Texas Schools Rally in 2011. I was excited to meet John and he didn’t disappoint. He is incredibly articulate and passionate and as a dedicated education professional, knows of what he speaks firsthand. During his session, he brilliantly made the point that “naming and shaming teachers, while shielding legislators” to fulfill their responsibility to our children is unconscionable. Or as he later asked in another way, why is it that we use a microscope to analyze outcomes of our public schools, but wear a blindfold to look at the input?” Of course this was a rhetorical question, John knows it’s because we can’t stand the answer.

Next “up to bat” was Jesse Hagopian, a teacher from Seattle. I hadn’t previously heard of Jesse, but he was equally impressive. He said “we are turning the teaching profession into a one size fits all” factory that fails students and demoralizes teachers. He asked the audience (dozens of volunteers who had come from all over the country), whose side are they on? He said he is “on the side of the students, the teachers, and the parents, against the corporate takeover of public education.” Our country “has massive problems” he said, “that can’t be solved by circling in a bubble on a standardized test.”

Johanna Garcia was next up and as a Latino single mom she has learned that no matter how hard she works to provide for her children, the system is not predisposed in their favor. She has learned that “by taking the standardized tests, ”you are saying yes to being reduced to the money in your wallet.“ Because, she says, the tests are designed to rack and stack students and those on the low-end of the socio-economic scale will more often than not – because of the challenges poverty puts in their way – score on the low-end. She now advocates for parents to ”opt-out” of the standardized tests as a way to not allow your children to be used by a system that is increasingly rigged against them.

We also heard from Jitu Brown who is a community organizer, parent, grandparent and public education advocate in Chicago. In fact, I had first heard of Jitu when he and other activists participated in a 37-day hunger strike to keep Dyett High School from being closed by Mayor Rahm Emanuel. This was a school that had great community engagement and was making incredible progress in rewriting their narrative, but was still slated for closure. In the end, the activists won and the school remained open. He made the point that “the way you destroy a community, is to destroy its institutions.” He told us that it wasn’t just the impending closure that spurred the hunger strike, but the systemic inequity. Like the fact that a public elementary school on the north side of Chicago offered their students Mandarin Chinese, Arabic and Spanish; where every teacher had a teacher aid; where there was a full-time nurse, social workers, speech therapist, and drama teacher. Yet on the Southside, children ate lunch under the stairs due to overcrowding, there was one teacher aide in the entire building, and for the part-time Spanish instructor, they had to give up a librarian. “The trust we’ve given this system” he said, “has been betrayed.” Jitu also left us with some hope though, as he said that each of us can make a difference, especially parents. The key though for activists and organizers, is to “meet parents where they are, not where you want them to be.” Find what parents want, and help them get that, no matter how small it might be, because small wins will turn into big wins. And, he said, target those who can actually give you what you want, or, as I’ve heard it said before, never take a no from someone not empowered to tell you yes.

The pièce de résistance however, was Diane herself. She started out by saying that, “the latest and most serious threat to our public schools is DeVos” and her privatization agenda. The privatization effort she said, has become a “steamroller turning our citizens into consumers.” And like John Kuhn did, she made the point that “we have a culture in our schools now that suppresses the joy of learning and of teaching.” That, “test scores of 15 year olds are not a predictor of either their’s, or our nation’s future.” And that, “the achievement gap construct – created by standardized tests designed for some kids to fail” – does nothing to help them succeed. She also pointed out that “a nation ”that doesn’t trust its teachers’ judgement, will never have a great education system.”

Diane certainly wasn’t all doom and gloom however, highlighting the silver linings in DeVos’ selection as SecED. The DeVos appointment has galvanized public education advocates like never before, with membership in NPE skyrocketing from only 22,000 to 350,000 during the DeVos hearings and since then. She has also done us a favor in “taking away the false veneer of charter schools” and bringing together people from different communities to solve the problems.

That’s one of my main takeaways from this past weekend. DeVos and her buddies (of which Governor Ducey is undoubtedly one), may have the big bucks, but we’ve got the people, and better yet, we’ve got the parents. The parents of the 90% of America’s public school students who attend community schools with locally elected, fully transparent and accountable, governing boards. We’ve also got incredibly dedicated, passionate, selfless advocates such as the ones I’ve mentioned, that are standing up and speaking out for our kids not because they seek power or money, but just because they believe that every child deserves every opportunity to succeed.

My other main takeaway is that we must be vigilant and have great stamina to win this fight because with $700 billion on the line, these corporate raiders will not go quietly into the night. They no doubt, believe they can buy our democracy right out from under our noses, one schoolhouse brick at a time. As Miranda Beard, the past president of the National School Boards Association inspirationally said though at this year’s annual conference, “I will die empty to prevail in this fight.” Will you?

Note: if you are interested in grassroots public education advocacy here in Arizona, you can join us at Support Our Schools Az . You can join Diane’s national group at the Network for Public Education.

A Cautionary Tale

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Corporate tax credits are made to School Tuition Organizations (STOs) which are 501(c)(3) tax exempt organizations that must allocate at least 90% of their annual revenue to tuition awards for students to attend private and parochial schools. The two types of corporate tax credits allowed are one for corporate contributions for low-income students and another for displaced/disadvantaged students. The definition of “low income” though, is misleading. For these scholarships, a family of four with an annual income of $82,996, qualifies leading many to claim that the scholarships are going to families that could afford the private schools without the taxpayer welfare. Critics also say it is fairly impossible for the poor to benefit because even if they get a scholarship, they still have to come up with the rest of the tuition. Regardless of who else is benefiting from the tax credits, the general fund and therefore district schools and other critical programs and services are not. In 2008, three-fourths of Arizona companies paid only the minimum $50 in corporate taxes and with a 20% increase in cap allowed every year, the program is causing significant impact to the state’s general fund. In fact, the “low-income corporate tax credit alone is expected by 2025 to grow to more than $250 million a year.”

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

So Much for the “Education Governor”

A couple of nights ago, I was talking with a news editor who asked me about the effect of the voucher expansion on homeschoolers. He said when he homeschooled his child, he saw it as his responsibility to bear those costs. He wondered with the new expansion, if homeschoolers would now get taxpayer dollars to teach their child at home. I told him homeschoolers were always eligible for Empowerment Scholarship Accounts (ESAs), or vouchers (I prefer to call them what they really are), but their child needed to be in one of the eligible categories such as: having a disability, from a D or F rated school, living on tribal land, dependents of military, wards of the state, etc. With the latest expansion of eligibility though, all categories of children are eligible for the vouchers. He surmised it wouldn’t take long to reach that cap, given there are some 20,000 homeschooled children in Arizona.

It is difficult to find clear data about the number of homeschoolers but a general estimate is from three to four percent of the school-age population. Given that, we are looking at 30,000 to 40,0000 students in Arizona. Another source I found from 2011 quoted the number at 22,500, so in the interest of being conservative, let’s go with 25,000. To the news editor’s point, if all 25,000 estimated homeschoolers took vouchers, that would deplete Arizona’s general fund by $110 million in taxpayer dollars which are then not available for district education or other critical programs and services. And this new outlay would not be offset by any reduced costs on the part of the state since previously, parents were footing this bill. At three to four percent though, homeschoolers are just a fraction of those who could take the vouchers and run.

Fortunately, there are currently a couple of speed bumps to slow the depletion. The first one is the cap of 5,500 ESAs that may be awarded each per year. Of course, before the Governor even signed the latest expansion bill, Goldwater Institute leadership had already notified their major donors they would get the cap lifted.

The second speed bump is the by-grade phase-in of eligibility. For 2017–2018, the only additional children eligible are those who attend or are eligible to attend public schools in kindergarten (at least four but under seven years of age) or grades one, six, and nine. The following year, the law adds grades two, seven and ten to the mix. The year after than, grades three, eight, and eleven are added. Then in the 2020–2021 school year, all children who currently attend or are eligible to attend a public school in K–12 are eligible to receive a voucher.

If the Goldwater Institute is successful in removing the cap next legislative session though, (or maybe still this session in a “strike everything” bill), the floodgates will be wide open for the grades specified to be added each year. There is after all, a tremendous amount of support for that end as evidenced by Betsy DeVos’ tweet to Governor Ducey congratulating him on the eve of his signing the bill. She wrote, “A big win for students & parents in Arizona tonight with the passage of ed savings accts. I applaud Gov. @DougDucey for putting kids first.” Keep in mind that this is the same Betsy DeVos, that as the head of the American Federation for Children, oversaw an investment of over $750,000 since 2011 into Arizona legislative races for pro-school choice and voucher candidates.

We in Arizona though, know that our Governor hasn’t really put over 80 percent of our kids first. Instead, the self-acclaimed “education governor” has time and again shortchanged our kids. Like with his 2018 spending plan that would provide a 2% pay raise over five years for teachers giving them only about $182 (0.4%) more in the first year. Like with his no-details “plan” to streamline teacher certification requirements to help with the critical teacher shortage, as if less qualified teachers will help our students. Like with his plan to provide $10 million for full-day kindergarten funding at public schools where more than 90% of students are eligible for free or reduced lunch. Unfortunately, for district schools, the entire district must meet the 90% threshold, but for charters, only a single school. In Southern Arizona, only two districts – Nogales Unified and Santa Cruz Valley Unified – qualify. Even Sunnyside Unified School District, at 86 percent of its students on free/reduced lunch, doesn’t qualify. And, like when he negotiated a deal to pay the schools 70% of what they were owed with money that was already theirs and promised that would just be the beginning. As David Safier points out in the Tucson Weekly, the $325 million per year Prop. 123 is bringing in (again, money the schools were already owed, not a plus up), could easily be wiped out by “his latest attack on public education which could drain $150-$300 million” via vouchers.

The most important moral of this story is that elections do have consequences and one of those consequences is now the systemic dismantling of our system of public (district) education. You know, the system that takes all comers, the only system with locally elected governing boards who must operate in a transparent manner and are totally accountable to parents and taxpayers, and, the system which after adjusting for student poverty levels, produces better results.

The only real solution to save our district schools and the one million plus students they provide for, is to elect different lawmakers. To do that, each of us must take personal responsibility to do our part and then some. No longer can any of us leave the work to someone else. Not if we want better for our kids, our communities, and our country. As the Jewish religious leader Hillel originally said sometime around 50 BCE, “If not now, when? If not me, who?”

The Coercive Power of Taxation

Robert Robb wrote in a recent Op-Ed in the AZ Republic, “The government, through the coercive power of taxation, establishes a central pool of resources for the education of students.” Wow, the “coercive power of taxation.” Now that is some powerful spin. Last time I looked, taxes (that “central pool of resources”) are something we agree to pay. After all, as Jeff Bryant, in his blog OurFuture.org, writes “in a democratic society, “government” is ultimately up to us, and what it does is an expression of what we want to do for ourselves. So what the critics of government are saying, really, is that they have a problem with democracy. It’s important to know government wasn’t turned into a four-letter word by happenstance. It happened by design.” The government isn’t, some outside entity over which we have no say, he government is us! We elect those who make the laws we must follow and set the taxes we must pay. We also have the power to un-elect them. To believe those who would tell us otherwise is to abrogate our rights and responsibilities.

I just don’t get it. If taxes are an evil, coercive power, how does Robb expect a civil society to fund the common needs of its citizenry? Is there no responsibility on the part of that citizenry to contribute to provision for the common good? I suppose he would advocate for business to do it. I hate to break it to him, but business can’t or won’t provide for all our needs. There just are some things that are best provided collectively by government and based on my 22 years in the Air Force and time as a government contractor afterwards, I’ll take a sometimes inefficient government team working for our common good over a profit driven contractor any day!

Unfortunately, our Governor and GOP-led Legislature is dead set on contracting out our public schools. After all, it’s worked so well for our prisons. Those of us who care about the one million plus students in our district schools though, know this will not end well. And it is laughable that those working so hard to push the voucher expansion tout themselves as fiscal conservatives. Maybe the fiscally conservative aspect of vouchers is that they allow those with sufficient fiscal resources to conserve those resources by offsetting them with the welfare handouts taxpayers provide.

Columnist Joanna Allhands, also at azcentral.com, just yesterday urged us all to just “calm down”, reasoning that the expansion of vouchers is not going to produce a mass exodus from our district schools. Know what? I totally agree. After all, parents have had school choice for almost a quarter of a century and yet, over 80 percent of them still choose district schools. Additionally, the vast majority of parents can’t afford to make the choice to take a voucher even if they wanted to. Now worth only $4,400 for a mainstream student, vouchers won’t even begin to cover private school tuition of $6,000 for elementary or $18,000 for high school.

Ultimately though, this fight isn’t about the choice of schools, but rather, what kind of country we want. Do we want one that values all its people and wants each to have the opportunity to reach his or her full potential, or do we believe that only the strong should survive and “to the winner go all the spoils”? Do we recognize all the benefits our district schools – with their locally elected governing boards – bring to our students, families and communities all across America, or don’t communities even matter anymore? Are we destined to continue to segregate and polarize, or can we reconnect with the idea that diversity is our strength and that our public schools are the melting pot that teaches each of us that truth?

Don’t be fooled by all the noise. The expansion of vouchers is not about our kids, but about profit and power. It is part of the systematic destruction of the people’s faith in our institutions and their voice in our democracy. That’s why this fight is far from over. Betsy DeVos may have tweeted congratulations to Governor Ducey last week, but her money fueled ideological agenda won’t win in the end. That’s because our cause is just and we have a much higher purpose than ourselves…we have our children.

President John F. Kennedy said, “A child miseducated is a child lost.” Proponents of public education understand every child is precious and should not have their potential determined by the circumstances of their birth. Public schools offer the best opportunity for all children to achieve the American Dream and the road to that dream is paved by the “coercive power of taxation.” If this is no longer what we want for not only our own children, but all America’s children, let’s quit pretending we either are great, or want to be great again. That time will have passed.