Bottom Five List – Discouraged but Hopeful

A recent article in The Atlantic magazine featured experts on K-12 education who offered their reasons for hope and despair with regard to education. It was an interesting read and prompted me to come up with my own list for Arizona. In this first of two posts, I share my “Bottom Five” list of what discourages me and what I’m hopeful about. First, what discourages me:

10. The extremely well funded efforts of the corporate “reformers.” Make no mistake about it, the effort by the corporate “reformers” to make sweeping changes to the Nation’s public education system is as much about making a profit as it is an interest in making a difference. The exact number is up for debate, but The Nation magazine says the American K-12 public education market is worth almost $800 billion. Now, everyone from basketball players to Turkish billionaires want a piece of the pie. It is no accident that the Koch brothers backed, corporate bill mill ALEC is pushing many of the reforms, and the technology magnates Bill Gates and Mark Zuckenberg are heavily involved in the “reforming.” All you have to do is follow the money and the intent becomes clear.

9.  The apathy of Arizona voters. I worked on three Arizona Legislative campaigns in the past few years and although I mostly enjoyed talking to voters, I was beyond dismayed when I learned that in 2014, not even half of the LD11 voters with mail-in ballots bothered to mail them in. These are people who are registered to vote and are on the Permanent Early Voters List (PEVL). They are mailed their ballots and can fill them out in the comfort of their home. They don’t even have to put a stamp on them, postage is pre-paid. These votes should have been the “low-hanging fruit.” Combined with the overall Arizona voter turnout of 27%, this is pathetic by anyone’s definition.

8.  The fact that Arizona leads in all the wrong metrics. Does Arizona care about children? Let me count the ways maybe not so much. According to the Annie E. Casey’s “Kids Count Databook”, Arizona ranks: 46th in overall child well-being, 42nd in economic well-being, 44th in education achievement, and 42nd in children’s health. The Databook also reports that 26% of Arizona’s children live in poverty, 4% more than the nationwide average. The personal finance website WalletHub reports much the same, ranking Arizona 49th for child welfare which shouldn’t surprise anyone given the dysfunction in our Department of Child Safety. I don’t know about you, but these statistics disgust me and should absolutely drive what our Legislature spends our taxpayer dollars on. It is about defining what kind of people we are, it is about helping those who can’t help themselves and it is about the future of our state.

7.  Some seem to think the path to success is to lower the bar. Even though there are people whose opinions I value that think Senator Sylvia Allen will do a good job as the Chair of the Senate Education Committee, I remain hopeful but have my doubts. Call me crazy, but I think the legislator with the most sway over what education bills see the light of day should actually have more than a high school education. Along those same lines, Arizona Representative Mark Finchem (LD11-Republican) evidently doesn’t think teaching experience is valuable for our county schools superintendents. He has already submitted House Bill 2003 for this legislative session, which seeks to delete the requirement for county schools superintendents to have a teaching certificate. Instead, it will require only a bachelor’s degree in any subject, or an associate’s degree in business, finance or accounting. I know some would ask why should county schools superintendents have certificates when the state superintendent of public instruction doesn’t require one. Well, I’d rather see us make it a condition of both jobs.

6.  The polarization of our county makes it seem impossible to come together to find real, workable solutions. I was recently speaking to a friend of mine who I’ve known for over 25 years. We started talking about education and he started railing about how all public schools do is waste money. He talked about the fancy new high school in his town that was built (in his opinion) much more ostentatious than necessary. “Why do the kids need that to learn” he asked? “Why not just give them a concrete box?” Really?? Where do I begin? Truth is, I didn’t even try because I knew he wouldn’t listen. He knew what he knew and no amount of fact was going to sway him.

But all is not lost and I am more optimistic than pessimistic about Arizona’s public education. Here’s what makes me hopeful:

10.  Across the Nation, more and more charter school scandals come to light every day highlighting the need for more transparency and accountability. I’m not glad there are charter school scandals, but I am glad the public are learning more about the dangers of a profit-making focus with inadequate oversight. That’s one of the reasons district schools have rules and controls; they are after all, dealing with taxpayer dollars. And oh by the way, it’s no longer just charter schools we need to watch. The continuous expansion of vouchers exponentially broadens the potential for abuse and requires the same kind of public oversight. There just is no magic pill to student achievement. It takes resources, dedicated professionals, and hard work. Short cuts in other words, don’t cut it.

9.  The fact that we still have dedicated professionals willing to teach in our district schools. Despite low pay, higher class sizes than the national average, insufficient supplies, inadequate facilities, and ever-changing mandates, Arizona still has close to 50,000 district teachers willing to be in our classrooms because they love the kids and they love their work. They are underappreciated and sometimes even vilified, but they know their work is important. Now, if only our Legislature acted like they knew this too.

8.  Recognition is growing that early childhood education is really important. Even Governor Ducey said in April 2015: “Research shows that a quality early childhood education experience can yield significant long-term benefits on overall development of a child. It’s the most profitable investment we can make in their future.” A recent review of 84 preschool programs showed an average of a third of a year of additional learning across language, reading and math skills. Preschool has also been shown to have as much as a seven-fold return on dollars spent over the life of the child. The public is starting to “get it” and support for preschool funding is growing.

7.  Speaking of Common Core, it seems to be working okay. Yes, I saw the recently released AzMERIT results, but we knew they would be low. That’s what happens when you raise the bar. Despite no additional funding or resources to implement Common Core (oops, I mean Arizona College and Career Standards), our districts made it happen and the numerous teachers and administrators I’ve talked to say our students are now learning more. Efforts are underway to determine what should be changed about the Arizona standards, but my guess is that they will be minor.

6.  If nothing else, the passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) saves us from the really bad legislation that was No Child Left Behind. Everything I’ve read about the new ESSA touts it an improvement over its predecessor. It reduces what some considered Federal overreach and provides states more flexibility in implementing their K-12 education programs. Which, oh by the way, makes me concerned our state legislature will look to relax requirements where it serves them, at the expense of those children who most need our help. At least now though, they won’t be able to blame everything on “the Feds”, to include whatever version of the Common Core standards we end up with.

Please stay tuned, still to come are the top five reasons I’m discouraged and hopeful.

Stuck on Stupid

I continue to marvel at narratives that sell despite countering common sense. Take for example, supply-side (some call it trickle-down) economics. The basic theory is that marginal tax rates and less government regulation will help business expand and create more jobs. The Laffer Curve, named after Arthur Laffer, is a central theory of this philosophy and posits that lowering tax rates generates more economic activity eventually leading to more tax revenue. Proponents of this philosophy include the Koch-brothers-financed American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), Americans for Prosperity, and the Wall Street Journal’s editorial board. They claim that the nine states without personal income taxes are outperforming the rest of the states and that their success can be easily replicated in those states that abandon their income tax.   The non-partisan Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP) however, says that Laffer focused on “blunt aggregate measure of economic growth” to support his contention. The truth says ITEP, is that states with personal income tax, even those with the highest rates, are experiencing as good, or better, economic conditions than those without. Still, there are plenty of examples of governors who insist on leading their states down the proverbial rabbit hole.

When Governor Sam Brownback took the reins in Kansas, he dropped the top income-tax rate by 25%, lowered sales taxes and created a huge exemption for business owners filing taxes as individuals. Brownback claimed the tax plan was a “real live experiment” in supply-side economics, one that would spur investment, create jobs and bolster the state’s coffers through faster growth. He followed this course despite warnings from Traditional Republicans for Common Sense, a group of 55 former Kansas GOP legislators who opposed the tax cuts, saying they would “create a $2.7 billion deficit within five years.” Now, five years after doubling down, his state lags in job creation, tax revenue is far short of expectations and bond and credit ratings have been downgraded. Rating agencies claimed the tax breaks were unsustainable and that the promised economic growth would be elusive.

In Oklahoma, Governor Mary Fallin and the GOP-led Legislature enacted a quarter-point reduction in the top income tax rate two years ago and corporate tax breaks when oil crude prices were riding high. Now they are in a slump and it is driving up unemployment and forcing major layoffs.   Representative Scott Inman, (D) said: “We didn’t create the proper tax structure to protect us from this type of boom-and-bust cycle.” Likewise, Oklahoma’s Republican Treasurer Ken Miller, who advocates for revenue-neutral tax cuts, blamed his GOP colleagues for the “self-inflicted” crisis. Miller said: “Common sense dictates that until the state proves it can live within its means, it really should stop reducing them, yet some ‘thinkers’ continue to advocate eliminating the state income tax – even arguing that the state’s largest funding source and be vanished without a replacement and still fund needed teacher pay raises.”

In Wisconsin, Governor Walker enacted several permanent tax cuts just as the national recession ended and state revenues began to climb. His speech this year to ALEC was all about how his “big, bold reforms took the power out of the hands of big government special interests.” What he didn’t say is that his reforms produced only about half of the jobs he promised and resulted in delayed debt payments and deep cuts to education to balance the budget. Despite his real track record, Walker continues to promote the Laffer Curve economics, renaming it “Kohl’s Curve” to sell the idea of deep discounts (tax cuts) and the volume (business expansion and jobs) it drives. In contrast, Minnesota’s Democratic Governor Mark Dayton, who took office at the same time, raised taxes on upper income earners, closed corporate tax loopholes and invested in education and infrastructure. Now, according to U.S. News and World Report, Minnesota has outperformed Wisconsin on job creation, has lower unemployment and is a higher ranked place to live.

In North Carolina, with all three branches of government now securely under GOP control, money saved from cutting safety net programs wasn’t reinvested into education, job training or infrastructure, but given to the wealthy and corporations in the form of tax breaks. In September, the NC legislature signed a budget into law that provides $400 million in income tax cuts to be offset by taxes on repair, installation and maintenance services.   Alexandra Sirota, who studies tax policy for the NC Justice Center said the affect of the lower taxes “is a huge revenue loser” and that “the revenue losses aren’t fully accounted for in the next few years.” The NC Policy Watch has identified five reasons why NC’s tax cut plan is bad for the state and they all boil down to the fact that it will lose revenue, support corporations over citizens, and won’t improve the state’s economy.

Arizona’s Governor Ducey is following North Carolina’s lead in following the ALEC playbook with his plan to eliminate state income tax despite schools struggling to recover hundreds of millions in state aid they lost during the recession. During his gubernatorial campaign, he promised not to postpone a $225 million corporate tax cut to be phased in over three years. To the Arizona Tax Research Association, Ducey bragged about signing legislation to index the state’s income tax brackets ensuring salary increases that don’t outpace inflation don’t bump earners into higher tax brackets. Ducey claimed it was “an important first step in our mission to reduce income taxes in the State of Arizona every year.”

Most of these states are awash in red ink, and they aren’t the only ones. GOP governors of at least a dozen states are facing deficits of hundreds of millions or even billions which, despite campaigning on fiscal responsibility, is forcing them to slash spending, increase financial burdens on the poor and get creative in spinning their state’s status. At the root of it all are ALEC’s questionable economic and fiscal assumptions and faulty analysis. Specifically, these policies include deep cuts in income taxes, particularly for affluent households and corporations; a repeal of state income and estate taxes; and a shift in state revenues from graduated-rate income taxes to sales taxes that are much higher than what exist today. They also include the end of various state-based tax credits for low-income working families; a Taxpayer Bill of Rights (TABOR) that would impose rigid constitutional limits on state revenues and spending; requirements that state legislatures garner two-thirds or other “super-majority” votes to raise any taxes or fees; and other mechanisms to reduce the funds available to finance public services. ALEC also pushes the repeal of state personal and corporate income taxes, which typically provide one-third to one-half of a state’s funding for schools, health care and other services. Oil-rich Alaska is the only state to repeal its income tax thus far, but in 2012, Oklahoma, Kansas, and Missouri saw major efforts to do so, and Louisiana, Nebraska, North Carolina and South Carolina are looking at doing the same. Finally, ALEC and its supporters fail to acknowledge that public services such as education or infrastructure are important to a state’s long-term prosperity. Rather, they, like conservative Heritage Foundation chief economist Stephen Moore, give credit to the Laffer Curve strategy for the strong, long period of prosperity achieved by GOP hero Ronald Reagan. Economist Paul Krugman though, says the rapid growth during the Reagan years was driven more by conventional Keynesian deficit spending than by tax rate reductions.

The truth might be somewhere in between, but it cannot be argued that the middle class has been squeezed in the process. Since Reagan took office in 1981, the lower class has increased by three percent, the middle has shrunk by 9% and the upper class has grown by four percent. In that 70% of the U.S. economy comes from personal consumption, more wealth in fewer hands at the top keeps growth weak.

That’s one reason why Thomas Piketty in his 2014 best-selling tome “Capital in the Twenty-First Century”, advocates a return to the good old days of 70 percent tax rates on the rich. Likewise, a paper by MIT Professor Emeritus of Economics Peter Diamond and Professor of Economics at UC Berkley Professor Emmanuel Saez concluded the revenue maximizing federal income tax rate for top earners is 76%. Even Pope Francis joined the fray by writing that supply-side theories are unconfirmed by facts and rely on “a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the socialized workings of the prevailing economic system.” One might even be prompted to ask if congressional majority Republicans were “spin doctoring” when they fired Former Congressional Budget Office chief Douglas Elmendorf, last for scoring federal spending cuts as negatively affecting future budgets versus as stimulating the economy. They evidently wanted someone who would better implement “dynamic scoring”, a tool that would produce a more favorable analysis of their tax reform legislation.

GOP refusal to keep an “honest broker” as the head of the CBO is telling, as is the fact that although ALEC touts that state corporate tax cuts are critical to encouraging business and boosting the economy, mainstream economic research shows that state taxes average less than one percent of a business’ total costs. Extensive economic research indicates that tax-funded public services like education, health, transportation, and public safety are more important for attracting businesses and jobs.  In fact, Paul O’Neill, former CEO of Alcoa and President George W. Bush’s first Secretary of Treasury said: “[As a businessman] I never made an investment decision based on the Tax Code…[I]f you are giving money away I will take it. If you want to give me inducements for something I am going to do anyway, I will take it. But good business people do not do things because of inducements, they do it because they can see that they are going to be able to earn the cost of capital out of their own intelligence and organization of resources.” Robert Ady, of Ady International has assisted in countless business site locations. He says that “subsidies cannot make a bad place good.” Good places are competitive because their long-term business basics (labor, materials, marketing, overhead, and transportation) are solid. As Greg LeRoy, founder and director of Good Jobs First, said in his book The Great American Jobs Scam, “any subsidies are icing on the cake, but the cake is already baked.”

In this, as with any debate, it is possible to find a source to support any point of view. For me it is really this simple…does it make sense that you would tax the poor more to provide tax relief for the rich? Does it make sense that corporations are lured to locate in a state so they can pay even less than the under one percent they generally pay in corporate taxes? Or, does it make more sense that corporations are savvy and look at a variety of indicators to determine where to locate such as the quality of local schools, availability of a quality workforce, or a solid infrastructure? One doesn’t need to be a genius to understand basic economic concepts, all it really takes is a little common sense. A strong middle class is the best path to prosperity for our communities and our nation and economic policies that support its growth are the solution. Our tax policies should incentivize the behavior we need for the health of our communities, states and nation, not for the enrichment of a few. Finally, business definitely has a critical role to play, but so does government. It should ensure we are provided the basic essentials of safety, security, infrastructure and education and our tax policies should ensure sufficient revenue to do that properly.

No one party has the right answer here and there is no one right solution. It takes a smart application of available tools, wise employment of lessons learned and yes, a whole lot of common sense. Alas, as Voltaire is credited with saying in the early 1700’s: “Common sense is not so common.”

Taxpayer dollars belong to all of us

It was very interesting to read of the Washington Supreme Court’s recent decision on charter schools. On September 4, 2015, the Court declared the state’s charter school law unconstitutional. As reported in the Washington Post, Wayne Au, an associate professor at the University of Washington Bothell, was a plaintiff in the charter school legal challenge.   At the hear of the ruling Au said, “was the idea that charter schools, as defined by the law, were not actually public schools.” This stems from the provision in Washington’s state constitution that only “common schools” shall receive tax dollars for public education. In Washington State evidently, an appointed board, not an elected one, governs charter schools. The Washington State Supreme court decided the lack of oversight this allowed did not meet the definition of “common schools.”

While reading the article, I found myself thinking of the frenzied march in Arizona, toward the privatization of public education. Arizona has long been a leader in the number of charter schools established and our Legislature has established numerous work-arounds to divert taxpayer dollars into private and for-profit school coffers.

The Post article’s allegation that “ALEC’s influence on Washington State’s charter law is unmistakable”, is no surprise to me. The American Legislative Exchange Council is no friend of public education, the common good, or our democracy. As pointed out by the Post, ALEC is known for promoting a broad privatization agenda, “stand-your-ground gun laws, and anti-democratic voter registration laws.   ALEC’s agenda to privatize public education includes the promotion of charter schools (corporate charters and virtual schools specifically), private school vouchers, anti-union measures, “parent trigger” laws, increasing testing, reducing or eliminating the power of local school boards and limiting the power of public school districts.

Of course, anyone tuned into Arizona education or politics knows that ALEC has also had significant influence in our state. The Goldwater Institute acts, as the ALEC’s Mini-Me in Arizona and AZ Senator Debbie Lesko, as the AZ ALEC chair, has been the organization’s chief water carrier. Half of our state Senators and one-third of our representatives are known members of ALEC and there may be more.  It should be no surprise then that Arizona earns a “B” grade (3rd best) in education policy as the state leads the nation in number of charter school and has a very robust program to divert tax payer dollars to alternatives to traditional public education.

A disturbing similarity between Arizona and Washington State charter operations is that neither is overseen by a locally elected governing board. This fact ensures there is virtually no transparency nor accountability on how our tax dollars are spent therefore, no ability to ascertain the effectiveness of the programs or return on investment in general. This design is not by accident. As Peter Green has pointed out on his Curmudgucation blog, “charter supporters seek to redefine public schools as schools that have public money but without public accountability and regulation.” ALEC likes it this way because this smoothes the path to privatization. It goes like this: 1) drive a market for privatization by selling the story that public education is failing, 2) starve public education of funding to make it increasingly difficult for them to succeed, 3) continuously expand ways to divert taxpayer dollars from public education to private options, 4) sell the idea that public tax dollars for education should follow each child to the school of their choice, and 5) prevent the requirement of transparency and accountability such as is required of community district schools.

That is not the only similarity between the states’ two education systems. Just like Washington State, Arizona’s Legislature continues to withhold funding they owe the school districts. In Arizona, the funding in immediate question is the $300M in inflation funding from the Proposition 301 law. The people voted this issue into law in 2000 and the courts ruled in 2014 that the districts are indeed owed the funding and still, the Legislature refuses to pay up. In 2012, the Washington State Legislature was ordered to fully fund education, but they failed to do so. In August of this year, the WA State Supreme Court ordered fines of $100,000 per day until the Legislature complies. They have yet to do so.

The Washington State Supreme Court said: If a school is not controlled by a public body, then it should not have access to public funds.” We should all agree with this concept and demand full transparency and accountability whenever public funds are involved. Taxpayer dollars don’t belong to any one of us, they belong to all of us. We as the primary stockholder of our government, have the right and responsibility to know how they are spent and what our return on investment is. Anything less is more than suspect, it is un-democratic and un-American.

Ed Feulner and your Heritage Foundation, me thinks thou protesteth too much…

Nothing like some conservative propaganda first thing in the morning to get a liberal’s blood flowing. Yesterday morning, my Google alert on Arizona public education sent me a commentary from “The Daily Signal” which is the multimedia news organization of The Heritage Foundation. I try to be well read, especially on matters of public education, but I also know the source is important. So, I noted this commentary was 1) written by Ed Feulner who for 36 years, served as president of The Heritage Foundation and “transformed the think tank from a small policy shop into America’s powerhouse of conservative ideas”; 2) was originally published in the Washington Times; and 3) The Heritage Foundation (a 501(c)(3) charitable organization, touts itself as “the trusted conservative leader” and probably more telling, has endorsements by Senator Ted Cruz, Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity on its website home page.

Okay, so this is a commentary from a hard-core conservative. That got me thinking about what being a conservative really means. Wikipedia says conservatism is a political and social philosophy that promotes retaining traditional social institutions in the context of culture and civilization. It also says that there is no single set of policies that are universally regarded as conservative, because the meaning of converts depends on what is considered traditional in a given place and time. According to Merriam-Webster.com, conservative describes someone who: believes in the value of established and traditional practices in polities and society and is not liking or accepting of changes or new ideas.

It seems to me, somewhere along the line what it means to be a conservative became perverted. Conservatives today seem to be about exploring new ways to do things (when it provides profit), keeping government small and out of business (unless it is the private business of same-sex couples or a woman’s medical choices), and tearing down traditional social institutions (such as public education.)

Mr. Feulner’s commentary makes the point that children deserve more options than just public schools. What our children (all of America’s children) DESERVE, is well-funded, high quality public schools. Thomas Jefferson said, “Educate and inform the whole mass of the people…they are the only sure reliance for the preservation of our liberty.” Public schools have always been what best served to “educate and inform the whole mass of the people” and even today, in a state that leads the nation in the number of charter schools, a full 83 percent of Arizona’s students attend community public schools. Among the reasons for this is that no matter how much school choice is expanded, choice doesn’t guarantee opportunity or availability and, it is hard for the kids to be the priority when profit is the motive.

I’m on the governing board of a small rural district. Of the 410 students in my district, about 150 students living in our District have opted to exercise their school choice options. The other 410 students that attend our District are either happy with their community school, or they can’t take advantage of the opportunity. It is ironic that those who can’t take advantage of the opportunity are often the same disadvantage students those promoting school choice claim they want to “help.”

Mr. Feulner says that Education Savings Accounts (vouchers) enable families to deposit their children’s state per-pupil” funding in an account that can be used for a variety of education options. Since when did the state per-pupil funding belong to each child? I thought it belonged to all Arizonans collectively. In 2014, the average state and local taxes paid were $5,138. The primary funding source for K-12 education in Arizona is property tax, both at the primary and secondary (where approved) rates. The rest of it comes from the state general fund in the way of equalization funding, where required. The average property tax collection per capita in Arizona was $1,052. The amount deposited in ESA accounts is much more however, than parents pay in “school tax.” The range of funding for ESAs is from $2,000 to $5,500 for non-disabled students, and $2,000 to $30,000 for disabled students. The average ESA funding in 2014-15 was $5,300 per student without special needs and $14,000 when special needs students were factored in. As you can see, it isn’t only the parent’s taxes that provide for the per-pupil funding, the rest of us contributed as well. That’s why I don’t buy the assertion that the funding should follow the child, as if it belongs to them. It doesn’t belong to them or their parents, it belongs to all of us and we deserve transparency and accountability for how it is spent.

In addition to questions as to how my tax dollars are spent, I question the education being offered these students. Yes, unlike when you take your child and educate them with your money (not public tax dollars), I believe I have a legitimate say in what children are taught, when my tax dollars are used to teach them. In community public schools, locally elected school boards provide oversight of District operations and parents and community members are welcome and encouraged to stay tuned into what is taught, how it is taught, and who is teaching it. Locally elected school boards even approve textbooks. This process is not always perfect (such as with the Gilbert School Board recently voting to put abstinence-only avocation stickers in their science textbooks), but at least it is done in the light of day and can be addressed by those in disagreement.

Feulner is incensed that the ALCU is suing Nevada to keep its Education Savings Account law from taking affect. The ALCU says the ESA program “violates the Nevada Constitution’s prohibition against the use of public money for sectarian (religious) purposes.” He makes the point that the ESA funds go from the state to parents, not from the state to religious schools as if this makes all the difference. This is the same logic the Arizona Supreme Court used in legalizing Empowerment Scholarship Accounts (vouchers) in Arizona. Sounds like hair splitting to me.

Then, Feulner cites the example of a legally blind student and his parents used his ESA to provide him a great alternate education and save money for his college as well. Sure there are going to be many examples of how ESA’s serve children, especially those with special needs. I’m not against all use of ESAs, just as I’m not against all charter schools. There are special needs and circumstances these alternatives provide well. But, I don’t buy that ESAs are the best way to educate the majority of our children. I also don’t buy the pretense that this is all about parental choice, saving taxpayer dollars, or improving education. I believe this is about 1) making the education of your child YOUR problem thereby relieving legislators of the responsibility, 2) providing more profit opportunities for private business, 3) hiding conservative education agendas, 4) giving taxpayers less say over how their tax dollars are spent and ultimately, and 5) weakening our democracy.

You might think that tying ESAs to the weakening of our democracy is a bit much. Well, as those who desire to, take advantage of vouchers, they reduce the funding available to our community district schools. As the funding is reduced, more parents will be dissatisfied with the quality of educational opportunity in their public schools and more will leave. Those eventually left in our public schools will be those with no alternative and most likely those of color whom, for the most part, live at the lower end of the socio-economic scale. Our public schools are already experiencing the worst segregation seen since the 1960; it will only get worse.

In addition to the downward spiral of funding school choice forces upon community public schools, those who leave these schools also take with them their parent’s support and involvement. These parents are those who have typically worked for improvement in their community public schools and they are missed when they leave. Local governance (as does our entire democratic process) counts on informed and involved community members. Make no mistake. The war currently being waged on public education is a war on our democracy. As for those who would point out our nation is a republic, not a democracy, I say “get over yourself.” In the United States, we each have a voice and a vote. Assaults on those most precious rights are decidedly “un-American” and “un-patriotic”, and must be met head on.  Oh by the way, did I mention that ESAs (whether they are Education Savings Accounts or Empowerment Scholarship Accounts or vouchers) are one of the primary weapons of the American Legislative Council (ALEC) in their war on public education?  Don’t know what ALEC is?  You should.

From the K-12 Public Education War Front in Arizona

The war on public education has been waging for several years in Arizona, but this year has seen some especially heavy fighting. The attacks on public education by the first session of the 52nd Legislature (hereafter referred to as the ENEMY) have been asymmetrical and relentless. Recognizing that K-12 public education (hereafter referred to as FRIENDLY FORCES) can’t accomplish the mission unless well-resourced, General (Governor) Ducey has already signed a budget cutting $113M more from their budget. This, on top of the ENEMY’S continuing battle to deny FRIENDLY FORCES the people’s mandated and court adjudicated inflationary funding ($317M definitely owed with another $1.6B in question.) The ENEMY is also continuing the assault on the FRIENDLY FORCES’ supply lines with their attempts to exponentially expand vouchers, (Empowerment Scholarship Accounts) and corporate tax breaks for donations to private schools (Student Tuition Organization scholarships.) And, just to be sure it is as difficult as possible for the FRIENDLY FORCES to communicate their resource needs to the public (hereafter referred to as ALLIES), the ENEMY continues to try to mandate additional language in bond and override descriptions to obfuscate and in fact, mislead the ALLIES. Of course, there are also bills to dump Common Core since renaming the controversial standards the Arizona College and Career Standards didn’t really fool the ALLIES. The ENEMY believes this is an important battle to fight so they can keep the FRIENDLY FORCES in a constant state of instability and uncertainty and continue to win the hearts and minds of the fringe that supports them.

Up until recently however, FRIENDLY FORCES were able to communicate to their ALLIES ramifications of the ENEMY’S strategy and intent. Now though, the ENEMY has countered with Senate Bill 1172 to totally cut the FRIENDLY FORCES’ lines of communication. Initially, this bill was written to prohibit school districts and charters from releasing directory information for the purpose of political activity, which would limit the ability of local parent and community organizations from engaging other parents on district bond or override issues. In a last minute change to their strategy, the bill has now been amended to also fine an employee of a school district or charter school $5,000 for distributing written or electronic materials to influence the outcome of an election or to advocate support for or opposition to pending or proposed legislation.

On one level, this tells me the FRIENDLY FORCES are gaining ground in this war on public education. Surely, if the ENEMY feels the need to “gag” the FRIENDLY FORCES, they must be making headway. Perhaps the showing of over 1,000 FRIENDLY FORCES and ALLIES at the Capitol in early March to protest General Ducey’s cuts to public education gave the ENEMY pause. The FRIENDLY FORCES cannot however, underestimate the ENEMY’S objective to seize, retain, and exploit their initiative to kill public education and turn it over to private profiteers. They will not be happy until all the FRIENDLY FORCES are subdued and the economically safe (largely white) students are safely ensconced in private schools and the socio-economically disadvantaged students (largely students of color) are stuck in pathetically underfunded and therefore underperforming schools.

Make no mistake. This isn’t a matter of the ENEMY not understanding the needs of the FRIENDLY FORCES and those they are charged to protect and serve. This is a matter of not caring about them. The ENEMY is backed by the AXIS OF EVIL (corporate money, American Legislative Exchange Council, and ideological fanatics) and is committed to victory in this fight. FRIENDLY FORCES must recognize we are at war and employ the strategies and principles thereof to win the fight.

And the beat goes on…

Yesterday, the Arizona House Education Committee moved the state one step closer to fully privatized K-12 education with their passage of HB 2174 (empowerment scholarship accounts; grandchildren) on a 4-3 vote. This bill expands eligibility of Empowerment Scholarship Accounts (ESAs) or “vouchers” to grandchildren being raised by their grandparents. An amendment was adopted that removed the requirement that the grandchild meets the free and reduced price lunch eligibility requirements.

This removal of the requirement for the grandchild to meet the free and reduced price lunch eligibility requirements is significant. Let’s face it. The overall intention of this American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) promoted legislation is to provide for K-12 education via vouchers (taxpayer dollars intended for public education) given to parents to pay for private schools. The Arizona Legislature has been moving us down this road for several years.

In 2009, the Arizona Supreme Court found two similar school voucher programs violated the Arizona Constitution’s ban on aid for religious or private schools. The Goldwater Institute however, which had first proposed the idea in 2005, offered educational savings accounts as an alternative. In April 2011, Governor Brewer approved SB 15523 authorizing Arizona Empowerment Accounts (first state to do this) to give parents of eligible special-education students the opportunity to receive ESAs. Funds could be used for curriculum, testing, private school tuition, tutors, special needs services or therapies, or even seed money for college. According to the Arizona Department of Education, parents spent a total of $198,764 in scholarship funds in the first quarter of fiscal 2012. About 92 percent went to private schools.

The Arizona School Boards Association, the Arizona Education Association, and others filed a lawsuit, claiming the program unconstitutional. The Goldwater Institute, the Arizona Attorney General’s office, and the Institute for Justice defended the program. In January 2012, a Superior Court Judge ruled the savings accounts were constitutional. Her opinion was: “The exercise of parental choice among education options makes the program constitutional.” Education advocates continued to appeal this decision, but in October 2013, the Arizona Court of Appeals also ruled in favor of the accounts.”

In 2012, Gov. Jan Brewer signed HB 2622, expanding the program to include children from failing schools, children in active-duty military families, and children adopted from the state foster care system.2 These families began applying for accounts in 2013, and students began using the accounts in the 2013–14 school year. The legislature also expanded the program in 2013 to include incoming kindergarten students that meet the existing eligibility criteria, and increased the funding amount for each account award.3 More than 200,000 Arizona children are now eligible, or 1 in 5 public school students. New applicants must have attended a public school for at least 100 days in the prior school year.

The education profiteers won’t be happy until the public school districts are sucked dry of funding and private school and for-profit charter operators maximize profits on the backs of taxpayers. Shifting money from our public district schools to private schools and charters will not by and large pull disadvantaged children out of their situations and fix America’s education problems. Rather, it will continue to drive the highest level of segregation since the mid-1960s and ensure the advantaged continue to succeed and the disadvantaged fall further behind. Can’t help but wonder what the new Arizona College and Career Ready Standards and the accompanying AZ-Merits test will do to school performance grades and widening eligibility for these vouchers. Know this…I’ll be watching.

A Familiar Recipe for Disaster

I recently came across an August 2013 report by Lindsey M. Burke from The Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice titled: The Education Debit Card – What Arizona Parents Purchase with Education Savings Accounts. The report makes many claims begging to be refuted. In the executive summary, the author credits Arizona with creating “a model that should be every state policymaker’s goal when considering how to improve education: funding students instead of physical school buildings and allowing that funding to follow children to any education provider of choice.” The model referred to here are Empowerment Scholarship Accounts (ESAs).

In September 2011, Arizona’s ESA program started with a modest enrollment of 153 students with special needs. In 2012, enrollment had grown to include more than 300 children with special needs.   Expansion continued that year with eligibility granted to more than 220,000 Arizona students, including 125,000 children with special needs, 87,000 children in underperforming public schools (rated D or F), 11,500 children of active- duty military families, and any additional foster children.Currently, according to AZ Ed News, more than 250K students are eligible to apply.

Although I totally “get” a parent wanting the very best for their own child, I am also brought back to a quote by John Dewey’s (possibly the most significant educational thinker of the 20th century): “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.”

The real truth is, the majority of children (for a multitude of reasons) will simply not be able to avail themselves of the ESA opportunity. So, I find myself asking what are the real reasons Arizona legislators and other leaders are pushing vouchers as the solution for educating our children? Color me cynical, but let me offer some thoughts:

1. A voucher by any other name. The ESA bills are model American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) legislation. As reported by education activist and blogger David Safier: “The Goldwater Institute came up with the idea for ESAs as a second workaround (the first is our tuition tax credit law) to make vouchers legal in a state where the constitution prohibits the use of public money for religious instruction. (Did you know over 70% of Arizona’s private schools are religious?) The term of art for this kind of legislation is “backdoor vouchers.” The conservative’s ultimate goal is vouchers for all.”

2. What can parents afford with an ESA? AZ Senator Al Melvin (who is running for Governor this year) likes to tout vouchers for every child at $9,000 per child is either ignorant or disingenuous. First of all, if every child in Arizona were given that much funding, it would cost as much as entire budget of the state of Arizona ($9.054B vs. a budget of 9.18 billion.) Secondly, the ESA base rate this year is only $5,400 per child, not $9,000. So, what private school can parents send their children to for $5,400? The website Private School Review shows the average tuition at Arizona’s private elementary schools as $5,465. Please note, this is not the total cost. Private schools do not typically offer free transportation to/from school or like public schools do, nor is a free/reduced fee lunch program offered. Additionally, parents are often expected to donate time, or in the case of at least one school, get charged $10 per hour when they don’t donate the requisite amount. Finally, please note the $5,465 cost is just tuition. What else is not included in this cost – books, athletics, extracurricular activities?

3. Despite claims to the contrary, competition is not the answer for everything. Whereas public school districts should be collaborating with each other to ensure the most effective use of taxpayer dollars, open enrollment and school choice encourages just the opposite. Marketing campaigns and intra-district bussing is now the norm to boost enrollment numbers. Additionally, where engaged, caring parents would once get involved as part of the solution in their community public schools, now they vote with their feet and take their talents to private options versus applying them to the common good.

4. There is little accountability or transparency in the use of the ESA funding. A recent Arizona Capitol Times article reported parents with ESAs have saved up roughly $2.5 million of taxpayer dollars over the past three years causing many to question the program’s accountability. After all, these unspent funds equal 21 percent of the almost $12 million handed out since 2012 and represent 68 parents holding onto amounts from $10,000 to over $61,000. A representative for the Arizona Department of Education (AZ DOE) said they have no authority over how much of the quarterly disbursements must be spent, only that the receipts for the expenses reflect allowed expenditures. The AZ DOE administrator of the program said the department is aware of the growing accounts, but has no authority over how much of the quarterly disbursements must be spent. Obviously though, money held onto is not money spent on a child’s education. As a vivid case in point, one “tight-fisted parent has hung onto $61,047 while spending only $825.” How can this be in the child’s best interest?

5. But wait, weren’t ESAs supposed to save the state money? ESAs were supposed to save the state money, but now they will cost Arizona more than educating children in the public school system. Despite the legislature’s unwillingness to change the law to allow it, John Huppenthal, the AZ Superintendent of Public Instruction has unilaterally moved to provide all ESA students funding at 90 percent of the charter school funding level, which is currently higher than the district school level. This translates to all students on ESAs getting the charter school amount, an additional $1,684 to $1,963 over what was given for students transferring from traditional schools. Additionally, according to the AZ Joint Legislative Budget Committee, the newly expanded availability to kindergarteners that might have attended private schools anyway at parental expense drives up the cost as well.

6. Superintendent of Public Instruction, not public schools! Superintendent Huppenthal recently shilled for The Alliance for School Choice recording a robo-call that went out to 48,000 qualifying families and referred families to a Goldwater Institute website for more information. His$250,000 marketing campaign evidently produced results with applications for the 2014-15 school year doubling from 2,479 from 1,100 the previous year. When questioned about his actions, he said “he is the Superintendent of Public Instruction, not public schools.

Given the facts surrounding the push to expand ESAs, one must ask why? I suspect politics is largely responsible. “Arthur Camins, a teacher and director, center for innovation in Engineering and Science Education, Stevens Institute of Technology” posits the corporate reformers believe (or want us to believe) that “Improving all schools is hopeless. Poverty will always be with us.” That’s why he says, they believe they need to offer privately governed schools to serve the “best among the unfortunate.” They know not all children will be successful, they just need a system for sorting through those who can be. “This is the cold hard truth. Only we (the best and smartest) have the guts to act on it.”

Camins goes on to write that, “in-school tracking and magnet schools have long served to mediate dealing the hard truth that poverty undermines children’s readiness and ability to engage in and sustain learning.” Now though, the new well-funded partnerships trying to provide a systemic alternative to public schools is more “explicitly elitist and anti-democratic” than ever before. “As long as the only seeming rational choice is self-preservation, people who can, will choose it.” What is new now is “the scale of the effort and resulting damage, the ever-widening disparity in income and differential life chance opportunities and the erosion of the very idea of social responsibility for the common good.”

Dr. Tim Ogle, Executive Director of the Arizona School Board Association writes that “allowing some selected children to “opt out” of public education to go to schools with unknown aims and objectives removes incentives to develop new creative solutions to education’s toughest challenges. Let’s call these accounts what they are: government subsidies for private enterprise using children as the currency.”

Voucher programs aren’t about offering parents a choice, they aren’t about ensuring special needs children have every opportunity, and they aren’t about improving the educational outcomes for our students. What they are about is making money…lots of it. Big money, lack of transparency and accountability, and legislators collaborating with big business…sound like a familiar recipe for disaster to anyone else?

Time to Act Against Arizona’s Axis of Evil

Nope, not referring to North Korea or Iran, but the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), The Goldwater Institute and The Center for Arizona Policy led by Cathi Herrod. All of Arizona’s GOP legislators are or have recently been members of ALEC.  Led by Representative Debbie Lesko, ALEC’s Arizona Chair, they have introduced no less than 20 ALEC model bills including those that:

  • Criminalize undocumented workers, stripping native-born Americans of their citizenship rights and requiring that all materials disseminated by state agencies be written in English only;
  • Encourage the privatization of state prisons to the benefit of the private prison industry;
  • Disenfranchise tens of thousands of Arizonans via voter suppression bills
  • Attack workers by undermining unions and collective bargaining and eliminating public employment through outsourcing and privatizing of government functions;
  • Attack public education through private school voucher programs;
  • Attempt to prevent implementation of healthcare reform, and
  • Attack federal environmental regulation by attempting to deny the federal government the ability to supersede weak state environmental legislation.

SB1062, the so-called religious freedom (but really about state-sanctioned discrimination against gays and others) bill that Governor Brewer vetoed last week, was being pushed by Cathi Herrod and her Center for Arizona Policy.  The veto was a fairly significant setback for Herrod, but don’t worry, she has plenty of other tricks up her sleeve.  On next week’s House Education Committee agenda, is SB1237, which passed the Senate on a party line vote.  This bill expands the amount of this private school voucher to include the charter school additional assistance weight as well as 90% of the base support level funding the student would have otherwise received if they had attend a school district. This is a significant dollar increase as the additional assistance amount is $1,684 for K-8 and $1,962 for high school.

This bill is totally about increasing the diversion of public school funding to unaccountable private schools.  Not only is our GOP-led legislature taking orders from Cathi Herrod, but our State Superintendent of Public Instruction recently robocalled public school families to entice them to take state (taxpayer) funding to attend private schools.  When questioned about this, Huppenthal retorted that he is “the Superintendent of Public Instruction, not of Public Schools.”

Vouchers, by any other name, is model ALEC legislation.  “Wherever you see states expanding vouchers, charters, and other forms of privatization, wherever you see states lowering standards for entry into the teaching profession, wherever you see states opening up new opportunities for profit-making entities, wherever you see the expansion of for-profit online charter schools, you are likely to find legislation that echoes the ALEC model.”

It is important for people to understand that one can’t be pro community public schools while also being pro vouchers and school choice.  Despite what the privatization advocates are touting, school choice, and the various methods for providing options (empowerment scholarship accounts [vouchers], student tuition organizations, etc.), do not generally produce better results, especially when comparing similar populations.  In addition, this is a zero sum game.  When money is taken from public schools and diverted to for-profit charters, private and parochial schools, it begins a downward spiral that is very difficult for public schools to recover from.  In addition, open enrollment promotes competition over collaboration not just between schools, but also on the part of parents who act in the interest of their child without concern for all children.

The bottom line is that community public schools perform a huge public good.  In many cases, they are the thread that binds communities together.  They helped put America on the path to greatness and they are still where 85 percent of Arizona students are educated.  We don’t talk about how fire and police departments should be run by like a business or compete with one another for their raw product.  Public community schools should be treated no differently.  They are entrusted with an awesome responsibility, staffed by dedicated professionals, take all children who come through their doors and work against all odds to achieve their mission.  They need you on-board advocating for their success.  Please contact the members of the House Education Committee prior to Monday, March 10th and tell them to fail SB1237.  It is not in the best interest of our students or our state and will only serve to enrich those who would make profit on our public education dollars.