corruption and greed

Greed Fueling Arizona’s 48th Ranking for Anti-Corruption

We currently have many crises in America, but one that affects our ability to deal with them all, is the crisis of confidence in our public institutions. Some might argue this lack of confidence is fueled by those seeking power and profit via privatization of said institutions. Whether manufactured or organically grown, the lack of accountability and transparency among public officials is no doubt contributing to the crisis.

In 2015, PublicIntegrity.org ranked the Arizona Legislature 22nd in the nation for state government accountability and transparency. And although the scores are not directly relatable, a 2018 report by the anti-corruption Coalition for Integrity, ranking Arizona 48th in the nation, leads me to believe we are not headed in the right direction. The Coalition’s scorecard is called the “States With Anti-Corruption Measures for Public officials” or “S.W.A.M.P. Index”. It “analyzes the laws of the 50 States and District of Columbia regarding the establishment and scope of ethics agencies, the powers of those agencies, acceptance and disclosure of gifts by public officials, transparency of funding independent expenditures and client disclosure by legislators.” This is important said the Coalition’s CEO Shruti Shah, because

“There is a strong link between an ethics regime and trust in government—and state laws are the first line of defense against corruption.”

Unfortunately, Arizona state laws are lax when it comes to school choice, once again earning the state a #1 ranking for a favorable privatization environment by the conservative bill mill American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). According to its website, the Report Card on American Education is

“part of its mission to promote limited government, free markets and federalism.”

Note that accountability, transparency and ethical governance, are not mentioned. ALEC exists after all, to support legislation favorable to the corporations that finance their work and influence. Instead, the ALEC report card discusses private school choice, purchasing power, flexibility, and freedom. Hey, I like freedom as much as the next gal and served 22 years in the military to help preserve it. But as the saying goes, “freedom isn’t free” and it isn’t maintained by just the ultimate price that some have paid, but other “costs” such as rules, laws, responsibilities and accountability without which, we would have anarchy.

The “A” in Arizona doesn’t yet stand for anarchy, but there are those lawmakers who evidently don’t see a problem working around a few ethical conflicts of interest to benefit themselves at our expense. At least the Arizona Constitution prohibits lawmakers from employment by state, county or city governments, with the exception of serving as school board members, teachers or instructors in the public school system. Where lawmakers act ethically, this exception can help ensure we have those with educational experience helping shape educational policy. Where that is not the case however, unethical actors interested in self-enrichment, can take advantage of a system that doesn’t hold them accountable.

Take for example, Senator Yarborough who termed out in 2018. For many years now, he has run a highly profitable Student Tuition Organization (STO), while sponsoring the majority of legislation expanding the diversion of state income tax liability to STOs. Likewise, According to the AZ Republic, Representative Eddie Farnsworth (now President Pro Tempore of the Senate) profited greatly on the sell of his charter school business (the one built with taxpayer funds) to a nonprofit company after voting for legislation favorable to the non-profit’s board members. In addition to the $13.2M from the sale, he will earn $478K on a loan he made to the school, another $80K in rent on his building that serves as the school’s corporate headquarters, and a consulting fee. And of course, there are numerous GOP lawmakers who have pushed the expansion of vouchers session after session, without sufficient accountability, despite numerous instances of fraudulent expenditures by parents. At the very least, many of them benefited from campaign contributions for their trouble, from Betsy DeVos’ American Federation for Children and other pro-privatization forces.

And now, the Arizona Republic recently reports that Arizona Speaker of the House, Rusty Bowers,

“was paid more than twice the going rate ($216.62 per day versus $90) for substitute teachers in the East Valley Institute of Technology (EVIT)”.

Interestingly, Bowers was EVIT’s director of external affairs (basically a lobbyist) from July 2011 to June 2015 and was paid $62K to $64K per year for this part-time work (double what a legislator makes incidentally.) In conducting an investigation of allegations related to operational and legal compliance concerning the East Valley Institute of Technology“ lawyer Susan Segal found that,

”Bowers had no class roster and didn’t have proper certification to teach his JTED classes.“ She also found that Bowers took it upon himself to scratch out the part of his contract that required certification, and wrote in ”permanent certification of substitute teacher.“

But, as reported by the Capitol Times, the district governing board never approved that change, and Segal noted that, ”there is no such thing as a permanent substitute certification. In another instance, on top of this sentence in his contract:

“If the Legislature fails to fund fully or partially, for any reason, the amounts appropriated for the salary and benefits categories of the District budget, the Board shall reduce pro-rata the total amount of compensation due under this Contract”;

he wrote (exhibiting great hubris in my opinion):

“who gets to decide whether or not the legislature appropriates enough?”

Maybe he thinks it is the AZ Speaker of the House?

Of course, that’s mere conjecture on my part. What is not, is the fact that Bowers has failed to allow even a modicum of increased legislator accountability to move forward this legislative session. Remember former Representative Paul Mosely driving close to 100 mph in a 55 zone, (his seventh time being pulled over for excessive speeding) and then bragging about his immunity to the police officer? The incident prompted Governor Ducey to call for repeal of legislative immunity and Representative T.J. Shope to sponsor HCR 2008 to do just that. Unfortunately Speaker Bowers did not assign it to be heard in any committee, so it is basically DOA at this point. Maybe he figures passing the bill would be a slippery slope toward more ethical governance?

As long as the foxes are in charge of the hen-house at the state Legislature and we don’t hold them accountable for the carnage they wreak, the unethical behavior will continue. After all, I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve had people ask me how in the hell did Senator Yarborough continue to get away with creating and voting for legislation that personally profited him? My answer is that there was no consequence for his actions. After all, he wasn’t violating any laws or existing ethics standards, and he continued to get reelected. From his perspective, why should he do anything differently?

There is a reason greed is one of the seven deadly sins within Christian teachings. Mahatma Gandhi said,

“Earth provides enough to satisfy every man’s needs, but not every man’s greed.”

We should be able to count on our government to ensure a fair shake for all of us. But, when those governing write and enforce the rules to give themselves a leg up, we need to do our job and give them the boot out. The voters of LD5 did the right thing in voting Mosely out of office in 2018. We need to all do the right thing by demanding ethics standards for our elected representatives at every level and then holding them accountable for not only illegal, but also unethical behavior. Government can work, but it takes ALL of us doing our part.

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.

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…

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.  

The House Always Wins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yeah, Let’s Focus on Our Students!

In a recent Scientific American article, a U.S. Department of Education spokesperson for Betsy DeVos said “The secretary believes that when we put the focus on students, and not buildings or artificially constructed boundaries, we will be on the right path to ensuring every child has access to the education that fits their unique needs.” As good as that sounds, it is total bullshit.

Here’s the deal. As much as its proponents try to tell us otherwise, school choice does NOT put the focus on students, because the “choice” is largely that of the commercial school, not the student. We know for example that private schools have total control over what students they accept, irrespective of the students’ funding sources (taxpayer-funded vouchers included.) Charter schools are by law required to accept all, but we also know they enroll much lower percentages of special needs students, those of color, and those in poverty.

As for the secretary’s belief that we should put the “focus on students, and not buildings or artificially constructed boundaries,” puhleeeeeeeaaasssee! This is just a thinly veiled swipe at community district schools. In Arizona, over 80% of our students attend these district schools where facility maintenance and repair is severely underfunded and there are no “artificially constructed boundaries” since we’ve had open enrollment since 1994.

Incidentally, “ensuring every child has access” is not the same as “providing every child….” Access refers to “the right or opportunity to use or benefit from something.” But, it takes more than the right or opportunity, it takes the means not only to get into the school, but to get to the school and survive the school. That’s not how it works in a district school which takes all comers, and works to provide each student what they need to succeed. And, they continue to serve the student even if that student’s test scores don’t make the school look good.

The piece de resistance in the DOE statement though, is “that fits their unique needs.” Wow! Isn’t that a great sound bite? Unfortunately, it is totally undoable and DeVos knows it.

In America, one in five children live in poverty. This reality, not inadequately funded schools and under appreciated teachers, is their major hurdle to a good education. What these students need is more than district schools are charged with, or have the capacity to provide. There is just no way commercial schools will do better at bridging that gap.

It amazes me how adept the privatization advocates have been at messaging. They’ve convinced parents that school choice is the answer and that “voting with their feet” is empowering. But as a fellow blogger pointed out recently, when parents “vote with their feet” to leave district schools for greener grass, all they are really doing is relinquishing influence. There is no school choice option (aside from homeschooling) that provides a parent as much say in their child’s education as does the district school with its locally-elected governing board. Parents and taxpayers alike have the right to be heard at public board meetings and, if their elected governing board members are not responsive to parent’s concerns, they can be recalled or replaced via elections.

Yes, we should all be focused on the students. So let’s do that, okay? Let’s properly fund our local community district schools where over 80% of our students are, instead of reaching for the shiny object being dangled to distract us. Let’s demand our tax dollars are spent where there is full accountability and transparency with locally-elected governing boards responsible for producing a good return on our investment. Let’s demand our teachers are adequately compensated and treated like professionals. Let’s in other words…put our money where our mouth is. The bottom line is that parents shouldn’t have to make a choice about where to send their kids. Every public school should be a high quality one.

 

State Sponsored Discrimination

Some parents don’t know best. There. I said it. Let’s face it, some parents aren’t present, some are abusive, and some are drug addicts. Then there are those who are trying their damnedest to provide for their children but their minimum wage jobs (without benefits) just don’t pay enough to make ends meet. Bottom line is, not all parents know how, or care enough to provide, the best they can for their children. Where that is the case, or, when hard working parents need a little help, it is up to all of us in a civil society, to ensure all children are safe and that their basic needs are met. As education reformer John Dewey said over a century ago, “What the best and wisest parent wants for his child, that must we want for all the children of the community. Anything less is unlovely, and left unchecked, destroys our democracy.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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