Mark Finchem, the master of condescension

As one of LD11 ‘s Representative Mark Finchem’s constituents, I’m thinking he largely penned today’s shared op-ed in the AZ Daily Star titled “Bills see to improve oversight of education vouchers”, and asked Senator Sylvia Allen (AZ Senate Ed Cmte Chair) to give it some credibility by lending her name to it. His attack on the Save Our Schools Arizona folks as “lobbyists” is soooooo “him”. Give me a break. They are grassroots advocates led by a group of moms who were sick and tired of being ignored by school privatization zealots like Finchem. Their movement caught fire over the last couple of years because it was obvious they actually were/are “in this to help our children”.

Contrary to what Finchem would have you believe, they and other public education advocates don’t argue for a lack of choices for parents. In fact, public education advocates and education professionals work hard to ensure our district schools offer an increasingly wide variety of programming to appeal to our diverse student population. This has been one of the good impacts of open enrollment and charter schools which have been providing choice since 1994.

Finchem’s claim that “100 percent of current [Empowerment Scholarship Accounts, or vouchers] ESA students have unique challenges” is purposefully misleading. Education professionals understand that every child has unique challenges and the ideal way to educate them would be to ensure an education program individualized to meet each of their specific needs. Unfortunately, Arizona’s public school funding doesn’t allow that sort of personalized attention as it is still $600 million short of even 2008 levels. Compounding the problem are the 1,693 teacher vacancies and 3,908 individuals not meeting standard teacher requirements as of December 12, 2018. This adds up to a total of 75% of teacher positions vacant or filled by less than fully qualified people, contributing to the highest class sizes in the nation and likely helped push 913 to abandon or resign their positions within the first half of the school year. When quality teachers have proven to be the #1 factor to in-school success, this is not a winning strategy to improving outcomes.

Those requiring the most personal attention, our special needs students, have had access to vouchers since the ESA began in 2011 and made up 58 percent of students on vouchers in 2017. Yet, our district schools still educate the vast majority of these students even though the state’s formula funding for such was $79 million less than what it cost in 2017 to provide the services required under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. This shortfall requires districts to fund the special ed programs (mandated by state and federal law), from non-special education programs (i.e. mainstream students). And while special education enrollment remains steady at 11.5 percent, the severity of disabilities (more expensive to administer to), have been increasing.

Of course, Finchem is “all about” those students “who have been bullied or assaulted and need ESAs to find a healthier environment in which to learn”. Again, open enrollment and charter schools already provide that option. And maybe, just maybe, if Finchem really wants to help students who have been bullied, he should focus on decreasing class sizes, providing more music and art education, and working to increase the number of counselors at Arizona’s schools? After all, there is nowhere to go but up in this area given our 903:1 ratio which puts us in “first” (worst) place for the number of students per counselor. (The national average was 482:1 in 2018 and the industry recommended ratio 250:1.)

As for his HB2022 providing increased transparency and accountability because it turns over financial administration of ESAs to a private firm, I call total BS. Just look at private schools and private prisons and the amount of transparency they afford the public. The best way to ensure transparency and accountability is to keep public services in the public domain and hold elected officials responsible for ensuring such.

Wait a minute. Maybe I’m on to something. After all, when ESAs were first implemented, Arizona lawmakers were told that the auditing requirements were so weak they were “almost a sham”, but the warnings went unheeded. Not only did the Legislature expand the program almost every year, but “resources to scrutinize the expenditures – made using state-provided debit cards – never kept pace. Yes, some improvements have been made, but an AZ Auditor General audit released in October 2018 found that ”Arizona parents have 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.” Could it be that these lawmakers just don’t want to be held accountable?

Far be it from me to point out that Finchem was first elected in 2014 and is now serving his third term in the Legislature. Why is he only now taking an interest in making the ESA program transparent and accountable? I’d hate to think it has anything to do with the fact that our new Superintendent of Public Instruction is a Democrat who is committed to finally tackling the problem. Upon taking office after all, Superintendent Hoffman immediately launched an audit of the Department of Ed and has now established a bi-partisan task force to look at ESA accountability.

If Finchem really wanted to show our kids how to work together,” he should be working to properly fund ADE’s oversight of the ESA program. Even the former Superintendent of Public Instruction, Diane Douglas (Republican), said “the misspending of the voucher money is the result of decisions by the Republican-controlled Legislature to deny her department money needed to properly administer the program.” Douglas claimed lawmakers resisted properly funding oversight because they wanted a private entity to oversee it.

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

Likewise, Republican Senator Bob Worsley said,

“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.” He went on to say that it is “neither fiscally sound nor ethical for lawmakers to inadequately fund oversight of the program.”

But, this is exactly what they’ve done. “Under the law, 4 percent of the program’s funding is supposed to go to the department to administer and oversee the program.” In 2018, the Arizona Department of Education (ADE) only received about 2 percent or $1.2 million. Douglas said the full 4 percent was needed to properly oversee the program, but the Legislature had not authorized the department to spend $5.7 million sitting in a fund allocated for program oversight. Let that sink in. Finchem is up in arms about the need to introduce more transparency and accountability into the ESA program, but is part of the GOP-led legislature that hasn’t allowed oversight funds to be spent.

Most galling to me of any of his positions in the op-ed though is Finchem’s admonishment that,

“it’s time for adults to start acting like adults and show our kids how to work together, even if it means working with people with which you may not always agree.”

This also is “him being him” as condescension is a tool Finchem has mastered. I guess when he showed total disdain for teachers (to their faces), during the #RedforEd walkout (and at every opportunity since), he was/is demonstrating how to work with others? I’m not buying it and neither should you. He is a blight on southern Arizona and I hope all those who care about public education, (regardless of where you live), work very, very hard to deny his reelection in 2020.

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AZ in Top Third with National Board Certified Teachers

Let me be clear. I’ve never worn blackface and can’t for the life of me understand why someone would think it is okay. But, I’ve been guilty (when much younger), of making the insensitive and derogatory comment that, “those who can, do, and those who can’t, teach.” I was referring to military trainers, not K–12 teachers, but I am still mortified and profusely sorry for ever thinking, let alone saying that, about any educator.

I was ignorant and didn’t know what I didn’t know. I now know that good teachers are highly skilled professionals who have honed their art. I know that the overwhelming majority of K–12 teachers have chosen their profession because they have a passion for helping children grow and thrive. I also know that teachers are the number one in-school factor to student success. I fervently believe, that if we are to truly unleash our students’ and our state’s potential, we must focus on preparing, hiring, supporting, and trusting, high-quality, professional educators.

I was surrounded by several hundred such professionals at this year’s Arizona K12 Center’s 10th Celebration of Accomplished Teaching. It was a wonderful gala to celebrate the 136 Arizona teachers who achieved or renewed National Board Certification (NBC) in 2018.

Established in 1987 as a rigorous assessment program, NBC was designed to “develop, retain and recognize accomplished teachers and to generate ongoing improvement in schools nationwide.” To be an NBCT, “a teacher must hold a baccalaureate degree and have three years of teaching experience on a provisional or standard certificate (no emergency or intern) in early childhood, elementary, middle, or secondary schools prior to submitting an application. “ According to the National Board of Professional Teaching Standards (NBPTS) website, “National Board Certification was created by teachers, for teachers, to “represent consensus among educators about what accomplished teachers should know and be able to do…and is available in 25 certificate areas spanning 16 disciplines from Pre-K through 12th grade.”

In the AZ Republic’s Joanna Allhands words, NBCT “Teachers are tested on their content knowledge and must prove academic growth in their students. They also must demonstrate how they interact with their students and that they can effectively use testing data to help their students grow.” She goes on to note that Arizona doesn’t pay teachers extra (though some districts do give a stipend) for achieving NBCT status. Rather, the teachers work for certification anywhere from one to five years, at a personal cost of about $2,000, because “they know what it means for their students. Studies from across the country show that students learn more – the equivalent of one to two months’ extra instruction – from a National Board Certified Teacher.”

As a professional educator (what a breath of fresh air that is), Arizona’s Superintendent of Public Instruction, Kathy Hoffman, understands how important professional development is for educators and the students they teach. Speaking at the Celebration event, she lauded the 86 new and 50 renewed NBCTs for 2018. She also told the audience she is absolutely committed to maintaining her unbridled optimism in support of Arizona’s educators. The future of our state she said, will be determined by the future of our students, and they must have professional educators to prepare them. At a time when challenges abound for public education in Arizona, she proudly highlighted the fact that our state is 18th in the nation for the total number of NBCTs and 14th in the nation for the number of new NBCTs.

A big reason for these success is the leadership provided by Arizona’s K12 Center, led by Executive Director Kathy Wiebke. Our state’s first-ever NBCT, Kathy is the program’s biggest cheerleader saying that, not only does it elevate the profession, but individual teachers as well. As the Center’s website states, NBC provides the opportunity for our best teachers [and school counselors] to pursue “the accomplishment and recognition that other professionals, like doctors and architects, pursue in their areas of specialty. In fact, ”more than 150 studies indicate that National Board Certified Teachers (NBCTs) make a significant and measurable impact in their schools, and the process is regarded the finest single professional development program available to teachers today.”

In addition to running the National Board Candidate Program, the Center is home to the Master Teacher Program, which works to “build capacity for teacher leadership, while providing support to the newest members of the teaching profession. The program places experienced, accomplished teachers into non-evaluative leadership roles in schools as mentors or coaches for their peers.” Other programs include a professional development opportunity called Lesson2Life which “brings education and business together to better prepare students to be career and college ready with the skills necessary to be successful citizens in a rapidly changing world.” The program takes place over the summer, and “allows teachers to see firsthand the skills needed in today’s workplace while educating businesses about the current reality of today’s education system.”

We’ve already seen how lowering job requirements for teachers hasn’t helped improve retention, with only one-third of the way into the 2018–19 school year, almost half as many certificates being issued to untrained teachers as the entire previous year. How’s about we try something else? I don’t know…maybe like treat our teachers as the professionals they are and encourage and support their efforts to continue to develop their craft?

The solution to our teacher retention problem is staring us in the face and is the same solution that will drive more student success. That’s because teacher working conditions are student learning conditions. Only when we truly embrace this concept will we begin to make sustained, statewide progress we can all be proud of.

So, how’s that teacher shortage?

Anyone wondering where we stand with Arizona’s teacher shortage? After all, last year was probably the most significant year ever for Arizona public school teachers. Some 75,000 of them marched on the state Capitol demanding better pay for themselves and support staff, lower class sizes and more. The result was an additional 9% salary increase added to the 1% Governor Ducey had originally offered for the year. Surely this must have helped us retain quality teachers, right?

Well, not so fast. As the Arizona School Personnel Administrators Association (ASPAA) learned in their annual statewide survey of districts, we are a long way from “out of the woods” and aren’t even headed in the right direction.

242EFF29-BFCA-4C0A-B496-C54953BBAD3DThe 211 districts and charters that responded last year reported that 7,453 teacher openings needed to be filled during the school year. As of December 12, 2018, there were still 1,693 vacancies and 3,908 individuals not meeting standard teacher requirements, for a total of 75% of teacher positions vacant or filled by less than fully qualified people.

On top of that, 913 teachers had either abandoned or resigned from their teacher position within the first half of the school year without a candidate pool to replace them. To make matters worse, 76% of these teachers held a standard teacher certificate.

These are alarming statistics, made all the more so considering the strides made in 2018, and the worse status since the 2017–18 report. It showed that as of December 8, 2017, 62.5% of teacher positions were vacant or not meeting standard teacher requirements and 866 teachers had abandoned or resigned within first half of the year, over 80% of whom held a standard teacher certificate.

The salary increase didn’t solve the problem, partly because salary and benefits still aren’t competitive, but also because teacher working conditions (such as high class sizes and the dramatic increase of children dealing with trauma and Adverse Childhood Experiences) make it really tough to do the job right. And, oh by the way, allowing our districts to hire uncertified teachers hasn’t done anything to make our teachers feel valued as professionals. As the state’s Superintendent of Public Instruction, Kathy Hoffman, told the state House Education Committee yesterday, our teacher shortage is a crisis. To make matters worse, 25% of Arizona teachers are eligible to retire in the next two years.

I’m sure there are people who thought the Governor’s #20X2020 plan would fix the teacher drain but of course, it was never going to be that easy. First of all, only 10% of it has been allocated thus far. The other 10% is but a promise and must be appropriated by this, and probably next year’s Legislatures.

Quality teachers are the number one in-school factor contributing to student success, so it makes sense that they should be our focus. Ask yourself then why yet again, state legislators are sponsoring several voucher expansion bills that will further drain resources available for 95% of Arizona’s students.

We can solve this, and most other problems, IF we have the collective will to do it. Therein lies the rub.

Wondering What Happened To Steve Smith?

Grrrrreeeeaaaatt! The Capitol Times just reported that former state Senator and GOP candidate for U.S. House of Representatives in CD1, Steve Smith, is joining the American Federation for Children as the new state director.

Many LD11 residents (especially those in his home town of Maricopa), were thrilled to get rid of him as our one of our lawmakers. Now though, I imagine public education advocates will likely emit a communal groan to this news. Smith was no friend of public education as a state Senator, and in fact, was a co-sponsor of the full-expansion of vouchers (Empowerment Scholarship Accounts) law.

In 2017, he voted for Arizona School Boards Association (ASBA) supported bills only 2 of 7 times. In 2016, he did better, but voted for three ESA expansion bills. In 2015, he voted for ASBA supported bills only 2 of 9 times, with two of those bills being ESA expansions. Back in 2014, he voted against ASBA positions all 7 times, and one of those was an ESA expansion.

The American Federation of Children (AFC) of course, is the organization that Betsy DeVos headed before she got the gig as U.S. Secretary of Education. Their mission, according to their website, is: “The American Federation for Children and AFC Growth Fund seek to empower families, especially lower-income families, with the freedom to choose the best K–12 education for their children.

Yeah, right, it is ALL about the low-income, disadvantaged child. No matter that “the freedom to choose” means nothing if there isn’t true access to the choice. An example of this is the expansion of vouchers to students living on tribal lands. Ask yourself…how many private schools are there on tribal lands? Exactly! The whole idea that AFC is all about empowering lower-income families “with the freedom to choose” sounds like a nice idea until you know the facts.

AFC is no stranger to Arizona, making its presence known via big campaign spending for pro-voucher candidates. In 2014 alone, they spent $205,000 in the state. Smith was one of the recipients of those funds. In 2016, AFC spent $213,000, but evidently none on Smith, they must have considered him safe that year.

The last time I met with then Senator Smith in his office at the Capitol, he was complaining about how the Feds were trying to shove something down Arizona’s throat and he wasn’t going to have it. I told him that just like he didn’t like the Feds trying to tell Arizona what to do, locally-elected school board members don’t like state lawmakers trying to tell them what to do. Everyone, I intimated, should stay in their lane to allow the system to work best. He didn’t even acknowledge what I said, but started ranting about how the Feds aren’t the parent, the state is the parent. He was finger pointing and literally, spitting mad. I decided at that point I was getting nowhere and left.

Smith is an ambitious ideologue and will continue his rampage against Arizona’s public schools. Certainly the pro-privatization crowd are not dissuaded by the failure of the full voucher expansion last November. Rather, I suspect they’ve circled the wagons and have been plotting their next assault on our public schools. Smith has certainly had lots of practice doing AFC’s bidding and now can be even more “unplugged” in leading the charge. Or, maybe, just maybe, he’ll be as successful at this, as he was at building the wall he promised to raise money for. Geesh…I keep telling myself! The session hasn’t even started yet!

Should seniors skate?

The Legislative session doesn’t start for another week and a half and I’m already tired of the bad ideas being proposed. I previously wrote about HB2002 Rep. Mark Finchem’s (R-Oro Valley) proposal, which would “allow the state to fire teachers who discuss politics, religion, or racial issues in classroom settings.” Yesterday, Newsweek picked up on Phoenix New Times reporting that nine of the points in his bill were “lifted directly from the Stop K–12 Indoctrination campaign, which the David Horowitz Freedom Center sponsors. The Southern Poverty Law Center describes David Horowitz as ‘a driving force of the anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant, and anti-black movements.’” Not to be outdone, Rep. Kelly Townsend (R-Mesa) submitted HB2015 which covers the same territory.

Now, we have “a self-proclaimed ‘tax activist’ who wants to excuse anyone 65 or older from paying property tax. Her name is Lynne Weaver and she is working with a former state GOP chairman to permanently ban property taxes on AZ home owners 65 and older.

What a ridiculous idea! As a Capitol Media Services article points out, if the initiative passes, homeowners under 65 would be left to make up the property tax burden the elderly were relieved of. This tax money after all, funds public education, emergency services and other community programs. In a perfect world, we wouldn’t rely on property taxes to fund these programs because it inevitably results in winners and losers. But the funding for these essential services has to come from somewhere and for now, that’s property taxes.

According to the AZ Department of Health Services “2014–2018 Arizona Healthy Aging Plan”, the number of Arizonans aged 65 and older was 14% in 2010. By 2025, the plan states “there will be as many people over 65 as under age 15 living in Arizona. These increases will be accompanied by a decrease in the proportion of working-age Arizonans who help support older adults in numerous ways including paying taxes on wages that help fund Social Security and Medicare.”

So, not only will there not be enough young people to support the older ones, but Weaver’s initiative would have those young people responsible for picking up the bill for elders’ property tax relief as well?

A California transplant, Weaver’s tried to limit property taxes before with efforts based on California’s disastrous Proposition 13, “a 1978 measure rolling back property valuations and capping year-over-year increases.” With this latest effort, she thinks she’ll have more luck targeting only seniors. But, she’ll need to get 356,467 valid signatures by July 2, 2020 for the initiative to make the ballot next year.

Which brings me back to another of Finchem’s proposals. He recently announced he wants to allow initiative organizers to collect signatures online. This caught my attention because although Sandy Bahr of the AZ Sierra Club lauded his proposal, I know (given his denial of climate change), he is not proposing this change to help promote renewable energy, or any other sane issue liberals care about.

What if Finchem wants the on-line initiative signing capability to help Weaver’s initiative qualify for the ballot? And if it qualifies, what’s the chances the voters will approve it? I don’t know the answer to that, but I do know that the 65+ age group are the most reliable voters of them all.

Then again, maybe I’m just getting cynical in my old age. No, I’m not 65 yet, but I do live in an active adult community. And yes, I believe in paying taxes for public education. Retirees (and others) paid for mine after all, and I want to ensure there are plenty of well educated young people to take care of all of our futures. Crazy concept, huh?

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…

Lower quality = “good enough” results?

It should come as no surprise to anyone that teachers around the country are jumping ship at an alarming rate. According to the Wall Street Journal, public educators “quit at an average rate of 83 per 10,000 per month in the first 10 months of 2018” – the highest rate for public educators since 2001.

One obvious reason for teachers leaving the classroom is the low salaries many still earn. In an analysis of census data, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities noted that in at least 12 states, public education budgets are down some 7% from 2009 levels, adjusted for inflation. U.S. teacher pay (adjusted for inflation) says the National Education Association, is now 5% lower than it was in 2009. And, a 2017 report from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development “found that teachers in the U.S. earn far less than people with similar education levels who are working other jobs. American teachers make, on average, between 55 and 59 percent of the salaries of other professionals with comparable schooling levels.”

Even so, pay is not the only reason teachers are fleeing classrooms. They also cite inadequate public respect and increased accountability without appropriate support. In Arizona specifically, contributing factors include 25% of our certified teachers being retirement eligible, a grading system for schools that still relies heavily on standardized tests, a GOP-led Legislature that is very pro-school choice if not openly hostile to public district education and their teachers, and the lack of respect for the teaching profession demonstrated by the dumbing down of teacher qualification requirements.

Arizona began this dumbing down in 2017. According to AZCentral.com, since the 2015–2016 school year, “nearly 7,200 teaching certificates have been issued to teachers who aren’t fully trained to lead a classroom. In just three years, the number of Arizona teaching certificates that allow someone to teach full-time without completing formal training has increased by more than 400 percent according to state Department of Education data analyzed by The Arizona Republic. For the 2017–18 school year, that added up to 3,286 certificates issued to untrained teachers and by 47 days into the 2018–2019 school year, 1,404 certificates had been issued to untrained teachers while 3,141 were issue standard certificates.”

That last 1,404 certificates issued for the current school year is probably the most instructive, because this is after the 10 percent raises for teachers the #RedforEd movement garnered in 2018. So, less than one-third of the way into the school year, the state has issued almost half as many certificates to untrained teachers as the entire previous year. In other words, despite the 10% pay increase, Arizona districts are having even more difficulty attracting professional teachers into their classrooms.

Part of the problem is no doubt an improved economy. After the 2008 recession, the classroom was a safe place to be employed; other jobs just weren’t to be had. Now though, teachers have other options.

That, combined with the aforementioned factors, is putting school district governing boards in a bind. As the past president of the Arizona School Boards Association, believe me when I tell you that governing boards do not want less than fully qualified teachers in their district’s classrooms. But, when push comes to shove, sometimes they are left with little choice. And although a 2017 AZ Republic statewide examination of teacher quality found that “it is rare for schools to fill full-time teaching positions using Emergency Substitute Certificates” (requiring only a high-school diploma), in 2016–17 more than 40 of those teachers were leading classrooms. The Republic also found that “22 percent of 46,000 Arizona teachers either did not meet the state’s basic qualifications or had less than three years’ teaching experience.” And, that over 62% of the state’s almost 8,600 teacher vacancies either had not been filled or were filled with people who couldn’t qualify for a standard teaching certificate.

Some argue that standard certification, which in Arizona requires a bachelor’s degree, passing a professional and subject knowledge exam, completing a teacher preparation program and teaching full-time for at least two years, is not important. After all “they” say, (pandering to liberals no doubt), if Ruth Bader Ginsberg wanted to teach civics in Arizona, she wouldn’t qualify for a standard certification. Well, just because someone is a Supreme Court Justice, doesn’t mean they know how to teach. We’ve all met really smart people who couldn’t communicate what they knew. Pedagogy, the art of teaching, is a learned skill.

What it really comes down to, is whether or not we believe teaching is a profession worthy of appropriate compensation, investments in professional development and the autonomy to appropriately practice their craft. I believe the answer, with our future hanging in the balance, is an easy one.

Revenge Over Reason

Unknown-1.jpegFirst, Representative Mark Finchem (R-Oro Valley) introduced HB2002 directing creation of a code of conduct that would prohibit teachers from discussing politics, religion or race at the risk of violators being fired. Now Representative Kelly Townsend (R-Mesa) proposes HB2018 which would,

“expand a 2016 law that allows any state legislator to ask the attorney general to investigate an ordinance, regulation, order or other action taken by a municipality or county to determine whether it is in compliance with state law.” Her bill would require “the attorney general to investigate any policy, procedure or other official action taken by a school district governing board or any school district employee that lawmakers allege violates state law. If investigators find the law has been broken, the superintendent of public instruction would be directed to withhold up to $5,000 per violation from offending districts’ state funding.”

So, let me get this right. School employees or governing board members are already liable for an up to $5,000 personal fine for using public school resources to influence elections. In fact, two teachers were fined this year for violating the law. But, that’s not enough for Townsend. She now wants to threaten school districts for the potential actions of their governing board members and employees. Not only that, but she wants to withhold funding for students if violations occur.

Many believe these proposed laws area a solution in search of a problem, and the AZ Attorney General’s office says the 30-day timeline in-place to investigate per the existing law is already very difficult to meet. AG spokesman Ryan Anderson said,

“To expand that statute to every [district employee, thousands of employees, I just don’t see a way.” He added that, “any expansion of powers under SB1487 would have to come with corresponding increases in staff resources.”

For her part, Townsend says she has no problem with finding more money for the AG’s office. Too bad she hasn’t had the same attitude about adequately funding our public schools. During her time in the Legislature, she voted for multiple expansions (to include last year’s full expansion) of Empowerment Scholarship Accounts (vouchers), multiple bills intended to make it more difficult for districts to garner locally supported funding via bonds and override, and against a 20 year renewal of Prop 301, without which, Arizona’s public education system would have faced a funding cliff in 2021.

But wait, there’s more. Evidently, HB2018 isn’t the only “teacher hating” bill Townsend is proposing. Jerod MacDonald-Evoy from AZMirror.com writes that, “Another measure introduced by Mesa Republican Rep. Kelly Townsend, House Bill 2015 ”would prohibit teachers from talking about their political or religious beliefs, and allow parents to sue teachers who don’t follow the law. Those teachers could also be fired from their jobs.” (Just in case Finchem’s bill isn’t enough.)

I don’t know what teachers Representative Townsend is worried about, but the teachers I know are very clear on what conduct is allowable in, and out of, the classroom. In fact, until this past year, (in my opinion) they were overly cautious, thinking it best to leave advocacy to others. Then though, they saw the #RedforEd wave wash across America and they realized that if things were ever going to improve for their students, it was up to them. I happen to believe they were right.

During her run for the AZ House this past cycle, my wife interviewed a teacher who had left the classroom. Yes, low pay was one of the factors driving her decision, but it wasn’t the primary one. Rather, she was tired of insufficient resources to do the job the way she knew it needed to be done. She was tired of giving her students less than they deserved.

I don’t believe Arizona’s teachers walked out because they were tired of being paid at a rate ranked 48th in the nation. I believe they walked out because we had some 2,000 classrooms without a certified teacher and class sizes that are 5th highest in the U.S. They walked out, because they know that the number one in-school factor to student achievement is a highly qualified teacher. They walked out because it was way beyond time for someone to take a significant stand. It took 75,000 of them, but their stand significantly moved the needle for Arizona’s one million public school students. To be clear though, even with the additional funding garnered this year, our public schools are still short over $600 million from 2008 levels (yes, a decade ago.)

Progress though, evidently scares lawmakers like Finchem and Townsend (or gives them a tool with which to scare others) and they are out for revenge. They don’t want teachers who stand up for their students, they want teachers who do what they are told. Unfortunately for them, teachers are citizens first and still do enjoy certain Constitutional protections for protected speech. But, says AZ American Civil Liberties Union spokesman Steve Kilar,

“It appears that there are a number of provisions…that have the potential to chill teachers’ speech” as well as, “certain teaching styles, like the Socratic method, the system of posing a question of students in order for foster critical thinking.”

That, I posit, is exactly how lawmakers like Finchem and Townsend like it. They don’t want our students taught to think critically about the world around them. Instead, they want compliance with their desired world order. It might seem like a good idea for them and their ilk, but it is damn scary for the rest of us.

Finchem to teachers: “I’ll get you my pretty”

Voter suppression is alive and well in America and Arizona is no exception. Yes, some strides were made by county recorders to ensure more people had the opportunity to cast their ballots and have them counted, but the work to disenfranchise voters and strip away their voice, continues.

I’ve personally experienced a little bit of this, because as the President of the Arizona School Boards Association (ASBA), I had to be mindful of even giving an appearance the Association was attempting to influence the outcome of any election. Given my natural tendency to speak my mind, I found it frustrating to be silent while unethical candidates peddled their spin and thousands of grassroots volunteers labored across the state to get pro-public education initiatives passed. And although too many of the former won reelection, at least the full expansion of vouchers was killed. Other good news (at least for me) is that since I passed the President’s gavel this week, I am now once again free to comment away. It has been an incredible honor to serve as President of this awesome organization, but I am happy to be unmuzzled.

I just read Arizona Capitol Times reporting that AZ Representative Mark Finchem isn’t waiting for the start of the legislative session to exact retribution on educators who stood up for themselves and their students this year. To the teachers in his district (LD 11) who marched on the Capitol this year and saw him in action, this will not come as a surprise. After all, one teacher who visited him during the #RedForEd walkout told me that when they went to see him, he told them to “get their asses back to work”. I cannot verify this charge, but in my experience with Finchem, can say that I have found him to: 1) say what he thinks, 2) not be subtle and 3) not be supportive of public education.

His new bill, H2002 (educators; ethics professional responsibility), would require the State Board of Education to adopt uniform rules for all certified teachers in “taxpayer supported schools” to bar them from political activities. Funny thing is, Arizona Revised Statue (ARS) 15.511 already forbids the use of public school resources to influence elections and, levies a fine of $5,000 per violation. And, as Chris Kotterman, ASBA’s legislative Liaison said, “everyone who works in public schools is keenly aware that they’re under a microscope in regard to political activity.”

True to form though, Finchem wants to not only drive the point home (just in case educators are too stupid to understand it), but also lock them in a box and throw away the key. According to AZ Capitol Times, he proposes a prohibition on “the endorsement or opposition of any candidate or elected or appointed official; any pending or enacted legislation, rule or regulation; pending, proposed or decided court case; or pending, proposed or executed executive action.”

As Kotterman observes, “Finchem’s bill does not appear to be a genuine effort to improve the teaching profession, but rather a list of grievances.” Kotterman also said, “This just doesn’t feel serious to me. It feels 100 percent political. If you were serious about having a teacher code of ethics, it would cover more than just stuff that seems to have happened in the last 24 months.”

Finchem’s past words and actions have made it clear that he is: disdainful of higher education that teaches critical thinking, not a fan of local control, and, that in favor of teaching revisionist history. Perhaps these are the some of the reasons he is also proposing a prohibition on “any controversial issue that is not germane to the topic of the course or academic subject,” where “controversial issue” is defined as “a point in a political party platform,” and on “partisan advocacy of a controversial issue.” He also wants banned, the “segregation of students according to race” and that teachers not be allowed to “single out one racial group of students as being responsible for the suffering or inequities experienced by another racial group of students. Of this, AZ Capitol Times reporter Katie Campbell writes, ” That provision seems to hint at Tucson Unified School District’s former Mexican American Studies program, of which Finchem has been a frequent critic.” Kotterman commented on that too, saying, “We have been down this road. We have a law on the books about this. It’s been litigated three times. Believe me when I say that school districts understand their responsibilities.”

Yes, districts and educators do understand and that’s why, until this election cycle, they remained largely silent. It was just easier to stay silent than to risk an accidental infraction. But when they watch the #RedForEd wave work its way across our country, they realized if there was any possibility of driving real positive change for their students, they were going to have to be the ones to drive it. I suspect Finchem didn’t like them “getting to big for their britches” (my words not his) and it doesn’t surprise me he wants to put them back in their place. Legislation he sponsors and positions he espouses is routinely focused on showing who’s the boss and in his view…its not the people of Arizona. And, when the people forget the Legislature is “the Boss” he is good at whacking them on the proverbial knuckles – or at least trying to.

And yet, the voters of LD 11 returned him to the Legislature, rewarding him for his condescending, mean-spirited attitude. The good news is that some of his more egregious bills fail. The bad news is, many of them don’t and now on his third term, he will be even more emboldened.

I don’t know about you, but I’d like to have elected officials that work to make our lives better, not worse. I’d like to have our elected officials focused on finding ways to “lift us up” versus “keep us down.” Unfortunately, at least in LD 11, that’s just not reality. So, it requires us, his constituents, to stay informed and engaged, to remind Finchem that we ARE the boss of him and not the other way around.

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.