State Sponsored Discrimination

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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They can have their own opinions, but not their own facts

The first session of the 53rd Legislature began yesterday and as we public education advocates “batten down the hatches” and plan our “assaults”, I thought it a good time to provide what I believe are some of the most salient facts about the state of education in Arizona today.

  1. Educational Achievement. The Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Kids Count 2016 report ranks us 44th in the nation, Education Week’s Quality Counts 2016 ranks us 45th, and WalletHub 48th. Might there be a nexus to our other rankings provided below?
  2. Per Pupil Funding. Our K–12 state formula spending (inflation-adjusted), was cut 14.9% from 2008 to 2016 leaving us 48th in the nation.
  3. Propositions. The $3.5 billion Prop. 123 provides over 10 years (only 70% of what voters approved and the courts adjudicated) disappears in 2026. Prop. 301, which includes a 0.6% state sales tax, raises about $600 million per year for schools and self-destructs in 2021. There is now talk of increasing the tax to a full cent which would bring in around $400 million more per year or, adding an additional penny which would up it $1 billion.
  4. Teacher Shortage. We have a critical shortage of teachers willing to work in the classroom with 53% of teacher positions either vacant or filled by an individual who does not meet standard state teacher certification requirements. With 25% of the state’s teachers eligible for retirement by 2020, this problem is only going to get worse. Pay is just one of the reasons teachers are opting out, but with Arizona ranking 45th in terms of teacher salaries against the national average, it is real. In fact, “Arizona’s teachers earn just 62.8% of the salary that other college degree-holders do in the state – the lowest ratio nationwide. WalletHub scored the state the third-worst for teachers in terms of ”job opportunity and competition“ and ”academic & work environment.” Providing them a $10,000 raise (more in line with national averages) would cost the state an additional $600 million.
  5. Voter Support. In a December 2016 poll of Arizona voters, 77% said the state should spend more on education and 61% said they’d be willing to pay higher taxes to do so.
  6. Double-Down Ducey. Our Governor has promised not to raise taxes but to propose a tax cut every year he is in office. This, on top of two decades of tax cuts that equal a cumulative impact on the 2016 general fund of $4 billion in lost revenue. In fact, more than 90% of the decline in revenue since 1992 has resulted from tax cuts versus economic downturn–our troubles ARE NOT a result of the great recession. And, Arizona ranks in the bottom third of states in terms of tax rates.
  7. Good Ideas With No Way to Implement Is Called Philosophy. In her 2017 AZ Kids Can’t Wait plan, Superintendent of Public Instruction Diane Douglas has recommended an additional $680 million in common-sense, no frills funding for public schools but points out it is not her job to appropriate funds and the Governor’s Classrooms First Council spent over a year studying how to modernize the school funding formula only to determine that just rearranging the deck chairs won’t be enough…more money must be provided.
  8. They Owe, They Owe, So Off To Court We Go. Over 20 years ago, the AZ Supreme Court voided the system under which districts were responsible for capital costs because of the “gross inequities” created. The Legislature agreed to have the state assume responsibility for building and maintaining schools but that vanished under Governor Brewer’s time as a budget-saving maneuver leaving us back where we started. In fact from 2008 to 2012, districts only received about 2% of the funding they needed for renovations and repair of school facilities and the problem continues. A new lawsuit is in the works.
  9. It’s For The Poor Kids…NOT! Arizona’s educational tax credit (individual and corporate) and the Student Tuition Organizations (STOs) that funnel the monies to private and parochial schools will deny the AZ General Fund of almost $67 million in revenue in 2016/17 (the maximum allowed.) Due to a 20% allowable increase each year, the cap for corporate tax credits will be $662 million by 2030. By way of comparison, the total corporate income tax revenue for FY 2015 was only $663 million. And yet, even in 2011, As many as two-thirds of Arizona corporations paid almost no state income tax partially as a result of the program which predominantly serves students whose parents could afford the private schools without taxpayer assistance. Just for the original individual tax credit for example, 8 STOs awarded over half of their scholarship funding in 2014 to students whose families had incomes above $80,601. By the same token, Arizona’s voucher program (Empowerment Scholarship Accounts) is billed as the way for disadvantaged students in failing schools to have more opportunity. Truth is, in the 2015/16 school year ESAs drained $20.6 million from  district schools rated “A” or “B”are and only $6.3 million from schools rated C or D. Besides, the mere existence of school choice in whatever form it takes does not in itself provide access and opportunity. As Charles Tack, spokesman for AZ Department of Education said, “The economic situation of a family will always factor in.”
  10. Want A Voice? Stick With Where You Have a Vote! Parental and taxpayer oversight and voice is vastly greater in district schools with locally-elected governing boards, annual state-run audits, annual Auditor General reports on school efficiencies, AzMERIT test score results, and other required reporting. Commercial schools (charters and privates) do not have the same requirements for certified teachers and transparency and accountability; nor are they required to provide taxpayers any information regarding return on investment.
  11. Apples and Oranges. Commercial schools do not – across the board – perform better than do our district schools. Yes, there are pockets of excellence, but those exist in district schools as well. Comparisons are difficult to make because the playing field is not level, with commercial schools often managing to pick the cream of the crop while district schools take all comers. A key point to note though, is that charter schools spend double the amount on administration than districts.
  12. A Great Start Is Critical For All Kids. Full-day kindergarten is essential to ensure every child (especially those who are disadvantaged) has a more equal footing on which to start their education. In today’s fast paced, global economy, preschool is also critical and has been proven to provide as much return on investment as $7 for every $1 spent. Restoring all-day kindergarten statewide would cost an additional $240 million. We’ve had it before incidentally. In 2006, Napolitano made a deal with legislative leadership for all-day kindergarten in exchange for a 10% cut in individual income tax. Four years later, the Legislature cut full-day kindergarten but the reduction in taxes still exists.
  13. District Schools and School Choice Cannot Co-Exist. When students trickle out to commercial schools, almost 1/5 of the expense associated with educating them remains despite the district’s total loss of the revenue. And while private school enrollment dropped two percent from 2000 to 2012, tax credits claimed for the students has increased by 287%. This, while public school enrollment increased 24.1% during that same time but state appropriations (from General Fund, State Land Funprivate-public-school-fundingds, and Prop. 301 monies) decreased by 10%.

It is clear there are several current and looming crises in Arizona K–12 education. And yet, Senator Debbie Lesko (R), has been quoted as saying, “Balancing the budget is always the most important work of the state legislature.” Really? That’s why the people of Arizona elect our state lawmakers? I don’t think so. Rather, I think we want them to ensure our children receive a quality education, that our roads are safe to drive and our water is safe to drink, and that our police and other first responders protect us from danger. In short, we want the Legislature to ensure appropriate capability to provide for the common good and we send them to Phoenix to figure out how to do that. Yes, they are mandated to balance the budget but, I would argue, that isn’t their raison d’être.

Arizona voters have made it clear they are willing to pay higher taxes to provide more funding to our public schools unfortunately, not enough have made the connection between a lack of funding for public education and the legislators they elect that are causing that problem. Yes, the prohibition to raising the required revenue is pain self-inflicted by our Governor and GOP-led Legislature. And, we need only look to Kansas to see that cutting taxes to attract companies to our state is a race to the bottom. I guarantee over the long haul, quality companies prefer a well-educated workforce and good quality of life for their employees over tax cuts.

In his State of the State address yesterday, Governor Ducey said, “I have a commitment our educators can take to the bank: starting with the budget I release Friday, I will call for an increased investment in our public schools – above and beyond inflation – every single year I am governor.” What is notable about this statement is his reference to “public schools” and, the fact that he followed it up with the statement that “we won’t raise taxes.” Promising support for public schools isn’t the same thing as promising it for district schools. In fact, some lawmakers now equate the term “public schools” to mean any school that accepts taxpayer dollars.

Let me be clear. I believe any promise to provide significant additional monies to public education without a willingness to raise additional revenue, is total bullshit. The pie is only so big and there are only four basic ways to significantly increase its size. Either corporate tax cuts are curtailed, additional taxes are levied, funding meant for other purposes is siphoned off or, important programs are cut. Senator Steve Smith (LD11-R) who sits on the Senate’s education committee, suggested funding could be found by moving money away from state programs “that may not be working so well.” Perhaps he was thinking of Child Protective Services which has continued to flounder and endanger children (primarily because sufficient resources have not been provided) even after Governor Ducey promised fixes when he first took office in 2015?

Arizona simply cannot move the educational needle without a significant additional investment in our district schools. These schools are where close to 85% of Arizona’s students are receiving their education, doesn’t it make sense that this is where we should dedicate the majority of our funding and efforts?

“Someone to Shine Our Shoes”

In a recent article titled “Chartered Cruise” on knpr.org, the author Hugh Jackson wrote: “Today’s charter industry, much like Nevada’s voucher plan, reflects a chronic civic defeatism. Echoing the perverse social Darwinism of more than a century ago, faith in free-market education is surrender to pessimism. Society really isn’t incapable of providing a fair educational opportunity to every citizen. Some people are doomed to fail, that’s just the way it is, so best to segregate those with promise, the achievers, in separate schools. As for everyone else, well, too bad for them.” Of course, this attitude isn’t confined to only Nevada; I have a real life example of it right here in Arizona. Three or so years ago, an acquaintance of mine asked an Arizona Senator whether or not he supported public education. He replied, “of course I do, we need someone to shine our shoes.”

It’s bad enough the Senator thought this, let alone that he said it out loud to a public education advocate. That says as much about the voter contempt some of our lawmakers hold (especially when the voter is from a different party) as it does what they think of public education. As the primary water carrier for the American Legislative Exchange Council’s (ALEC), the Arizona Legislature has led the nation in efforts to offer school choice options. Proponents tout school choice as the way to help disadvantaged children, but truth is, they’ve already written these children off. Instead, school choice is really about resegregation (the highest we’ve seen since the mid 1960s) and profiteering.

The school choice and education privatization movement gives me great pause because:

  1. The vast majority of our students (85%) are attending significantly underfunded district schools;
  2. Taxpayer dollars are increasingly being siphoned off to profiteers with very little (if any) accountability and transparency;
  3. The claim of school choice proponents that school choice provides much better results, either isn’t backed up by facts, or is an oranges and pineapple comparison;
  4. Voucher and charter schools actually provide parents less choice than district schools.

Allow me to explain. By now, most Arizonans probably know our state is 48th in per pupil funding. Even if the $3.5 billion infusion from Prop 123 is approved by voters this month, it won’t move us from 48th place in overall per pupil funding. To move up just one notch (above Oklahoma), we’d have to give out districts twice that much. That’s how far behind Arizona is.

As for the lack of accountability and transparency in Arizona’s school choice programs, for-profit companies dominate the charter school movement.  These companies do not have school boards, let alone locally elected boards and are not required to disclose the details of their business operations. As for private schools that take Empowerment Scholarship Account (voucher) or Student Tuition Organization tax credit dollars, there is no way for taxpayers to determine funding efficacy. Private school students are not required to take state assessments nor provide any academic results. Neither are private schools required to disclose any information regarding their business operations.

Then, there’s the apple and oranges comparison. Irrespective of the law requiring charter schools to accept all students, it is a well documented fact that most manage to steer clear of special needs and English language learning students and that they manage to attrit (at incredibly high rates) students of color or those on the lower end of the socio-economic scale. Of course, when these students return to the district schools, it is often after the 100th day of the school year, when the average daily attendance has been calculated and the charter school has cemented the funding for the year for that student. The district school is forced to absorb that same student for the rest of the year with no compensation.

Finally, district schools are run by locally elected governing boards that are accountable to the community. School district residents have the right to be present at board meetings and have their voice heard. They also have a right to know how their tax money is spent. Charters and private schools are run by executive boards not accountable and often not responsive to parents. If you aren’t happy with the way they are being run, your only recourse is to withdraw your child.

The myth perpetuated by those bent on destroying pubic district education is that district schools are failing and that privatization in various forms is the answer. The reality says that school choice will never be the answer for the vast majority. The evidence also shows despite charters and private schools being much more selective of their students, most charters and almost all cyber charters do worse than their district schools. We don’t really know how private schools do since they aren’t required to provide any information about results.

The movement to privatize public education is straight from the GOP playbook on reducing government. As President Reagan said in his first inaugural address: “Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” That might have been a good sound bite for the right, but I believe concentrated, unchecked power is the problem. Our system works best when we have a balance of power that ensures all sides are heard and produces compromises to come up with the best possible solution. It also works best when government provides for the public good and checks and balances are put in place to ensure efficiencies and effectiveness of both the public and private sectors where taxpayer dollars are involved. Those checks and balances are lacking in school choice options and taxpayers are paying the price. Examples abound of virtual (on-line) school scams, greedy charter school operators, and even illegal purchases with voucher dollars. No, district schools are not entirely immune from fraud, but at least they have locally elected school boards responsible to the taxpayer for oversight and the state conducts annual audits. Neither of these happens when taxpayer dollars fund school choice options.

The original intent of charter schools was to provide teachers greater flexibility to experiment with new ways to educate students. Charters were not meant to compete with or replace district schools, but rather complement them. Now, charters and vouchers have become a way for state legislatures to deflect their responsibility to provide a quality public education for all. When funding follows the child, it becomes the parent’s responsibility to ensure a quality education. School choice also allows our lawmakers to obfuscate the real problem, poverty and all the challenges it brings to our district schools.  Of course, the focus on school choice creates demand which causes funding loss in districts, making it harder for them to excel and reinforces the message that they are failing. The truth is, that despite significant funding shortfalls, severe teacher shortages and crumbling infrastructure, our district schools continue to do well. It makes one wonder what miracles could be achieved if they received the funding and support currently being siphoned off to charters and private schools.

The one thing I know for sure is that until we elect new pro-public education candidates, nothing is going to change. We will continue to see efforts to take the brakes off vouchers, create laws more favorable to charter schools, and attempts to de-professionalize the teaching profession. We have the power to create change; the only question that remains is do we have the will? Prop 123 has raised the level of attention to the challenges of our district schools. Many have been vocal on both sides of the issue. Let’s come together on May 19th at 4 pm for a Pro-Public Education Rally to tell our Legislature that enough is enough, we are done with them short-changing our kids and our state’s future! #ItStartsNow #YouPlusOne #RememberInNovember

A million here, a million there, pretty soon we’re talking real money…

Yesterday, I was listening to NPR and heard a story about how Arizona House Bill, HB2128 just passed the third read and was transmitted to the Senate. This bill allows those who lease land to churches to claim a tax exemption as a result. The law change will result in an additional $2.1 million from the state’s general fund ending up in private coffers instead. Yet another example of our representatives looking out for the privileged few versus the average Arizonan.

Okay, $2.1 million isn’t all that much compared to a state budget of about $9 billion, but it all adds up. I started thinking what our district schools could do with $2.1 million. Again, just a drop in the bucket compared to what has been shortchanged our schools over the last few years, but it would help us begin to make a dent in the need.

Although my primary focus tends to be early childhood education when discussing where to apply resources, $2.1 million wouldn’t even begin to address the need. Arizona does not fund full-day kindergarten, let alone preschool, so although I believe quality early childhood education is critical to improved outcomes, I also recognize it will take some real political courage and time to get us there.

When considering mission success in the Air Force, we were taught to consider what limiting factors (LIMFACS) could impact our chances. The fact that poor children start school having heard as many as 30 million fewer words than their wealthier counterparts is a significant LIMFAC that quality preschool can help address. Another LIMFAC in Arizona is our significant shortage of school counselors. Arizona does not mandate school counselors, but their benefit is well documented.[i] They work as a team with school staff, parents and the community to help all children achieve academic success by providing education, prevention, early identification and intervention.[ii] “Counselors generally spend 80 percent of their time with students, and the remainder of their time collaborating with teachers implementing Arizona’s College and Career Ready Standards, supporting testing, and using test data to create, monitor and evaluate student academic interventions. Helping students develop strong interpersonal skills, and identify and cope with social, emotional and mental health issues is an equally important part of the job, at all grade levels, and one being felt more acutely in some parts of the state.”[iii] The downturn in the economy created significant stressors for families, especially in rural areas and a school counselor can really help bridge the gaps.

Sadly, Arizona leads the nation (only California has a higher ratio) in counselor to student ratio. The American School Counselor Association recommends a 1:250 counselor to student ratio. The national average in the 2010-2011 school year was 1:471 and the Arizona average was 1:861.[iv] Why is this important? To understand how significant this is, one needs only to look at the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s “Kids Count Databook” which ranks states in four categories (economic well-being, education, health, and family and community) to determine child well-being within each state. For 2014, Arizona ranked 46th in the nation overall and 44th in education. [v]

Obviously, Arizona’s children have significant stressors placed on them. Counselors in schools can do much to help identify and address these stressors before they manifest themselves in a variety of less than desirable ways. After the Sandy Hook shootings, there was much discussion in Arizona and around the nation about putting school resource officers (cops) back in schools or even more drastic, arming teachers. Under the guise of “an ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure”, I believe our efforts and money would have been much better spent on ensuring every school had a counselor.

So, back to the $2.1 million the AZ Legislature just gave away to wealthy property owners. Assuming a counselor costs a school district about $60K (with benefits), the $2.1 million the legislators just voted to siphon out of the general fund could pay for 35 school counselors. Granted, that would only meet about 3.5 percent of the additional need, considering Arizona’s deficit just to meet the national average versus the idea. But, it is a start. In my small school district (about 450 students) our administrators, teachers and staff are stretched thin. Both the superintendent and the principal also teach advanced math classes, must provide coverage for student watch duties and, the principal is the grant writer for the district. It is hard for them to be everywhere at once and a counselor would go a long way to ensuring the health and well being of all students.

The Arizona Legislature is marching steadily on in their assault on public education. Their refusal to look for additional revenue, while also finding new ways to divert taxpayer dollars from the public sector to the private sector continues to widen the gap between the haves and the have-nots and is not producing better outcomes for the majority of Arizonans. We, the public, really must wake up and demand better. Of the people, by the people, for the people. The common denominator in all that is “the people.” If we aren’t involved, we can’t complain. The bottom line is that we get the government we deserve.

[i] http://www.schoolcounselor.org/school-counselors-members/careers-roles/state-school-counseling-mandates-and-legislation

[ii] http://www.schoolcounselor.org/school-counselors-members/careers-roles/why-elementary-school-counselors

[iii] http://azednews.com/2014/03/31/arizona-students-access-to-school-counselors-decreases-while-need-increases/

[iv] http://www.schoolcounselor.org

[v] http://www.aecf.org/m/databook/aecf-2014kidscountdatabook-rankings-2014.pdf

Angry About the Apathy

Ever since election day, I’ve been very frustrated about the low voter turnout. After working very hard on two state legislative campaigns for the better part of a year, it is very disheartening to see how few people really care.  This is somewhat understandable when times are good. But how can the average Arizonan be happy with our current state of affairs?

I have to believe people voted or not based on their perceptions of who can deliver a better result.  “Perceptions” is the key word here.  I just have to say that the Regressives may have their own opinions, but they don’t get to have their own facts. Let’s just take a look at a few the myths they work hard to make us believe:

1. Trickle down hasn’t worked and doesn’t work.  The stats are clear, we have the biggest divide between the rich and poor we’ve ever seen.

2. Today’s wealthiest aren’t by and large job creators.   Hedge fund managers don’t contribute to our country’s economic well-being the way Henry Ford did.

3.  Charter schools and private school vouchers aren’t for the disadvantage children.  The vast majority of them won’t be able to go to them.

4.  Tax cutting our way to success just won’t work. Kansas anyone?

5.  The economy is recovering, but not for the average American and not at the pace it should.  With the wealthiest 40 Americans having more wealth than the bottom half of our population, the few richest just can’t buy enough houses, cars and appliances to move our economic engine forward.

We’ve all heard the saying “the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.”  Sounds like the AZ legislature in recent years.

But, I place the real blame for our current state of affairs on all those people who didn’t vote.  Many of these same people have the most reason to vote because they are most adversely affected by the trickle down philosophy the Regressives continue to push.  How anyone can believe voting can’t make a difference is beyond me.  Just think if Ron Barber had been successful in convincing only 167 more Democrats in two counties to get up off their butts and vote for him.

Yes, money in politics has always been an issue and now is a very mega major player in our electoral system.  At the end of the day though, each voter owns their own vote to use how they see fit.  If the rich and powerful exert undue influence on any of us, it is our own fault.

 

 

 

 

At the table, or on the menu?

I don’t think the average American begrudges wealth, not even great wealth. What we don’t like is when the wealthy get that way by ignoring the rules and playing unfairly. After all, the American Dream said that if you worked hard and played by the rules, you could end up better than where you started. With the deck increasingly stacked against the average Joe though, that dream is no longer a reality for most.

One example of the deck being stacked is the full-steam-ahead drive to privatize public education in Arizona. Oh sure. The “reformers” try to claim this is about giving parents choice and helping the most disadvantaged children. Just a little digging though uncovers it is really about helping the rich get richer.

Arizona has been a leader in school privatization since 1997 when the legislature first began pushing personal tax credits and “voucher” workarounds. Now, there are Empowerment Scholarship Accounts (ESAs), Student Tuition Organizations (STOs), and individual tax credits. An attempt to expand ESA eligibility from approximately 20 percent to over 70 percent last year was thwarted at the last minute, but you can bet the proponents will be pushing it again this year.

Why the big push for privatization in Arizona? Mostly, because Arizona is one of the leading water carriers for the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC.) ALEC is comprised of both corporate and legislative members who work in tandem to create and then legislate laws favorable to business. ESAs are an ALEC sponsored initiative, as are STOs. “ALEC-member legislators are unabashedly continuing to push legislation straight from corporate headquarters to Arizona’s law books,” said Marge Baker, Executive Vice President at People For the American Way Foundation. “Well-heeled special interests are circumventing the democratic system and bypassing Arizona’s citizens, who can’t match the level of access that ALEC provides. As a result, Arizonans are facing an endless assault from laws that serve the interests of the rich and powerful instead of everyday people.”

As Paul Horton writes in Blogs.EdWeek.org, “toward this end, public schools and public teachers have been subjected to a relentless barrage of negative propaganda for almost thirty years. Many corporations want to force open education markets, Microsoft and Pearson Education to name two of the largest, demand “free markets,” “choice,” and “free enterprise.” Public schools are defunded and closed, so that parents can choose among competing charter schools supported by city, state, and Federal policies. Politicians of both parties at every level are funneled campaign contributions from charter school investors for their support of “school choice.””

Of course, it all comes down to money. Money to be saved by the state, and money to be made by profiteers. Unfortunately, when profit becomes the driving factor, children become collateral damage. Already in the United States, students in the top quartile of family income have an 85% chance of going to college, compared to 8% of those in the bottom quartile. Although it used to be true in America that your children would likely end up better off than you had been, that is no longer the case. In Arizona, children have an uphill battle as evidenced by the state’s ranking of 46th in child well-being by the Annie E. Casey Foundation in its 2014 Kids Count Data Book. On top of that, Arizona has seen the nation’s highest percentage increase (77 percent) in college costs in the past five years, brought about by the most drastic cuts to higher-education funding.

Now, ALEC is poised to muddy the water even more with an assault on public universities in the form of their Affordable Baccalaureate Degree Act. This model legislation will require all four-year public universities to offer bachelor’s degrees costing no more than $10,000. To get there, the universities would need to capitalize on efficiencies provide by web-based technology and competency-based programs. If ALEC members endorse the bill, they will begin circulating and promoting it in state legislatures while, no doubt, continuing to starve the schools of funding.

These policy directions aren’t about making things work better for the citizens of Arizona and other states, they are about making money for corporations. In fact, “deep cuts in funding for schools undermine school quality in part because they limit and stymie the ability of states to implement reforms that have been shown to result in better outcomes for students, including recruiting better teachers, reducing class sizes, and extending student learning time.”

Out of one side of their mouth, the politicians say we must send everyone to college so we can be “globally competitive,” but out of the other, they vote for continued cuts in education funding which almost assuredly ensure only advantaged kids will get there. Diane Ravitch asks: “How will we compete with nations that pay workers and professionals only a fraction of what Americans expect to be paid and need to be paid to have a middle-class life? How can we expect more students to finish college when states are shifting college costs onto individuals and burdening them with huge debt? How can we motivate students to stay in college when so many new jobs in the next decade–retail clerks, fast-food workers, home health aides, janitors, construction workers, truck drivers, etc.–do not require a college degree? (The only job in the top ten fastest growing occupations that requires a college degree is registered nurse.)”

These are big questions that demand serious solutions, not single dimensional responses designed to benefit a fortunate few. The only way to ensure the right outcome, is to ensure the right players are in the game. Educators, administrators, school board members, parents, community leaders, and business people must all engage to help us change course before the promise of education as a great equalizer becomes ancient history. As Michael Enzi , senior U.S. Senator from Wyoming once said, “if you’re not on the table, you’re on the menu.