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.

So, how’s that teacher shortage?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wondering What Happened To Steve Smith?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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…

Oh No She Didn’t!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Happy (sort of) Anniversary

Five years ago today, I wrote and published my first-ever blog post. It was titled, “Don’t Believe the Pundits, Traditional Public Education Works.”

Since then, I’ve written over 230 posts which garnered over 16,300 views. I hope I’ve enlightened a few folks about the war against public education, and am grateful for all those who read my words and took time to comment. Our efforts are stronger when we stand together!

What I’m not grateful for, is the fact that nothing much has come out of the AZ Legislature in the last five years to make the situation better for our district schools.  I wrote then about how education tax credits siphon funding away from our district schools. The caps for corporate tax credits have grown from about $56.6 million in 2013 to $94 million in 2018, and the President of the AZ Senate, Steven Yarbrough (who has enriched himself through his School Tuition Organization or STO), is proposing legislative changes that will grow the program even more.

I also wrote about Empowerment Scholarship Accounts (ESAs) or vouchers. I discussed how they redistribute state revenue and that most of the students receiving these vouchers, would have attended private schools without taxpayer help. That is still true today, but instead of 302 students accessing the program five years ago at a cost to the state of $5.2 million, there were 4,102 in 2017 at a cost of $37 million. Moreover, in 2017, more than 75 percent of the money pulled out of public schools for vouchers, came from districts with an A or B rating, not from schools that are failing.

Yes, there are pockets of excellence in our charter schools, I wrote, but “by and large, they have no significant performance advantage over traditional public schools.” That is still the case, and we continue to see examples of fraudulent management of charter schools throughout the state.

I ended the post with, “Just imagine what our schools could be if our efforts were properly focused and funded.” Well, I’m still imagining, but in the meantime, I’m fighting and I plan to die empty fighting for this incredible cause.

I believe the promise of truly public education, that which takes all comers, is totally transparent and accountable and is governed by locally-elected school board members, is critical to the survival and success of our great democratic republic. It is what built the world’s strongest middle class, and it will be what saves us from ourselves if we will only let it.

That’s the saddest part of all…the wounds we’ve inflicted on our district schools, are largely self-inflicted. By the pro-privatization lawmakers we continue to elect, and through the apathy of those who don’t even bother to vote. We CAN and we MUST do better. Those who have no voice, are counting on us.

What IS glaringly obvious…

After I became an Arizona school board member and public education advocate, I was routinely asked, “doesn’t the Legislature understand what they are doing to our public schools?” I would respond with, “of course they do, it is all part of their plan.” That was five years ago and although we are still fighting the same battles, some things have changed.

Today, many more people understand that the privatization of America’s system of public education is actually the end game. The public is more “woke” than ever to the privatizers’ pursuit of profit and power via the $500B+ K-12 education market in the United States. Of course, the privatizers don’t refer to it that way. Rather, as reported in the Washington Post, they couch their war on public education as a benign attempt to improve the system. As Stacy Hock, a major Koch donor and co-founder of Texans for Educational Opportunity, said, “The lowest hanging fruit for policy change in the United States today is K-12, I think this is the area that is most glaringly obvious.”

What is glaringly obvious to me is that this fight isn’t just about a “policy change” and it definitely isn’t about improvement for all students. It is also glaringly obvious, that Arizona’s Governor Doug Ducey is chief water carrier for the movement with Koch donors seeing the state “as ground zero in their push.” Ducey’s been a member of the Koch network since 2011, the same year the Empowerment Scholarship Account (ESA) program (or vouchers) was passed in Arizona. Pushed by the Goldwater Institute, it was the first of its kind in the country. The AZ Legislature has increased the scope of the program every year since, and in 2017, with significant Koch network investment, Ducey was able to sign into law, a full expansion of the program.

It is also obvious to anyone willing to face facts, that vouchers are not the panacea to anemic academic outcomes. On EducationNext.org, Robert Pondiscio writes, “If shares in the education reform movement could be purchased in the stock market, neutral analysts would grade them ‘underperform’ and probably ‘sell.’ We’ve seen gains in student outcomes particularly among disadvantaged subgroups. But those gains have been mostly in math and almost entirely in the younger grades. The ‘historic’ rate of high school graduation is frothy at best, fraudulent at worst. It is not possible to look at the big indicators of K–12 performance over the last few decades—NAEP, PISA, SAT, and ACT scores—and claim that ed reform at large has been a success. The payoff is simply not there.”

None of that matters to the privatizers though, because in the end, it isn’t the kids they are focused on. “Tom Jenney, the senior legislative advisor for the Arizona chapter of Americans for Prosperity, says “We believe in competition. That’s the most important thing. … Competition is the only reason why, frankly, anything in the world improves without monumental effort and luck.”

I find that viewpoint incredibly cynical. What about those who do a good job because of pride in a job well done? Also, competition pits individuals and groups against each other and, it produces winners and losers…is that what we want for our children?

The Washington Post article also claimed, “Teacher unions, worried that this will undermine the public system, collected enough signatures to put the law on hold and create a ballot proposition to let voters decide in November whether to expand vouchers.” That claim comes from either sloppy or totally biased and purposefully misleading reporting. First of all, as a “right to work” state, Arizona has no statewide collective bargaining unit for our teachers. Secondly, Save Our Schools Arizona, the grassroots organization who collected the signatures, is not a union, but rather, a dedicated group of mom’s who ignited an army of volunteers tired of out-of-state monied interests forcing on Arizonans legislation we don’t want. “SOS Arizona enlisted about 2,500 people to help with its referendum. They ended up paying about six people to collect signatures, but the rest of its base was a patchwork of volunteers.”

Those gathering at a recent Koch brothers’ meeting outside Palm Springs, CA, are definitely not grassroots volunteers, but rather, those monied interests referred to earlier. Governor Ducey was also there, touting Arizona’s 2017 voucher expansion as further reaching than anything that’s been tried in other states. Now though he warned, that achievement is under attack with Prop. 305 set to go to be on the ballot in November”, saying that under Arizona law, if advocates lose at the ballot box, they will not be able to legislate on the topic in the future. “This is a very real fight in my state,” Ducey said. “I didn’t run for governor to play small ball. I think this is an important idea.” Ducey also introduced the headmaster of Capital Prep Charter Schools, who has been traveling Arizona to speak in support of the law. “The teacher unions are unencumbered by the truth,” he told the Koch donors. “It is a distant relative that is never invited to dinner.”

Maybe it takes one “unencumbered by the truth” to try to manufacture the same in others. What seems apparent though, is that it is much easier for Ducey and his gang to blame “teachers’ unions for “working to deny parents school choice options” than it would be to acknowledge that a group of concerned mom’s are the ones fighting for our public schools to ensure ALL children have equitable opportunity. Seems to me that if vouchers and school choice were really the end all/be all, the privatizers wouldn’t have to work so hard to convince us of that. Problem is, they are working really hard and they are throwing an awful lot of money into their effort.

Which brings me to my constant mantra of late. I received several concerned emails and phone calls from people who had read the Washington Post article and wondered what they could do to combat the incoming Koch network onslaught. My answer is simple. If we want to save our system of public education, that system which helped build the strongest middle class in the world, we simply must elect more lawmakers who care about that system and the children it serves. And, we must start right here in Arizona. If you care about our public district schools and the one million children in them, you must learn which candidates share your concern and will fight for the full accountability, transparency, and locally elected governance that district school boards provide. And remember, that although “they” have the money, we have the many. We can fight back, but we must do it together, and we must do it now.

 

Take No Prisoners

During the last legislative session in Arizona, lawmakers approved a full expansion of vouchers to all 1.1 million Arizona students against very vocal opposition. In response, Save Our Schools Arizona conducted a grassroots petition drive with over 2,500 volunteers collecting over 111K signatures to get the issue on next year’s ballot.

To fight back, privatization proponents have recently ramped up their “take no prisoners” war on public education in Arizona with attacks on Arizona’s 2016 Teacher of the Year, Christine Marsh. According to The Arizona Republic, the American Federation for Children (AFC), (“dark money” group previously led by Betsy Devos), recently “unleashed robocalls” in the Phoenix area targeting Marsh. In a related effort, a Republican state legislator, Rep. David Livingston, R-Glendale, also filed an ethics complaint against Rep. Isela Blanc, D-Tempe, accusing her of disorderly conduct.

What is the egregious violation these women are accused of? According to voucher proponents, (during the drive to gain petition signatures for an anti-voucher referendum), both circulated petitions without a box at the top of the petition checked. The box, according to state law, is required to be checked prior to petitions being circulated, to reflect whether the circulator is a volunteer or paid petition gatherer. In Livingston’s complaint and in AFC’s robocall, Blanc and Marsh respectively, are accused of “falsifying petition sheets” by marking the boxes after the signatures were collected.

I understand the law is the law, but I’ve circulated many petitions and I can tell you that not one signatory has ever given a damn about whether that little box was checked. They don’t care who is circulating the petition, just that it is legitimate and for a cause they care about. The “box” in question likely matters to someone, but certainly not to the voting public.

Yet, AFC chose to reach into Arizona to demand Marsh “come clean on who altered” her petition. “I’m calling from the American Federation for Children with an alert about an election scandal in this district,” the call said. “Christine Marsh, candidate for state Senate, circulated a petition sheet which was later falsified and filed with the Arizona Secretary of State, a felony. Christine Marsh won’t say whether it was she or someone else who broke the law by tampering with the document. Christine needs to come forward with the truth. Christine, stop hiding behind the 5th amendment and come clean.”

Always one to cut right to the heart of the matter, Marsh told The Republic “she was ‘incredulous’ that an out-of-state special-interest group was spending money in her race 15 months before the election.”

I personally know Christine Marsh, am very proud to have had her representing our state, and understand why AFC and the pro-privatization lobby is threatened by her. Christine has taught English Language Arts for almost a quarter century and she still thinks she has the best job in the world. She is passionate about her students’ success and is a great example of the type of excellent teachers we have in our public district schools. She doesn’t do it for the money, but because she absolutely loves the students. She is also a vocal advocate for her students and public education and is not afraid to speak out to combat injustices. She is now running for the AZ Legislature (a job that will pay even less than she makes as a teacher), because she knows that is the only way she’ll have a chance at affecting real change.

Dawn Penich Thacker, spokeswoman for Save Our Schools Arizona (leaders of the referendum effort) said, “It’s telling that robocalls are coming from a Washington, D.C., area code to attack an Arizona teacher for volunteering to give Arizonans a vote on how our tax dollars are used,” she said. “For all their talk of choice, it seems our state’s pro-voucher groups have chosen a flawed national agenda over the basic respect and rights due Arizona citizens.”

The majority of AZ voters (the actual people on the ground in Arizona) are not in favor of vouchers that siphon funding from our public district schools to private and religious schools. That’s not only true in Arizona, but all across our Nation. There has not in fact, ever been a time, in ANY state, where vouchers, when referred to the ballot, were approved by the voters. Privatization proponents have only succeeded in expanding vouchers when they don’t ask voters what they want.

In Arizona, we know this is all about profit and power. We also know we are ground zero in the fight for our public district schools and in the long run, our very Democracy. Blogger Jan Resseger wrote in June about Gordon Lafer’s new book, “The One Percent Solution: How Corporations Are Remaking America One State at a Time”. In it, he explains that “far-right tax-slashers have attacked public education, including all the money to be made by privatizing large parts of our nation’s biggest and most pervasive civic institution, in which, “the sums involved… are an order of magnitude larger than any other service.” But, Jan writes, ”he believes another motive of the privatizers is far more significant:“ “Finally” says Lafer, “the notion that one’s kids have a right to a decent education represents the most substantive right to which Americans believe we are entitled, simply by dint of residence. In this sense… for those interested in lowering citizens’ expectations of what we have a right to demand from government, there is no more central fight than that around public education.”

Make no mistake, this is a war…for the very soul of America. Will we continue to be a country “of the people, by the people and for the people”, or, will we continue to move toward a complete oligarchy where the rich call all the shots and the rest of us live in a matrix of their making?

Thomas Jefferson understood civic engagement is critical for the survival of a democracy. He said, “An educated citizenry is a vital requisite for our survival as a free people”, and “Educate and inform the whole mass of the people… They are the only sure reliance for the preservation of our liberty.” This latest assault on civic engagement in Arizona, from both within and outside the state, says volumes about the true intentions of the privatization proponents. If you believe it’s really about the kids, I’ve got some Arizona ocean front property to sell you.

A Cautionary Tale

Arizona may be at, or near, the bottom in many education related statistics, but when it comes to a school choice friendly environment, we are #1. That’s why, when executive committee members of their state school boards associations got together last year in Oakland for the Pacific Region National School Boards Association meeting, the Arizona team shared their story of eroding legislative support (funding and supportive legislation) for our district schools as a cautionary tale.

It all began in Arizona with the Legislature’s authorization for charter schools in 1994 and of course, open enrollment so parents could choose to enroll their children in any public school in the state, not just in their district. This mattered because 1) it told parents they were free to look for greener grass elsewhere, versus watering the grass they had, and 2) all that mattered was their child’s education, the hell with the rest.

Arizona’s first charter school opened in 1995. Now 180,000 students attend about 550 charter schools in Arizona equating to 16% of the students and 30% of the public schools. In 2010 in fact, Arizona had the highest number of charter schools per capita in the nation. The competition created with district schools wasn’t all bad. Many district schools offer fuller curriculums with more specialty programs than they once did. But, for corporate reformers, that wasn’t enough.

The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) ranks our state as #1 with regard to school choice policy. This should not surprise anyone, since ALEC has been aggressive in working with corporations and state lawmakers all over the country to create legislation favorable to school choice and the privatization of education. Likewise, the American Federation for Children (previously led by our new SecED, Betsy DeVos) has been very active in pushing school choice around the nation through both significant campaign contributions and strong arming of legislators.

These organizations and others with the same agenda, have enjoyed much success. When vouchers for private and parochial schools were first introduced in Arizona in 2009, the AZ Supreme Court deemed them unconstitutional since the state constitution (as most do) requires that “No public money or property shall be appropriated for or applied to any religious worship, exercise, or instruction, or the support of any religious establishment.” The Court stipulated though, “[t]here may well be ways of providing aid to these student populations without violating the constitution. School choice proponents such as the Center for Arizona Policy (CAP) jumped on that and according to their website, ”CAP and its attorneys were heavily involved in the drafting and development of this [Empowerment Scholarship Accounts or ESAs] program.” Then in 2013, the AZ Supreme Court, in Niehaus v. Huppenthal approved ESAs, (vouchers or Educational Subsidies for the Affluent as AZ’s 2016 Teacher of the Year calls them), saying that the fact the funding goes to the parent and the parent decides what to do with it, makes the program constitutional.

Initially, only students with disabilities were eligible for vouchers but the Arizona Legislature managed to expand ESAs each year to eight different categories including students living on tribal lands, wards of the state, military dependents, students from D or F rated district schools and more. Then, on April 6, 2017, the Legislature passed and the Governor signed, a law making all Arizona children eligible for vouchers. For now, there is both an annual cap of 5,500 and an overall cap of 30,000 by 2022. In addition, there is a by-grade implementation that staggers eligibility over several years.

With Arizona’s conservative and libertarian public-policy think tank, the Goldwater Institute, already promising donors they would eliminate the cap before the Governor even signed it into law, these speed bumps undoubtedly won’t be in place long. That’s because the end game for the corporate reformers and the lawmakers they’ve purchased is to commercialize our public schools. It doesn’t matter what innocuous name you give a voucher, it is still about siphoning taxpayer dollars away from our district schools, to private and parochial schools. And, vouchers aren’t the only way these tax dollars are siphoned away.

Remember I wrote that ALEC thinks Arizona is #1 in school choice policy? Well, that’s because we not only have open enrollment, charter schools, and Empowerment Scholarship Accounts, but also individual tax credits, School Tuition Organizations and the corporate tax credits that feed them. And yes, we even have legislators that have ownership of, or vested interests in, all of the above. But that discussion is for another day.

As for school tax credits, Arizona allows five separate types. There are three individual; one for public schools and two for private schools. The private school tax credit, begun in 1997, is now worth five times as much as the amount that can be claimed for public schools. Maybe that’s part of the reason why the program the legislative budget staff estimated would cost $4.5 million a year 20 years ago, topped $140 million in 2015 without including the $50 million in tax credits taken for public schools.

Tax credits were originally sold as a way to help special-needs and low-income students, but it hasn’t largely worked out that way. According to the AZ Republic, “Only about 3 percent of the money is designated specifically for special-needs students.“ As for the ”low-income” families, only 32% of the money went to them. Aside from the fact they don’t serve the most needy, tax credits divert funding away from the state coffers and in the case of district schools, give the taxpayers the impression they are doing their part to support public education when the reality is the funding isn’t really allowed for classroom expenses, but for extracurricular, fee-based activities. In the case of private schools, the tax revenue is diverted away from the general fund directly into private education.

Corporate tax credits are made to School Tuition Organizations (STOs) which are 501(c)(3) tax exempt organizations that must allocate at least 90% of their annual revenue to tuition awards for students to attend private and parochial schools. The two types of corporate tax credits allowed are one for corporate contributions for low-income students and another for displaced/disadvantaged students. The definition of “low income” though, is misleading. For these scholarships, a family of four with an annual income of $82,996, qualifies leading many to claim that the scholarships are going to families that could afford the private schools without the taxpayer welfare. Critics also say it is fairly impossible for the poor to benefit because even if they get a scholarship, they still have to come up with the rest of the tuition. Regardless of who else is benefiting from the tax credits, the general fund and therefore district schools and other critical programs and services are not. In 2008, three-fourths of Arizona companies paid only the minimum $50 in corporate taxes and with a 20% increase in cap allowed every year, the program is causing significant impact to the state’s general fund. In fact, the “low-income corporate tax credit alone is expected by 2025 to grow to more than $250 million a year.”

In the end, one thing has been abundantly clear here in Arizona. The corporate reformers are dead set on commercializing our district schools. That’s why every legislative session, we public education advocates gear up for battle and “look for incoming.” And that’s why, one of our favorite phrases is “sine die” which literally means “without assigning a day for a further meeting or hearing”, but in layman’s terms, signifies the end of the legislative session. It is a very sad state of affairs that rather than counting on our Governor and GOP-led Legislature to do good for our one-plus million district school students, the best we can usually hope for is for them to do no harm. This year, with the full expansion of vouchers, they did tremendous harm that will be hard to recover from. A word to the wise…if you give them (corporate reformers) an inch, they will take a mile and stretch it out to 10. Stay focused and vigilant, this really is a war and the stakes couldn’t be higher.