Manufactured Crises

The AZ Capitol Times reports that although Governor Ducey is disavowing any connection to the effort, the GOP’s attack on Arizona’s public (district) schools is far from over. Sean Noble, the political hack running the two 2018 ballot measures though, “funneled millions into Ducey’s 2014 campaign through dark money groups.”

The first initiative would require 60 percent of district funding to be spent in the classroom, (per the U.S. Department of Education.) The second initiative looks to “cap executive pay in K–12 public schools at no more than twice the average teacher pay in the same school district or the highest salary a principal receives within that district, whichever is lower.”

What the hell? I mean, the ink isn’t even dry on the full expansion of vouchers and now the GOP is again trying to stick it to our district students by allegedly solving a problem that doesn’t really exist.

First of all, it is telling that Noble defines classroom spending as “defined by the U.S. Department of Education.” What???? Defer to the Feds about how to do something in Arizona? He obviously knows there is a disconnect in our state between how the AZ Auditor General defines classroom spending and how the Governor, Legislature, and public school leaders define it. The AZ Auditor General defines classroom spending (or instruction) as: “Salaries and benefits for teachers and instructional aides; costs related to instructional supplies, such as pencils, paper, and workbooks; instructional software; athletics; cocurricular activities, such as band or choir; and tuition paid to private institutions.” Our lawmakers though, agree with the Arizona School Boards Association’s (ASBA) definition of what they call “classroom support” which includes funding allotted to “instructional support and student support.” This categories include reading and math intervention specialists, librarians, counselors, speech pathologists, physical therapists, nurses and social workers which due to the high number of Arizona students who live at or below the poverty line, is critical for students to be successful in the classroom. “In 2015, the definition made it into state law, when the governor, legislators and educators agreed that a more holistic approach was required. As a result, the state’s budget for fiscal year 2016 identified student support and instructional support services along with instruction as the categories that support classroom learning.” This should therefore, be no need to turn to any guidance from the U.S. DOE on what defines classroom spending.

Defintion aside, Arizona districts do a good job of ensuring they are spending their limited monies where they will most matter. In FY 2016, the total amount for classroom, instructional and student support amounted to 67.4% which is down only slightly from the 68.3% in 2001. Chuck Essigs, director of governmental relations for the Arizona Association of School Business Officials, notes that is “a very small decline given the many significant cuts to school district funding over this period of time, including the elimination of funding for full-day kindergarten and the current annual cut of over $350 million to district additional assistance.” Likewise, an ASBA analysis determined that, “Arizona’s classroom spending continues to be impacted by its low per-pupil funding which is ranked 48th in the nation, students who are poorer than the national average, higher plant operations costs due to extreme temperatures and high transportation costs to serve rural and remote areas.” In fact, over the last 9 years, the Arizona Legislature has cut District Additional Assistance (monies used for textbooks, technology, items like desks and school buses and building repair and maintenance like fixing roofs and plumbing and repairing air conditioners) by two billion dollars, forcing districts to redirect funding they would otherwise have spent in the classroom. In total, our state has cut $4.56 billion dollars to public schools since 2009 – leading the nation in per pupil cuts. This is important, because all categories of costs don’t shrink evenly when a budget gets cut. Fixed costs (such as teacher numbers constrained by numbers of students), and those associated with utilities, building maintenance, and transportation for example, remain, and then eat up a bigger piece of a smaller pie.

I couldn’t find the US DOE definition of classroom spending Noble refers to. I did find a discussion about “instruction” spending. According to the National Center of Education Statistics (NCES), this includes “salaries and benefits of teachers and teaching assistants as well as costs for instructional materials and instructional services provided under contract.” On their website, the NCES noted that in 2013–14, instruction percentages were 61% of current expenditures. They also said that these expenditures peaked in 2009–10 (shrinking across the nation since then.)

The initiative to “cap executive pay”, is equally misleading. First off, “cap executive pay” makes it sound like our Superintendents are CEOs of giant corporations living the good life. No, that would be ACTUAL CEOs of corporations, not school district administrators. Secondly, Arizona public school administrative costs are below the national average at 10.4% versus 10.9%. And oh by the way, many of these “executives” are in small rural districts, where their jobs are nothing like that of a CEO. “The New York Times reported that, ”In the Miami Unified School District east of Phoenix, the superintendent is also a grant writer and the principal of the elementary school is also in charge of keeping the toilets running, as the district’s director of maintenance.” As for Arizona superintendents being overpaid, not so much. The median school superintendent salary in the U.S. as of March 31, 2017 was $151.636. Although the Phoenix median approaches this number at about $150,000, the median in Tucson is only $137,396 in Lake Havasu City it is $123,108, and in Sierra Vista, it drops to $119,199.

It might be noted by the way, that Arizona’s critical teacher shortage isn’t the only shortage our districts are facing. In 2015, the superintendent turnover rate was the highest seen in the past five years. That same year, of the 45 superintendent openings in the spring, seven were still unfilled by July and 28 were filled by a person with no superintendent experience. And just like 25% of our teachers are eligible to retire by 2020, so were nearly 50% of working superintendents between the ages of 56 and 60, planning to retire soon. Dr. Debra Duvall, former executive director of the Arizona School Administrators Association, said she suspects superintendents are fleeing for many of the same reasons teachers are, basically, that both educational resources and salaries have been stagnant or declining for the past decade. Usurping the local control authority of locally elected governing boards to apply an arbitrary cap, is certainly not the way to turn the tide on our ability to recruit and retain the quality superintendents we need in Arizona.

What we all know this is really about, is continuing to plant the lie in the public’s mind, that district schools are inefficient bloated bureaucracies and that commercializing our schools is the way to go. At least in Arizona, nothing could be further from the truth! If fact, if you want to talk about excessive spending on administration versus instruction, charter schools take the cake. Arizona charter schools spend twice the amount on administration ($1,451 versus $804 in FY2016) as do district schools. And also in FY2016, charter schools spent only 55.33% on classroom instruction, supplies and student support compared to district schools which invested 61.99%.

In short, these “problems” Noble seeks to solve with his initiatives, are manufactured crises, not reality. Of course, he won’t be deterred, saying he has “a ‘couple’ of wealthy Arizonans lined up in support of the plans.” I would just caution him not to allow his wealthy donors to reward the legislators with a free lunch celebration in the event he is successful. Speaker of the Arizona House J.D. Mesnard wisely realized the optics of this with the free lunch offered lawmakers by the American Federation for Children (Betsy DeVos was the chair prior to her SecED gig) after the voucher expansion passage. It doesn’t play well to pass laws that screw over our kids (while benefitting rich donors and corporations) and then do a victory lap around the Capitol.

Misogynistic Malfeasance

What is going on with K–12 teachers in Arizona’s district education systems is nothing short of malfeasance on the part of the state and ultimately, on the part of the people. We have allowed our teachers to be disregarded and undervalued to the point that one must question why anyone would care to be a teacher. Truth is, today very few are choosing that route.

Four weeks into the 2016–2017 school year, Arizona saw 53 percent of its district classrooms without a certified teacher; over 2,000 had no teacher and another 2,000 had an uncertified person at the head of the class. Part of the problem is recruitment and retention. In fact, an upcoming report from ASU’s Morrison Institute for Public Policy, states that 85% of rural school and 77% of urban administrators say hiring new teachers is somewhat or extremely difficult. The report also states that Arizona is losing more teachers than bachelor of education degrees produced by its three state universities. Turnover is high, with 22% of teachers not teaching in state after one year and 42% of them leaving the profession within three years.

Probably one of the biggest problem is teacher pay that is rock bottom lowest (50th) in the nation. In fact, elementary school teachers here are paid 14% less than in 2001 and secondary teachers are paid 11% less. Governor Ducey’s response for next year’s budget is to give teachers a 0.4 percent pay raise amounting to $187 extra next year on an average salary of $46,384 in 2016. I don’t know about you, but an extra $187 per year wouldn’t convince me to do anything I hadn’t already decided to do.

This paltry teacher raise isn’t the only funding boost to education Ducey is recommending, as he’s proposed a total of $113.6 million for K–12 education next year. But, in light of the fact that per pupil funding is $1,365 less than it was in 2008 (adjusting for inflation) that amount is not even a drop in the bucket compared to the $1.43 billion that has been cut.

The Legislature (including some Republicans) is going a step further in proposing a one percent raise for teachers, which would amount to an additional $430 per year at a total cost of $31 million. Democratic legislators and AZ Schools Now, a coalition of education groups, are advocating for a four percent raise which would give the average teacher an annual boost of $1,720 by freezing corporate tax cuts. Even this amount though, would still leave Arizona teachers $8,616 short of the U.S. average annual salary for teachers.

Why this isn’t something all of us are screaming bloody murder about is, I’m sure, multi-faceted. The most obvious is it doesn’t support the agenda of school choice proponents. After all, from Betsy DeVos and her American Federation for Children, to Michael and Olga Block and their BASIS empire, to Senator Yarbrough and his cash cow School Tuition Organization, raising the salaries of Arizona’s district teachers just isn’t a high priority. But, there is likely a more insidious reason, one that most people probably never think of, and that is the fact that most K–12 teachers are, and traditionally have been, women.

Back in 2014, a teacher in Portland named Nikki Suydam, penned a guest opinion published by the Oregonian on oregonlive.com. In it, Ms. Suydam pointed out that “blaming women for society’s problems is as old as the story of Eve in the Garden of Eden, or Pandora and her box of woes, or every medieval witch hunt spurred on by crop failure or plague outbreak.” “Contemporary education reformers” she wrote “have launched a similar witch hunt to root out ”rotten apples“ from a profession still more than 75 percent female.”

She goes on to make the point that “No similar reform movement targets doctors (65 percent male) for our nation’s spiraling obesity epidemic. America’s dentists (78 percent male) are not held responsible for their patients’ tooth decay. Law enforcement officers (80 percent male) are not blamed for crime statistics. Nor are engineers (78 percent male) ‘held accountable’ for the crumbling U.S. infrastructure.”

And yet, teachers (three-fourths of whom are women) are often vilified for any lack of success in today’s public district schools. This, despite the fact that 20 percent of Arizona’s children live in poverty and the vast majority of these children attend district schools. This despite the fact that Arizona is 48th in the nation in per pupil spending. This despite the fact that our Governor and Legislature continue to push for ways to siphon more tax dollars away from our district schools.

Let’s face it. Whether we are talking about homemakers, or nurses, or teachers; professions traditionally filled by women just don’t earn the same respect and salaries of those dominated by men. We really should get past this old paradigm though, and not look at who does the work, but what work is done. After all, for most people, their child is their most precious “possession” and they turn over the care of this precious possession to a teacher for six to eight hours each day. Shouldn’t we want these teachers to be highly skilled, appropriately valued, and sufficiently compensated?

Numerous studies have looked at teachers’ impact on student achievement. A 2012 research study by the RAND Corporation, found that “among school-related factors, teachers matter most.” The study also found “When it comes to student performance on reading and math tests, a teacher is estimated to have two to three times the impact of any other school factor, including services, facilities, and even leadership.” Steve Seleznow, President and CEO of Arizona Community Foundation and a former school administrator said, “Teacher pay and support is a proxy for how highly we think of students and their education…If we value the education our children receive, we must provide teachers compensation commensurate with those values.”

Every parent knows that children are sponges and they are really good at picking up on the dissonance between our words and our actions. When we undervalue our teachers, on some level, our children know we are undervaluing them as well. And that my friends, is a really, really sad state of affairs.

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.

We Do Not Fight Alone!

Arizona enjoys a multitude of great organizations fighting for our public schools  and I have written about some in previous posts. Our public education advocates also have a great friend beyond our state borders, (one the CEO of BASIS calls “one of the most virulent anti-school choice institutions in the country”), the Network for Public Education (NPE).

NPE was founded in 2013 by Diane Ravitch and Anthony Cody. For those who may not know, Diane Ravitch is undoubtedly the leading advocate for K–12 public education in the nation. She is a graduate of Wellesley College and holds a Ph.D. in the history of American education. She was a U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education under President George H. W. Bush, and is still an education policy analyst and a Research Professor of Education at New York University’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development. She is a prolific writer about education both on-line at her blog DianeRavitch.net, and in print with seminal books such as “The Death and Life of the Great American School System” and more recently, “Reign of Error.”

The NPE website states “They are an advocacy group whose mission is to preserve, promote, improve and strengthen public schools for both current and future generations of students. The goal of NPE is to connect all those who are passionate about our schools – students, parents, teachers and citizens. They share information and research on vital issues that concern the future of public education at a time when it is under attack.”

With privatizer Betsy DeVos as the Secretary of Education, our system of public education is now more under attack than ever. It is clear her intent is the destruction of this system she refers to as “a dead end.” DeVos and her allies have worked for decades to push charters, vouchers, and education tax credits. She even supports virtual charter schools which have the most abysmal track record of all when it comes to student success.

Despite a lackluster track record of producing any improved results and, numerous accounts of fraud, waste and abuse when it comes to charters, vouchers and other school choice options, the general public is still not fully aware of the threat these tools of profiteers pose to our public (district) schools. The mantra of “parents know best and should be free to choose the best school option for their child,” as well as terms such as “Empowerment Scholarship Accounts,” are destined to be not only innocuous sounding, but well…empowering and enticing.

I have been impressed with NPE since I first joined their email list and then attended the first annual conference in 2013 in Austin, TX. The energy at the conference was high; the majority of the people in attendance were there on their own dime and were highly motivated to fight for our public schools. I met Diane Ravitch and Mercedes Schneider (a teacher/advocate/education writer from Louisiana) among many others, and it helped propel my passion for this work.

It was at this conference that I learned about the Education Bloggers Network and I have been a fairly regular contributor, along with some 250 or so other bloggers around the country. There is though, an even closer to home connection as Tucson’s very own Robin Hiller, founder and Executive Director of Voices for Education, was NPE’s first Executive Director. I have now also had the pleasure of meeting and working with her replacement, Carol Burris. You may recognize Carol’s name as she recently took on BASIS in the Washington Post and then in the AZ Capitol Times. She has been very interested in our fight for public education here in Arizona and will no doubt continue to bring national attention to our struggle.

I have watched NPE’s advocacy efforts grow since 2013 and am excited about their latest efforts. Carol has recently led the development of a NPE Action Grassroots School Board Member Network Facebook page and intends to release a toolkit to help encourage advocates to consider running for a seat on their local school board. She also just released a toolkit called School Privatization Explained with 13 fact sheets on a variety of choice issues and an interactive map which allows people to learn how their state stacks up in this area.

I found the information valuable and encourage you to check it out. I also recommend that you sign up for NPE’s email list as well as Diane Ravitch’s blog if you have not already done so.

In her email about the School Privatization Explained tools, Carol writes the following, “Read, share, quote and even copy. They are designed for your use. Most of all, share the truth about school privatization far and wide. We cannot let the pillar of our democracy, our public schools, be destroyed.” Yes, there is much at stake here, and failure is not an option.

Plenty of blame to go around

Let me first say that I have much respect for Richard Gilman of “Bringing Up Arizona” and the work he has done on behalf of public education. I also very much appreciate his gracious support of my work and wish him well as he moves on to a new chapter of his life.

I did find much though, in his last blog post, to disagree with. It shouldn’t have surprised me, as the last time he and I had lunch, it was pretty clear he was frustrated. I tried to allay his concerns, but obviously, failed. It’s not that I don’t agree with his position that “the status quo in K–12 education is not acceptable. Of course I do. We have the lowest paid teachers in the nation, our per-pupil funding ranks 48th, and our education performance ranking isn’t much better. I do not agree though, that ”the onus belongs as much or more on public school administrators.” School administrators are after all, busy managing their schools and school districts. They are busy focusing on their students and the teachers educating them. That’s where their focus should be.

The good news is, they aren’t in this fight alone. Organizations like the Arizona School Boards Association, Arizona Education Association, Arizona School Administrators, Arizona School Business Officials Association, and Arizona School Personnel Administrators Association, offer training and professional development to their membership, engage their members in advocacy, do outreach to the public, lobby legislators and collaborate with each other to improve Arizona’s educational outcomes. They are aided by organizations like Support Our Schools Az, the Arizona PTA, Voices for Education, Expect More Arizona, the Children’s Action Alliance Arizona, and the Helios Education Foundation, who tirelessly engage both their members and supporters on behalf of public education and encourage others to do the same. All these parents, community members, business leaders and voters are groups of people both our legislators and the general public are unfortunately often more apt to “hear” than our school administrators.

None of these organizations operate in a vacuum. They know there is strength in numbers and that together, they can come up with the best solutions. One example of this collaboration is AZ Schools Now, a coalition of parent, educator, business, and community leaders fighting to reverse the destructive politics of the last 30 years and see Arizona schools adequately funded. It isn’t just these education advocacy groups or school administrators though, who recognize our schools need more funding. Even Governor Ducey’s Classrooms First Council, charged with revising the school finance formula, determined after a year of study that simply revising the formula won’t help if there isn’t more money to push through that formula.

Neither “the Legislature nor the public is going to write a check without getting a promise of improved results” he writes. Really Richard? Come on now, you’ve been around long enough to know that promises are easy to make, politicians do it every day. What is hard, is delivering on those promises. I learned a long time ago that if something was easy to fix, someone probably would have already fixed it. As for that blank check, isn’t that exactly what the Legislature is trying to do by pushing for a full expansion of vouchers? They don’t know how many students will leave districts via vouchers, but they do know each one will cost about $1,000 more than if that student were to stay. Sounds like a blank check to me and not only is it one without any promise of improved results, but by law, without any requirement to deliver and report those results.

I also agree with Richard’s recommendation “they need to speak with a unified voice.” If all the public education advocacy groups would agree on the top 1–3 legislative priorities for each year, it would make their voices much more powerful and harder for legislators to ignore. That is though, a big ask. Even in the Air Force, where teamwork was paramount and everyone was focused on the same mission, leaders had the natural tendency to protect their areas of influence. It was common to reflect that “it would be amazing what we could get done if no one cared who got the credit.” Yes, public education advocates all have the same basic mission, but they are not one cohesive organization and they all have different stakeholders. Nonetheless, I believe they can do it. They are dedicated professionals who all, in the end, just want to see every student have every opportunity to succeed. Agreeing on a few key priorities such as teacher recruitment and retention, funding for full-day kindergarten and renewing and expanding Proposition 301 for example, and absolutely standing together in demanding solutions would likely make a real difference.

That brings me to who is really responsible for the challenges faced by Arizona’s district schools. As long as Arizonans continue to vote for candidates committed to privatizing our district schools, we will continue to see funding and support get siphoned away. To really affect change, we must elect more pro-public (district) education candidates and voters must hold all elected officials (including governing board members) responsible for moving the needle for our students. Otherwise, we will continue to spin our wheels, the advocacy efforts will continue to be frustrating and yes, the results will get ever more sad.

As Franklin D. Roosevelt said, “Democracy cannot succeed unless those who express their choice are prepared to choose wisely” and “Let us never forget that government is ourselves and not an alien power over us. The ultimate rulers of our democracy are not a President and senators and congressmen and government officials, but the voters of this country.” Ultimately you see, it is up to each of us to ensure the students of Arizona have what they need to succeed. Ultimately, it is up to each of us to make the world a better place to be. Dramatist Edward Albee said it well, “Remember one thing about democracy. We can have anything we want and at the same time, we always end up with exactly what we deserve.”