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.  

Oh No She Didn’t!

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

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

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

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

LD 11 Incumbents on Support for K-12 Ed

Note: In the interest of full disclosure, I should note that I am a campaign manager for a candidate challenging Mark Finchem for the AZ House in LD 11.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock this year, you probably know that this is an election year where K-12 education has been on center stage, at least here in Arizona. Here in LD 11, where I live, both Representatives Mark Finchem (running for reelection to the AZ House) and Vince Leach (running this year for the AZ Senate), have intimated they are supporters of education and have worked to restore funding back to 2008 levels.

First of all, I believe that if a politician doesn’t specify they are a supporter of PUBLIC education, they probably aren’t. Secondly, funding for Arizona public education is still almost $800 million short per year from 2008 levels, even with the plus-up in budget approved this year. And oh by the way, bringing our funding back up to 2008 levels isn’t exactly something to brag about, and the 5 percent raises promised teachers in 2019 and 2020 don’t count until they actually happen. For now, they are just promises that future legislators will need to make good on.

Secondly, the only way to really know where an incumbent stands on an issue is to look at the votes they cast, to include the budget they voted for. As former Vice-President Joe Biden once said,

Don’t tell me what you value, show me your budget and I’ll tell you what you value.

That’s why it is important for all of us to delve a little deeper. One resource for learning about incumbents’ voting records on K-12 education bills is the Friends of ASBA (Arizona School Boards Association) “Educating Arizona” voting guide. It is published each year to show how Arizona legislative candidates voted on key bills impacting K-12 education. Votes on bills however, aren’t the only measurement ASBA uses to track support for public education. They also assess “how helpful (or not) a given legislator was in advancing the ASBA political agenda during the legislative session, and how the legislator acted toward public education in general.” (Note: ASBA’s political agenda is brought forth by Arizona school boards all around the state and contains agenda items from across the political spectrum. It is then condensed by a Legislative Committee made up of a very diverse group of school board members and finally, is voted on by representatives from each school board at our annual delegate assembly.) Helpful actions legislators take are considered for extra credit and include helping to get bills heard (or not) in committee and helping to prevent bad bills from advancing. Based on this total assessment, ASBA awards legislators a thumbs up (Champion), thumbs sideways (Friend), or thumbs down (Foe).

I thought I’d go back to the 2015 guide to see how my legislators have voted on K-12 education bills since they first got in office. That year, both Representatives Finchem and Leach voted with the ASBA position on only two of the ten bills. Among other bills, they voted to expand Empowerment Scholarship Accounts to children living on tribal lands and grandchildren being raised by their grandparents, as well as to replace common core.

In 2016, Finchem voted with the ASBA position on only three of seven of the bills and Leach only three of eight. They voted to establish caps on additional state aid, to phase-in empowerment scholarship accounts (ESAs), and to expand and modify administration of ESAs (vouchers). They also voted against eliminating the freeze on KidsCare.

In the 2017 legislative session, Finchem voted with ASBA on three of six bills and Leach on four. They both however, voted in opposition of ASBA, for SB 1431, the full expansion of ESAs. It really can’t get more anti-public education than that, and their “thumbs down” rating reflects that reality.

2018 saw both Finchem and Leach vote on eight key K-12 education bills and each of them voted with ASBA on six of them. The most significant bill passed was SB 1390/ HB 2158 which renewed Prop 301 for 20 years and kept public education funding from going off a cliff in 2021. Although they both voted for this bill, their lack of support in general, earned them another “thumbs down” and “Foe” moniker with regard to public education.

Just in case there is any lingering doubt about their focus when it comes to support for public education, Finchem writes on his website, “School Voucher Program expansion is an important element to creating a diverse and well qualified employment pool, a factor that many job creators look for when deciding on which state to locate in.” Leach does not include education as one of his top five issues, prioritizing the 2nd Amendment and support for Pro-Life over opportunity for students.

Elections matter, and I encourage all voters to be informed where candidates stand on the issues that matter most to them. As Franklin Roosevelt said,

Democracy cannot succeed unless those who express their choice are prepared to choose wisely. The real safeguard of democracy, therefore, is education.

 

 

 

 

We Get What We Deserve

Wow! I normally think of Laurie Roberts as a fair-minded reporter with a pro-public education bent. I don’t know what happened to her this morning, maybe she ran out of leaded coffee and had to drink decaf. At any rate, I couldn’t let her opinion piece, “Does Arizona really need 236 school districts?” go unanswered.

First of all, the answer is no. But of course, this isn’t the sort of question that can be answered with a simple “yes” or “no” because there are so many variables that must be factored in. For example, I was recently on the Diné (Navajo) reservation where even relatively close to Tuba City, the students must travel over REALLY bad roads for over an hour each way every day to get to and from school. Could we do more to consolidate district schools on tribal lands? Maybe a little, but I’m guessing opportunities would be very few and far between.

Sure you say, but that’s a really different situation than what they have in downtown Phoenix. Yes, that’s true, but I’m guessing there are other unique circumstances in those schools and the voters elect locally elected governing boards to make decisions about what is best for their students and their communities. Do they always get it right? No – no one ever does. But, they are closest to the action and have the best chance of making the right calls.

Roberts finds it curious Governor Ducey has never shown interest in merging school districts. I seriously doubt she really finds it curious and suspect she understands that this is a hot potato issue the Governor would rather just keep off his plate. And as for Robert’s claim that Governor Napolitano’s plan to reduce the number of districts went down in flames because “school officials fired up torches in defense of ‘local control’”, I don’t believe that was where the main pushback originated. If school officials were fighting the consolidations, I’m betting it was because their parents and community members were pushing them to do so. What parent after all, wants their child on longer school bus rides than necessary, or further away from home during the school day?

As for her assertion that “On average, school districts in Arizona spend a woeful 53.8 percent of their budget in the classroom”, Roberts knows this is “woefully” misleading. Here’s the facts about what public district schools spend in the classroom and what they spend on administration:
1. Yes, Arizona districts spent 53.5 percent of their available operating dollars on instruction in FY 2016 per the AZ Auditor General’s Arizona School District Spending report. But, the Arizona School Boards Association disagrees with what is included in that “classroom spending” and the Governor and Arizona Legislature agreed back in 2015. That’s because the AG’s report doesn’t count instructional support (5.7 percent) and student support services (8.2 percent). These areas include physical and occupational therapists, reading and math intervention specialists, media specialists/librarians, counselors and social workers. All of these specialists are critical to a student’s academic success and when included, take the total amount of classroom spending up to 67.4 percent.
2. Even at that, as Roberts points out, Arizona districts spend less on administration than the national average. My research shows we spend only 67 percent of the U.S. average spent on administration, not just the one percent she cites. Even assuming she is correct, the important point is that we do better than the national average.
3. For all their touting of efficiencies gained due to their relief from bureaucracy, Arizona charter schools spend DOUBLE the amount on administration than do district schools.

She really loses me though, when she opines, “if the school lobby succeeds with its plan to soak the rich with a massive income tax hike….” Words have meaning and it is by no accident that she chose “lobby” and “soak”. I mean, imagine if she’d wrote the sentence this way: “if public education advocates succeed with their plan to more fairly distribute additional taxation to ensure our districts are funded just at 2008 levels….”

Besides, if you want to make a case for efficiency of public school operations, how about we start exercising more control over where charter schools can build and operate. Does it really make sense for a Legacy Traditional Charter School to have been built in Peoria a couple of years ago for 1,500 students when there were 8 “A” and “B” rated schools WITH capacity, within a two-mile radius of where the charter went in? And that’s just one example of the waste generated via the lack of accountability in a state that is intent on siphoning taxpayer dollars away from its public schools with little transparency to the process.

The bottom line is that district schools, with their locally-elected governing boards, open meeting law requirements, and procurement rules, (unlike charters and certainly, private schools) offer the greatest degree of accountability and transparency of any school choice option. But…for the system to work, the public must be informed and engaged, and government MUST provide the checks and balances. Just like with government at large, we get the public schools we deserve.

Education funding…the devil is in the details

One of the issues leading to the walkout during the #RedforEd movement, was Governor Ducey’s promise of a 20% raise by 2020 ONLY for teachers. The movement wanted the definition of “teacher” expanded and pay raises for all school personnel. That’s because teachers understand their’s is a broad profession, and although quality teachers are the number one in-school factor contributing to student success, every employee in a school district, whether a “defined” teacher or not, contributes to the ability of students to learn.

There is currently though, no consistent definition of “teacher” in Arizona. The 2018–2019 K–12 budget reconciliation bill, HB 2663, K–12 education; does not define “teacher”. The previous year’s budget bill defined “teacher” as: “any person eligible to be included as a teacher on a disrict’s FTE count submitted with its annual financial report, whose salary was paid under function code 1000 (instruction). Clear as mud, right?

The definition in Arizona Revised Statute (A.R.S) 15–901(B)(5), says a “Certified teacher” means a person “who is certified as a teacher pursuant to the rules adopted by the state board of education who renders direct and personal services to school children in the form of instruction related to the school district’s educational course of study and who is paid from the maintenance and operation section of the budget.” Okay, so that is a little clearer, but how is teacher compensation impacted by legislation passed last year to allow non-certified teachers to teach in Arizona public schools? Guess that means fewer raises for teachers as those more qualified continue to exercise their “school choice” to either retire or move to another state so they can earn a living wage. Just in case you didn’t see it, here’s a story about Texas buying up billboards in Arizona to lure our teachers away.

Yet another definition of “teacher” comes from the AZ Attorney General (AG) Opinion 101–014 on the Classroom Site Fund (Prop. 301 monies). The AG wrote that, “teacher” was not limited to traditional classroom teachers. “School districts and charter schools may use such funds for compensation increases for certified or certificated teachers and others employed to provide instruction to students related to the school’s educational mission.” An employee receiving base compensation from Prop. 301 monies would also be eligible to receive a salary increase as a teacher.

According to the AZ Auditor General, school boards would meet the Legislature’s intent by using any of the above three definitions. The Arizona School Boards Association, Arizona Association of School Business Officials, and Arizona Superintendents Association, all believe the Classroom Site Fund definition is the most defensible position and most consistent with legislative intent. That definition, as interpreted by the courts and the Arizona AG’s office, requires certification and employment as a teacher and that at least 50% of an individual’s time is spent on instruction central to the school’s educational mission.

Arizona Educators United and the Arizona Education Association‘s sought to resolve the disconnect by demanding a broader definition of “teachers”, permitting the award of raises to more school personnel. To that end, Representative Charlene Fernandez, D-Yuma submitted an amendment“seeking to expand the definition of “teachers” – those eligible for the pay hike – to include counselors, social workers, psychologists, speech pathologists and librarians, all people excluded from getting a share of the earmarked raises.” Unfortunately, the amendment failed on party lines.

As reported on Tucson.com, TUSD Superintendent Trujillo said he intends to spread the new money around to all “educators” who touch the lives of children. “I see us supporting the educators as defined by this movement, those that are touching the lives of kids and working directly with kids. It’s about the monitors, it’s about teachers, it’s about the counselors, it’s about the custodians, it’s about the secretaries at our schools, it’s about the office assistants,” he said.

The $272 million in included in the FY 2019 budget for teacher raises is roughly enough to give all “certified” teachers in the state a 9 percent pay increase. It also includes an “additional” funding of $100 million in District Additional Assistance (DAA), previously known as “capital funding”, which is meant for big ticket items like new AC systems, patched roofs, buses, and computers. Although Governor Ducey orginally sold this as a way to begin to restore the 85% of this funding that was cut since 2009, the #RedforEd movement caused him to also sell it as a way to increase salaries for all support employees.

Please let that sink in for just a moment. Governor Ducey knows Arizona’s district schools have a tremendous backlog of deferred maintenance and repair for both facilities, vehicles and technology because the Legislature has cut $2.4 billion from public school capital budgets. He is proposing to restore most of that funding over 5 years, but education advocates aren’t banking on it, continuing with the capital funding lawsuit filed in 2017.

The Legislature has tried their best to make hay with the fact that district governing boards are largely responsible for deciding how the funding is spent within their respective districts. Although there is a fair amount of legal guidance on how the funding may be used, they are correct that local control dictates elected governing board members make decisions about funding allocation. These decisions are appropriately left to them because they best know the needs of their district and they are closest to the students, families, voters, and taxpayers to whom they are accountable. But, and this is a BIG but, governing boards can only allocate funding their districts receive and even with the $400 million plus-up in FY 2019, our districts will still be short of 2008 funding levels by almost $700 million per year. Cue mike drop.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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