Our very different pains rhyme

During this week of Martin Luther King Day, I’ve found myself reflecting on both the state of equity in America and my personal journey toward the greater understanding of such.

In the Air Force, we received annual training designed to teach respect for differences and promote the value of diversity. We were taught that in spite of any “deeply held beliefs”, we must not act in a manner inconsistent with Air Force values. The Commander of Air Mobility Command General Darren McDew, wrote in 2015 that,

“Diversity is part of our DNA. America’s strength is even greater than the sum of its parts. Our best qualities as a nation shine through when we embrace different cultures, backgrounds, and ways of thinking.”

While serving, I felt the Air Force believed this ideal even if it wasn’t always successful at achieving it.

It wasn’t until I retired from the Air Force and managed a nonprofit with social justice as one of its core tenets, that I gained deeper insight into the meaning of equity. In fact, I was some 50 years old before I can remember hearing the term “white privilege”, especially used in reference to me.

The job was an ill fit for a hard-charging retired Colonel who wasn’t really prepared for the vastly different culture I would encounter. One example was my effort to learn more about each staff member by taking them to lunch. One of my goals was to learn what was important to them and how I could support them. One, an African-American transgender male, seemed very distrustful of me and was not interested in opening up to me or helping me navigate the new environment. He indicated early on that I didn’t understand and when I asked him to help me understand, he said that wasn’t his job. I was incredibly put off by his response and did not try again to reach out to him.

A decade later I understand more about what he meant when he said it was not his job to make me understand. When I think back on it now, I’m mortified at how ignorant I was about the real state of equity (or rather inequity) in America. I credit the Arizona School Boards Association for much of my increased awareness and understanding. I’ve gained great insights via attendance at conferences, tuning in to webinars, being a part of the Black and Hispanic and Native American Indian caucuses, or just talking to the very diverse membership. I’ve also enhanced my understanding of equity challenges by reading a variety of books and articles on the subject.

One such book is “A People’s History of the United States” by Howard Zinn. According to the publisher’s summary, it “is the first scholarly work to tell America’s story from the bottom up – from the point of view of, and in the words of, America’s women, factory workers, African-Americans, Native Americans, the working poor and immigrant laborers.” My perspective is that it lays bare, the truth about American exceptionalism. Yes, our founding fathers set out to create a “more perfect union”, but they did not do it on their own. They did it through a combination of grit and ruthlessness and on the backs of those who largely, were not white.

White settlers n America and the soldiers that paved their way, were for all practical purposes, a conquering force. And let’s face it, those being conquered always get the raw end of the deal. As we know though, America’s indiginous people were not the only ones used, abused and slaughtered. There has always been some group of people who paid the price for the rest of us to succeed and prosper. Another book I recently listened to, poignantly drove that message home. It is a novel called “Washington Black” by Esi Edugyan and tells the story of the fear and brutality of slavery in the 1800s.

These books helped me understand the sins of our American past that set the stage for the inequities many of our citizens continue to experience. I’ll be honest, I didn’t really understand that connection earlier in my life. I didn’t understand what impact centuries of systematic oppression could have on people living today. I didn’t know that poverty is the greatest barrier to student success and that those students in poverty are overwhelmingly of color. I certainly didn’t know about our discriminatory policies such as “redlining” to deny blacks homes in certain neighborhoods (still happening today), that insidiously creates barriers almost impossible to overcome.

These aren’t the only barriers that seem almost impossible to overcome. According to the Pew Research Center, in the twenty-five years they’ve been surveying Republicans and Democrats about how they view the other party,

“the majority of respondents in both parties answered ”very unfavorable“ for the first time in 2016. More than half of Democrats (55%) say the Republican party makes them ‘afraid’ while 45% of Republicans say the same about Democrats. And just half of the members of both parties say that the other party makes them feel ‘angry’.”

I’m not trying to equate racial hatred and oppression with political polarization. Isn’t it all though, tied together in some way? Hate crimes in the US are up by 20% since 2016 and in the first three months of 2017 alone, anti-Semitic incidents were up by 86%. We know it has always existed, but a political environment unmoored from norms has unleashed the ugliness.

That’s why I was drawn to a book called “The Opposite of Hate: A Field Guide to Repairing Our Humanity”, by Sally Kohn. Tired of the 24/7 vitriolic bombardment and of feeling helpless to affect the change we need, I was looking for some nuggets of wisdom. Kohn offered many such nuggets, primarily gleaned by going into the field to talk to people in situations where they have every reason to hate, but then overcame that inclination and exhibited just the opposite. From the Palestinian vs. Israeli conflict, to the Rwandan genocide, to the real and very painful hate played out everyday in our own country (on-line and in-person), Kohn provides hope via examples of people who have “listened to their better angels.”

“Our identities and experience in the world in our skin aren’t the same”, she writes, “but can we all perhaps notice how, as the writer Anand Giridharadas says, ’our very different pains rhyme”’?”

LOVE this! We all are after all, just and equally, human.

Unfortunately, that concept often eludes us. The concept of “cultural hegemony” Kohn writes, is that

“whereby the worldview of the elite becomes the accepted social norm. The dominant view in the United States that white people should rightfully have more privilege and power is a form of cultural hegemony. And groups who benefit from hegemony don’t see their own bias – they just think that’s the way things should be. As the saying goes, ‘When you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression.’”

So, not understanding that I have “white privilege” doesn’t necessarily make me a bad person, but not being willing to learn about it and work to mitigate its potentially deleterious impacts (at least on a personal level), just might. As Kohn points out, “writer Audre Lorde suggests that forgiveness is injustice:

“Black and Third World people are expected to educate white people as to our humanity. Women are expected to educate men. Lesbians and gay men are expected to educate the heterosexual world. The oppressors maintain their position and evade their responsibility for their own actions. There is a constant drain of energy which might be better used in redefining ourselves and devising realistic scenarios for altering the present and constructing the future.”

So, I suspect, my former employee didn’t want to waste energy trying to educate me, when he didn’t believe I would either “get it”, or be part of the solution.

I understand now that the equality is not the same as equity. I also understand that the real question is not whether we are biased but rather how much bias we have and what we do to counteract it. Research shows it benefits all of us to do just that. We know that racial and ethnic diversity is great for communities, increases home values, and lowers crime (without putting up fences and gates). It also raises the achievement of all students in a school, not just those disadvantaged. But, as Kohn points out,

“it is too easy to believe that poverty and crime afflicting urban black communities is their fault, not seeing it as the result of centuries of violence and oppression, economic discrimination, and white flight. Just as it’s too easy to believe that poverty and crime afflicting rural white communities is their fault, not the product of discrimination and perverse health system incentives and the massive shift of manufacturing jobs from those rural towns to overseas. Because if it’s their fault, then there’s nothing for us to try to understand, let alone have to address. If it’s hard enough to overcome our own individual prejudices and biases, overcoming systemic hate is an even steeper uphill battle.”

Key to “Repairing Our Humanity” according to Kohn, is understanding our commonality.

“All hate is premised on a mind-set of otherizing. It doesn’t matter whether that “other” is someone of a different color, or gender, or race, or political party. The sanctimonious pedestal of superiority on which we all put ourselves while we systematically dehumanize others is the essential root of hate. In big and small ways, consciously and unconsciously, we constantly filter the world around us through the lens of our explicit and implicit biases [which we ALL, every single one of us has]. We think we’re good people, but we don’t see how that sphere of moral concern is constricted by hate, by the history and habits and culture of who matters and who doesn’t in our society, which we have all bought into, whether we mean to or not. The opposite of hate is the beautiful and powerful reality of how we are all fundamentally linked and equal as human beings. The opposite of hate is connection.“

One great example of this concept is the movie ”Green Book” which I just saw. I won’t go into it here, but trust me, it is a great illustration of the difference connection can make.

So, connection is key, but so is the personal responsibility to work for it. We must, as Kohn writes,

“become more conscious of our own hate – in all its forms, and work to catch and challenge our ideas and assumptions. We must support policies and institutions that bring us together, rather than divide us.”

That, she writes, will take talking to each other differently. “With the generosity and open-mindedness and kindness and compassion of connection-speech, instead of hate.” Again, a pearl of wisdom from Anand Giridharadas in a 2017 speech,

“Real change is systemic and self-implicating, urging us to see our role in vast, complex problems.”

We ALL, each and EVERY one of us, have a responsibility and role to play, to get us out of the gutter. No one has a free pass that relieves them of that responsibility.

Kohn spoke to me throughout her book to include this sentence,

“I haven’t arrived at some place of enlightenment. I’ve simply realized I need to turn on the light – and start noticing things differently and trying to be different.”

There is not a person on earth who does not have a bias. Realizing our biases exist is the first step. The second one is taking the required actions to see through them so you can be a part of the solution versus part of the problem. Mahatma Ghandi said we must each, “Be the change that you wish to see in the world.” And as the ancient Chinese saying goes, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”

We Get What We Deserve

Wow! I normally think of Laurie Roberts as a fair-minded reporter with a pro-public education bent. I don’t know what happened to her this morning, maybe she ran out of leaded coffee and had to drink decaf. At any rate, I couldn’t let her opinion piece, “Does Arizona really need 236 school districts?” go unanswered.

First of all, the answer is no. But of course, this isn’t the sort of question that can be answered with a simple “yes” or “no” because there are so many variables that must be factored in. For example, I was recently on the Diné (Navajo) reservation where even relatively close to Tuba City, the students must travel over REALLY bad roads for over an hour each way every day to get to and from school. Could we do more to consolidate district schools on tribal lands? Maybe a little, but I’m guessing opportunities would be very few and far between.

Sure you say, but that’s a really different situation than what they have in downtown Phoenix. Yes, that’s true, but I’m guessing there are other unique circumstances in those schools and the voters elect locally elected governing boards to make decisions about what is best for their students and their communities. Do they always get it right? No – no one ever does. But, they are closest to the action and have the best chance of making the right calls.

Roberts finds it curious Governor Ducey has never shown interest in merging school districts. I seriously doubt she really finds it curious and suspect she understands that this is a hot potato issue the Governor would rather just keep off his plate. And as for Robert’s claim that Governor Napolitano’s plan to reduce the number of districts went down in flames because “school officials fired up torches in defense of ‘local control’”, I don’t believe that was where the main pushback originated. If school officials were fighting the consolidations, I’m betting it was because their parents and community members were pushing them to do so. What parent after all, wants their child on longer school bus rides than necessary, or further away from home during the school day?

As for her assertion that “On average, school districts in Arizona spend a woeful 53.8 percent of their budget in the classroom”, Roberts knows this is “woefully” misleading. Here’s the facts about what public district schools spend in the classroom and what they spend on administration:
1. Yes, Arizona districts spent 53.5 percent of their available operating dollars on instruction in FY 2016 per the AZ Auditor General’s Arizona School District Spending report. But, the Arizona School Boards Association disagrees with what is included in that “classroom spending” and the Governor and Arizona Legislature agreed back in 2015. That’s because the AG’s report doesn’t count instructional support (5.7 percent) and student support services (8.2 percent). These areas include physical and occupational therapists, reading and math intervention specialists, media specialists/librarians, counselors and social workers. All of these specialists are critical to a student’s academic success and when included, take the total amount of classroom spending up to 67.4 percent.
2. Even at that, as Roberts points out, Arizona districts spend less on administration than the national average. My research shows we spend only 67 percent of the U.S. average spent on administration, not just the one percent she cites. Even assuming she is correct, the important point is that we do better than the national average.
3. For all their touting of efficiencies gained due to their relief from bureaucracy, Arizona charter schools spend DOUBLE the amount on administration than do district schools.

She really loses me though, when she opines, “if the school lobby succeeds with its plan to soak the rich with a massive income tax hike….” Words have meaning and it is by no accident that she chose “lobby” and “soak”. I mean, imagine if she’d wrote the sentence this way: “if public education advocates succeed with their plan to more fairly distribute additional taxation to ensure our districts are funded just at 2008 levels….”

Besides, if you want to make a case for efficiency of public school operations, how about we start exercising more control over where charter schools can build and operate. Does it really make sense for a Legacy Traditional Charter School to have been built in Peoria a couple of years ago for 1,500 students when there were 8 “A” and “B” rated schools WITH capacity, within a two-mile radius of where the charter went in? And that’s just one example of the waste generated via the lack of accountability in a state that is intent on siphoning taxpayer dollars away from its public schools with little transparency to the process.

The bottom line is that district schools, with their locally-elected governing boards, open meeting law requirements, and procurement rules, (unlike charters and certainly, private schools) offer the greatest degree of accountability and transparency of any school choice option. But…for the system to work, the public must be informed and engaged, and government MUST provide the checks and balances. Just like with government at large, we get the public schools we deserve.

The Bucks Stop Here

The latest talking point about education funding coming out of GOP leadership at the AZ Legislature is that “teacher raises are the responsibility of school districts, not the state.” Senate Education Committee Chair Sylvia Allen, recently said this as week as that districts “did not use Prop 123 monies to give teacher raises” and then that “some did and some didn’t.” And, she made the point that districts also used the funds to give administrators raises.

Well, technically, she is not wrong. School district governing boards are responsible for approving the budgets for their districts, or rather, how those budgets are sliced and diced. Some districts used more of the Prop 123 monies than others to give teachers raises. And, yes, some administrators were also given raises, but keep in mind that these “administrators” aren’t necessarily just district superintendents and principals. The administration line item also includes business managers, clerical and other staff who perform accounting, payroll, purchasing, warehousing, printing, human resources and administrative technology services. And, even if some districts gave raises to superintendents and principals so what? Truth is, the state has a shortage of these personnel as well.

Toward the end of 2016, the Arizona School Boards Association asked 83 districts across the state how they used their Prop 123 funds for FY2016 and how they budgeted for them to be used for FY2017. The survey showed that a majority of the school districts spent the 2016 funds on teacher or staff raises. For 2017, 75 percent was budgeted toward compensation increases. Some districts were forced to also use the funds to restore cut classes and programs, purchase classroom resources and technology, replace out-of-date textbooks, make overdue facility repairs, and replace old buses.

Let’s face it, Prop 123 provided very little “new” funding to school districts, it really was just 70% of that which was already owed. It did not provide sufficient monies to make up for increasing general operating costs and severe funding cuts made by the state – $4.56 billion since 2009. These cuts included $2 billion to capital funding (including technology, textbooks, desks, building repair and maintenance and school bus purchases) and $1.5 billion for full-day kindergarten (which many districts still provide out-of-hide because it is critical to student achievement.) The Legislature also currently funds just 20% of what the law requires them to for building of new schools and major school repairs via the School Facilities Board. That’s why public education plaintiffs have filed another lawsuit (the first suit over this same issue was in 1994) to force compliance with the state’s obligation to “adequately fund the capital needs of public schools under a 1998 court ruling.” In fact, Arizona is one of only a handful of states still cutting today, even in a steadily improving economy. Because of these cuts, district governing boards have been faced with very tough decisions about which holes to plug first and as the ones closest to the ground, they are the right ones to make it.

But, it is totally disingenuous of Senator Allen to intimate that school boards “chose” to not give their teachers sufficient raises. First of all, the vast majority of districts did give teachers significant raises (my very small district for example, gave 7%.) Secondly, forced to deal with the highest cuts in per pupil funding in the nation, Arizona school districts are not even remotely close to the “self-actualization” level on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, but just barely at the safety and security level. District leaders are faced with daily decisions about how best to just keep students safe in light of deteriorating facilities and aged buses.

Allen and her legislative cronies can deflect all they want, but the state constitution is clear, “The LEGISLATURE shall enact such laws as shall provide for the establishment and maintenance of a general and uniform public school system…” STATE lawmakers, not school district governing boards, are responsible for ensuring adequate funding for the “maintenance of a general and uniform public school system.” District governing boards may have responsibility for slicing up the pizza pie they are served, but just like a personal pan pizza won’t serve a family of four, state education funding that has been cut 23.3% since 2009, just doesn’t provide enough to go around. And, with the 0.6% state sales tax funding from Prop 301 set to expire in 2021 (not to mention the Prop 123 monies disappearing in 2025), it is only going to get worse. If only Senator Allen would remember and act on the saying: politicians think of the next election, leaders think of the next generation. And just in case she didn’t quite understand the nuance, President Truman’s famous saying appropriate here is “the buck stops here”, not “the bucks stop here.”

Manufactured Crises

The AZ Capitol Times reports that although Governor Ducey is disavowing any connection to the effort, the GOP’s attack on Arizona’s public (district) schools is far from over. Sean Noble, the political hack running the two 2018 ballot measures though, “funneled millions into Ducey’s 2014 campaign through dark money groups.”

The first initiative would require 60 percent of district funding to be spent in the classroom, (per the U.S. Department of Education.) The second initiative looks to “cap executive pay in K–12 public schools at no more than twice the average teacher pay in the same school district or the highest salary a principal receives within that district, whichever is lower.”

What the hell? I mean, the ink isn’t even dry on the full expansion of vouchers and now the GOP is again trying to stick it to our district students by allegedly solving a problem that doesn’t really exist.

First of all, it is telling that Noble defines classroom spending as “defined by the U.S. Department of Education.” What???? Defer to the Feds about how to do something in Arizona? He obviously knows there is a disconnect in our state between how the AZ Auditor General defines classroom spending and how the Governor, Legislature, and public school leaders define it. The AZ Auditor General defines classroom spending (or instruction) as: “Salaries and benefits for teachers and instructional aides; costs related to instructional supplies, such as pencils, paper, and workbooks; instructional software; athletics; cocurricular activities, such as band or choir; and tuition paid to private institutions.” Our lawmakers though, agree with the Arizona School Boards Association’s (ASBA) definition of what they call “classroom support” which includes funding allotted to “instructional support and student support.” This categories include reading and math intervention specialists, librarians, counselors, speech pathologists, physical therapists, nurses and social workers which due to the high number of Arizona students who live at or below the poverty line, is critical for students to be successful in the classroom. “In 2015, the definition made it into state law, when the governor, legislators and educators agreed that a more holistic approach was required. As a result, the state’s budget for fiscal year 2016 identified student support and instructional support services along with instruction as the categories that support classroom learning.” This should therefore, be no need to turn to any guidance from the U.S. DOE on what defines classroom spending.

Defintion aside, Arizona districts do a good job of ensuring they are spending their limited monies where they will most matter. In FY 2016, the total amount for classroom, instructional and student support amounted to 67.4% which is down only slightly from the 68.3% in 2001. Chuck Essigs, director of governmental relations for the Arizona Association of School Business Officials, notes that is “a very small decline given the many significant cuts to school district funding over this period of time, including the elimination of funding for full-day kindergarten and the current annual cut of over $350 million to district additional assistance.” Likewise, an ASBA analysis determined that, “Arizona’s classroom spending continues to be impacted by its low per-pupil funding which is ranked 48th in the nation, students who are poorer than the national average, higher plant operations costs due to extreme temperatures and high transportation costs to serve rural and remote areas.” In fact, over the last 9 years, the Arizona Legislature has cut District Additional Assistance (monies used for textbooks, technology, items like desks and school buses and building repair and maintenance like fixing roofs and plumbing and repairing air conditioners) by two billion dollars, forcing districts to redirect funding they would otherwise have spent in the classroom. In total, our state has cut $4.56 billion dollars to public schools since 2009 – leading the nation in per pupil cuts. This is important, because all categories of costs don’t shrink evenly when a budget gets cut. Fixed costs (such as teacher numbers constrained by numbers of students), and those associated with utilities, building maintenance, and transportation for example, remain, and then eat up a bigger piece of a smaller pie.

I couldn’t find the US DOE definition of classroom spending Noble refers to. I did find a discussion about “instruction” spending. According to the National Center of Education Statistics (NCES), this includes “salaries and benefits of teachers and teaching assistants as well as costs for instructional materials and instructional services provided under contract.” On their website, the NCES noted that in 2013–14, instruction percentages were 61% of current expenditures. They also said that these expenditures peaked in 2009–10 (shrinking across the nation since then.)

The initiative to “cap executive pay”, is equally misleading. First off, “cap executive pay” makes it sound like our Superintendents are CEOs of giant corporations living the good life. No, that would be ACTUAL CEOs of corporations, not school district administrators. Secondly, Arizona public school administrative costs are below the national average at 10.4% versus 10.9%. And oh by the way, many of these “executives” are in small rural districts, where their jobs are nothing like that of a CEO. “The New York Times reported that, ”In the Miami Unified School District east of Phoenix, the superintendent is also a grant writer and the principal of the elementary school is also in charge of keeping the toilets running, as the district’s director of maintenance.” As for Arizona superintendents being overpaid, not so much. The median school superintendent salary in the U.S. as of March 31, 2017 was $151.636. Although the Phoenix median approaches this number at about $150,000, the median in Tucson is only $137,396 in Lake Havasu City it is $123,108, and in Sierra Vista, it drops to $119,199.

It might be noted by the way, that Arizona’s critical teacher shortage isn’t the only shortage our districts are facing. In 2015, the superintendent turnover rate was the highest seen in the past five years. That same year, of the 45 superintendent openings in the spring, seven were still unfilled by July and 28 were filled by a person with no superintendent experience. And just like 25% of our teachers are eligible to retire by 2020, so were nearly 50% of working superintendents between the ages of 56 and 60, planning to retire soon. Dr. Debra Duvall, former executive director of the Arizona School Administrators Association, said she suspects superintendents are fleeing for many of the same reasons teachers are, basically, that both educational resources and salaries have been stagnant or declining for the past decade. Usurping the local control authority of locally elected governing boards to apply an arbitrary cap, is certainly not the way to turn the tide on our ability to recruit and retain the quality superintendents we need in Arizona.

What we all know this is really about, is continuing to plant the lie in the public’s mind, that district schools are inefficient bloated bureaucracies and that commercializing our schools is the way to go. At least in Arizona, nothing could be further from the truth! If fact, if you want to talk about excessive spending on administration versus instruction, charter schools take the cake. Arizona charter schools spend twice the amount on administration ($1,451 versus $804 in FY2016) as do district schools. And also in FY2016, charter schools spent only 55.33% on classroom instruction, supplies and student support compared to district schools which invested 61.99%.

In short, these “problems” Noble seeks to solve with his initiatives, are manufactured crises, not reality. Of course, he won’t be deterred, saying he has “a ‘couple’ of wealthy Arizonans lined up in support of the plans.” I would just caution him not to allow his wealthy donors to reward the legislators with a free lunch celebration in the event he is successful. Speaker of the Arizona House J.D. Mesnard wisely realized the optics of this with the free lunch offered lawmakers by the American Federation for Children (Betsy DeVos was the chair prior to her SecED gig) after the voucher expansion passage. It doesn’t play well to pass laws that screw over our kids (while benefitting rich donors and corporations) and then do a victory lap around the Capitol.

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!

The Rest of the Story…

The editor of the Scottsdale Independent, Terrance Thornton, recently wrote, “the idea of choice has created a competitive public school marketplace.” I agree with his premise that school choice created competition, but add that competition is, by definition, a zero-sum game. For a charter school to “win” a student a district school has to “lose” both a student and the funding associated with that student.

Counter to what those who advocate for backpack funding would have you believe, the loss of a student is not without consequences for a district. This, since fixed costs (utilities, food, and transportation), consume almost 19 percent of per pupil funding in Arizona. In fact, Moody’s, the bond rating agency, just issued a report stating that “charter school expansion poses the risk that schools will not be able to adjust to the loss of revenue, since even if the student population drops at a district school, schools still must pay for costs like transportation and infrastructure.” And, oh by the way, don’t even get me started on the whole concept of “the funding belongs to the student.” I disagree vehemently and quote fellow blogger Peter Greene who writes, “the funding belongs to the taxpayer.” Amen brother!

In this competitive environment, district schools are forced to doing everything they can to well…compete, despite a funding level per-pupil that makes Arizona 48th in the Nation. That includes ensuring the public knows about their achievements. Even with the availability of social media, this takes money, which of course; district leaders would prefer to spend in the classroom. Unfortunately, marketing is one of the necessary “evils” of the competition forced on districts.

Thornton alleges that school board members “know very little about how the system works.” Not true. As a school board member, I am very aware of “how the system works” and I am continually impressed with fellow board members I meet from around the state. We take our elected but unpaid “jobs” very seriously and regularly attend training to keep up-to-date and learn more. The vast majority of board members are reelected to multiple terms by their constituents because they believe in the leadership they are providing.

I must say that some of the words Thornton chose seem to have a bias against district schools. For example, he wrote “established spending thresholds…allow a district to allocate funds…free from public scrutiny.” There is no expenditure of taxpayer dollars a district can legally make that is free from public scrutiny. Although at times the public must make official requests to see the information, transparency and accountability of taxpayer dollars is just one of the attributes that sets district schools apart from the commercial schools. In the case he described, the law was written to provide some procurement efficiencies (like a business would use) to ensure only those purchases above a certain level go through a public bidding process. He seems to imply that the use of commercial vendors to provide services to districts is a problem. That is though, exactly how a business would operate since usually, outsourcing a service that is not your core product is less expensive and more efficient than maintaining all those capabilities in-house.

Interestingly, commercial schools are often touted as being much less bureaucratic than district schools. It should of course, be easy to be less bureaucratic when there are very few, if any requirements to be transparent and accountable to the taxpayers. But, at least in the case of Arizona’s charter schools, their administrative expenses are double that of district schools. You read that right…charter schools in our state spend twice as much on administrative costs as district schools. How’s that for less bureaucracy?

As for the “hundreds of thousands of dollars” both Scottsdale and Paradise Valley Unified School Districts “allocate to [their] communications department[s]”, I offer two questions. First, what is the average marketing expense for a business with an operating budget equal to that of these districts? Second, how much of this funding for these districts’ “communications departments” is actually for advertisement of teacher job openings, or to fund the maintenance of the district website (primarily for the use of district parents), or for the safety of students in the form of emergency notification services (as Thornton points out in his article?) And, while we are on the subject of funding allotted to “communications departments”, it might be worth noting the amount per student of that funding. At Paradise Valley Unified (PVUSD), the “communications” costs work out to be about $5.50 per student, while Scottsdale BASIS spent about $37 per student on marketing expenses, almost seven times as much as PVUSD. This despite the BASIS.ED CEO’s contention that “effective social media campaigns have gone a long way in promoting” their schools and that “the key is word of mouth.”

Finally, yes, BASIS enjoys a fair amount of academic success but so do many district schools around the state. In fact, in the 2016 U.S. News and World Report, half were charter schools (three of them BASIS) and half were district schools. As a news professional, I am sure Thornton is well aware there is always much more to any story. Too bad he didn’t feel the need to share all sides in this one.

 

 

 

Competition hurts money in the classroom

Corporate reformers of public education claim schools should operate more like businesses and although that mindset may bring some efficiencies, it can also result in less money in the classroom.

One example is the latest effort by the Education Finance Reform Group who has hired Jonathan Paton to “educate stakeholders” on behalf of participating districts.  Educating stakeholders is not new, the Arizona School Boards Association (ASBA) has been doing it for a long time.  A private, non-profit, non-partisan organization, ASBA provides training, leadership, and essential services to more than 240 governing boards representing nearly 1 million students in Arizona.

What is new however, is the competition for students that both corporate reformers and open enrollment have driven.  Competition in business helps ensure only the strong survive.  Competition in public education pits district schools against charters, private schools, home schools, and even against each other.  It drives the need for districts to include marketing line-items in their budgets such as the $54,000 per year Phoenix Union High School District spends.  It also lures away the very students and parents who if they stayed, could help make a difference for all.

I’m not advocating parents shouldn’t put their children first and foremost.  I understand they want the best for their own children.  But, I also agree with what John Dewey said over a century ago:  “What the best and wisest parent wants for his child, that must we want for all the children of the community. Anything less is unlovely, and left unchecked, destroys our democracy.”  It is natural for parents to care the most about their own children.  But, we’ll all have to live with these children when they become adults, whether or not they are well-educated, productive citizens.

There is a better way.  Arizona lawmakers could acknowledge that: 1) our K-12 per pupil spending (50th in the nation) is linked to our subsequent education performance (49th in the nation), 2) our teacher shortage is a crisis caused by low pay and even lower morale, 3) quality businesses looking to relocate to Arizona care more about an educated workforce than they do about tax breaks, and 4) all schools accepting taxpayer dollars should operate under the same rules for transparency and accountability. Finally, they could acknowledge that despite having open enrollment since 1994 and leading the nation in the number of charter schools, their formula isn’t working for our children!

There are some business practices that make sense for schools to adopt.  Public community schools however, are in the business of educating our children, not turning a profit.  Until we focus our efforts on ensuring all Arizona’s children have every opportunity to succeed, we haven’t addressed the problem.  And, until lawmakers step up to this reality and tackle it head-on, it’s all just smoke and mirrors.

1 http://azcapitoltimes.com/news/2015/07/06/group-seeks-funds-to-market-positives-of-public-schools/

2 http://azcapitoltimes.com/news/2015/07/06/group-seeks-funds-to-market-positives-of-public-schools/