Protecting Children Violates Parental Rights?

Okay, let me get this right. Governor Ducey is threatening to withhold federal COVID funding from Arizona districts who have mandated masks. Where do I begin with all the things wrong with that?

First of all, a Maricopa County Superior Court judge has already determined the school districts are not breaking the law, because it does not go into effect until September 29, 2021. Secondly, COVID funding ($163 million) was provided to the school districts by the Federal government, to mitigate the effects of…wait for it…YES, COVID relief!! Thirdly, according to all the real experts, masks have been proven to reduce transmission of COVID, even the Delta variant. Fourthly, when COVID first hit in 2020, Ducey and the AZ Legislature, were more than happy to initially leave mitigation strategies up to district school boards. It was a heavy responsibility, but school board members shouldered it because they cared about their students, their staffs, and their communities.

Now that school boards have proven their ability to ensure the safety of their students and staffs, Ducey has taken away their right to local control, just to appease his base for political gain.

As reported in today’s AZ Daily Star, Ducey said,

there’s nothing wrong, legally or otherwise, with his decision to provide new education funding only to K-12 schools that don’t require students and staff to wear masks. He said those dollars are reserved for schools interested in teaching, which for him, includes obeying state law.

For Governor Ducey to infer that districts worried about the safety of their students aren’t interested in teaching is absolutely ludicrous. Has he never heard of Maslow’s Hierachy of Needs which stipulates that before human beings can focus on love and belonging, esteem, and self-actualization, their basic physiological and safety needs must be met. These physiological needs include things such as food, water and breathing while the basic safety needs are are financial security, health and wellness, and safety against accidents and injury.

The school districts he’s threatening of course, are those who believe in science and facts, not political talking points. After all, the latest Center for Disease Control (CDC) guidance for masking in schools says, “Due to the circulating and highly contagious Delta variant, CDC recommends universal indoor masking by all students (age 2 and older), staff, teachers, and visitors to K-12 schools, regardless of vaccination status.” Likewise, on July 18, 2021, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), issued a universal school masking recommendation which said, All students older than 2 years and all school staff should wear face masks at school (unless medical or developmental conditions prohibit use).

When asked point blank whether he believes schools that require masks aren’t serious about education, Ducey responded with another GOP talking point, “I’m saying a parent can make that choice and I believe we ought to trust parents.” This, my readers, is where I really start to lose it. What part of (according to CDC research) “wearing multi-layered masks keeps around 95% of aerosols that may be infected from spreading” doesn’t he understand? Thing is, I’m sure he does understand it, he just doesn’t care because it doesn’t fit his political messaging.

The fact is,(yes, there are still facts) there have been multiple studies showing that when most people in a community mask up, rates of transmission slow down. According to the CDC, community masking leads to fewer diagnosed cases and reduces contraction likelihood by over 70% in high-risk areas. It just makes common sense that masks lessen the virus-laden particles people can transmit to other people. Isn’t that why parents teach their children to cover their mouth when they cough or sneeze? And, although the CDC was first promoting mask wearing to protect others, there is new evidence that wearing even a cloth mask can “reduce the amount of infectious droplets inhaled by the wearer”, thereby protecting them as well.

But enough with the facts already, we know that’s not what Ducey’s threats are about. They are rather, about Ducey’s personal political future as well as that of the AZ GOP. I mean come on…even Walmart, (whose net favorability leans GOP) has mandated masks for their employees. The science is good enough for Wally World employees but not for our children?

And for those who say it should be up to the parents? Following the logic (I know, I know, that’s a four (five)-letter word), makes me want to ask what about seat belts and child car seats? We don’t leave the decision to use these up to the parent. Why? Because their proper use saves lives. So does vaccination and masking for COVID.

Then there are those who claim they just don’t know who and what to believe anymore. They cite the changing guidance from the CDC as validation of their doubt. Yes, the CDC is due some of the hits it has taken. But keep in mind that Trump was hell-bent on discrediting them from the start and, instantaneous updates on the latest research results from both legitimate sources, and speculation from those not so much, keep us guessing about what’s real. Remember, the only thing that can refute science, is new science. Not opinion, feelings, hunches, etc. What we know about COVID continues to evolve — as it should — and smart people respond to the new science accordingly.

The Biden Administration is now looking at the launching civil rights probes to fight back against governors banning mask mandates. They should also be looking at clawing back the funding those states were given for COVID relief if that funding is going to used for political retribution. Here in Arizona, a group of education and children’s advocates including the Arizona School Boards Association (ASBA), Arizona Education Association and Children’s Action Alliance filed a lawsuit this week against the state law prohibiting school mask mandates. The lawsuit claims the Legislature violated the legislative process laid out by the Arizona Constitution whereby laws passed can cover only one subject and their contents must be properly noticed in the title of the bill. This process wasn’t followed to pass legislation prohibiting school mask mandates. In speaking on the lawsuit, Dr. Sheila Harrison-Williams, executive director of ASBA, said, “ASBA stands for local control; we do not want to mandate masks for all Arizona school districts; we simply want those districts and their locally elected school board to be able to decide what’s best for their students and staff”.

You would think that’s what the majority of Arizonans want. Local control over decisions that affect him or her, not being told what to do or think by some big city politician in Phoenix or Washington D.C. But, I continue to be surprised and dismayed by the direction we are heading and the speed with which we are getting there. PLEASE someone find the brakes!

Education funding…the devil is in the details

One of the issues leading to the walkout during the #RedforEd movement, was Governor Ducey’s promise of a 20% raise by 2020 ONLY for teachers. The movement wanted the definition of “teacher” expanded and pay raises for all school personnel. That’s because teachers understand their’s is a broad profession, and although quality teachers are the number one in-school factor contributing to student success, every employee in a school district, whether a “defined” teacher or not, contributes to the ability of students to learn.

There is currently though, no consistent definition of “teacher” in Arizona. The 2018–2019 K–12 budget reconciliation bill, HB 2663, K–12 education; does not define “teacher”. The previous year’s budget bill defined “teacher” as: “any person eligible to be included as a teacher on a disrict’s FTE count submitted with its annual financial report, whose salary was paid under function code 1000 (instruction). Clear as mud, right?

The definition in Arizona Revised Statute (A.R.S) 15–901(B)(5), says a “Certified teacher” means a person “who is certified as a teacher pursuant to the rules adopted by the state board of education who renders direct and personal services to school children in the form of instruction related to the school district’s educational course of study and who is paid from the maintenance and operation section of the budget.” Okay, so that is a little clearer, but how is teacher compensation impacted by legislation passed last year to allow non-certified teachers to teach in Arizona public schools? Guess that means fewer raises for teachers as those more qualified continue to exercise their “school choice” to either retire or move to another state so they can earn a living wage. Just in case you didn’t see it, here’s a story about Texas buying up billboards in Arizona to lure our teachers away.

Yet another definition of “teacher” comes from the AZ Attorney General (AG) Opinion 101–014 on the Classroom Site Fund (Prop. 301 monies). The AG wrote that, “teacher” was not limited to traditional classroom teachers. “School districts and charter schools may use such funds for compensation increases for certified or certificated teachers and others employed to provide instruction to students related to the school’s educational mission.” An employee receiving base compensation from Prop. 301 monies would also be eligible to receive a salary increase as a teacher.

According to the AZ Auditor General, school boards would meet the Legislature’s intent by using any of the above three definitions. The Arizona School Boards Association, Arizona Association of School Business Officials, and Arizona Superintendents Association, all believe the Classroom Site Fund definition is the most defensible position and most consistent with legislative intent. That definition, as interpreted by the courts and the Arizona AG’s office, requires certification and employment as a teacher and that at least 50% of an individual’s time is spent on instruction central to the school’s educational mission.

Arizona Educators United and the Arizona Education Association‘s sought to resolve the disconnect by demanding a broader definition of “teachers”, permitting the award of raises to more school personnel. To that end, Representative Charlene Fernandez, D-Yuma submitted an amendment“seeking to expand the definition of “teachers” – those eligible for the pay hike – to include counselors, social workers, psychologists, speech pathologists and librarians, all people excluded from getting a share of the earmarked raises.” Unfortunately, the amendment failed on party lines.

As reported on Tucson.com, TUSD Superintendent Trujillo said he intends to spread the new money around to all “educators” who touch the lives of children. “I see us supporting the educators as defined by this movement, those that are touching the lives of kids and working directly with kids. It’s about the monitors, it’s about teachers, it’s about the counselors, it’s about the custodians, it’s about the secretaries at our schools, it’s about the office assistants,” he said.

The $272 million in included in the FY 2019 budget for teacher raises is roughly enough to give all “certified” teachers in the state a 9 percent pay increase. It also includes an “additional” funding of $100 million in District Additional Assistance (DAA), previously known as “capital funding”, which is meant for big ticket items like new AC systems, patched roofs, buses, and computers. Although Governor Ducey orginally sold this as a way to begin to restore the 85% of this funding that was cut since 2009, the #RedforEd movement caused him to also sell it as a way to increase salaries for all support employees.

Please let that sink in for just a moment. Governor Ducey knows Arizona’s district schools have a tremendous backlog of deferred maintenance and repair for both facilities, vehicles and technology because the Legislature has cut $2.4 billion from public school capital budgets. He is proposing to restore most of that funding over 5 years, but education advocates aren’t banking on it, continuing with the capital funding lawsuit filed in 2017.

The Legislature has tried their best to make hay with the fact that district governing boards are largely responsible for deciding how the funding is spent within their respective districts. Although there is a fair amount of legal guidance on how the funding may be used, they are correct that local control dictates elected governing board members make decisions about funding allocation. These decisions are appropriately left to them because they best know the needs of their district and they are closest to the students, families, voters, and taxpayers to whom they are accountable. But, and this is a BIG but, governing boards can only allocate funding their districts receive and even with the $400 million plus-up in FY 2019, our districts will still be short of 2008 funding levels by almost $700 million per year. Cue mike drop.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

The Perfect Haboob

There are a lot of unique things about living in Arizona and our storms rank near the top. I know, I know, people who don’t live here are thinking what storms, thought it is always sunny and hot? Well, there is that, but we also have our crazy monsoon rains and wild walls of dust called “haboobs”, an Arabic word meaning “blown”.

According to Arizona’s ABC15.com, “Haboobs are giant walls of dust created from high winds rushing out of a collapsing thunderstorm. Cold air in front of the storm rushes down at an incredible rate, picking up massive amounts of dust and sand and blowing them into the air.” A 2011 haboob in Phoenix, was almost a mile tall and stretched across the entire valley, over 50 miles long. These storms can stretch as far as 100 miles wide and are dangerous not only to drive in, but to just be outside in, as rocks and debris thrown around by winds of up to 50 mph can be dangerous, and bad air quality causes many people difficult breathing.

What’s going on with public education right now in Arizona feels a lot like that. First of all, our Governor and Legislature have turned a cold shoulder to the crisis facing our teachers and the districts they serve. The assault on our public schools has been fast-paced and fueled by out-of-state monied interests like the Koch Brothers’ Americans for Prosperity and Betsy DeVos’ American Federation for Children, despite overwhelming support for our public schools from Arizonans. And, all of this serves to obscure the real truth, which is that the focus on tax cuts and the push to privatize, are draining our public schools of available resources, making it very difficult for them to “catch their breath” and make the strides our state needs.

So, the big question at the beginning of this Legislative session was whether SOS AZ’s voter initiative would make it on the ballot. A couple of court decisions later and it looks like yes, it will. Of course, the Legislature might still repeal and even try to replace, the law that fully expanded vouchers last year (although that effort seems overcome by other events for now). There is also the possibility that the Prop. 305 (the name of the initiative), might be left on the ballot so that a Koch Brothers’ backed effort can produce the first-ever win on vouchers at the ballot box. This of course, would set them up for a full-court, across the country, privatization sweep. Either way, our mighty warriors at SOS AZ have vowed they “will continue to fight for public education because in order to have a strong state, we need strong schools.” Amen!

The second major issue for AZ public education was the decision by a Federal judge, that the funding plan for Prop. 123 to increase aid to schools from additional withdrawals of state trust lands money, was unconstitutional. Remember that? Can you believe that was announced just a month ago?

Changes made at the Federal level may fix the problem going forward, but whether the state must repay at least $344 million into the state trust lands is yet to be decided. Arizona has pushed back on the Federal ruling, but this fight is a long way from over and may even require the issue to go back to the voters according to former State Treasurer Jeff Dewitt. When it first aired, this was big news, but just as a haboob can blot out the sun, it’s been totally eclipsed by subsequent events.

Meanwhile back at the ranch, Arizona education groups had been working for some time on a plan to get new funding for our schools. They looked at a variety of potential solutions, including sales and income tax increases, and the elimination of tax credits and loopholes. The effort was largely sidelined though (at least temporarily) when the wave of teacher strikes, from West Virginia, to Kentucky, to Oklahoma, finally hit the shores of Arizona.

With teacher salaries at the bottom of the barrel, a Governor and GOP-led Legislature prioritizing corporate welfare over adequately funding our schools, and a kick-ass #RedForEd movement in the news, it was only a matter of time before AZ educators said “no más”. They began to organize as Arizona Educators United, and made their demands, (including a 20% pay raise for teachers), known.

In a presumed attempt to head them off at the pass, Governor Ducey announced a 20% teacher pay raise and $100 million to [begin to] restore District Additional Assistance (capital funding). But his plan, writes the Phoenix New Times, includes no new state revenue, relying on overly optimistic revenue forecasts according to the Joint Legislative Budget Committee who says it could result in a $300 million budget shortfall. This, coupled with the other unaddressed demands, pushed 78% of 57,000 (out of 60,000) teachers to vote to walkout on April 26th.

Fast forward to yesterday, when AZ Representative Noel Campbell, Republican, LD 1, announced “he will introduce a budget amendment – whenever Republican legislative leaders introduce a budget – for a three-year, 1-cent education sales tax increase.” His plan would raise $880 million in new revenue and required the state restore full funding for kindergarten, but also requires approval by two-thirds of the Legislature and the Governor.

Although in favor raising new revenue, AZ Dem legislative leaders made it clear yesterday that they do not support it coming in the form of an increase in sales tax. In a letter to Governor Ducey they wrote, “We should consider broadening the sales tax base for certain services, reversing decades of unproductive, revenue draining tax cuts for the wealthiest Arizonans, closing tax loopholes, and at a minimum capping tax credits that divert state revenues away from neighborhood public schools and into private schools.” The letter went on to say that, “These and other options – including federal tax conformity – are available and would more fairly and equitably restore the cuts to education and bring our educator pay to parity with our neighboring states.”

Ultimately, no matter what happens between now and our Primary election on August 26th, and the General on November 6th, Arizona’s voters will have the final say. My most sincere hope is that they will use that say to elect candidates at all levels, who understand education is an investment, not an expense. Candidates who understand that quality companies care about more than a tax credit, they want quality schools for their employee’s children, they want an educated workforce and they want modern, well-maintained infrastructure. Candidates who understand that they work for the people, ALL the people, not just those who are from the same party or support them with campaign contributions.

Arizona teachers will take a brave stand tomorrow, one that does not come without cost to them personally. The best thing we can do to support them, is to work to bring more parity to our Legislature, forcing all sides to be heard and all good ideas to be considered. To do this, we need only flip two seats in the AZ Senate and 5 seats in the House.

Arizonans understand we aren’t getting the results we want from our Governor and Legislature. We have the power to make positive change. Let’s hope we wield it wisely and forcefully.