Groundhog Day

We held another petition signing event at our house over the past couple of days and it occurred to me what long shots citizen driven ballot initiatives are. And, that they are often, reactive, not proactive. It may feel as though we are in the driver’s seat when pursuing ballot measures, but just as in Vegas, the “house” always wins, it seems that no matter what statutory changes we can force, the Legislature will always figure a way to fight back.

The real answer of course, is that we MUST take back the Legislature, or at the very least, one of the chambers. We do that by building a bench of qualified candidates through training them, supporting them with funding and ground game, and then winning seats on school boards, water boards, fire boards, city councils, and in county government.

Unfortunately, it takes time to be strategic and we are running out of that time. While the Democrats were focused on the White House during President Obama’s time, Republicans were busy taking over state governments. In fact, 29 state legislative chambers in 19 states flipped from Democratic to Republican during Obama’s presidency. Of course, Arizona Democrats lost control of our Legislature way back in 1966 and haven’t won it back since.

And although Arizona is one of the 13 states that use independent redistricting commissions to exclusively draw electoral districts boundaries, Democrats can’t necessarily count on that effort to help us. Yes, if the district boundaries are fairly drawn, demographics could deliver wins for Democrats. But, those who would vote for Democrats have to actually show up to vote and the Legislature is working hard to put even more roadblocks in their way. A good example is the July Supreme Court decision that gave states more latitude to impose restrictions on voting. The Arizona laws that drove the SCOTUS decision were that 1) voters who vote in the wrong precinct, will not have their vote counted and 2) it is a crime for any person other than a postal worker, an elections official, or a voter’s caregiver, family member or household member to knowingly collect an early ballot – either before or after it has been completed. Adam Liptak, for the New York Times, wrote:

[A]mong the most consequential in decades on voting rights, and it was the first time the court had considered how a crucial part of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 applies to restrictions that have a particular impact on people of color.

This SCOTUS ruling, no doubt helped clear the way for Texas to recently enact a slew of new voting restrictions, “including limits on early voting hours and other measures opponents say will raise new barriers for marginalized voters, especially voters of color, who tent to vote Democratic, and those with disabilities”. Where Texas (and Florida) go, can Arizona be far behind?

So, Democrats can win in Arizona if we can get liberals and left-leaning (or maybe just reasonable) independents to vote. Unfortunately, that’s a huge “IF”. Many of the people we need to vote are people of color who already feel disenfranchised or don’t trust the system, and the GOP’s incessant attack on those same people’s ability to vote, just makes it that much harder to persuade them to step up.

Of course, we can’t give up. We just have to be focused and strategic. That’s how Stacey Abrams and a network of activists, ten years to flip Georgia. In an interview with Politico before the 2020 election, she said,

“When you’re trying to not only harness demographic changes but leverage low-propensity voters, you cannot simply hope that they’ll hear the message. You have to treat them as persuasion voters. Only the message is not trying to persuade them to share Democratic values.  Your message is to persuade them that voting can actually yield change.”

So, Arizona Democrats need to focused, strategic, cohesive and demonstrate where we have the power, we know what to do with it. We need to use every opportunity to demonstrate that we know how to make government work. We also need to develop a bench of candidates to move up through the system. We do this by not leaving any seats unchallenged without Democratic candidates. And, we ensure those candidates receive training and support before they hit the streets. At the same time, we’ll need to continue to pursue whatever means we have to push back on the terrible laws our Legislature enacts. For now, at least, those means are initiatives, referendums and recalls which have been a part of Arizona’s governance from the beginning with women’s suffrage, passing by a margin of greater than two to one in 1912.

Both referendums and initiatives are processes for collecting and verifying signatures. According to the Arizona Secretary of State’s Initiative and Referendum Guide, “An initiative is the method by which voters may propose new laws or amend existing laws”, and a referendum is “the method by which voters may veto a law (or part of a law)”. A petition refers to the physical piece of paper used to collect signatures in order to qualify for the ballot. Recalls are a way to remove office holders who weren’t responding to their constituent’s wishes. 

The process for initiating initiatives is fairly simple, consisting of gaining clearance from the AZ Secretary of State to circulate a petition and then gathering the required number of signatures from registered voters. “If the signature requirements are met, (statutory changes require a number of signatures equal to at least 10 percent of the last gubernatorial vote, 15 percent for a constitutional initiative), the measure is placed on the next general election ballot for voters to decide by a simple majority.

But bringing an initiative home is another matter entirely. According to Dr. David R. Berman, Senior Research Fellow at the Morrison Institute for Public Policy, 425 initiative petitions had been “taken out” between 1970 and 2013, but only 67 (16%) made it to the ballot. And, less than half of those (32) were approved by voters, “making for an overall success rate – from petition to passage – of just 8 percent.” In fact, Berman writes that a “commonly employed rule of thumb is that one out of four gathered signatures will be rejected – often because the signee is not officially recorded as a registered voter.” 

And although Arizona has led the nation in using the Internet for voting-related matters such as online voter registration, to include gathering signatures for candidates, our Legislature has not supported making the initiative signature gathering process simpler. They’ve effectively ensured the signature gathering process is cumbersome (as in requiring that petition signers may not touch any part of the box lines on the petition as they fill them out) and expensive (upwards of $1 million for a statewide effort).

And sometimes we are our own worst enemy when we run numerous ballot measures in the same election. Of course, the Legislature doesn’t help by placing multiple ballot measures of their own on the ballot.

In his 2013 report titled, “Initiative Refore in Arizona: Exploring Some Ideas”, Dr. Berman expressed concern about a large number of ballot measures appearing on the ballot at the same time:

“[W]hen faced with a large number of initiative propositions, voters are less willing or able to examine each individual proposition in detail. In this situation, many decide not to vote – in any given election, 10 percent to 25 percent of those who vote for candidates at the top of the ballot fail to vote on one or more of the proposition measures. Others play it safe by simply voting “no” on all or most of the propositions. Those who plunge ahead and vote on numerous initiatives may wind up voting for something they do not like or against something they do like. In either case, they may later regret their decision.”

It gives me pause then, to have had six petitions lined up for signature at one time. Three, seeking to repeal voter suppression laws and three to repeal laws designed to circumvent Prop 208 (to raise more funding for schools), by implementing a new flat tax rate. The final petition in circulation at this time is a Voter’s Right to Know initiative to stop Dark Money from influencing our elections. This is our third try for this one. And according to Ballotpedia, there are six other ballot measures that were filed with the Secretary of State’s office, as well as three Legislature driven referendums that will be on the ballot.

What are the chances voters will take the time to understand these laws and then vote to repeal them? Isn’t there already a problem with voters taking time to vote down ballot even when they do show up to vote? I am concerned about the viability of these efforts. Yes, Arizonans have had some recent success with initiatives such as Props 123 and 208, but seven initiatives (plus whatever else comes) are a lot for voters to get behind.

And although signing petitions makes voters feel like they’ve taken real action, in the end they may just feel even more discouraged when yet again, we are unsuccessful in driving change. If we really want things to change, we must be laser-focused on gaining seats in the Legislature. Otherwise, we’re just watching Groundhog Day on automatic replay.  

We Invest In That We Value

The recently released ASU Morrison Institute report titled “Finding & Keeping Educators for Arizona’s Classrooms”, offers a myriad of interesting insights into Arizona’s teacher shortage. Like the fact that 22% of new teachers hired in AZ between 2013 and 2015 left after their first year on the job and of the new teachers hired in 2013, 42% were not in the AZ Department of Education (ADE) database by 2016.

We know teacher attrition rates – about 8% over the past decade in the U.S. versus 3–4% in high-achieving nations like Finland and Singapore – are a problem. Our national price tag for teacher turnover is in fact, estimated to be $8 billion per year. With the rate ranging from under 9% in Utah to the high of 24% in Arizona, it is clear our state owns a higher than average share of this cost. But, cost isn’t the only factor as “High teacher turnover rates have been found to negatively affect the achievement of all students in a school, not just students in a new teacher’s classroom.”

A 50th ranking for elementary teacher salaries obviously has much to do with this. And although wages for all occupations across the nation actually rose by 2% between 2001 and 2016, teacher salaries have remained flat. In Arizona, elementary school teachers are actually now paid 11% less and high school teachers 10% less than in 2001. This dearth isn’t helped by our state’s low cost of living either. Although we are “only” 49th in secondary teacher pay, when compared to Oklahoma’s lower cost of living, Arizona drops to 50th.

It should have been no surprise to anyone then, that one month into the 2016–17 school year, our state had over 2,000 classrooms without a teacher and another 2,000 with an uncertified one. This despite the fact districts recruit from other states and even other countries to attract qualified candidates. According to the Morrison Report, many graduates from Midwestern colleges come to Arizona to gain two or three years of experience so they can return to their home state and get a teaching job. It appears that increasingly, “Rural Arizona districts may be importing inexperienced teachers and then exporting high-value veteran teachers back to the Midwest.” States surrounding Arizona have also been busy addressing their own teacher shortages by luring away ours. The median salary for California teachers is $30,000 more than in Arizona (even adjusted for the higher costs of living in California) and $10,000 to $15,000 higher in Nevada and New Mexico, making it enticing for AZ teachers to either move to those states or just work across the borders.

Of course, the competition has only become more fierce in light of dropping teacher education enrollments across the country. Between 2009 and 2014, institutions saw a 35% reduction in these enrollments. And, although Arizona prepares almost double the number of teachers as compared to its total teacher workforce of other states, it still isn’t enough. In 2015, there were 1,601 bachelor’s of education degrees granted by the three state universities, yet 8,358 teachers left the ADE teacher database that year. The shortfall is only exacerbated by an increase of district school enrollment of 53,000 over the last five years. In addition, a full 24% of Arizona’s current teachers are eligible to retire by June 2018, so this problem isn’t going away.

What is really sad, is that we know what needs to be done, we just don’t have the political will to do it. The truth is, that in America, we invest in that which we value. If we aren’t paying teachers what they are worth, we are telling them they aren’t worth much. That’s just the bottom line. But it isn’t just about money as teachers also report that working conditions like class sizes, competent and supportive leadership, a school’s testing and accountability environment, and teacher autonomy are also important factors. In the Morrison Report, one rural elementary teacher said, “While an increase in pay would help, I feel a lighter workload and more respect from the community, students, and political leaders would be more beneficial.” I ask you, is that REALLY too much to ask?

Throughout history, K–12 teachers have probably rarely entered the profession for the money, and ironically, that has likely worked against them. Willing to work for less — because of their commitment to their students — has made some value them less. And yet, these are the very people responsible for our precious children a large portion of each day. How’s that for irony?

Misogynistic Malfeasance

What is going on with K–12 teachers in Arizona’s district education systems is nothing short of malfeasance on the part of the state and ultimately, on the part of the people. We have allowed our teachers to be disregarded and undervalued to the point that one must question why anyone would care to be a teacher. Truth is, today very few are choosing that route.

Four weeks into the 2016–2017 school year, Arizona saw 53 percent of its district classrooms without a certified teacher; over 2,000 had no teacher and another 2,000 had an uncertified person at the head of the class. Part of the problem is recruitment and retention. In fact, an upcoming report from ASU’s Morrison Institute for Public Policy, states that 85% of rural school and 77% of urban administrators say hiring new teachers is somewhat or extremely difficult. The report also states that Arizona is losing more teachers than bachelor of education degrees produced by its three state universities. Turnover is high, with 22% of teachers not teaching in state after one year and 42% of them leaving the profession within three years.

Probably one of the biggest problem is teacher pay that is rock bottom lowest (50th) in the nation. In fact, elementary school teachers here are paid 14% less than in 2001 and secondary teachers are paid 11% less. Governor Ducey’s response for next year’s budget is to give teachers a 0.4 percent pay raise amounting to $187 extra next year on an average salary of $46,384 in 2016. I don’t know about you, but an extra $187 per year wouldn’t convince me to do anything I hadn’t already decided to do.

This paltry teacher raise isn’t the only funding boost to education Ducey is recommending, as he’s proposed a total of $113.6 million for K–12 education next year. But, in light of the fact that per pupil funding is $1,365 less than it was in 2008 (adjusting for inflation) that amount is not even a drop in the bucket compared to the $1.43 billion that has been cut.

The Legislature (including some Republicans) is going a step further in proposing a one percent raise for teachers, which would amount to an additional $430 per year at a total cost of $31 million. Democratic legislators and AZ Schools Now, a coalition of education groups, are advocating for a four percent raise which would give the average teacher an annual boost of $1,720 by freezing corporate tax cuts. Even this amount though, would still leave Arizona teachers $8,616 short of the U.S. average annual salary for teachers.

Why this isn’t something all of us are screaming bloody murder about is, I’m sure, multi-faceted. The most obvious is it doesn’t support the agenda of school choice proponents. After all, from Betsy DeVos and her American Federation for Children, to Michael and Olga Block and their BASIS empire, to Senator Yarbrough and his cash cow School Tuition Organization, raising the salaries of Arizona’s district teachers just isn’t a high priority. But, there is likely a more insidious reason, one that most people probably never think of, and that is the fact that most K–12 teachers are, and traditionally have been, women.

Back in 2014, a teacher in Portland named Nikki Suydam, penned a guest opinion published by the Oregonian on oregonlive.com. In it, Ms. Suydam pointed out that “blaming women for society’s problems is as old as the story of Eve in the Garden of Eden, or Pandora and her box of woes, or every medieval witch hunt spurred on by crop failure or plague outbreak.” “Contemporary education reformers” she wrote “have launched a similar witch hunt to root out ”rotten apples“ from a profession still more than 75 percent female.”

She goes on to make the point that “No similar reform movement targets doctors (65 percent male) for our nation’s spiraling obesity epidemic. America’s dentists (78 percent male) are not held responsible for their patients’ tooth decay. Law enforcement officers (80 percent male) are not blamed for crime statistics. Nor are engineers (78 percent male) ‘held accountable’ for the crumbling U.S. infrastructure.”

And yet, teachers (three-fourths of whom are women) are often vilified for any lack of success in today’s public district schools. This, despite the fact that 20 percent of Arizona’s children live in poverty and the vast majority of these children attend district schools. This despite the fact that Arizona is 48th in the nation in per pupil spending. This despite the fact that our Governor and Legislature continue to push for ways to siphon more tax dollars away from our district schools.

Let’s face it. Whether we are talking about homemakers, or nurses, or teachers; professions traditionally filled by women just don’t earn the same respect and salaries of those dominated by men. We really should get past this old paradigm though, and not look at who does the work, but what work is done. After all, for most people, their child is their most precious “possession” and they turn over the care of this precious possession to a teacher for six to eight hours each day. Shouldn’t we want these teachers to be highly skilled, appropriately valued, and sufficiently compensated?

Numerous studies have looked at teachers’ impact on student achievement. A 2012 research study by the RAND Corporation, found that “among school-related factors, teachers matter most.” The study also found “When it comes to student performance on reading and math tests, a teacher is estimated to have two to three times the impact of any other school factor, including services, facilities, and even leadership.” Steve Seleznow, President and CEO of Arizona Community Foundation and a former school administrator said, “Teacher pay and support is a proxy for how highly we think of students and their education…If we value the education our children receive, we must provide teachers compensation commensurate with those values.”

Every parent knows that children are sponges and they are really good at picking up on the dissonance between our words and our actions. When we undervalue our teachers, on some level, our children know we are undervaluing them as well. And that my friends, is a really, really sad state of affairs.