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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

The Perfect Haboob

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Can you hear us now?

Many questions remain unanswered about how Governor Ducey intends to fund his $648 million school funding plan which would provide a 20% bump to teachers by the 2020 school year and give schools $100 million for discretionary “additional assistance” next year. The Joint Legislative Budget Committee (JLBC) however, projects the state will face a $265 million cash shortfall in FY20 and $302 million by FY21. Not surprisingly I suppose, the Governor’s Office of Strategic Planning & Budgeting (OSPB), paints a rosier picture based upon “changing economic fundamentals.” They “note higher than expected job growth, and manufacturing growth that has accelerated to levels last seen before the Great Recession.”

Legislative Democrats however, aren’t buying the sustainability of the Governor’s plan and want it to be funded at least partly, with a tax increase. They also want to be brought to the table so consensus can be built. Gubernatorial candidate Steve Farley struck a moderate tone by saying “I’m willing to work with Doug Ducey. I’m running against him, but I want to get things done. We have an opportunity here that shouldn’t be missed.”

For some time now, education groups have been working on developing that opportunity with a couple of potential ballot measures. AEA favored an increase to income tax for high earners, while other education groups favored raising the Prop. 301 sales tax to a full cent, though they worried about the regressive nature of sales tax so they discussed options to mitigate. Now it appears, those potential solutions may have been sidelined.

I personally agree with The Republic editorial columnist Abe Kwok who thinks a ballot initiative for an education-dedicated tax versus a strike would have been the best way forward. Kwok writes, “It has the infrastructure: Tens of thousands of teachers [and coalitions such as AZ PTA and SOS AZ] who can mobilize and excite voters. It has the backing” [education supporters and business leaders]. And, “It has the motivation: Democrats simply don’t trust the Legislature.”

Be all that as it may, it looks like Governor Ducey may have preempted any such voter initiative with his proposed plan. Now, the statewide teacher walk out, set to start next Thursday, is the focus and all parties are scrambling to prepare. Superintendents across the state are polling their teachers to determine whether or not schools can be kept open, letters are being sent home to parents advising them to prepare for school closures, and a variety of efforts are underway to care for students in schools and in communities, even if instruction can’t occur. Phoenix’s 12News.com reports that Mesa Public Schools, with over 60,000 students, has announced it will close it’s schools for the duration of the walkout. And according to the AZ Daily Star, several charter schools in the Tucson area joined districts schools in voting for a walkout, and closures of those schools would be determined on a school-by-school basis.

Governor Ducey is also focused on teachers and schools, vetoing 10 bills yesterday, without regard to merit. According to The Republic, his veto message was, “Please send me a budget that gives teachers a 20 percent pay raise by 2020 and restores additional (school district) assistance. Ducey’s move came after his chief of staff, Kirk Adams, reported no progress following a 15 minute meeting with Republican House members.

For their part, GOP lawmakers share concerns about funding sustainability, citing doubt in whether revenue will plus-up enough from the “booming economy.” In addition, some apparently don’t want the money to go directly to teachers, but instead to school boards. State Senator Rick Gray, said “We don’t want to try and take the governing board’s job away from them, while Senator Sonny Borrelli, said he was ”uneasy micromanaging political subdivisions.“ State Representative Anthony Kern said that ”a majority of the Republican caucus do not want to be in the business of dictating teacher pay.”

Call me cynical, but I believe this sentiment has more to do with falling in line with a recently released Goldwater Institute memo than it does preserving local control. (A memo, which in my opinion, was designed to deflect blame for the school funding crises away from our Legislature and unfairly place it squarely on the backs of school boards.)

But, our GOP-led Legislature has proven time and again that they don’t value local control for our communities. They have consistently attacked local control for our communities and school boards, outlawing local decisions such as Bisbee’s plastic bag ban, Tucson’s melting of confiscated guns, Tempe’s dark money ban, and countless attempts (some successful) to curb school boards’ local control.

Even if the Legislature gets Ducey what he wants though, Arizona Educators United (AEU) and the Arizona Education Association (AEA) say they agree with the JLBC that his plan is not sustainable and that they’ll walkout unless they get:
– A system of future raises;
– No new tax cuts until state funding per student reaches the national average;
– Overall funding restore to 2008 levels; and
– Competitive pay for all education professionals, meaning support staff like counselors, reading specialists, lunchroom aides and custodians not currently included in Ducey’s plan.

Ducey’s spokesperson, Daniel Scarpinato, said the Governor is “willing to meet with anyone who’s interested in solutions”, but so far, that hasn’t included representatives from AEU and AEA. Some speculate that AEA’s endorsement of Ducey’s Democratic opponent in the Governor’s race, David Garcia, is part of the reason. And although Ducey is touting support from the Arizona School Boards Association (ASBA) and other groups such as the Arizona Association of School Business Officials (AASBO) and Arizona Superintendents Association (ASA), these groups see their role as negotiating with Ducey and the Legislature for a better result and to ensure his plan is implementable by school districts. For example, ASBA has secured the commitment of the governor’s office that there will be no changes in eligibility for Medicaid/AHCCCS to fund his plan, saying they would not support such a funding source. And in a statement to its members, ASBA wrote, “dueling analyses (of JLBC and OSPB) ASBA seem to demonstrate the state does not actually have enough revenue to support all the priorities the public deems a priority long-term. This may lead to a discussion about future revenue sources for K–12, which has been a core plank of ASBA’s political agenda. We would welcome such a discussion.”

It is clear that there are many different approaches to achieving a goal that all seem to now agree on – Arizona’s teachers must be more adequately compensated. After all, teachers’ working conditions are students’ learning conditions. That in itself, is no small achievement. But, if we can’t deliver on that goal, it doesn’t matter how much we agree.

A major stumbling block to “peaceful” resolution is obviously the lack of trust the public education community has in Governor Ducey. As Laurie Roberts, of The Republic, writes, “Ducey didn’t create the crisis in Arizona’s public schools. But in the first three years and three months of his four-year term, he didn’t do anything to fix it. Didn’t recognize that while he and his pals were focused on ways to boost private schools, the public schools – the ones attended by 95% of Arizona’s children – were suffering.” Roberts goes on to say that, #20by2020 (Ducey’s plan) may make for a “trendy hashtag”, but teachers know the funding for Arizona’s public schools is still almost one billion below where it was in 2008 when inflation is considered. And that doesn’t even include the billions in capital funding the state has withheld. The result Roberts says, “is 25-year-old biology books and roofs that leak. The result is rodents running amok and schools unable to afford toilet paper.” The result is a set of poorly paid teachers and support staff who are tired of being ignored and are now shouting “Can you hear us now?”

This next week is going to be a cliff-hanger for our entire state. One thing is fairly certain. If Governor Ducey and our GOP-led Legislature hasn’t yet adequately “heard” our teachers and other education advocates, incoming shouts from all corners of our state, will no doubt drown out their ability to focus on much else. This issue isn’t going away and our lawmakers better start thinking outside the box they’ve cornered themselves in.

Declare a win and fight on!

This past week, Governor Ducey bowed to pressure from fed-up teachers and public education advocates in releasing a plan to give teachers a 20% pay raise by 2020 and restore District Additional Funding. Although details on funding sources are slim, the Governor has said the plan will not simply redirect money meant for other school needs. He also stipulated the 20% for teacher raises would be added to the base so that it becomes permanent funding our districts and their teachers can count on.

There is, of course, much consternation about how this “sausage” was made. Truth is, discussions between education advocacy organizations have been underway for sometime about the best strategy to fight for teacher salary increases and other funding our districts desperately need. Then, last week, nine GOP legislators collaborated to devise their own plan. As reported on AZCentral.com, it included a 6% pay raise next year, with an increase for five years to a total of 24%. This plan left some education advocates calling it a “shell game” because it included no new money for schools, but a reallocation of available monies. When Governor Ducey got wind of the effort, he called in the legislators, along with several education advocacy organizations, to discuss a solution.

The solution is far from adequate as it still won’t restore our districts to 2008 funding, and doesn’t provide enough money to adequately compensate support staff, or take care of our crumbling facilities and replace capital equipment. If it actually comes to fruition though, it is a big step in the right direction. We should, as representatives from SOS AZ, AZ PTA and the Arizona School Boards Association (ASBA) have said, “declare a win, a win” and take credit for the effective work we’ve all done to move the Governor to this point.

I recognize there are many who don’t think the solution goes far enough and can’t say I disagree. Effective governance though, requires compromise and no, that is NOT a four letter word. Compromise is what is required if we are to come up with the best, viable solutions that will hopefully give the majority of people at least some of what they want.

As the President of ASBA, I will be proud (assuming the Governor delivers) of our Association’s achieving victory on three of the important items from our member-approved 2018 Legislative Agenda:
– Provide additional state funding for nationally competitive salaries to attract, recruit and retain talented teachers;
– Restore district additional assistance (DAA) reductions; and
– Maximize local control and flexibility in managing funds and programs.

In addition, we sought the “Renewal of Prop. 301” which was another of our legislative agenda items. And, thanks to the work of SOS AZ with some financial help from Friends of ASBA, we may also achieve success on the agenda item to “Repeal any program that gives public funds for private schools, ESAs & STOs or prevent any future expansion.”

Even though I believe we may have largely “won” this battle, the overall war rages on and we cannot yet put away our pens, our signs, and our voices. There is much left to fight for because although the 20% raise would bring the average salary for AZ teachers within $800 of the 2017 national average, funding for their support staff is still inadequate as is that for many other needs. And although, Governor Ducey has made higher state revenue, the rearranging of his budget priorities, and lower state agency caseloads sound like viable funding streams, we are right to be suspicious of exactly where from, sustainable funding will come.

As the saying goes, the “devil is in the details.” We must all demand those details from the Governor and keep the pressure on him to actually deliver on his latest promises. We must also ensure our education community continues to work together and does not allow a wedge to be driven between us. This is important because, even though we may have some different ideas on how to deliver for our districts, we all want more opportunity and better academic results for ALL our students.

In the end, the only thing that will ensure our state works toward that goal is the election of more pro-public education candidates. We don’t need to, as the Chicago saying goes, “vote early and often”, but we do need to vote wisely. It is beyond time for Arizona voters to draw the nexus between the results they want, and the candidates they elect. I choose to remain hopeful, because failure is simply not an option.

Hey Ducey: 19% of what is already owed, isn’t “new” money

When I went to bed last night, I intended to write a post in the morning about Governor Ducey’s unveiling of his school safety plan yesterday. Now, as I sit down to write, I learn of yet another school shooting, this one in Maryland. As of March 8th according to CNN, there had already been 14 school shootings in 2018 which averaged out to 1.5 per week. Delving into the numbers, only 2 of those are what I would call “mass shootings”. The rest of them, although they all occurred on school grounds, (grades K through university level), were either a result of gang violence, fights and domestic violence or accidental discharge where someone besides the shooter was shot.

I present this information not to minimize the other shootings but because yesterday someone shared with me that they heard some gun violence statistics that turned out to be misleading. Let’s face it, numbers can be sliced and diced to prove just about any narrative. In the end though, I say what does it matter and why focus on that? America’s school children feel unsafe in their schools…what are we doing about it?

Yesterday, Governor Ducey unveiled his school safety plan. My fellow blogger on Blog for AZ, “AZBlueMeanie”, again scooped me to the story and as usual, his writing is much better than mine. Basically, he writes, Ducey’s plan is to ’“harden” schools with more people armed with guns on campus – exactly the opposite of what student activists are calling for – and to throw a little bit more money at school counselors.’

What money will be allocated to all this is unclear. Ducey’s plan commits “$1.8 million over three years to modernize the reporting system law enforcement uses for criminal records and to populate the state’s background check system.” This, because law enforcement in the state has called the background system “ineffective” and only 63.6% complete according to a 2015 review by the Arizona Criminal Justice Commission. The hope is that a shift from the current paper-based model to computerized, will enable law enforcement to enter new records into the database within 24 hours versus the current standard of 40 days. This, says Ducey’s staff, could become a “model for other states to follow”.

The plan also includes $8 million from AHCCCS for increased mental health resources in schools. This funding will be available to schools for students whose families fall below 200% of the federal poverty level or, are covered by AHCCS or KidsCare. Schools that don’t qualify for this funding can use “new district additional assistance funding.”

I love this last line. You see…there is no “new” district additional funding (or really, much of any new funding). There is only district additional funding (or capital funding as it used to be called), that has been sucked out of our district schools. Over $2 billion since 2009 to be exact, leaving these schools with only 15% to maintain and repair their facilities and buy new busses, technology and other high cost items. The “new” district additional funding Governor Ducey refers to, is just his proposal to return some of that funding, $371 million (split between districts and charters) over five years. Please let this soak in. Governor Ducey is proposing that part of the solution to make our schools more safe, is to take some “new” proposed funding, (only 19% of what our schools need just to get back to where we were in 2009), and use this to help provide more mental health help for our students versus fix our crumbling facilities and unsafe busses. Although gun violence in our schools is deservedly getting the most attention right now, it isn’t the only critical safety issue our schools are facing.

I do want though, to give credit to Governor Ducey in two areas. First of all, he says he does not want to arm teachers. Hallelujah!! In my opinion, arming teachers is the stupidest idea I’ve heard in a very long time. I spoke recently with a teacher who was a Marine security policeman. He said if teachers are armed in the school where his children are enrolled, he will pull them out of that school. If I had kids, I would too. Arming teachers will not make our schools more safe.

Secondly, Ducey evidently also wants our state to be able to seize guns from those who are a danger to themselves and others. His plan includes “an emergency STOP (Severe Threat Order of Protection) order, in which law enforcement can petition the court to seize firearms”, an ex parte STOP order, allowing family members, guardians, school workers and others to do the same, and an extension providision for up to six months.

Governor Ducey’s plan does not however, address the “gun show loophole” allowing person-to-person sales of firearms to evade background checks. His failure to do so could negate the value of STOP orders, and it calls into question the ability to pass his legislation in a bi-partisan manner with House Dems calling his current plan a “missed opportunity”.

For their part, the Arizona School Boards Association released a school safety resolution to the state’s 1,200 school board members recommending each governing board considering passing such to call on our Legislature to take action to make our schools safer. The resolution calls upon “local, county and state public safety agencies to prioritize collaborative threat assessment and crisis planning with school districts and for Congress and state legislatures to pass legislation that: more effectively regulates access to firearms, provides funds above those needed for basic building maintenance and improvement for capital improvements shown to increase safety and security, funds public health research on issues related to gun violence, and advances mental health supports.” Association leadership was also in discussions with Governor Ducey prior to his releasing his plan.

I don’t know which of these ideas will eventually see the light of day and which ones will make a real difference. What I do know is that if we cannot begin to talk to each other about this problem (and it is a problem no matter how much of an ostrich anyone wants to be), and look for common ground, our children will continue to die violent deaths in our schools. And I don’t know about you, but I don’t want our schools to become fortresses, just safe places where our children can learn. Maybe that is the starting point.

A Cautionary Tale

Arizona may be at, or near, the bottom in many education related statistics, but when it comes to a school choice friendly environment, we are #1. That’s why, when executive committee members of their state school boards associations got together last year in Oakland for the Pacific Region National School Boards Association meeting, the Arizona team shared their story of eroding legislative support (funding and supportive legislation) for our district schools as a cautionary tale.

It all began in Arizona with the Legislature’s authorization for charter schools in 1994 and of course, open enrollment so parents could choose to enroll their children in any public school in the state, not just in their district. This mattered because 1) it told parents they were free to look for greener grass elsewhere, versus watering the grass they had, and 2) all that mattered was their child’s education, the hell with the rest.

Arizona’s first charter school opened in 1995. Now 180,000 students attend about 550 charter schools in Arizona equating to 16% of the students and 30% of the public schools. In 2010 in fact, Arizona had the highest number of charter schools per capita in the nation. The competition created with district schools wasn’t all bad. Many district schools offer fuller curriculums with more specialty programs than they once did. But, for corporate reformers, that wasn’t enough.

The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) ranks our state as #1 with regard to school choice policy. This should not surprise anyone, since ALEC has been aggressive in working with corporations and state lawmakers all over the country to create legislation favorable to school choice and the privatization of education. Likewise, the American Federation for Children (previously led by our new SecED, Betsy DeVos) has been very active in pushing school choice around the nation through both significant campaign contributions and strong arming of legislators.

These organizations and others with the same agenda, have enjoyed much success. When vouchers for private and parochial schools were first introduced in Arizona in 2009, the AZ Supreme Court deemed them unconstitutional since the state constitution (as most do) requires that “No public money or property shall be appropriated for or applied to any religious worship, exercise, or instruction, or the support of any religious establishment.” The Court stipulated though, “[t]here may well be ways of providing aid to these student populations without violating the constitution. School choice proponents such as the Center for Arizona Policy (CAP) jumped on that and according to their website, ”CAP and its attorneys were heavily involved in the drafting and development of this [Empowerment Scholarship Accounts or ESAs] program.” Then in 2013, the AZ Supreme Court, in Niehaus v. Huppenthal approved ESAs, (vouchers or Educational Subsidies for the Affluent as AZ’s 2016 Teacher of the Year calls them), saying that the fact the funding goes to the parent and the parent decides what to do with it, makes the program constitutional.

Initially, only students with disabilities were eligible for vouchers but the Arizona Legislature managed to expand ESAs each year to eight different categories including students living on tribal lands, wards of the state, military dependents, students from D or F rated district schools and more. Then, on April 6, 2017, the Legislature passed and the Governor signed, a law making all Arizona children eligible for vouchers. For now, there is both an annual cap of 5,500 and an overall cap of 30,000 by 2022. In addition, there is a by-grade implementation that staggers eligibility over several years.

With Arizona’s conservative and libertarian public-policy think tank, the Goldwater Institute, already promising donors they would eliminate the cap before the Governor even signed it into law, these speed bumps undoubtedly won’t be in place long. That’s because the end game for the corporate reformers and the lawmakers they’ve purchased is to commercialize our public schools. It doesn’t matter what innocuous name you give a voucher, it is still about siphoning taxpayer dollars away from our district schools, to private and parochial schools. And, vouchers aren’t the only way these tax dollars are siphoned away.

Remember I wrote that ALEC thinks Arizona is #1 in school choice policy? Well, that’s because we not only have open enrollment, charter schools, and Empowerment Scholarship Accounts, but also individual tax credits, School Tuition Organizations and the corporate tax credits that feed them. And yes, we even have legislators that have ownership of, or vested interests in, all of the above. But that discussion is for another day.

As for school tax credits, Arizona allows five separate types. There are three individual; one for public schools and two for private schools. The private school tax credit, begun in 1997, is now worth five times as much as the amount that can be claimed for public schools. Maybe that’s part of the reason why the program the legislative budget staff estimated would cost $4.5 million a year 20 years ago, topped $140 million in 2015 without including the $50 million in tax credits taken for public schools.

Tax credits were originally sold as a way to help special-needs and low-income students, but it hasn’t largely worked out that way. According to the AZ Republic, “Only about 3 percent of the money is designated specifically for special-needs students.“ As for the ”low-income” families, only 32% of the money went to them. Aside from the fact they don’t serve the most needy, tax credits divert funding away from the state coffers and in the case of district schools, give the taxpayers the impression they are doing their part to support public education when the reality is the funding isn’t really allowed for classroom expenses, but for extracurricular, fee-based activities. In the case of private schools, the tax revenue is diverted away from the general fund directly into private education.

Corporate tax credits are made to School Tuition Organizations (STOs) which are 501(c)(3) tax exempt organizations that must allocate at least 90% of their annual revenue to tuition awards for students to attend private and parochial schools. The two types of corporate tax credits allowed are one for corporate contributions for low-income students and another for displaced/disadvantaged students. The definition of “low income” though, is misleading. For these scholarships, a family of four with an annual income of $82,996, qualifies leading many to claim that the scholarships are going to families that could afford the private schools without the taxpayer welfare. Critics also say it is fairly impossible for the poor to benefit because even if they get a scholarship, they still have to come up with the rest of the tuition. Regardless of who else is benefiting from the tax credits, the general fund and therefore district schools and other critical programs and services are not. In 2008, three-fourths of Arizona companies paid only the minimum $50 in corporate taxes and with a 20% increase in cap allowed every year, the program is causing significant impact to the state’s general fund. In fact, the “low-income corporate tax credit alone is expected by 2025 to grow to more than $250 million a year.”

In the end, one thing has been abundantly clear here in Arizona. The corporate reformers are dead set on commercializing our district schools. That’s why every legislative session, we public education advocates gear up for battle and “look for incoming.” And that’s why, one of our favorite phrases is “sine die” which literally means “without assigning a day for a further meeting or hearing”, but in layman’s terms, signifies the end of the legislative session. It is a very sad state of affairs that rather than counting on our Governor and GOP-led Legislature to do good for our one-plus million district school students, the best we can usually hope for is for them to do no harm. This year, with the full expansion of vouchers, they did tremendous harm that will be hard to recover from. A word to the wise…if you give them (corporate reformers) an inch, they will take a mile and stretch it out to 10. Stay focused and vigilant, this really is a war and the stakes couldn’t be higher.

123: Show Me The Money!

Since the passage of Proposition 123, I’ve heard people ask where the money went. Did it really go to raise the salaries of Arizona’s teachers?

An August 2016 survey on Prop. 123 funding conducted by the Arizona School Boards Association and the Arizona Association of School Business Officials had 83 school districts (representing over half of Arizona’s students) respond. The survey largely reinforced the narrative that adequate compensation to attract and retain teachers towers as the top priority statewide. Most of the districts concentrated their Prop. 123 funding in teacher and staff bonuses for FY2016, and a full 74% of districts budgeted the additional FY2017 funds for the same.

Survey responses from across the state (21% urban, 24% suburban, 53% rural and 2% remote) affirmed the varied needs of our district schools and for locally elected governance. In some cases, the funding priorities were supplies, textbooks, technology and school building maintenance and repair, all of which support the learning environment.

The need to buy essential supplies and services with the funds should surprise no one. After all, the Arizona Legislature has cut more than $2 billion in district funding since FY2009. In addition to impacting the ability to fund the needs listed above, the cuts eliminated state funding for full-day kindergarten and ninth grade career and technical education students. Let’s not forget Prop. 123 provided no new funding to help offset these cuts. Rather, only 70% of what the voters had already mandated and the courts adjudicated. It was better than nothing, but after years of hollowing out district resources, the funding was rapidly absorbed by the many pressing needs districts had long deferred.

One clear example of those pressing needs is the severe teacher shortage facing Arizona. A recent survey of 130 school districts and charter schools conducted by the Arizona School Personnel Administrators Association found almost 8,200 teacher openings for the 2016-2017 school year. By August 28, 2016, 47% of these remained vacant or were filled by individuals not meeting standard teacher requirements.

With fewer college students pursuing a teaching career and a wave of teachers soon eligible for retirement, this problem is only going to get worse and is proof positive that Prop. 123 was not the solution, just a step in the right direction. Almost three-fourths of Arizona’s registered voters agree, stating in a recent Arizona Republic/Morrison Institute/Cronkite News poll they believe the state is spending “too little” on K-12 education.

Yes, Prop. 123 was a critical infusion of funding allowing districts some ability to more appropriately compensate our teachers and support other critical needs. Let’s be real, though. It didn’t even move Arizona out of our 48th place for per pupil funding which would have required double the funding from Prop. 123. That’s why Support Our Schools AZ and the Arizona Parent Network support funding for our district schools that ensures equity (regardless of ZIP code) and stability (critical to continuity of staffing and programming, which enables more effective operations.) State-provided funding and other support should respect that choice.

Our district educators have done more and more with less and less for many years, and ultimately, our students are the ones who suffer the lack of certified teachers in their classroom, higher class sizes, narrowed curricula, outdated technology and rundown facilities. It is incumbent upon each of us to remember those students when we vote today. The bottom line is if we want different results, we need to elect different candidates — pro-public (district) education candidates!

In Defense of Full-Day K

One of the topics of discussion at the recent Arizona State Board of Education was the need for full day kindergarten. The minutes of the meeting report that Phil Francis, CEO of Petsmart, “gave a presentation about the importance of full day kindergarten as a grade and the efforts to bring this to Arizona. The intention of the group, comprised of business leaders, legislators and parents, is to make kindergarten a grade with rigor, requirements, accountability and benchmarks.” Arizona State Senator Steve Smith also spoke at the meeting “as a parent and as a legislator in support of this initiative.” He said “his goal is to first find out if this is something that Arizona wants and then the legislature will find money during the budget process.”

I have several issues with both their comments. First of all, there is no research data that shows kindergarten should be “a grade with rigor, requirements, accountability and benchmarks.” In fact, Finland (generally considered the best school system in the world), does not even start their children in school until they are seven years old. Numerous studies show young children need time to play and that putting too much pressure on our youngest students may cause them to miss out on other critical development and lose a love of learning.

Secondly, I am suspect whenever Senator Steve Smith appears to support something good for public education. According to the Friends of ASBA (Arizona School Boards Association) annual legislator report card, Smith only voted for our district schools and their students half of the time last year and that was better than previous years. He has consistently been a proponent of school choice and the diversion of taxpayer public education monies to private and religious schools via vouchers. Call me cynical, but if Smith is in favor of restoring the funding to full day kindergarten, there’s profit to be made by commercial schools. Further Empowerment Scholarship Account (vouchers) expansion anyone?

The meeting minutes also stated that Lisa Fink, founder of Adams Traditional Academy, spoke against the initiative saying that “many of the gains of full day k are gone by the second grade. I’m not sure what research Fink is using, but I can point to plenty that shows her conclusion is incorrect. A 2004 National Center for Education Statistics longitudinal study showed a 32 percent gain in reading and 22 percent gain in math achievement for kindergarten students in full-day programs versus half-day. A more recent study (2014) showed a sizable learning advantage for full-day students. For Hispanic full-day kindergarteners, the advantage was nearly twice that of Hispanic half-day students. In a study of over 17,000 students in Philadelphia, researchers found that “by the time they reached the third and fourth grades, former full-day kindergarteners were… 26 percent more likely than graduates of half-day programs—to have made it there without having repeated a grade.”  The National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) Center says the advantages of full-day kindergarten include: higher long-term achievement, fewer grade retentions, higher self-esteem and independence, and greater creativity.

Where the gains have been less than obvious, it is likely due to outside factors. In 2008, another early childhood longitudinal study found that full-day students were statistically more likely to live below the poverty line and be of low birth weight and have unmarried parents who did not pursue education beyond high school. That is why researchers such as Chloe Gibbs at the University of Virginia, used students in her 2014 study who had a lottery to allocate full-day kindergarten slots, thus ensuring a random sampling. She concluded that full-day kindergarten produces greater learning gains per dollar spent than other well know early education interventions (such as Head Start and class size reductions.) It not only ensured all students did better, it also closed the literacy achievement gap between Hispanic and other students by 70 percent. This is important for several reasons. First of all, Hispanics are now the majority/minority in our Arizona’s district schools. Secondly, their achievement levels on the latest AzMERIT tests are lower than that of their white counterparts. Thirdly, Dr. Rottweiler, reminded the Board that “the same year we created move on when reading to increase literacy scores, we cut the funding to full day kindergarten.” In other words, at the same time the Legislature cut funding for full-day kindergarten, they enacted a law to hold students back who couldn’t read adequately by the third grade. Talk about tying the students legs together and then asking them to run….

Sometimes though, “fadeout” (an apparent loss of gains as the student progresses through school) does occur. Studies documenting the phenomenon though, “often show better adult outcomes—better health, higher earnings, etc.,” than for students who didn’t have the full-day kindergarten experience. Additionally, there is no consistency across states for kindergarten programs. Quality matters and it really matters with our youngest students.  The National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) Center says the advantages of full-day kindergarten include: higher long-term achievement, fewer grade retentions, higher self-esteem and independence, and greater creativity.

One advantage of half-day kindergarten that matters to the Arizona Legislature is undoubtedly the fact that it costs less; $218 million less in 2010. Of course, the program cuts may not have been just about offsetting the state’s revenue shortfall. Cutting full-day kindergarten forced a choice on districts to either a) just offer half-day or b) trim other services (increase class sizes, eliminating art or music, cutting athletic directors) to pay for it. No matter which decision districts made, it hurt their ability to be fully successful. Not offering full-day kindergarten meant they might lose potential students who would likely have stayed through graduation. Since districts are funded on a per-student formula, this translates into lost funding. And I know there are those thinking “if the kid leaves, the cost of educating him leaves as well, so what’s the problem?” The problem is that districts have numerous fixed costs that continue to exist in full whether or not students attrit out (or never come in.) These include costs such as that for utilities, facility and grounds maintenance, and personnel.

Fortunately, there were others at the Board meeting who “get it.” Janiene Marlow, H.R. Director at Cave Creek USD, reiterated to the Board that “Full Day K programs are crucial.” Channel Powe, Balsz Elementary School District Board Member, also testified in support of full day kindergarten. Jack Smith, Yavapai County Board of Supervisors, spoke as a parent and discussed how kindergarten spring-boarded his children to success.

Of course, a move back to full-day kindergarten will cost significant monies. Kelley Murphy, from the Arizona Community Education Association (AZECA), stressed that in order to implement this in statute there must be a designated funding source. Remember that in his comments at the meeting, Senator Smith said, “the legislature will find money during the budget process.” I can guarantee you he is not talking about raising additional revenue to fund full-day kindergarten. I’m guessing he means the legislature will look at the K-12 budget to see what they can cut to fund it. Keep in mind that even after the Prop. 123 monies, Arizona is still 48th in the nation in K-12 per-pupil funding. Arizona’s GOP-led legislature is just not concerned and/or focused on truly improving the educational outcomes for the 80-plus percent of Arizonan students that attend our district schools. That’s why I’m only partially excited about the potential restoration of funding for full-day kindergarten, even though I think it is critical. It, like any other initiative we pursue in K-12 education, is not a silver bullet. It must be pursued as part of a comprehensive educational system. It must also be funded to a level that will help ensure a quality program. Junk in after all, produces junk out.

The hard truth is that as long as we accept mediocre support for our district schools, they will have a very hard time producing stellar results. The fact that some districts are excelling at the highest levels and most others are continuing to improve, is a testimony to the underpaid and undervalued but totally dedicated educational professionals in 230 community school districts around the state. They do it because they love the kids. Both they and the kids deserve much better.

A Tale of Two States

As a kid, one of my favorite authors was Charles Dickens. In his 1859 novel, A Tale of Two Cities, he “depicts the plight of the French peasantry demoralized by the French aristocracy in the years leading up to the revolution.” Hmm, peasantry demoralized by the aristocracy…that reminds me of something…wait, I’ll think of it. Maybe, it is the fact that the 62 richest people in the world now own more than the poorest half? In fact, their wealth has increased 44% since 2010 while the bottom half’s has dropped by 41%. And in the U.S., the wealth inequity is now worse than at any time since the Great Depression. The Walton family alone owns more wealth than 42% of American families combined and CEO-to-worker pay-ratio is 354-to-1. Americans haven’t taken to the streets with pitchforks (the “Occupy” movement aside) to demand “off with their heads” yet because for the most part, they still believe in the American Dream. That is if one works hard enough, they can move up the economic ladder. The truth is more like comedian George Carlin joked: “the reason they call it the American Dream is because you have to be asleep to believe it.”

Although reference to the concept of the American Dream was made as early as the 1600s by those who came to America from England for the chance of a better life, it was most likely “codified” in the Declaration of Independence, which proclaims that “all men are created equal” with the right to “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Part of this right and critical to achieving the dream are the opportunities to receive a good education and work that provides at least a living wage. But, the game is now stacked. Stacked in favor of the wealthy, stacked in favor of corporations, stacked against the middle class who is increasingly squeezed, and stacked against children who don’t come from a family of means.

Of course, everyone has a different idea about how to “unstack” the deck. In fact, as I mentioned earlier, some don’t even see the deck as unfairly stacked. I am firmly in the “”deck is stacked” camp and believe if we don’t start to make progress at turning the tide, pitchforks may be in our future. In Arizona, Governor Ducey thinks the way to move our economy forward is vouchers and charter schools, no individual state income tax and very little tax on the corporate side, and oh yeah, the “sharing economy.” Really, a “sharing economy”? Could it be that Ducey and I agree on something? I mean, I think it would be great if we would all share equally in our economy. After all, when Arizona’s top 1% pays only 4.6% of their income in state and local taxes while the bottom 20% pays 12.5%, we could really use some sharing. What you say? He was referring to “sharing” type businesses like Über and Lyft where the services are cheap and convenient, but the workers have no rights or benefits? Oh, okay, that sounds more like current Arizona leadership.

Just for kicks, let’s look at another state’s version of the way forward. Interestingly, Massachusetts has almost exactly the same population as Arizona, 6.8 million. Both states also have the Tea Party in common although with Massachusetts, it is mostly in their past (as in Boston in 1772) and in Arizona it is very much in the present.

Politically, Arizona is GOP led with no statewide Democratic leaders and both the state senate and house under GOP control. Massachusetts conversely, is almost entirely led by Democrats with the exception of their governor who is a Republican. Given the political parties’ priorities, it should be no surprise then that MAZ vs MAassachusetts ranks much better in education and child well being than Arizona. What may surprise some though, is that while Arizona’s economy ranks 25th in the Nation, Massachusetts’ comes in at #6.  

Why might you ask? Well, I have a few theories and as you can imagine, the state’s prioritization of public education is at the top of my list. Take Career Technical Education (CTE) for example. It produces significantly higher graduation rates than traditional district high school programs, often provides living wage jobs to graduates, and helps provide skilled workers for the employers who so badly need them. It is, by all accounts, a win-win-win. Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker obviously gets this as indicated by his recent proposal to add an additional $83.5M for vocational education.   Included in this is a $75 million five-year capital program to finance grants for school equipment and expansion an additional $8.5 million for grants for “school-to-career connecting activities.

At the same time, we have Governor Ducey objecting to restoring the $29 million in cuts to CTE made in last year’s budget. Instead of embracing the AZ Legislature’s veto-proof coalition to restore the funding, Ducey wants to only restore one-third of the funding for only three years and, attach a variety of strings to the money including a requirement for business matching of the funds. This despite a plea for repeal of the cuts signed by 32 business and education leaders as to the importance of CTE.

Maybe Governor Baker just had better advice than Governor Ducey. Tim Murray, a regional chamber of commerce president who toured 64 votech and agriculture education programs when he was the Lieutenant Governor of Massachusetts, said “the single biggest need” of the business community “regardless of the size of the company, regardless of the sector” is a “pipeline” of available workers. Surveys of 352 employers and 475 parents recently conducted by The Dukakis Center in Massachusetts revealed that 90% of employers see a need to increase CTE graduates, while 96% of parents had a favorable opinion of the CTE programs they children attend.K-12 az ma

But wait, there’s more. I believe one of the best determinants of the value someone or an entity places on something is what they are willing to pay for it. Massachusetts obviously values education. I know there are those of you ready to say: “there are plenty of examples of more money not producing better results.” Yes, that is true. But in almost every case, I’d be willing to bet where money doesn’t help, there are significant social issues outside of the schools that keep students from learning and achieving. It is obvious, by Massachusetts’ #1 ranking in education achievement, that their money is well spent.

Of course, as mentioned earlier, we know there are factors outside of the school that determine how children do in school. Massachusetts has lower unemployment, their residents earn higher salaries and they are less likely due to lose their homes to foreclosure. Their residents are also better educated, safer, and healthier. They also have fewer disabilities, likely from the better health care they experience. It should be no surprise that Arizona also has four times the adults in state prison as does Massachusetts, spending hundreds of millions more in this area. Yet, Arizonans are no safer with over double the murder rate.

Some claim that Massachusetts is more successful in some areas because society is more homogenous with 74.3% of its residents being white as opposed to only 56.2% in Arizona. There may be some truth to that since unfortunately in the U.S. today, socioeconomic status often has to do with the color of one’s skin. But, Arizona is doing little to address this issue even though our state’s share of white K-12 students dropped below 50% in 2004 and Latin@s K-12 students are on the cusp of breaking 50%. One example of this blind eye toward the problem is new HB 2401 sponsored by Vince Leach-R SaddleBrooke. The bill, titled “Schools; Desegregation Funding; Phase-Down” phases out funding for desegregation expenses, a cut of about $211 million dollars. These funds will hit some of our most vulnerable children, about 22,500 English Language Learners (ELL) and leave high performing magnet schools, such as Phoenix Union’s Metro Tech High School, without their primary source of funding. It is in two words, extremely shortsighted. Learning English is critical to these student’s future success and by extension, that of our state. They will either be contributing members of our society or drains on it. This is a clear example of “you can pay me now, or you can pay me later.”

So let’s recap. Massachusetts performs better than Arizona in education, child welfare, health and safety, the economy and many other areas. Yes, taxes are a little higher ($1,706 per person in 2013), but look what you get for your money! I’m well aware of course that this line of reasoning will fall on many a deaf ear that think the only good government is a starved one. It can’t be said enough though that taxes are not bad or good, they are the price of living in a well-functioning society with a decent quality of life. There are many things such as education for all and safety that are best provided by the government. It our duty (the voters) to determine our priorities for our hard earned tax dollars and then elect candidates that will ensure those priorities are provided for and secured. That is how we keep ourselves free.

 

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?