Teachers are the real patriots

These are tumultuous times. It seems every single day brings a rollercoaster of emotions over what is going on in our country.

A couple of days ago, I read this letter to the editor in the AZ Star that floored me.

Not only that it had been written, but that the Star printed it (hope they also sent it to the FBI). But after further reflection, I realized that it is better to shine the light on hate like this. It is better to understand the threat so that we can be prepared to counter it.

This guy gets so much wrong. I too am a veteran who served 22 years in the Air Force. I too took an oath to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same…”. But, I don’t equate defending the President with defending the Constitution. Not, when that President has told over 10,000 lies since taking the Oath of Office and not when he refuses to respect the Constitution himself.

What is most galling and actually frightening about this letter though, is that Mr. Theriot thinks that Democrats are the enemy, not the Russians who hacked our elections and continue to conduct cyber warfare against us daily to disrupt our operations and sow hate and divisiveness.

Ultimately though, I remain hopeful. For every Theriot, there are dozens of others like a group of teachers in Flagstaff who recently pushed back on an invite from the Arizona Chamber. Saying they “recognize the gesture of a Teacher Appreciation Dinner, we respectfully decline the invitation. We feel attending your dinner would be condoning the AZ Chamber’s many coordinated attacks on public education over the years. You see, educators have been pleading with the state of Arizona for adequate public education funding for an entire decade, and it seems that at every turn, the Chamber of Commerce has been there to block our efforts and work against us.”

There is much to be proud of with these almost 100 teachers’ not only taking the stand, but individually putting their names on the letter to the Chamber. In our hyper-polarized nation, it is increasingly difficult to take a stand. But, these teachers understand that, “if you stand for nothing, you’ll fall for anything.” So, they stood and said “we cannot and will not ignore the Chambers’ agression toward public education funding, and we refuse to allow your organization to bask in the glow of a feel-good PR campaign while consistently working against the interests of educators and working families across our great state.”

The teachers were also clear that they “will always welcome any collaboration with the business community designed to achieve positive educational outcomes for all of Arizona’s children.” They aren’t closed off to innovations for the betterment of all students, they just aren’t going to accept a system that is increasingly stacked to benefit those who “have” over those who “have not”.

I’m guessing Mr. Theriot would be as aghast at these teachers’ letter, as I was at his. The difference though is that the teachers’ words are aligned with the Constitution and good old American values, not at odds with it. They are exercising their 1st Amendment Rights to call out hypocrisy, not promising the “wrath of Hell will descend” on fellow Americans. The teachers are also standing up for their public school students, not a President who is a pathological liar and of whom, Mitt Romney said he was “sickened at the extent and pervasiveness of dishonesty and misdirection”.

Where Theriot said, “there are many retired military who will protect our president” (in spite of the Constitution one might surmise), the teachers called out the AZ Chamber for their work in scuttling a ballot initiative supported by the voters and for giving “enormous tax breaks to corporations and the wealthy instead of requiring them to pay their fair share for the benefit of all”. They also called out the Chamber for making “it a top priority to devastate educators’ retirement security by privatizing our pensions”, demanding “the Chamber of Commerce leave our retirement funds as the earned, defined benefit they are.

These teachers, standing up for those most vulnerable among us, are the real patriots. They know there can be no great democratic republic when there is no educated citizenry and that our public schools are the only ones that can address the problems we face at the scale demanded. Over 90% of America’s K–12 population attends public schools and that is where our singular educational focus should be. No. That is where it MUST be. Yes, to provide an engaged citizenry who can think creatively and determine fact from fiction.

The focus must also be on public schools to ensure our country stays strong. According to The American Conservative in 2018, one in three potential recruits are disqualified from service because they’re overweight, one in four cannot meet minimal educational standards (a high school diploma or GED equivalent), and one in 10 have a criminal history. In plain terms, about 71 percent of 18-to–24-year-olds (the military’s target pool of potential recruits) are disqualified from the minute they enter a recruiting station: that’s 24 million out of 34 million Americans. The article didn’t mention that the frenzied focus on high-stakes standardized tests and siphoning money from public schools have largely not improved achievement, but often robbed our students of opportunities such as physical education, art, music and more. Research shows curriculums must be robust to adequately develop all parts of the mind and to keep students engaged in school. Unfortunately, students in schools that are able to offer more, have plenty of other choices besides military enlistment.

Yes, we have much work to do. But, allowing ourselves to be divided and conquered, whether by Russia, partisan politics, or school privatizers is not going to help us get it done. To stay strong and prosperous, we must be true to what is referred to as the “immortal declaration”. From the Declaration of Independence, it states that, “We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness”.

America is undoubtedly a long way from realizing this dream. But even the aspiration itself is one of the things that sets us apart from most other nations and is one that we should fight tooth and nail to achieve. As patriots, we must steadfastly reject the nightmare Theriot and others like him would have us embrace and continue to fight with all our power for this American ideal and the Dream it promises.

Disadvantaged students 3+ years behind more affluent peers

A recently-released study by Harvard and Stanford universities shows the “achievement gap is as big today as it was for children born in 1954, with disadvantaged students three to four years behind their more affluent peers.” There are of course, multiple reasons offered for this stagnation, but the Boston Globe reports that researchers Eric Hanushek and Paul Peterson suggest “a decline in teacher quality through the years may be offsetting gains made in education reforms such as head start school desegregation, and federal aid to districts with low-income students.” Peterson said, “There is every reason to believe that the quality of the teaching profession will have a particularly adverse effect on low income…disadvantaged students, because those are the students who are unfortunately encountering the most inexperienced teachers.”

Hanushek and Peterson (H&P) write in EducationNext, that, “while some might see income inequality as the result of adult life choices about matters such as how hard to work or where to live, educational inequality seems unfair, because the economic status of a child is outside the child’s own control. It is an inequality of opportunity that runs counter to the American dream.” This is my point when I hear someone say something like, “it isn’t the school’s job to feed kids breakfast…their parents should be feeding them at home.” Uh, well yes, their parents should be feeding them. But…what do we do about those children that come to school hungry because their parents don’t properly care for them or, those who don’t even have parents in the picture?

H&P agree there is an achievement gap affected by socioeconomic status, writing that,

“A variety of mechanisms link socioeconomic status to achievement. For instance, children growing up in poorer households and communities are at greater risk of traumatic stress and other medical problems that can affect brain development. College-educated mothers speak more frequently to their infants, use a larger vocabulary with their toddlers, and are more likely to use parenting practices that respect the autonomy of a growing child. Higher-income families have access to more-enriching schooling environments, and they generally do not face the high rates of violent crime experienced by those in extremely impoverished communities. All these and other childhood or adolescent experiences contribute to profound socioeconomic disparities in academic achievement.”

But, they disagree with past research is that the gap is widening to correspond with ever-increasing wealth inequality. They posit that negative and positive factors in family demographics such the increased age of the mother at birth, higher number of single-parent households at the lower end of the socioeconomic spectrum, higher overall education attainment levels, and the number of siblings, could result in a stagnant impact of the family contribution to the achievement gap.

Likewise, opposing forces in the educational system could be helping maintain the status quo there. Positive moves such as Head Start, Brown v. Board of Education and the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Disabilities Education Act, a quadrupling in overall funding between 1960 and 2015, and accountability mandates disproportionately directed toward schools serving low-income students, may have all been largely countered by a “decline in the quality of the teaching force.”

Critics of H&P’s findings are pushing back. Sean Reardon, a Stanford professor of poverty and inequality in education, says growing income inequality is linked to an expanding achievement gap, and says the H&P report “paints an oversimplified picture of the issue”. Likewise, Richard Rothstein, author and fellow at the Economic Policy Institute, says H&P’s report showed results from desegregation, indicating that reforms do work. He also chided H&P for not owning up to their past support of the failed No Child Left Behind law and their previous criticism of people making the very same points they are making now, regarding the ties of socioeconomic status on achievement.

When answering why the achievement gap hasn’t closed, Peterson says,

“the simple answer is that nothing has changed out there that is relevant”.

And, what he and Hanushek believe is relevant is improving teacher quality, especially for disadvantaged students, and focusing on improving high school achievement (where any gains made are lost) is key.

Arizona is on the right track with its Arizona Teachers Academy, but until the pipeline is flowing at an adequate rate to compensate for the 25% of teachers eligible to retire, and those who just choose to do something that either pays better or is less frustrating, it is an uphill battle. Salaries that are still well below the U.S. median, and a lack of adequate autonomy in the classroom and respect for the critical work they do, aren’t helping. Quality teachers are the most significant in-school factor to improve student achievement. Doesn’t it then, stand to reason that educating, hiring, and retaining them, should be our collective focus?

The right to know how tax dollars are spent

The just released AZ Auditor General’s Office report on Arizona School District Spending – Fiscal Year 2018 states that,

“In fiscal year 2018, Arizona districts spent 54% of available operating dollars on instruction—the second consecutive increase in the instructional spending percentage in 14 years.”

It also stated that,

“Arizona school districts spent about $3,500 less per pupil than the national average and allocated their resources differently, spending a lower percentage of resources on instruction and administration and a greater percentage on all other operational areas.”

Six key takeaways from an article about the report in the AZ Daily Star are:
1. Even with recent increases to teacher pay, Arizona’s teacher salaries remain over $11,000 below the national average. According to Lindsey Perry, the AZ Auditor General, part of the lower salary may be due to an AZ average teacher experience of 11 years compared to 13.7 for nation.
2. After adjusting for inflation, total per pupil spending is $177 less now than in 2004 and $861 below that of 2008.
3. Arizona spends $8,300 per student with 54% of that being in the classroom, compared with a national average of $11,800 and 60.9% in the classroom.
4. The lower amount Arizona spends in the classroom isn’t due to high administration costs which are only 10.4% of total dollars versus a national average of 11.2%. Rather it can be attributed in part, to higher energy costs due to extreme temperatures, more money spent on food services, higher transportation costs to serve rural and remote areas and higher class sizes.
6. Student support cost is high due to the large percentage of students living in poverty or those with special needs.

Also important to note when discussing classroom support expenditures, is that Arizona lawmakers and educators disagree with the AZ Auditor General’s exclusion of instruction and student support when calculating classroom support dollars. In 2015 in fact, the governor, legislators and educators agreed to a change in state law that required, (beginning with the FY 2016 budget) to include reading and math intervention specialists, media specialists, librarians, counselors, social workers, nurses, psychologists and seed, occupational and physical therapists in the classroom support line item. They understood that these specialists directly contribute to improved academic outcomes for students and should be included in the classroom support totals.

The Auditor General report goes on to state that,

“Although factors outside a district’s control—such as district size, type, and location—can affect its efficiency, some districts operate efficiently and have lower costs despite these factors, while others do not. What the report does not discuss, and is what has never been included, is how charter and private schools perform with the taxpayer dollars they receive.”

Yes, at least charter schools do get audited (not by the state, but an auditor of their choice), but it is a compliance audit, not one to determine efficiency of operations. And, it is the State Board for Charter Schools rather than the AZ Auditor General who is responsible for audit and compliance oversight, so the results of audits are not reported by the latter which makes it difficult to compare them with those of district schools. We do know however, that administration costs in charter schools have typically been double that of district schools. So much for charter schools being models of efficiency.

What we are in total darkness about, is the efficiency of private and parochial school tax dollar spending (via corporate and individual tax credits and vouchers) which in 2017 was about $200M and grows exponentially every year. Funny how those who rail about inefficiencies at public district schools, seem to never be as concerned about tax dollars spent by alternative options. Fortunately, this tide has been turning lately, given all the charter school scandals in the news. As for what’s going on in private schools, that’s anyone’s guess.

Here’s the bottom line. WHEREVER public tax dollars are spent, the public has a right to know the efficiency and effectiveness of that spending. If educational entities accept our money, they should be forced to accept our oversight. It is that simple.

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.

AZ in Top Third with National Board Certified Teachers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, how’s that teacher shortage?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.