Wondering What Happened To Steve Smith?

Grrrrreeeeaaaatt! The Capitol Times just reported that former state Senator and GOP candidate for U.S. House of Representatives in CD1, Steve Smith, is joining the American Federation for Children as the new state director.

Many LD11 residents (especially those in his home town of Maricopa), were thrilled to get rid of him as our one of our lawmakers. Now though, I imagine public education advocates will likely emit a communal groan to this news. Smith was no friend of public education as a state Senator, and in fact, was a co-sponsor of the full-expansion of vouchers (Empowerment Scholarship Accounts) law.

In 2017, he voted for Arizona School Boards Association (ASBA) supported bills only 2 of 7 times. In 2016, he did better, but voted for three ESA expansion bills. In 2015, he voted for ASBA supported bills only 2 of 9 times, with two of those bills being ESA expansions. Back in 2014, he voted against ASBA positions all 7 times, and one of those was an ESA expansion.

The American Federation of Children (AFC) of course, is the organization that Betsy DeVos headed before she got the gig as U.S. Secretary of Education. Their mission, according to their website, is: “The American Federation for Children and AFC Growth Fund seek to empower families, especially lower-income families, with the freedom to choose the best K–12 education for their children.

Yeah, right, it is ALL about the low-income, disadvantaged child. No matter that “the freedom to choose” means nothing if there isn’t true access to the choice. An example of this is the expansion of vouchers to students living on tribal lands. Ask yourself…how many private schools are there on tribal lands? Exactly! The whole idea that AFC is all about empowering lower-income families “with the freedom to choose” sounds like a nice idea until you know the facts.

AFC is no stranger to Arizona, making its presence known via big campaign spending for pro-voucher candidates. In 2014 alone, they spent $205,000 in the state. Smith was one of the recipients of those funds. In 2016, AFC spent $213,000, but evidently none on Smith, they must have considered him safe that year.

The last time I met with then Senator Smith in his office at the Capitol, he was complaining about how the Feds were trying to shove something down Arizona’s throat and he wasn’t going to have it. I told him that just like he didn’t like the Feds trying to tell Arizona what to do, locally-elected school board members don’t like state lawmakers trying to tell them what to do. Everyone, I intimated, should stay in their lane to allow the system to work best. He didn’t even acknowledge what I said, but started ranting about how the Feds aren’t the parent, the state is the parent. He was finger pointing and literally, spitting mad. I decided at that point I was getting nowhere and left.

Smith is an ambitious ideologue and will continue his rampage against Arizona’s public schools. Certainly the pro-privatization crowd are not dissuaded by the failure of the full voucher expansion last November. Rather, I suspect they’ve circled the wagons and have been plotting their next assault on our public schools. Smith has certainly had lots of practice doing AFC’s bidding and now can be even more “unplugged” in leading the charge. Or, maybe, just maybe, he’ll be as successful at this, as he was at building the wall he promised to raise money for. Geesh…I keep telling myself! The session hasn’t even started yet!

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Oh No She Didn’t!

AZ Capitol Times reported today that in response to a Save Our Schools suggestion that voucher expansion should be “sidelined” while the battle for public education funding continues, Kim Martinez, a spokeswoman for the American Federation For Children, said she was “unimpressed”. Martinez also said that, “It is unfortunate that Save Our Schools continues to take a stance against children who need ESAs, a program that helps disadvantaged students who are slipping through the cracks at their neighborhood schools. It is short-sighted to put funding concerns above children whose learning requirements have to be met today.”

Bravo Ms. Martinez, I couldn’t have said it better myself, at least not your words about the urgency of meeting children’s learning requirements. It totally IS short-sighted to put funding concerns above children whose learning requirements have to be met today. It IS totally unacceptable that public school students entering high school next year, have yet to be in an adequately funded classroom. It IS totally unacceptable that the Arizona Legislature continues to favor corporate welfare over ensuring our public schools are adequately funded.

As for your swipe at Save Our Schools for their “stance against…disadvantaged students who are slipping through the cracks at their neighborhood schools”, give me a break! We know that Save Our Schools is fighting for exactly these children and all one million Arizona public school students. We also know that you are fighting for Betsy DeVos and her privatization movement. Neither Save Our Schools, nor our public schools at large, are responsible for “disadvantaged students who are slipping through the cracks. The enemies of these students are 1) poverty and 2) our failure to deal with it.

Our children cannot continue to wait for the adults to understand that education is not an expense, it is an investment. They cannot wait for us to realize that every child matters and deserves the opportunity to succeed. Every day that passes without this as our driving force, is another day of lost opportunity for us all.

Take No Prisoners

During the last legislative session in Arizona, lawmakers approved a full expansion of vouchers to all 1.1 million Arizona students against very vocal opposition. In response, Save Our Schools Arizona conducted a grassroots petition drive with over 2,500 volunteers collecting over 111K signatures to get the issue on next year’s ballot.

To fight back, privatization proponents have recently ramped up their “take no prisoners” war on public education in Arizona with attacks on Arizona’s 2016 Teacher of the Year, Christine Marsh. According to The Arizona Republic, the American Federation for Children (AFC), (“dark money” group previously led by Betsy Devos), recently “unleashed robocalls” in the Phoenix area targeting Marsh. In a related effort, a Republican state legislator, Rep. David Livingston, R-Glendale, also filed an ethics complaint against Rep. Isela Blanc, D-Tempe, accusing her of disorderly conduct.

What is the egregious violation these women are accused of? According to voucher proponents, (during the drive to gain petition signatures for an anti-voucher referendum), both circulated petitions without a box at the top of the petition checked. The box, according to state law, is required to be checked prior to petitions being circulated, to reflect whether the circulator is a volunteer or paid petition gatherer. In Livingston’s complaint and in AFC’s robocall, Blanc and Marsh respectively, are accused of “falsifying petition sheets” by marking the boxes after the signatures were collected.

I understand the law is the law, but I’ve circulated many petitions and I can tell you that not one signatory has ever given a damn about whether that little box was checked. They don’t care who is circulating the petition, just that it is legitimate and for a cause they care about. The “box” in question likely matters to someone, but certainly not to the voting public.

Yet, AFC chose to reach into Arizona to demand Marsh “come clean on who altered” her petition. “I’m calling from the American Federation for Children with an alert about an election scandal in this district,” the call said. “Christine Marsh, candidate for state Senate, circulated a petition sheet which was later falsified and filed with the Arizona Secretary of State, a felony. Christine Marsh won’t say whether it was she or someone else who broke the law by tampering with the document. Christine needs to come forward with the truth. Christine, stop hiding behind the 5th amendment and come clean.”

Always one to cut right to the heart of the matter, Marsh told The Republic “she was ‘incredulous’ that an out-of-state special-interest group was spending money in her race 15 months before the election.”

I personally know Christine Marsh, am very proud to have had her representing our state, and understand why AFC and the pro-privatization lobby is threatened by her. Christine has taught English Language Arts for almost a quarter century and she still thinks she has the best job in the world. She is passionate about her students’ success and is a great example of the type of excellent teachers we have in our public district schools. She doesn’t do it for the money, but because she absolutely loves the students. She is also a vocal advocate for her students and public education and is not afraid to speak out to combat injustices. She is now running for the AZ Legislature (a job that will pay even less than she makes as a teacher), because she knows that is the only way she’ll have a chance at affecting real change.

Dawn Penich Thacker, spokeswoman for Save Our Schools Arizona (leaders of the referendum effort) said, “It’s telling that robocalls are coming from a Washington, D.C., area code to attack an Arizona teacher for volunteering to give Arizonans a vote on how our tax dollars are used,” she said. “For all their talk of choice, it seems our state’s pro-voucher groups have chosen a flawed national agenda over the basic respect and rights due Arizona citizens.”

The majority of AZ voters (the actual people on the ground in Arizona) are not in favor of vouchers that siphon funding from our public district schools to private and religious schools. That’s not only true in Arizona, but all across our Nation. There has not in fact, ever been a time, in ANY state, where vouchers, when referred to the ballot, were approved by the voters. Privatization proponents have only succeeded in expanding vouchers when they don’t ask voters what they want.

In Arizona, we know this is all about profit and power. We also know we are ground zero in the fight for our public district schools and in the long run, our very Democracy. Blogger Jan Resseger wrote in June about Gordon Lafer’s new book, “The One Percent Solution: How Corporations Are Remaking America One State at a Time”. In it, he explains that “far-right tax-slashers have attacked public education, including all the money to be made by privatizing large parts of our nation’s biggest and most pervasive civic institution, in which, “the sums involved… are an order of magnitude larger than any other service.” But, Jan writes, ”he believes another motive of the privatizers is far more significant:“ “Finally” says Lafer, “the notion that one’s kids have a right to a decent education represents the most substantive right to which Americans believe we are entitled, simply by dint of residence. In this sense… for those interested in lowering citizens’ expectations of what we have a right to demand from government, there is no more central fight than that around public education.”

Make no mistake, this is a war…for the very soul of America. Will we continue to be a country “of the people, by the people and for the people”, or, will we continue to move toward a complete oligarchy where the rich call all the shots and the rest of us live in a matrix of their making?

Thomas Jefferson understood civic engagement is critical for the survival of a democracy. He said, “An educated citizenry is a vital requisite for our survival as a free people”, and “Educate and inform the whole mass of the people… They are the only sure reliance for the preservation of our liberty.” This latest assault on civic engagement in Arizona, from both within and outside the state, says volumes about the true intentions of the privatization proponents. If you believe it’s really about the kids, I’ve got some Arizona ocean front property to sell you.

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!

Ooops, there it is!

We knew it was coming and awaited it with dread. And, drumroll please…crash goes the cymbal! Yes, here it is, this year’s attempt to exponentially expand Arzona’s voucher (Empowerment Scholarship Accounts, or ESA) program. Of course, the American Legislative Exchange Council’s (ALEC) chief water carrier for Arizona, Senator Debbie Lesko, R-Peoria, is the one proposing the expansion. Lesko claims the expansion of ESAs will “not lead to a mass exodus of children from public schools.” I, for the most part, agree with that statement since Arizona parents have made it clear district schools are their choice with 80% of students attending district schools and another almost 15% in charter schools.

But, to infer a massive voucher expansion will have no negative impact on district schools is disingenuous at best. No matter how slowly students may attrit from district schools, each student’s departure leaves behind a 19% budget shortfall. That’s because there are numerous fixed costs (teacher salaries, facility maintenance, utilities, buses, etc.) that cannot be reduced student by student. The siphoning of dollars from our district schools has been steadily increasing and just exacerbates an already inadequately resourced system.

This isn’t the first year the Legislature has attempted to expand the voucher program. In fact, they’ve been successful in expansions every year since the ESA program was launched in 2011. This isn’t even the first time a full expansion has been attempted, with a very similar proposal going down in flames last year due to public outcry and a perceived conflict with securing voter approval of Prop. 123. This year though, Lesko has sweetened the deal by requiring the testing of students attending private schools on vouchers. She says she “doesn’t personally think this requirement is necessary,” but obviously is trying to defuse the argument from voucher opponents that there is no accountability or return on investment for vouchered students.

She is right about one thing, district education advocates want more accountability and transparency where taxpayer dollars are spent on the myriad of school choice options. As the only schools governed by locally elected school boards and with annual efficiency reports published by the Office of the AZ Attorney General, district schools are the only schools fully accountable and transparent to the taxpayers. Pro-choice advocates tout that parents should have the right to choose where they send their child to school at government expense. As a taxpayer, I maintain I have the right to know the return on investment of my tax dollars. Their right should not trump mine.

Senator Lesko also infers that vouchers will save money because the average voucher amount for students without special needs is $5,200, yet it costs $9,529 to educate Arizona’s average student in public schools. This is misleading because she is comparing apples and oranges and she knows it. The $9,529 figure she quotes is a total of all funding sources, federal, state and local (bonds and overrides) while the $5,200 is only state funding. So, if a student transfers from a district where state funding is offset by locally supported funding (due to the equalization formula), that student’s voucher will actually cost the state general fund more than if that student had remained in their district school. Lesko also notes that vouchers and school choice are a national trend as evidenced by President Trump’s nomination of Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education.

Oh no, she did NOT go there! Trying to sell vouchers as mainstream by pointing to Trump’s nomination of DeVos is akin to denying global warming by citing colder temperatures in parts of the country. After all, DeVos’ success with promoting school choice in Michigan has been dismal. In the two-plus decades she has championed this crusade (those knowledgeable about DeVos will understand my choice of that word), she has purchased legislative influence to expand charters and greatly reduce accountability. She has also worked hard to introduce vouchers in the state, but thus far, the voters have prevailed to keep those “wolves” at bay. And the improvements she has promised haven’t materialized with scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) for 4th graders declining from 28th in reading and 27th in math in 2003, to 41st in reading and 42nd in math in 2015.

According to the Arizona Capitol Times, the American Federation for Children (AFC) is pushing vouchers nationwide. I’m only going to give you three guesses as to who the chair of AFC is, and the first two don’t count. Yep, none other than Betsy DeVos. In addition to pushing for school choice and vouchers around the country, AFC has spent big bucks on rewarding those legislators working to expand privatization and punishing those who try to stand up for the 90% of students attending our nation’s districts schools. As reported by Richard Gilman on his website BringingUpArizona.com, AFC is a 501(c)4 free to pour dark money into political campaigns. And pour they have. Gilman writes, “Since its inception in 2010, the organization has poured nearly three-quarters of a million dollars into Arizona elections in a largely successful effort to sway the makeup of the Legislature.” The state’s “demonstrated appetite for school choice” is what AFC cites for its focus on Arizona. Of course, common causes make “strong” bedfellows and Gilman tracks AFC’s interest in Arizona back to Clint Bolick (once Vice President of Litigation at the Goldwater Institute and now AZ Supreme Court Justice.) Bolick served as the first president and general counsel for the Alliance for School Choice (AFC’s predecessor.)

But, I digress. The point is that no matter what snake oil the corporate reformers try to sell us, there is an incredibly well-funded, high-powered effort to have two school systems in Arizona. One is the commercial system of charters, private, parochial, virtual and homeschools that serve the whiter and wealthier students, and the other is the district schools, starved for resources, that will have the poorer, browner, and more challenged students to educate. According to recent polls, this is not what the vast majority of Arizonan voters want. But, until Arizonans clearly draw the nexus between voting for Legislators who don’t support our public district schools (most of them with an “R” after their name), and the fact that our district schools are way under resourced, nothing will change. If we want something different, we have to do something different. To continue doing the same thing and expecting different results, is as you know…the definition of insanity.