So Much for the “Education Governor”

A couple of nights ago, I was talking with a news editor who asked me about the effect of the voucher expansion on homeschoolers. He said when he homeschooled his child, he saw it as his responsibility to bear those costs. He wondered with the new expansion, if homeschoolers would now get taxpayer dollars to teach their child at home. I told him homeschoolers were always eligible for Empowerment Scholarship Accounts (ESAs), or vouchers (I prefer to call them what they really are), but their child needed to be in one of the eligible categories such as: having a disability, from a D or F rated school, living on tribal land, dependents of military, wards of the state, etc. With the latest expansion of eligibility though, all categories of children are eligible for the vouchers. He surmised it wouldn’t take long to reach that cap, given there are some 20,000 homeschooled children in Arizona.

It is difficult to find clear data about the number of homeschoolers but a general estimate is from three to four percent of the school-age population. Given that, we are looking at 30,000 to 40,0000 students in Arizona. Another source I found from 2011 quoted the number at 22,500, so in the interest of being conservative, let’s go with 25,000. To the news editor’s point, if all 25,000 estimated homeschoolers took vouchers, that would deplete Arizona’s general fund by $110 million in taxpayer dollars which are then not available for district education or other critical programs and services. And this new outlay would not be offset by any reduced costs on the part of the state since previously, parents were footing this bill. At three to four percent though, homeschoolers are just a fraction of those who could take the vouchers and run.

Fortunately, there are currently a couple of speed bumps to slow the depletion. The first one is the cap of 5,500 ESAs that may be awarded each per year. Of course, before the Governor even signed the latest expansion bill, Goldwater Institute leadership had already notified their major donors they would get the cap lifted.

The second speed bump is the by-grade phase-in of eligibility. For 2017–2018, the only additional children eligible are those who attend or are eligible to attend public schools in kindergarten (at least four but under seven years of age) or grades one, six, and nine. The following year, the law adds grades two, seven and ten to the mix. The year after than, grades three, eight, and eleven are added. Then in the 2020–2021 school year, all children who currently attend or are eligible to attend a public school in K–12 are eligible to receive a voucher.

If the Goldwater Institute is successful in removing the cap next legislative session though, (or maybe still this session in a “strike everything” bill), the floodgates will be wide open for the grades specified to be added each year. There is after all, a tremendous amount of support for that end as evidenced by Betsy DeVos’ tweet to Governor Ducey congratulating him on the eve of his signing the bill. She wrote, “A big win for students & parents in Arizona tonight with the passage of ed savings accts. I applaud Gov. @DougDucey for putting kids first.” Keep in mind that this is the same Betsy DeVos, that as the head of the American Federation for Children, oversaw an investment of over $750,000 since 2011 into Arizona legislative races for pro-school choice and voucher candidates.

We in Arizona though, know that our Governor hasn’t really put over 80 percent of our kids first. Instead, the self-acclaimed “education governor” has time and again shortchanged our kids. Like with his 2018 spending plan that would provide a 2% pay raise over five years for teachers giving them only about $182 (0.4%) more in the first year. Like with his no-details “plan” to streamline teacher certification requirements to help with the critical teacher shortage, as if less qualified teachers will help our students. Like with his plan to provide $10 million for full-day kindergarten funding at public schools where more than 90% of students are eligible for free or reduced lunch. Unfortunately, for district schools, the entire district must meet the 90% threshold, but for charters, only a single school. In Southern Arizona, only two districts – Nogales Unified and Santa Cruz Valley Unified – qualify. Even Sunnyside Unified School District, at 86 percent of its students on free/reduced lunch, doesn’t qualify. And, like when he negotiated a deal to pay the schools 70% of what they were owed with money that was already theirs and promised that would just be the beginning. As David Safier points out in the Tucson Weekly, the $325 million per year Prop. 123 is bringing in (again, money the schools were already owed, not a plus up), could easily be wiped out by “his latest attack on public education which could drain $150-$300 million” via vouchers.

The most important moral of this story is that elections do have consequences and one of those consequences is now the systemic dismantling of our system of public (district) education. You know, the system that takes all comers, the only system with locally elected governing boards who must operate in a transparent manner and are totally accountable to parents and taxpayers, and, the system which after adjusting for student poverty levels, produces better results.

The only real solution to save our district schools and the one million plus students they provide for, is to elect different lawmakers. To do that, each of us must take personal responsibility to do our part and then some. No longer can any of us leave the work to someone else. Not if we want better for our kids, our communities, and our country. As the Jewish religious leader Hillel originally said sometime around 50 BCE, “If not now, when? If not me, who?”

The Coercive Power of Taxation

Robert Robb wrote in a recent Op-Ed in the AZ Republic, “The government, through the coercive power of taxation, establishes a central pool of resources for the education of students.” Wow, the “coercive power of taxation.” Now that is some powerful spin. Last time I looked, taxes (that “central pool of resources”) are something we agree to pay. After all, as Jeff Bryant, in his blog OurFuture.org, writes “in a democratic society, “government” is ultimately up to us, and what it does is an expression of what we want to do for ourselves. So what the critics of government are saying, really, is that they have a problem with democracy. It’s important to know government wasn’t turned into a four-letter word by happenstance. It happened by design.” The government isn’t, some outside entity over which we have no say, he government is us! We elect those who make the laws we must follow and set the taxes we must pay. We also have the power to un-elect them. To believe those who would tell us otherwise is to abrogate our rights and responsibilities.

I just don’t get it. If taxes are an evil, coercive power, how does Robb expect a civil society to fund the common needs of its citizenry? Is there no responsibility on the part of that citizenry to contribute to provision for the common good? I suppose he would advocate for business to do it. I hate to break it to him, but business can’t or won’t provide for all our needs. There just are some things that are best provided collectively by government and based on my 22 years in the Air Force and time as a government contractor afterwards, I’ll take a sometimes inefficient government team working for our common good over a profit driven contractor any day!

Unfortunately, our Governor and GOP-led Legislature is dead set on contracting out our public schools. After all, it’s worked so well for our prisons. Those of us who care about the one million plus students in our district schools though, know this will not end well. And it is laughable that those working so hard to push the voucher expansion tout themselves as fiscal conservatives. Maybe the fiscally conservative aspect of vouchers is that they allow those with sufficient fiscal resources to conserve those resources by offsetting them with the welfare handouts taxpayers provide.

Columnist Joanna Allhands, also at azcentral.com, just yesterday urged us all to just “calm down”, reasoning that the expansion of vouchers is not going to produce a mass exodus from our district schools. Know what? I totally agree. After all, parents have had school choice for almost a quarter of a century and yet, over 80 percent of them still choose district schools. Additionally, the vast majority of parents can’t afford to make the choice to take a voucher even if they wanted to. Now worth only $4,400 for a mainstream student, vouchers won’t even begin to cover private school tuition of $6,000 for elementary or $18,000 for high school.

Ultimately though, this fight isn’t about the choice of schools, but rather, what kind of country we want. Do we want one that values all its people and wants each to have the opportunity to reach his or her full potential, or do we believe that only the strong should survive and “to the winner go all the spoils”? Do we recognize all the benefits our district schools – with their locally elected governing boards – bring to our students, families and communities all across America, or don’t communities even matter anymore? Are we destined to continue to segregate and polarize, or can we reconnect with the idea that diversity is our strength and that our public schools are the melting pot that teaches each of us that truth?

Don’t be fooled by all the noise. The expansion of vouchers is not about our kids, but about profit and power. It is part of the systematic destruction of the people’s faith in our institutions and their voice in our democracy. That’s why this fight is far from over. Betsy DeVos may have tweeted congratulations to Governor Ducey last week, but her money fueled ideological agenda won’t win in the end. That’s because our cause is just and we have a much higher purpose than ourselves…we have our children.

President John F. Kennedy said, “A child miseducated is a child lost.” Proponents of public education understand every child is precious and should not have their potential determined by the circumstances of their birth. Public schools offer the best opportunity for all children to achieve the American Dream and the road to that dream is paved by the “coercive power of taxation.” If this is no longer what we want for not only our own children, but all America’s children, let’s quit pretending we either are great, or want to be great again. That time will have passed.

We Do Not Fight Alone!

Arizona enjoys a multitude of great organizations fighting for our public schools  and I have written about some in previous posts. Our public education advocates also have a great friend beyond our state borders, (one the CEO of BASIS calls “one of the most virulent anti-school choice institutions in the country”), the Network for Public Education (NPE).

NPE was founded in 2013 by Diane Ravitch and Anthony Cody. For those who may not know, Diane Ravitch is undoubtedly the leading advocate for K–12 public education in the nation. She is a graduate of Wellesley College and holds a Ph.D. in the history of American education. She was a U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education under President George H. W. Bush, and is still an education policy analyst and a Research Professor of Education at New York University’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development. She is a prolific writer about education both on-line at her blog DianeRavitch.net, and in print with seminal books such as “The Death and Life of the Great American School System” and more recently, “Reign of Error.”

The NPE website states “They are an advocacy group whose mission is to preserve, promote, improve and strengthen public schools for both current and future generations of students. The goal of NPE is to connect all those who are passionate about our schools – students, parents, teachers and citizens. They share information and research on vital issues that concern the future of public education at a time when it is under attack.”

With privatizer Betsy DeVos as the Secretary of Education, our system of public education is now more under attack than ever. It is clear her intent is the destruction of this system she refers to as “a dead end.” DeVos and her allies have worked for decades to push charters, vouchers, and education tax credits. She even supports virtual charter schools which have the most abysmal track record of all when it comes to student success.

Despite a lackluster track record of producing any improved results and, numerous accounts of fraud, waste and abuse when it comes to charters, vouchers and other school choice options, the general public is still not fully aware of the threat these tools of profiteers pose to our public (district) schools. The mantra of “parents know best and should be free to choose the best school option for their child,” as well as terms such as “Empowerment Scholarship Accounts,” are destined to be not only innocuous sounding, but well…empowering and enticing.

I have been impressed with NPE since I first joined their email list and then attended the first annual conference in 2013 in Austin, TX. The energy at the conference was high; the majority of the people in attendance were there on their own dime and were highly motivated to fight for our public schools. I met Diane Ravitch and Mercedes Schneider (a teacher/advocate/education writer from Louisiana) among many others, and it helped propel my passion for this work.

It was at this conference that I learned about the Education Bloggers Network and I have been a fairly regular contributor, along with some 250 or so other bloggers around the country. There is though, an even closer to home connection as Tucson’s very own Robin Hiller, founder and Executive Director of Voices for Education, was NPE’s first Executive Director. I have now also had the pleasure of meeting and working with her replacement, Carol Burris. You may recognize Carol’s name as she recently took on BASIS in the Washington Post and then in the AZ Capitol Times. She has been very interested in our fight for public education here in Arizona and will no doubt continue to bring national attention to our struggle.

I have watched NPE’s advocacy efforts grow since 2013 and am excited about their latest efforts. Carol has recently led the development of a NPE Action Grassroots School Board Member Network Facebook page and intends to release a toolkit to help encourage advocates to consider running for a seat on their local school board. She also just released a toolkit called School Privatization Explained with 13 fact sheets on a variety of choice issues and an interactive map which allows people to learn how their state stacks up in this area.

I found the information valuable and encourage you to check it out. I also recommend that you sign up for NPE’s email list as well as Diane Ravitch’s blog if you have not already done so.

In her email about the School Privatization Explained tools, Carol writes the following, “Read, share, quote and even copy. They are designed for your use. Most of all, share the truth about school privatization far and wide. We cannot let the pillar of our democracy, our public schools, be destroyed.” Yes, there is much at stake here, and failure is not an option.

AZ Legislators: Listen Up or Get Out!

Night before last, at the West Campus of the Pima Community College in Tucson, AZ Schools Now held the second of three statewide Community Budget Hearings. I’m guessing over 100 people attended the Tucson event, including teachers, administrators, school board members, faith leaders and community advocates. AZ Senator Dalessandro and Representatives Friese, Gonzales, and Engle, and Pima County Schools Superintendent Williams were also in attendance to hear from their constituents.

AZ Schools Now is a coalition of public education advocate organizations from around the state focused on reinvesting in public schools to boost student achievement. The members are Support Our Schools Arizona, Pima County and Valley Interfaith organizations, Friends of Arizona School Boards Association, Christine Marsh (Arizona 2016 Teacher of the Year), Children’s Action Alliance and the Arizona: Education and Business Coalition, Center for Economic Progress, Education Association, School Administrators, Education Network, and Parent Teacher Association.

Moderators Julie Erfle, Jen Darland, David Lujan and Michelle Crow opened up the hearing aand provided information comparing the 2018 budget proposals from Governor Ducey, AZ Schools Now, and the Legislative Democrats prior to opening up the hearing to well…hear what the attendees had to say. All statements were being videotaped as part of the public hearing, so the attendees words could eventually be shared with AZ legislators.

David Lujan of the Arizona Center for Economic Progress gave a detailed description of the three proposals and told the audience that 65 percent of the Governor’s FY2018 education budget goes to high performing schools and 12 percent goes to two charter operators. Of the $10 million Ducey sets aside for kindergarten/early literacy for schools with highest percentage of low-income students, only one school in Pima County qualifies.

As far as funding sources go, Ducey proposes all of it to come from the General Fund and still wants to give a $3 million tax corporate tax cut. Republican legislators on the other hand, are looking to give $11 million in cuts to their corporate benefactors. This, despite 77 percent of Arizona voters wanting (in a Dec 2016) poll, to better fund education and 61 percent willing to pay more taxes to do end.

The AZ Schools Now proposal advocates for a 4 percent raise versus the 0.4 percent Ducey desires. The proposed raise cost of $134 million plus $2 million for building maintenance and repair would be paid for by shifting funding from Ducey’s Credit Enhancement District (which provides tax dollars as collateral for lower cost loans, primarily for charters), freezing growth in corporate tax credits which have grown from $12 million in 2009 to $127 million today, and a pause on new tax cuts.

Legislative Democrats want $136 million for teachers, $38 million for classroom funding and $14 million for building maintenance and repair, the latter two both phasing up over 10 years. They propose paying the bill with $56 million from the General Fund, along with all the methods AZ Schools Now favor plus $50 million in General Fund lottery revenue and $61 million in revenue from additional tax collections. Interestingly, we learned this revenue would come from rehiring 70 or so Department of Revenue tax collection staff who prior to their release by the current administration, each brought in about $1.2 million dollars a year in outstanding tax collections.

Once the microphones were passed to the audience, those wishing to speak lined up behind them and the floodgates opened. First up was a music teacher from Tucson Unified (TUSD) who wondered why our legislators continue to cut funding unless their intent is to kill public education. Needless to say, the audience immediately shouted in unison that is exactly their intention.

Next up was Judith, a grandmother and Pima County Interfaith leader who expressed concern about teachers buying their own supplies and needing second jobs to pay their bills. She said we don’t need more choice and instead of small increases, we should stop tax cuts, give teachers pay increases, stop vouchers, roll back tax credits allowed to School Tuition Organizations (STOs), and just stop taking any of her tax dollars to privatize our public education.

Elizabeth, a teacher, says she is just scraping by with one of her two monthly paychecks dedicated to her rent. She expressed great pride in her students saying they aren’t any less intelligent than others, they just don’t have the same background that initially sets them up for success.

A local business owner, Nicole, said the state should invest in teachers for the long-term because retention will produce the best return on investment (ROI). She talked about how teacher salaries have not only kept up with inflation, but have lost ground. Robert, an Oro Valley taxpayer and Interfaith community leader, said the problem is that the state’s tax structure has been systematically hollowed out and we must get back to collecting the taxes that are owed.

Ceasar, a parent who is a member of the newly formed Tucson Unified Parent Action Council (TUPAC) said parents need to be engaged. On his daughters’ school site council, he said it was a shock to have to deal with a 66 percent cut in funding. He also said he gets really tired of hearing old timers talk about “back in the day.” It’s not your day he said, it’s my kid’s day.

Rebecca, a teacher from Sunnyside Unified said she took a $35K pay cut when she moved here as a teacher from another state and to those who want to blame it on cost-of-living, said she pays more rent in Tucson. She doesn’t teach for the money, but for the love of her students — 90 percent of whom quality for free and reduced lunch and may not be highly proficient on AzMERIT, but have grown three grade levels in reading this year alone.

Another member of TUPAC and a resident of the Catalina Foothills Unified District, Lisa said it wasn’t until she open enrolled her gifted autistic child in TUSD that she was able to get him the type of help he needs to thrive. She appreciates her son’s teachers and wants them to be able to afford a house and a car and not have to get another job to do it.

Nate, a 6th grade ELA teacher in Sahuarita Unified, said 30% of his school’s teachers are in their first year of teaching, there are 35 kids in his 6th grade class, he often doesn’t have enough supplies in his classrooms, and he tires of having tiles fall down from his classroom ceiling when it rains. He also said he is sad to see the 21st Century Classroom program defunded just when they are starting to see tangible benefits to the district.

Another teacher in Sunnyside Unified, April, said her priorities for additional funding are teacher salaries and building maintenance and repair. As an example, her school has had to do away with the rule against traveling during basketball at their school because the gym floor is so worn students can’t stop as they should.

Jennifer, a third grade teacher from Sunnyside, said at the age of 47, that she is just getting too tired to work two jobs to make ends meet. She said she isn’t asking for a life of luxury, just the ability to pay her bills.

A retired kindergarten teacher who taught in Cave Creek for 20 years, Ann said she received no pay increase during the last 10 of those years. During her tenure, her class size increased from 20 kids to 29, she lost some of her support staff, and she gained more special needs students. She said she has friends at Raytheon and through them, understands the company is very pro-education, but very concerned about the education of Arizona’s workforce. Her personal concerns about the direction of Arizona education has caused her to get political for the first time in her life. She said the walking and calling for candidates and causes was not initially easy, but now she finds it empowering.

Sandy, President of the Marana Teacher’s Association, said she is in her 15th year of teaching. She is now within six years of retirement and worries about teachers coming behind her. She then read a letter from a high school teacher who loves her job but now $20,000 in debt, has made the tough decision to leave the career field for better pay. She wrote that by paying teacher wages that are less they could get in most other jobs, the legislature has shown they don’t really care about our kids.

Kevin, another Interfaith leader, teacher, and grandparent, said the hearing had been a good public processing of pain. But, he said, we need to do more than process. We are at a point in this nation that if we don’t come together to save our Democracy, we are going to lose it. If we allow that to happen, we will only have ourselves to blame for the untenable, unethical and immoral state of our affairs.

There were a few other speakers, but Judy, a librarian in three different school districts, was the last. She expressed great concern about our students’ literacy and lack of critical thinking skills. She then looked into directly the camera and told legislators she hopes will eventually listen, “if you are not moved by what you heard tonight, shame on you!”

Kudos to AZ Schools Now for holding these important hearings. Not only does the public need to be much better informed about the issues challenging our district schools, but they also need to be heard. It was great to see all the teachers in the house. They, along with the parents are really the ones who have the loudest megaphones to spur action. That action, retired Air Force Colonel Holly Lyon said, is to elect more pro-district education candidates to the Arizona Legislature.

That is the real bottom line. If the voters of Arizona really do support district education, the choice of over 80 percent of our students, they must look beyond the party and vote for pro-district education candidates. Two more Democratic Senators will bring parity to that chamber and hopefully the need to compromise for the best solutions. As Martin Luther King said, I have a dream…”

Plenty of blame to go around

Let me first say that I have much respect for Richard Gilman of “Bringing Up Arizona” and the work he has done on behalf of public education. I also very much appreciate his gracious support of my work and wish him well as he moves on to a new chapter of his life.

I did find much though, in his last blog post, to disagree with. It shouldn’t have surprised me, as the last time he and I had lunch, it was pretty clear he was frustrated. I tried to allay his concerns, but obviously, failed. It’s not that I don’t agree with his position that “the status quo in K–12 education is not acceptable. Of course I do. We have the lowest paid teachers in the nation, our per-pupil funding ranks 48th, and our education performance ranking isn’t much better. I do not agree though, that ”the onus belongs as much or more on public school administrators.” School administrators are after all, busy managing their schools and school districts. They are busy focusing on their students and the teachers educating them. That’s where their focus should be.

The good news is, they aren’t in this fight alone. Organizations like the Arizona School Boards Association, Arizona Education Association, Arizona School Administrators, Arizona School Business Officials Association, and Arizona School Personnel Administrators Association, offer training and professional development to their membership, engage their members in advocacy, do outreach to the public, lobby legislators and collaborate with each other to improve Arizona’s educational outcomes. They are aided by organizations like Support Our Schools Az, the Arizona PTA, Voices for Education, Expect More Arizona, the Children’s Action Alliance Arizona, and the Helios Education Foundation, who tirelessly engage both their members and supporters on behalf of public education and encourage others to do the same. All these parents, community members, business leaders and voters are groups of people both our legislators and the general public are unfortunately often more apt to “hear” than our school administrators.

None of these organizations operate in a vacuum. They know there is strength in numbers and that together, they can come up with the best solutions. One example of this collaboration is AZ Schools Now, a coalition of parent, educator, business, and community leaders fighting to reverse the destructive politics of the last 30 years and see Arizona schools adequately funded. It isn’t just these education advocacy groups or school administrators though, who recognize our schools need more funding. Even Governor Ducey’s Classrooms First Council, charged with revising the school finance formula, determined after a year of study that simply revising the formula won’t help if there isn’t more money to push through that formula.

Neither “the Legislature nor the public is going to write a check without getting a promise of improved results” he writes. Really Richard? Come on now, you’ve been around long enough to know that promises are easy to make, politicians do it every day. What is hard, is delivering on those promises. I learned a long time ago that if something was easy to fix, someone probably would have already fixed it. As for that blank check, isn’t that exactly what the Legislature is trying to do by pushing for a full expansion of vouchers? They don’t know how many students will leave districts via vouchers, but they do know each one will cost about $1,000 more than if that student were to stay. Sounds like a blank check to me and not only is it one without any promise of improved results, but by law, without any requirement to deliver and report those results.

I also agree with Richard’s recommendation “they need to speak with a unified voice.” If all the public education advocacy groups would agree on the top 1–3 legislative priorities for each year, it would make their voices much more powerful and harder for legislators to ignore. That is though, a big ask. Even in the Air Force, where teamwork was paramount and everyone was focused on the same mission, leaders had the natural tendency to protect their areas of influence. It was common to reflect that “it would be amazing what we could get done if no one cared who got the credit.” Yes, public education advocates all have the same basic mission, but they are not one cohesive organization and they all have different stakeholders. Nonetheless, I believe they can do it. They are dedicated professionals who all, in the end, just want to see every student have every opportunity to succeed. Agreeing on a few key priorities such as teacher recruitment and retention, funding for full-day kindergarten and renewing and expanding Proposition 301 for example, and absolutely standing together in demanding solutions would likely make a real difference.

That brings me to who is really responsible for the challenges faced by Arizona’s district schools. As long as Arizonans continue to vote for candidates committed to privatizing our district schools, we will continue to see funding and support get siphoned away. To really affect change, we must elect more pro-public (district) education candidates and voters must hold all elected officials (including governing board members) responsible for moving the needle for our students. Otherwise, we will continue to spin our wheels, the advocacy efforts will continue to be frustrating and yes, the results will get ever more sad.

As Franklin D. Roosevelt said, “Democracy cannot succeed unless those who express their choice are prepared to choose wisely” and “Let us never forget that government is ourselves and not an alien power over us. The ultimate rulers of our democracy are not a President and senators and congressmen and government officials, but the voters of this country.” Ultimately you see, it is up to each of us to ensure the students of Arizona have what they need to succeed. Ultimately, it is up to each of us to make the world a better place to be. Dramatist Edward Albee said it well, “Remember one thing about democracy. We can have anything we want and at the same time, we always end up with exactly what we deserve.”

Payday Loan Elementary

Once again, Arizona’s public education advocates find themselves in battle against those in the Legislature seeking to commercialize our district schools. The worst threat this year is a replay of last year’s failed attempt to fully expand Empowerment Scholarship Accounts (ESAs) to all Arizona students. This, despite the fact that vouchers will cost the state more…at least $1,000 more per student. This, despite the fact that according to the Pro-voucher Friedman Foundation, 58% of AZ ESA recipients have incomes ABOVE $57,000 (39% over $72,000 and 19% between $57,000 and $71,000.) And, only 15% of families that use vouchers have an income lower than $28,000. Not surprising actually, when the average private school in Arizona costs $6,000 at the elementary level and $18,000 at the high school level. A $5,200 to $5,900 voucher just doesn’t go far enough for those without means.

And, as if that isn’t enough, the New York Times (NYT) just reported, “a wave of new research has emerged suggesting that private school vouchers may harm students who receive them.” An examination of an Indiana voucher program which grew to tens of thousands of students under then Governor Pence, produced significant losses in achievement in mathematics on the part of voucher students who transferred to private schools. There was also no improvement in reading.

Then in Louisiana in early 2016, researchers found “large negative results in both reading and math” for those students on vouchers. The NYT quoted Martin West, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, as saying the negative voucher effects in Louisiana were, “as large as any I’ve seen in the literature.” He wasn’t just comparing voucher programs, but rather the Louisianna voucher experience against “the history of American education research.”

Likewise, in June of 2016, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative think tank and school choice proponent, looked at a large voucher program in Ohio. They found that, “Students who use vouchers to attend private schools have fared worse academically compared to their closely matched peers attending public schools.”

Maybe the schools “were unusually bad and eager for revenue” posits the NYT, but that just shows that “exposing young children to the vagaries of private-sector competition is inherently risky. I love the NYT’s explanation of how ”the free market often does a terrible job of providing basic services to the poor – see, for instance, the lack of grocery stores and banks in many low-income neighborhoods.” Why should we expect it to be different for education? I can see it now. Gourmet grocery stores and boutique bank equivalent private schools in affluent areas and the Circle K and payday loan operation version of underfunded public schools where people have no other real option. I know there are plenty of people who see nothing wrong with this scenario (many of them work at the state Capitol), but it IS wrong and it is not in the best interest of our people, our communities, our state, or our nation.

Open Letter to Senators Flake and McCain

Dear Senators Flake and McCain,

First of all, let me thank you for your service to our state and our country. I realize your job is not an easy one, but hope you understand this is also not an easy time to be an engaged patriot. Millions of us are incredibly anxious about the future of our country and our world. At this time, more than almost anytime in my adult life, we need real leadership.

As a school board member, I am really worried about President Trump’s and his SecED nominee’s intentions with K–12 education. He thinks our nation’s current education system is “flush with cash” and that our children are “deprived of all knowledge.” For Arizona at least, both of these statements are ridiculous. Our per pupil funding is 48th in the nation and our teachers the 47th lowest paid. Even so, our student’s National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) scores continue to rise and we led the nation in growth on the science test from 2009 to 2015.

If however, Betsy DeVos is confirmed, she will no doubt try to do for the nation what she did for Michigan. There she pushed for vouchers (even though she could never “sell” them in her home state) and for-profit publicly funded charters with as little accountability and transparency as possible. The results speak for themselves, with Michigan’s 4th grader scores on the NAEP from 2003 to 2015 declining from 28th to 41st in reading and from 27th to 42nd in math. This is not a formula for success.

I understand the pressure you are under to toe the party line, but the people of Arizona and our nation need you to look deep inside yourselves and determine what is really best for our country? Truly public education, that which is governed by locally elected boards, is the bedrock of our democracy and built the greatest middle class in the history of the world. It also taught us yes, we are all different, but there is strength in those differences. It can continue to support the American Dream, or, we can just give up on that dream and sell out to the highest bidder. We are at a tipping point and you have the ability to pull us back from the edge or propel us over the cliff. Please cast your vote in favor of our democracy and say NO to DeVos and her privatization agenda. We (the people) are counting on you!

Vouchers: Some Common Sense Questions

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last few years, you know corporate reformers are anxious to implement vouchers as a way to expand school choice. The secret sauce they say, is that the dollars follow the student because parents know best about what is best for their child’s education.

Just for a few moments though, I’d like to ask you to please forget whether or not you believe school choice and vouchers are the answer to “Make American Education Great Again.” Forget all the hype and promises, just ask yourself which of these scenarios makes more sense?

  1. Which is more accountable and transparent to parents, the taxpayers and voters and therefore less likely to experience less fraud, waste and abuse? #1 Hint to the answer. #2 Hint to the answer. #3 Hint to the answer.
    a. District schools that must report every purchase, competitively bid out purchases over a certain amount, have all purchases scrutinized by a locally elected governing board, undergo an extensive state-run audit each year, and are publicly reported on for performance efficiency and student achievement by the AZ Auditor General’s office each year?
    b. A voucher system which puts the onus on recipient parents to submit proof of expenditures to an understaffed AZ Department of Education office responsible for monitoring the $37 million ($99.7 million since 2011) in voucher expenditures for 4,102 different students?
  2. Which is more likely to be held accountable for student achievement and thereby taxpayer return on investment? Hint to the answer.
    a. A district school where students are given a standardized state test with scores rolled up to the state and made public, where data is reported (following federal guidelines for data protection) by subgroups to determine achievement gaps, and where high school graduation and college attendance rates are reported?
    b. A private school that does not provide any public visibility to test results and where the state (per law) has no authority to request or require academic progress from voucher recipients or the school?
  3. Which is more likely regarding the portability (with no impact) of per student funding when students leave their district schools?
    a. When a student leaves a district school with their education funding in their backpack, they take all associated expenses with them?
    b. That there are fixed costs left behind (approx. 19%) that the school is required to still fund such as teachers and other staff that cannot be eliminated just because a couple of students left a classroom, or a bus route that can’t be done away with just because one student is no longer taking that bus, or a building air conditioner that can’t be turned off because the occupancy in the classrooms is down by three students. That what the “drain” causes instead, is larger class sizes, less support services, less variety in the curricula, etc.?
  4. Which is more likely to serve disadvantaged students — the ones most in need of our help? Hint to the answer.
    a. A district school, where the vast majority of educational expenses are covered by the taxpayer, where students are transported from their home to school, where free and reduced lunches are provided and which must accept all comers?
    b. A $5,200 voucher to a private or parochial school which has total control over which students they accept, does not provide transportation and according to PrivateSchoolReview.com costs an average of $6,000 for elementary schools and $18,000 for high schools in 2016-17?

I hope you came to the same conclusions I did some time ago, that when it comes to transparency, accountability and equity, district schools outperform private schools. I’d also like to make the unequivocal claim that district schools also (across the board) produce more achievement than private schools, but as you can see, they don’t report their results so I don’t know that for sure.

And yet, the Arizona Legislature continues to push expansion of vouchers in our state. A push for full expansion last year by Debbie Lesko (Peoria-R) was killed, largely due to its potentially negative impact on the passage of Proposition 123, but she has revived the effort this year in the form of SB 1431. This bill, which would fully expand vouchers to ALL 1.1 million Arizona students by the 2020-2021 school year has been assigned to the Senate Education and Rules Committees and is scheduled to be heard by the Senate Ed Cmte on 2/9/17. Senator Steve Smith (Maricopa-R) has sponsored an associated bill, SB 1281, that requires the AZ DOE to contract with an outside firm (I’m sure that’s much better…just like private prisons) to help administer the ESA program, and makes various changes to the program. The bill stipulates that AZ DOE may request (not MUST request) confirmation toward graduation from high school or completion of a GED. This is obviously an attempt to defuse the argument there is insufficient accountability in the AZ voucher programAZEDNEWS also reports that Lesko supports adding a requirement to her bill to track achievement of ESA students, but that requirement would be only to report test results to parents, not the AZ DOE.

No matter how much sugar the commercializers try to coat vouchers with, they are still just a vehicle for siphoning tax dollars away from our district community schools to private and parochial (religious) schools with no accountability or transparency. For every person who says “parents have the right to use their child’s education tax dollars as they see fit”, I say, “and taxpayers have the right to know the return on investment for their tax dollars.” The former right in no way “trumps” the latter.

We must stop this terrible legislation. If you are signed up for the Legislature’s Request to Speak system, please click here to log in today and leave a comment for the Senate Education Committee about why you oppose SB 1431 and SB 1281. If you aren’t signed up, please leave me a comment to this post and I will get you signed up and ensure you are trained to use it. The system allows you to comment on pending legislation from your home computer or mobile device, you don’t have to go to the Legislature and speak in person unless you want to.

If you don’t want to use RTS, please call or email the members of the Senate Education Committee (listed below) and your district legislators (click here to find out who they are) to let them know how you feel. There is strength in numbers and the people do have the power, we just have to exercise it!

Senate Education Committee Members

Sylvia Allen, Chairman – 602.926.5409

David Bradley – 602.926.5262

Kate Brophy McGee – 602.926.4486

Catherine Miranda – 602.926.4893

Steve Montenegro, Vice-Chairman – 602.926.5955

Steve Smith – 602.926.5685

Kimberly Yee – 602.926.3024

 

School Choice: Get informed, then join the fight!

This week is National School Choice Week and not surprisingly, there is a fair amount of confusion about just what school choice is. Maybe because even in Arizona, (the state the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) rates as #1 for its school choice policies), over 80% of Arizona students actually “choose” their community district schools and therefore don’t pay much attention to the school choice debate. But, that percentage may be at risk since corporate profiteers are well-funded and persistent and continue to purchase influence with lawmakers who chip away at district resources and ease the way for the commercialization of our community schools.

This commercialization has been fed by a lucrative $700 billion education market and the Conservative mantra that all human endeavors placed in the hands of private enterprise succeed, whereas those run by the government do poorly. President Reagan famously quipped after all, “Government is not the solution to our problems; government is the problem.”

I believe though, there are some services that government is best suited for. These include those that provide for our security, safety such as our military, fire and police services, and  yes, those whose mission is to ensure the education of ALL children. Can private entities provide these services? Yes, but from my 22 year experience in the military, they are likely to cost more (contract creep), less likely to serve all equitably, and more likely to be concerned about making a profit than focused on meeting the needs of those they are hired to served.

One thing the private sector does very well though, is spin and marketing and when it comes to privatizing education, they have spin in spades. But facts still matter, and the facts are that: 1) charter schools produce no better results (across the board) than district schools, 2) we don’t know how private schools are performing because they don’t have to tell us (even when they accept taxpayer dollars), and 3) high-quality district schools and widespread, aggressive school choice cannot co-exist; the pie is only so big.

That latter point means that those of us who believe district schools are critical to ensuring every student has equal opportunity, must understand what we are up against. In my advocacy work, I often see we have much work to do in that regard. So, I provide the list of definitions below to further the conversation. If we are to successfully battle the powerful forces attacking our district schools, we must first ensure we are equipped with the right intelligence to strategically bring our limited resources to bear.

  1. Accountability. Conservatives love to talk about accountability for taxpayer dollars until it seems, we are talking about commercial schools (charters and privates.) Arizona statute requires district schools to be fully accountable for the tax dollars that fund them and the academic results they achieve. Those same requirements do not apply to any other type of school in the state and in some cases, state law prohibits such accountability.
  2. Achievement Gap. There are real differences in student’s ability to achieve that have very little to do with the district schools they attend. This term usually refers to disparities in achievement levels of student groups based on race, ethnicity or family income. We already know that poverty and the education attainment of one’s parents are the greatest predictors of a student’s success. We also know that the more challenges a student experiences outside the classroom, the more challenging it is to educate them in the classroom. Commercial schools also know this and that’s why they generally accept fewer of these “at-risk” students.
  3. Administrative Expenses. This term makes some people think about highly paid superintendents and principals. The expenses involved though, include administrative staff and support services (such as school nurse, librarian, speech therapists, etc.); superintendent’s office and governing board; and the business office and central support services. Governor Ducey has focused much attention on the need to decrease district administrative expenses thereby increasing dollars in the classroom even though Arizona has among the lowest administrative expense percentages in the nation, at one-third less than the national average. Additionally, although some see district schools as beaurocratic, charter schools in Arizona actually have double the administrative expenses of district schools.
  4. At-Risk Students. Students or groups that have a higher likelihood of academic failure—broad categories often include those who are: not fluent in English; experience high poverty, homeless, etc.
  5. Average Daily Membership (ADM). The average number of students registered or enrolled (as opposed to in attendance) in a school during the time it is in session. This number is especially important on the 100th day of public schools because it determines the amount of funding the schools receive from the state. Sometimes, charters wait until after this date to attrit students who then return to the district schools. When this happens, the charter keeps the funding associated with that student and the district must educate him/her for the rest of the year without any associated funding.
  6. Blended Learning Programs. These combine online classes and classes taught in a school building. All types of schools (including districts) are using these types of programs along with the “flipped classroom” concept where students watch on-line instruction at home and then do hands-on work at school.
  7. Certification. Process by which a state or approved board authorizes a person to teach in public schools; also called licensure. Important because the state does not require (as they do with districts) for commercial schools to hire certified teachers.
  8. Charter Penetration. The higher the charter penetration, the higher the adverse impact on district finances, as districts are confronted with plummeting student enrollment and with a rising population of students in need of special education services.
  9. Charter Schools. Privately managed, taxpayer-funded “public” schools that contract with the state to provide tuition free educational services and are exempted from some rules applicable to district schools (such as the requirement to hire certified teachers.) They were initially designed to serve as incubators of teacher innovation for exportation to all public schools. Over time, they have become more autocratic, (empowering management versus teachers) and more segregated (by race and income.)
  10. Commercial Schools. A term I use to refer to for-profit charter and private schools in response to the corporate reformers insistence on referring to district schools as “government schools” and, to accurately characterize (in most cases) their profit motive.
  11. Community Schools. District schools located in the communities their students live. Previously referred to as “traditional schools,” these schools are increasingly innovative while continuing to serve as the hubs of their communities.
  12. Corporate Reformers. A term used to describe those who are more seemingly more interested in the profit to be made off the nation’s $700 billion K–12 education market than they are with actually improving the academic and “whole-child” achievement of all our students.
  13. District Schools. These schools were originally known as “public schools” until charters came along, then “traditional public schools.” They are the only schools to be governed by locally elected boards responsive to voters and constituents. They are also the only schools that are fully accountable and transparent to taxpayers for the public funding they receive. They were created as the instrument through which the legislature carries out its constitutional mandate to provide for a system of K–12 public education.
  14. District Charter Schools. For a time, some districts opened charters. In 2015, however, the Arizona Legislature attached a provision to the 2015 state budget prohibiting school districts from sponsoring charters and dissolving those created after June 30, 2013.
  15. Education Management Organizations (EMOs). Usually for-profit firms that provide “whole-school operation” services to public school agencies. EMOs contract with school districts and charter-granting bodies to use tax money and venture capital to operate public schools. The growth and prevalence of EMOs is controversial as they are seen as substantially contributing to the privatization of public education and the associated profiteering from tax dollars supporting that public education.
  16. English Language Learners (ELL). Also known as Limited English Proficient (LEP) students, this term refers to students who are reasonably fluent in another language but who have not yet achieved comparable mastery in reading, writing, understanding, or speaking English. Arizona statute defines “English learner” or “limited English proficient student” as “a child who does not speak English or whose native language is not English, and who is not currently able to perform ordinary classroom work in English.” Per statute, “children who are English learners shall be educated through sheltered English immersion during a temporary transition period not normally intended to exceed one year.”
  17. Empowerment Scholarship Accounts (ESAs). The Arizona Legislature’s answer to vouchers. Currently there are some eight general categories of students that qualify for vouchers ranging from those with disabilities to those living on tribal lands; and as of fall 2016, 0.28% of Arizona’s students were attending private or parochial schools via a voucher. For the second year in a row, legislation is underway (pushed by ALEC’s Arizona Chair Sen. Debbie Lesko) to fully expand eligibility for the vouchers, worth a basic value is $5,200 (special needs students get more), to ALL students in Arizona. The legislation was killed last year to prevent it from impacting Prop. 123’s passage, but it may get legs this year. If passed, it will enable the accellerated drainage of district resources.
  18. Fixed Costs. These are expenses that a district has regardless of the number of students in a classroom. They include administrative and teacher salaries, utilities, facility maintenance, and technology and transportation costs. When students leave district schools to attend charter schools or attend private schools via a voucher, they leave behind approx. 19% of the costs associated with their attendance at that district school. That is important because the corporate profiters would have you believe that the funding should be completely portable because there is no negative impact on district schools.
  19. Free and Reduced Lunch. This term describes the program by which students are provided discounted or free meals while at school based upon their families meeting federal guidelines for poverty. In 2016, 58% of Arizona district school children qualified for free and reduced lunch which is at least 12% more than charter schools. It is generally seen as a more accurate way to describe the poverty challenges present in schools than referring to the Census poverty rate. For example, in my school district, we have a free and reduced lunch percentage of 62%, but because of the active adult communities that surround the district, the Census poverty rate is 14%.
  20. For-Profit Charters. There are both non-profit and for-profit charter schools but in practice, there isn’t much difference. Unlike what many may believe, a non-profit designation does not mean that entity may not make a profit. Rather, it means it uses its surplus revenues to further achieve its purpose or mission, rather than distributing its surplus income to the organization’s shareholders (or equivalents) as profit or dividends.
  21. Government Schools. A perjorative term used by corporate reformers and some school choice advocates to refer to district schools. (In the vein of “government is the problem.”)
  22. Homeschooling. The education of children within the home versus in a school. Although it is difficult to find information on how many children are being homeschooled in Arizona, one source showed it as 22,000 in 2011, or approximately 2% of total students. There are no formal requirements for how students are homeschooled, to do so, all parents must do is send a letter of such intent to their county schools superintendent. Arizona statute does not require homeschooled students to be tested unless that is, they wish to enroll in a district school. Then, they are required to be tested to determine in which grade they should be placed.
  23. Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). A federal funding statute requiring schools that receive monies under this law to provide a free, appropriate public education to all eligible children with disabilities. A specially designed plan for student services called an I.E.P. (Individual Education Plan) must be developed to meet the needs of each eligible student. As can be imagined, students with disabilities cost more to educate and rarely are all the required dollars provided. Commercial schools, as a result, manage to enroll a much smaller percentage of these students.
  24. On-Line Schools. Also known as “virtual” schools, these schools have proliferated with the privatization movement. Online schools provide virtual classes a student takes from home. These schools are notorious for low achievement results, high dropouts and fraudulent operations.
  25. Parochial Schools. A private primary or secondary school affiliated with a religious organization, whose curriculum includes general religious education in addition to secular subjects, such as science, mathematics and language arts. In Arizona, taxpayer dollars are siphoned to these schools through both vouchers and tax credits.
  26. Private Schools. A school supported by a private organization or private individuals rather than by the government. The Merriam-Webster dictionary says a private school is “a school that does not get money from the government and that is run by a group of private individuals.” The Cambridge English Dictionary says a private school is: “a school that does not receive financial support from the government.” I cite these definitions to point out that both of them say private schools are schools that “do not get funding from the government.” In Arizona, taxpayer dollars are siphoned to these schools through both vouchers and tax credits.
  27. Privatization. Giving everything public over to market “forces,” i.e., market rule.
  28. Right to Work. A term that describes the law that prohibits union security agreements, or agreements between employers and labor unions, that govern the extent to which an established union can require employees’ membership, payment of union dues, or fees as a condition of employment, either before or after hiring. I included this term because unlike what people think, Arizona is a right to work state and does not collective bargaining in place for teachers.
  29. School Choice. Billed as the right of parents to select the right school for their child. In reality, when it comes to charter and private schools the choice actually belongs to the schools. Charters, although mandated by law to accept all, manage to be selective of who they accept or, weed out those who aren’t exccelling. Private schools have total control over who they accept.
  30. School Tax Credits. Arizona allows five separate types of tax credits taxpayers may take. There are three individual, one for public schools and two for private schools. It should be noted that the amount that an individual can claim for private schools is five (5) times that which can be claimed for public schools. There are also two types of corporate tax credits that may be taken through school tuition organizations (that award funding to private and parochial schools.) The first one is for corporate contributions for low income students and the other one is for displaced/disadvantaged students.
  31. School Tuition Organization. A School Tuition Organization (STO) is one that is tax exempt under Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code and allocates at least 90% of its annual revenue to tuition awards, and makes its tuition awards available to students from more than one qualified private or parochial school. 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 general fund.
  32. Teacher Shortage. You may have heard about Arizona’s severe teacher shortage. A recent survey of Arizona school districts revealed that a full 53% of teacher positions are either vacant or filled by uncertified teachers. It isn’t so much that we don’t have enough certified, qualified teachers in Arizona, but just that they’ve turned to other types of employment to enable them to support their families.
  33. Transparency. A term related to accountability that describes how open a school is to the scrutiny of parents, taxpayers and voters. Only district schools, governed by locally-elected boards, are fully transparent.

Hopefully these definitions have clarified for you, some of the issues surrounding school choice. If you don’t agree with any of my definitions or, you have additional ones I should add to the list, I’d love to hear from you. If you care about truly public (district) education, the time to show it is now, more than ever. Now, before what Betsy DeVos espouses for educations shifts the Overton Window, (a term coined by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a conservative think tank she supports), on what is acceptable to the public. Now, before the bedrock of our democracy, that which once built the greatest middle class in the world, is auctioned off brick by brick and student by student. Now, before it is too late.