"AZ spends less in classrooms" awarded prize for best misleading headline

Cross-posted from SkyIslandScriber.com

The prize was awarded this morning by your Scriber. The headline was on the lead front page article in the paper version of the Daily Star. The on-line version had a similar title: Arizona spending in classrooms declines year over year. Both come from the report by Howard Fischer in the Arizona Capitol Times (subscription required): K–12 classroom spending reaches all-time low. All those headlines are correct. And all are misleading.

The short of it is that schools have two pots of money. One pot goes to cover costs of classroom instruction. The other pot goes to cover fixed costs of running a school: bus maintenance, physical facility upkeep, social workers, counselors, and, yes, administrators responsible for keeping all that from coming apart. If you cut the school’s budget, or let it functionally be cut by not keeping up with inflation, then the fixed costs consume a larger part of the budget and the classroom costs take a hit.

To be fair, Fischer explained this and more in his report. For example, he cites data showing that AZ schools are not particularly inefficient when compared to national averages. But that is not the take-away message from the headlines.

My beef is with the folks who write the headlines that are only partly correct. The voucher vultures are bound to swoop down to pick at the carcass of public schools while screeching about supposed inefficiencies and citing the misleading headlines.

The Presidential Poisoner

Cross-posted from skyislandscriber.com.

Alexander George, writing for the NY Times column The Stone, characterizes President Trump as Our Forger-in-Chief. Trump’s continual assault on the tools of rational thought and civil deliberation undermines our ability to distinguish fact from fiction and thus is a clear and present danger of the sort seen before only in authoritarian regimes such as Hitler’s Germany of the 1930s.

“Alexander George (@AlexanderGeorge) teaches philosophy at Amherst College. He runs Ask Philosophers, a website where anyone can pose questions to philosophers.” As such, he makes philosophical arguments about Trump’s “poisoning the well” of our sources of knowledge: science and the news media. I want to make the case differently. Please indulge my one-time, teen-age aspiration to be the Great American Novelist as I outline my crime thriller The Presidential Poisoner.

I would begin by researching what is known about the psychology of poisoners. A Psychological Profile of a Poisoner appeared in Psychology Today in 2012 with the subtitle Serial Murder By Subterfuge. Here are excerpts.

Killing someone with poison, by it’s very nature, requires careful planning and subterfuge, so it comes as no surprise that poisoners tend to be cunning, sneaky, and creative (they can design the murder plan in as much detail as if they were writing the script for a play). Male or female, they tend to avoid physical confrontation and, instead, rely on verbal and emotional manipulation to get what they want from others.

Convicted poisoners also tend to have a sense of inadequacy, for which they compensate through a scorn for authority, a strong need for control, wish-fulfillment fantasies, and a self-centered, exploitive interpersonal style. Often either spoiled as a child or raised in an unhappy home, some experts liken the poisoner’s personality to an incorrigible child whose immature desire for his/her own way leads him/her to try to control and manipulate the world. It’s as if the poisoner never grew up and is determined to take what s/he wants just as a child would from a candy store. Developmentally stunted, other people are viewed without empathy and the poisoner’s internal compass is guided instead by greed or lust rather than morals. And, because poison is often not detected initially, the power and control poisoners experience with success tends to increase his or her confidence in future endeavors.

Given that 1 out of 5 verified murders by poisoning is never solved, it’s hard to draw a definitive psychological profile of the typical poisoner. Those who’ve been caught and convicted give us some clues – clever, sneaky, emotionally immature, methodical, and self-centered. Many of them are amazingly skilled at pretending to be something they’re not – a doting husband, caring nurse, or devoted friend. Behind the mask, though, lies a psyche that is propelled by childish needs and unencumbered by moral restraints.

Then the task as novelist is to imagine a poisoner operating on a national and even international scale. Because the poisoner in this piece of fiction has a “psyche that is propelled by childish needs and unencumbered by moral restraints”, it is easy to imagine how such an individual would crave adulation and approval of the masses. It is just as easy to imagine how such an individual would be easily manipulated by some foreign power with motives inimical to our national security.

What could actually be poisoned on a national scale that could bring down our country? Try the food supply. We live almost day to day in dependence on the integrity of our production and distribution of food via grocery stores big and small, general and special. What if we collectively came to believe that all our food stuffs were no longer safe to consume? What nation-wide mayhem would ensue? You think lines at the gas pump were disturbing? Try hundreds of millions of people fighting for the last scrap of safe food on nearly empty shelves. And all this could be done just by an authority figure claiming that the food supply was unsafe – with no credible supporting evidence. You don’t have to poison a well in order to get people to avoid it.

And that brings us back to the present. Trump and his advisors and supporters are in the process of poisoning the well of our knowledge. If that well cannot be trusted, then the people will no longer drink from it. The foreign power, as in my novel, does not have to directly confront us to do us profound damage. That hideous strength just needs to make us believe that our well of knowledge is poison.

Alexander George, after his philosophical analysis, explains.

There is a lesson here about the lurking dangers of Donald Trump’s rhetoric and that of his minions. Citizens in a technologically advanced liberal democracy must rely on its scientific community to deliver disinterested information upon which to base their decisions about the policies they would have their elected representatives enact. Citizens are also highly dependent on a probing press to help them judge the performance of their elected representatives. Trump, first as a national candidate and now from the pulpit of the presidency, has not ceased to deny and denigrate the findings of scientific bodies concerning the rate and causes of climate change. In addition, he regularly calumnies individual members of the press and vilifies entire news organizations. They are dismissed as purveyors of “fake news” — a label Descartes’s skeptic might have been delighted to apply to the allegedly untrustworthy deliverances of our sense organs.

This behavior is not merely offensive and outrageous. The real problem is that it is dangerous: It poses an existential threat to our democracy. These attacks poison the wells of reasoned public discourse, a prerequisite for a functioning democracy. The problem is not merely that we are being fed a falsehood here, a lie there, though that would be problem enough. The issue is rather that by destroying the citizenry’s confidence in the institutions of science and the press, we risk being deprived of the tools needed to assess what to believe and want. If we cannot trust what vetted scientists or professional journalists tell us, then we will have been rendered rationally impotent. It is damaging to be fed falsehoods or to be outright lied to, but it is utterly debilitating to be deprived of the resources by which to sort fact from fiction.

Descartes’s skeptic is a traitor to knowledge: His threats are not directed piecemeal but instead to the entire enterprise of coming to know how things are. The assaults on science and the press by Trump and his followers are not local eruptions of deceit and mendacity but a well-poisoning assault on public rational discourse, a prerequisite for a healthy democracy.

Perhaps I should retitle my novel Putin’s Presidential Poisoner.

Notes and credits

New York Times: The Stone
A forum for contemporary philosophers and other thinkers on issues both timely and timeless. The series moderator is Simon Critchley, who teaches philosophy at The New School for Social Research.

From Wikipedia
That Hideous Strength “(subtitled A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-Ups) is a 1945 novel by C. S. Lewis, the final book in Lewis’s theological science fiction Space Trilogy. … The story involves an ostensibly scientific institute, the N.I.C.E., which is a front for sinister supernatural forces.” I recommend it as being still relevant 72 years later.

Something Borrowed, Something Blue

Let me be clear from the onset that I am “borrowing” this article. In fact unless the words are in bold italics, they are hers, not mine. I’m hoping the author, Athens Banner-Herald columnist Myra Blackmon, a resident of Washington, Ga., sees my “borrowing” as the “sincerest form of flattery. I chose to use her piece titled “School vouchers raise too many questions,” because I found it both very well written and remarkable in that I needed only change the state name and some of the numbers to make it apply to Arizona.

With the confirmation of Betsy DeVos as U.S. secretary of education, we can expect to see a flurry of new “initiatives” designed to address the so-called education problem in our country. For the moment, let’s set aside the relationship of poverty and poor academic achievement. Ignore for a moment the fact that our schools are actually performing pretty well.

We will likely see a renewed push for voucher programs, where parents can supposedly take the tax money allocated for their children and use it to enroll them in private, religious or charter schools, many of which are combinations of those categories.

If I believed vouchers would improve educational outcomes for Arizona’s poorest children, I would be the first to jump on that bandwagon. The reality is that even vouchers aren’t likely to improve the lives of the 421,000 Arizona children who live in poor or low-income families, despite efforts of reformers to convince us otherwise.

First, the average worth of  $5,600 for mainstream students that vouchers provide just isn’t enough to fully fund private school tuition. I chose not to spend an hour looking at websites (as Myra did) of private schools in all parts of the state to determine the range of tuition, but did find a school in Phoenix that charges $24,000 a year, and the average school tuition is almost $6,000 for elementary, and $18,000 for high school. Does this even seem possible for a disadvantaged child, even if a scholarship is available?

Second, not all non-public schools are open to all children. The majority of private schools in Arizona are religious schools, many of which set very strict standards for admission that have little or nothing to do with academic potential. They would exclude children from families of same-sex couples, or families whose moral standards are, in the judgment of the school, not consistent with the school’s values. That might exclude children whose parents are not married, or who were behavioral problems at their previous school.

Third, few private schools provide special education. Of those that do, many limit that special education to mild learning disabilities, or limit them to mild ADHD or other learning differences. Many private special education schoolsdon’t address severe or complex disabilities. Only public schools are required to meet all those needs. In fact, when Arizona parents pull their children out of district schools to educate them with a voucher, they must waive their rights under federal special education  law.”

Fourth, even if a voucher covered tuition at a private school, it would be almost impossible to include allowances for additional fees that would allow the poorest children to attend. Lab fees, textbooks, materials fees and technology fees add up. I found more than one school where those items quickly totaled more than $1,000 a year. And that didn’t include trips – sometimes mission trips in religious schools – or athletic fees, which also ran into the thousands of dollars. What about these costs?

Fifth, about 10 percent of Arizona’s schools are rural schools…with some children on buses more than 60 minutes each way every day. And those are the public schools. Private schools can be even more distant. For public schools, transportation is provided. Bus fees for private schools could run several hundred dollars a year. Who covers this?

And what about homeless students? According to New Leaf, a mesa non-profit human services organization, about 3 percent of Arizona students – nearly 30,000 children – were homeless in 2016. In fact, the National Center on Family Homelessness ranks Arizona as worst for risk of child homelessness. Do you really see these children as able to take advantage of vouchers?

Seventh, I found listings for many private religious schools that enroll fewer than 100 students and have only two or three teachers. Would a voucher to such a school improve a student’s chances over even the most poorly resourced public school? I doubt it.

The bottom line is that vouchers help middle-class families who can almost-but-not-quite afford private school tuition. Those are also the children who score best on standardized tests.

Vouchers help segregate those families from the poor and different in their communities. They isolate students from daily contact with needy families or children from unusual families. Some charge their students for “mission” work, which is a completely different dynamic in relationships with people different from us.

I simply do not see how vouchers for private schools, unregulated and not accountable to any elected officials, can do anything but set up our public schools as the place for the poorest, neediest and most severely disabled students.

That is wrong. I know it. You know it. Yes we do Myra, and that’s what the “something blue” in the title of this post refers to. This kind of misery shouldn’t have any kind of company. 

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.

Happy Valentines Day…NOT!

On this Valentine’s Day, I thought I’d ask, when it comes to our public schools students in Arizona, “who loves you baby?”  Yesterday, I was listening in on the AZ House Education Committee meeting. There were many bills on the agenda, but I was primarily interested in HB 2394; empowerment scholarship accounts [ESAs]; expansion; phase-in. I wasn’t hopeful the bill would die, as its companion bill SB 1431, had already been given a due-pass by the Senate Education Committee. As expected, HB 2394 followed suit on a 6–5 vote as did HB 2465, which will allow all students eligible for an ESA account to remain on the program until age 22 and for up to $2,000 a year to be put into a 529 savings account.

The passage of these bills, along with the companion ones in the Senate, demonstrate the disdain many GOP legislators have for our district schools and, for the underpaid educators who toil within. This, because ESAs divert more general fund revenue per student to private schools than district schools receive. As reported by the Arizona School Boards Association, an ESA student, on average, costs the state general fund $1,083 more in grades K–8, and $1,286 more in grades 9–12 than a district student. This is in part because there are many school districts that enjoy a fair amount of locally controlled support in the way of overrides and bonds. The state therefore, is relieved of providing equalization funding to them, but when students leave to go to private schools, all the funding must come from the state general fund. ESA students also receive charter additional assistance funding of roughly $1,200 per student, which district schools do not receive. Turns out that the claim of voucher proponents that they save the state money, is not just “alternative facts” but totally untrue. And, although voucher proponents love to claim there is no harm to district schools when students take their funding and leave, the truth is that about 19 percent of a districts costs are fixed (teacher salaries, transportation, facility repair and maintenance, utilities) and can’t be reduced with each student’s departure.

I am slightly encouraged though by the two Republican members on the House Education Committee who had the courage to stand up and do the right thing. Huge kudos to Representatives Doug Coleman and Michelle Udall who voted against the voucher expansion! I encourage each of you to email them and let them know how much you appreciate their show of support for the one million public school students in Arizona’s district schools. What also gives me hope, is the 400 plus people and their almost seven pages of 10-font, single spaced comments made against the bill in the Arizona Legislature’s Request to Speak System. Here’s a word cloud of the comments:

esa-wordcloud

This is compared to the 30 people who signed in to Request to Speak in favor of the bill. The vast majority of whom represent organizations in favor of commercialization of district schools such as The Goldwater Institute, Americans for Prosperity, Center for Arizona Policy, AZ Catholic Conference, AZ Chamber of Commerce and the American Federation for Children.

So, why these organizations? Well, let’s see. According to its website, the Goldwater Institute is a “national leader for constitutionally limited government.” Corporate reformers love to paint district schools as “government” schools, making them just another one of the targets to shrink the government, or as Grover Norquist said, “get it down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub.” The Goldwater Institute also works closely with the corporate bill mill, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) to promote conservative corporate agendas (such as commercialization of district schools) in Arizona.

Cathi Herrod and her Center for Arizona Policy (CAP) have long pushed school choice. CAP’s website states the belief that, “Religious freedom is affirmed and protected, free from government interference.” Of course, they are for vouchers. They would love for every student in Arizona to attend religious schools on the taxpayer’s dime.

Americans for Prosperity is a conservative political advocacy group funded by the Koch brothers. On their website they write, “at the very top of AFP-Arizona’s 2017 legislative agenda is the expansion of our state’s program of parental choice Empowerment Scholarship Accounts (ESAs).” They also encourage their supporters to thank Senators Flake and McCain for voting to confirm Betsy DeVos.

It should be no surprise to anyone that the AZ Catholic Conference is also interested in fully expanding voucher eligibility. Around the nation, Catholic schools have been closing at rapid rate, from 13,000 schools enrolling 12 percent of U.S. school children in the mid–1960s, to about 7,000 schools enrolling five percent in 2012. In 2015 alone, 88 Catholic schools closed. But, a tax credit program highly favorable to private and parochial schools has helped stem previous losses in Arizona but charters are still causing them much competition for students. There are now 73 Roman Catholic private schools in Arizona and six of them are among the most expensive private schools in the Phoenix area charging from $13,300 to $17,712 per year in tuition. A $5,200 voucher obviously won’t help poor students get into these schools, but it will be a nice offset for those wealthy enough to afford the schools irrespective of the help. The average cost for private schools in Arizona by the way is about $6,000 at the elementary level and $18,000 at the high school level.

As for the Arizona Chamber of Commerce, let’s not forget how their President and CEO, Glenn Hamer, recently characterized teachers as “crybabies” for wanting adequate pay. This, when our teachers are the lowest paid in the nation and 53 percent of Arizona’s teaching positions were vacant or filled by uncertified personnel at the beginning of this year. Study after study shows a high-quality teacher is critical to student success. What does that say about the commitment of Hamer and his chamber to our students in Arizona?

Finally, let’s not forget that until she was confirmed as Secretary of Education, Betsy Devos was the Chairwoman of the American Federation for Children (AFC). AFC is a huge proponent of school choice and vouchers and has invested millions in purchasing legislators favorable to their causes. Since 2010 in fact, it has contributed some $750,000 to pro school choice legislative candidates in Arizona.

Looking at the list and knowing the resources at their disposal (just think of the Koch brothers and DeVos alone), it is easy to assume most of them have invested heavily in legislative outcomes in Arizona and around the country. Does anyone really believe these organizations have Arizona’s district school students, 56 percent of whom qualify for free and reduced lunch (an indication of their low socio-economic status) children at heart?

We all know when we read something, especially these days, we must consider the source. Well, when looking at the support for voucher expansion in Arizona, I highly encourage you to do the same. This fight against the full expansion of vouchers is far from over. Those pushing for it are no doubt emboldened by pro-voucher stance of the new POTUS and his SecED. But, the people of Arizona understand district COMMUNITY schools are the key to not only achievement for all our students, but also to the health of our communities, and the preservation of our Democracy. We must not sit on the sidelines and watch these bills get signed into law. Much too much is at stake. Want to know more about how to plug-in? Comment on this post and I’ll be in touch. Please don’t let it be said we let our students get sold out!

Unconstitutional vouchers for all bill clears Senate education committee

Cross-posted from skyislandscriber.com.

Lawmakers move Arizona closer to school-voucher option for all students writes Howard Fischer (Capitol Media Services) in the Daily Star.

A Senate panel agreed Thursday to open the door to allowing all 1.1 million students in Arizona schools to use state dollars to attend private or parochial schools, so that parents can choose.

The 4–3 vote by the Senate Education Committee followed hours of testimony from people who already get what lawmakers call “empowerment scholarship accounts,” detailing how they’ve helped their children. Eligible groups include children with special needs, those living on tribal reservations and those who attend schools rated D or F, among others.

Sen. Debbie Lesko, R-Peoria, sponsor of SB 1431, said vouchers save taxpayer money. She said schools get an average of $9,529 a year for each student while a typical voucher is in the $5,200 range.

But Chuck Essigs of the Arizona Association of School Business Officials said that’s misleading. He said the $9,529 figure includes federal aid to schools as well as locally raised dollars for bonds and overrides. Essigs said the actual amount paid in state aid to schools is an average of $1,100 less per student than a voucher for an elementary school child; for high schools the difference is $1,200 per child, he said.

Sen. Steve Smith, R-Maricopa, said there is no danger of a wholesale shifting of funds from public schools if SB 1431 is approved and all students are eligible for vouchers. He cited existing law that limits vouchers to no more than one-half of a percent of all students, a figure that computes to about 5,500 students.

What Smith did not say, though, is that the cap will end in 2019, removing all limits.

The actual cost may be substantially higher. Here are excerpts from the Senate fact sheet for SB1431.

Currently, ADE [AZ Department of Education] estimates there are 3,100 students enrolled in the ESA Program and approximately $46 million disbursed in FY 2017. Laws 2013, Chapter 250, caps the number of new ESAs approved by ADE at 0.5 percent of total public school enrollment through 2019, or approximately 5,500 new students annually.

There is a potential impact to the state General Fund associated with expanding eligibility in the ESA Program. The fiscal impact depends on the participation rate and where the students otherwise would have attended school.

Projecting the average disbursement ($46 million for 3,100 students) to all 1.1 million students shows that the cost to the state could be in the billions of dollars. Lesko is dead wrong in her claims about saving money.

[Scriber’s note: I can’t figure out why the Senate’s fact sheet seems to be at odds with the other per pupil amounts cited by Essigs above. Perhaps someone better schooled in education finance can comment and clarify.]

It does get worse. Lesko thinks hiding standardized test results from the public is good policy.

A key objection [to vouchers for all] has been lack of accountability. Hoping to address that, SB 1431 requires students in grades 3 through 12 who use vouchers to take a nationally recognized achievement test, advanced placement exam or any college admissions test that assesses reading and math.

But the results would not be made public — as they are for public schools — and would be provided only to parents. Lesko said that’s sufficient.

So any evidence that private schools are worse than (or even better than) public schools would not inform legislative actions. That is crappy public policy. Then again, this was never about making informed decisions.

But the bottom line on SB1431 is that it is unconstitutional.

Foes cited the high cost of private schools — some charge more than $10,000 a year — and said the vouchers become a subsidy of state dollars to parents whose children already are enrolled. For everyone else, said parent Sarah Stohr, the concept of school choice is an illusion.

“Single parents like me with no family support in this community have little true choice when it comes to choosing between my job and shuttling my child around town to a school that’s farther from my home,” she testified.

Stohr told lawmakers that if they really care about children, they would “finally choose to fully and adequately fund our public schools so that no parent feels like their neighborhood school isn’t an excellent choice for them.”

Tory Roberg of the Secular Coalition for Arizona said her objections relate to the idea of using tax dollars to help children go to parochial schools, saying it amounts to using public funds “for the purpose of religious indoctrination.”

AZBlueMeanie (Blog for Arizona) weighs on on how SB1431 violates the state constitution: Senate Tea-Publicans advance unconstitutional school ‘vouchers for all’ bill.

… The Arizona Constitution prohibits state funding to private and parochial schools:

Article 2, Section 12: “No public money or property shall be appropriated for or applied to any religious worship, exercise, or instruction, or to the support of any religious establishment.”

Article 11, Section 7: “No sectarian instruction shall be imparted in any school or state educational institution that may be established under this Constitution, and no religious or political test or qualification shall ever be required as a condition of admission into any public educational institution of the state, as teacher, student, or pupil;”

In Cain v. Horne (Cain II), 220 Ariz. 77, 202 P.3d 1178 (2009), the Arizona Supreme Court struck down the legislature’s previous attempt at a “vouchers for all” program as unconstitutional.

Any way you cut it, the vouchers for all push is money laundering in a rather obvious attempt to skirt these constitutional prohibitions against using state funds for private, religious schools. If by statute, A cannot give money to C, then A routes money to B which then gives the money to C. Plug into this formula state funds (A), parents (B), and religious schools (C), and SB 1431 reduces to money laundering.