Teach for America is NOT the Answer!

Arizona Legislators think spending $2 million on Teach for America (TFA) recruits is a solution for “supporting our teachers?” Get real. You don’t support teachers by bringing in “scabs” to take their jobs or, by claiming that young college graduates, with five weeks of training are “highly qualified teachers.” You support teachers by providing them what they need to do their jobs and paying them equitably.

I get that politicians want quick wins to show their constituents. But as the saying goes, politicians think of the next election, leaders think of the next generation. We need more leaders who understand sound bites don’t equal solutions. Using TFA corps members to supplant much more qualified teachers in an attempt to save long-term costs (such as earned retirement entitlements) is a short-term outlook that only hurts our children in the long run.

TFA recruits have shown some slightly higher gains on students’ assessments over comparable new teachers, but these “wunderkids” are far from the solution to our teacher shortage. Turnover, always a challenge with new teachers, is much higher with TFA recruits with 56% of them leaving after their initial commitment is up and a full 85% leaving by their fifth year.[i] TFA founder Wendy Kopp’s description of the organization as a “leadership development organization, not a teaching organization” is likely part of the problem.[ii] Corps members aren’t usually drawn to the program because they want to become teaching professionals. Their “gig” in the classroom is a jumping stone to more.

The real problem with using TFA corps members in place of teaching professionals though, is that it reinforces the thought that “if you can, you do…if you can’t, you teach.” Until we recognize that teaching is a critically important profession and invest in the education and retention of these valuable professionals, our country will never move the needle forward on education achievement. I wouldn’t consider five weeks of training sufficient for my doctor, lawyer, or accountant and I don’t consider it enough for our teachers.

Helping our schools succeed isn’t rocket science, but neither will it be easy. Money isn’t the total answer, but it is part of the equation. Yes, we have a teacher shortage in Arizona, but we can’t succumb to the quick fix. The solution lies in: 1) paying our teachers equitably so we can attract and retain the best, 2) keeping classroom sizes moderate so teachers can give each child the attention they deserve, 3) providing well-rounded curriculums that allow our children to explore their interests and fortify their strengths (since we never know where the next Einstein or Maya Angelou will come from) and 4) providing stability for our schools, staffs and students so they can focus on quality and growth, not churn and burn.

Diane Ravitch, our nations’ leading public education advocate, said recently at Lehigh University that: “public schools are the people’s schools, their doors are open to all…public education must be, as we once hoped, a bastion of equal opportunity. Public education is a public trust. It is not a business opportunity.”[iii] When a politician claims they support education, listen for the word “public” as part of their claim. If they don’t say it, they don’t mean it and don’t truly support quality education for everyone. It really is that simple.

[i] http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2011/10/04/kappan_donaldson.html

[ii] http://www.thenation.com/article/179363/teachers-are-losing-their-jobs-teach-americas-expanding-whats-wrong?page=0,1

[iii]https://www1.lehigh.edu/news/case-public-education

#AZEDSpring

When it comes to Arizona funding for public education, I just don’t get why the public body isn’t in the streets with pitchforks. Please walk down memory lane with me on the matter of voter mandated inflationary funding for school districts:

2000

  • AZ voters mandated (Proposition 301) the state sales tax be raised by 0.6 percent and that the money be spent on annual inflation increases for schools.

2009

  • Lawmakers quit providing the annual boosts for inflation.
  • The Arizona School Board Association (ASBA) and the Arizona Education Association (AEA) offered to “move on” if the Legislature would only begin to comply, but they refused.
  • Several school districts, ASBA and AEA filed a lawsuit to force compliance.

2011

  • A Superior Court Judge ruled Prop 301 did not require the Arizona legislature to annually inflate education funding for Arizona’s public schools.
  • The plaintiffs filed an appeal.

2013

  • AZ Court of Appeals reversed the lower court.
  • AZ Supreme Court ruled with the Court of Appeals that the inflationary increases must be paid.  The decision emphasized that the Voter Protection Act limits the legislature’s power to modify voter initiatives and referenda.
  • The legislature began paying the increases again in the 2013-2014 budget year.

2014

  • The trial court ordered the base level funding be reset to the level it would have been if it had been inflated properly over the last five years (estimated to be $1.6B over the next five years.)
  • The court also ordered an evidentiary hearing be held on whether the state should pay the $1.3 billion in inflationary funding not given the districts from 2010 to 2012.[i]
  • The parties in the lawsuit agreed to mediation in an attempt to resolve the matter.[ii]

So where are we now, seven months after the ruling the monies must be paid? Yep, that’s right, nowhere. Not only has the Legislature refused to comply with law and judicial order, but they continue to further cut the public education budget. This legislative session, three new expansions of voucher eligibility have passed their committees of origin as has a bill to make it even harder for Districts to pass bonds and overrides. In addition, Governor Ducey is proposing a five percent reduction to “non-classroom” expenses.

Then yesterday, the House Education Committee gave a “due pass” to basically dump the Arizona College and Career Ready Standards “common core.” This, after our school districts have spent huge amounts of financial and human capital since 2010 to implement these standards. Statewide, the costs are estimated to have been $156M just for the 2013-2014 school year, and that doesn’t consider the turmoil caused by changing course yet again.[iii]

Okay, so to recap, the Legislature has refused to comply with both the people’s mandate and with judiciary orders for the same. In addition, they are working on legislation to divert even more taxpayer dollars from public education to private providers and, the Governor’s budget looks to cut another $113.5M from district budgets across the board, as with a sequestration.[iv]

Are you kidding me? It is beyond time for us to demand our representatives listen to us. I’m calling for an Arizona Education (AZED) Spring . Yes, that’s a play on the Arab Spring. Of course, I’m not looking to start a real revolution; I’ll leave anything to do with guns to our legislature to obsess over. What I do hope for though, is for the public body to wake up after a very long hibernation that has allowed our representatives to continue to ignore the will of the people and the rule of law. I’d love to hear what you think.

[i] http://www.azcentral.com/story/news/politics/2015/01/11/arizona-school-funding-lawsuit-settlement-talks/21590417/

[ii] http://azcapitoltimes.com/news/2015/01/23/schools-legislature-agree-to-use-appeals-court-to-resolve-inflation-funding-suit/

[iii] http://www.azsba.org/advocacy/resource-center/

[iv] http://www.bizjournals.com/phoenix/news/2015/01/16/ducey-melts-tourism-education-budgets-proposes.html

A million here, a million there, pretty soon we’re talking real money…

Yesterday, I was listening to NPR and heard a story about how Arizona House Bill, HB2128 just passed the third read and was transmitted to the Senate. This bill allows those who lease land to churches to claim a tax exemption as a result. The law change will result in an additional $2.1 million from the state’s general fund ending up in private coffers instead. Yet another example of our representatives looking out for the privileged few versus the average Arizonan.

Okay, $2.1 million isn’t all that much compared to a state budget of about $9 billion, but it all adds up. I started thinking what our district schools could do with $2.1 million. Again, just a drop in the bucket compared to what has been shortchanged our schools over the last few years, but it would help us begin to make a dent in the need.

Although my primary focus tends to be early childhood education when discussing where to apply resources, $2.1 million wouldn’t even begin to address the need. Arizona does not fund full-day kindergarten, let alone preschool, so although I believe quality early childhood education is critical to improved outcomes, I also recognize it will take some real political courage and time to get us there.

When considering mission success in the Air Force, we were taught to consider what limiting factors (LIMFACS) could impact our chances. The fact that poor children start school having heard as many as 30 million fewer words than their wealthier counterparts is a significant LIMFAC that quality preschool can help address. Another LIMFAC in Arizona is our significant shortage of school counselors. Arizona does not mandate school counselors, but their benefit is well documented.[i] They work as a team with school staff, parents and the community to help all children achieve academic success by providing education, prevention, early identification and intervention.[ii] “Counselors generally spend 80 percent of their time with students, and the remainder of their time collaborating with teachers implementing Arizona’s College and Career Ready Standards, supporting testing, and using test data to create, monitor and evaluate student academic interventions. Helping students develop strong interpersonal skills, and identify and cope with social, emotional and mental health issues is an equally important part of the job, at all grade levels, and one being felt more acutely in some parts of the state.”[iii] The downturn in the economy created significant stressors for families, especially in rural areas and a school counselor can really help bridge the gaps.

Sadly, Arizona leads the nation (only California has a higher ratio) in counselor to student ratio. The American School Counselor Association recommends a 1:250 counselor to student ratio. The national average in the 2010-2011 school year was 1:471 and the Arizona average was 1:861.[iv] Why is this important? To understand how significant this is, one needs only to look at the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s “Kids Count Databook” which ranks states in four categories (economic well-being, education, health, and family and community) to determine child well-being within each state. For 2014, Arizona ranked 46th in the nation overall and 44th in education. [v]

Obviously, Arizona’s children have significant stressors placed on them. Counselors in schools can do much to help identify and address these stressors before they manifest themselves in a variety of less than desirable ways. After the Sandy Hook shootings, there was much discussion in Arizona and around the nation about putting school resource officers (cops) back in schools or even more drastic, arming teachers. Under the guise of “an ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure”, I believe our efforts and money would have been much better spent on ensuring every school had a counselor.

So, back to the $2.1 million the AZ Legislature just gave away to wealthy property owners. Assuming a counselor costs a school district about $60K (with benefits), the $2.1 million the legislators just voted to siphon out of the general fund could pay for 35 school counselors. Granted, that would only meet about 3.5 percent of the additional need, considering Arizona’s deficit just to meet the national average versus the idea. But, it is a start. In my small school district (about 450 students) our administrators, teachers and staff are stretched thin. Both the superintendent and the principal also teach advanced math classes, must provide coverage for student watch duties and, the principal is the grant writer for the district. It is hard for them to be everywhere at once and a counselor would go a long way to ensuring the health and well being of all students.

The Arizona Legislature is marching steadily on in their assault on public education. Their refusal to look for additional revenue, while also finding new ways to divert taxpayer dollars from the public sector to the private sector continues to widen the gap between the haves and the have-nots and is not producing better outcomes for the majority of Arizonans. We, the public, really must wake up and demand better. Of the people, by the people, for the people. The common denominator in all that is “the people.” If we aren’t involved, we can’t complain. The bottom line is that we get the government we deserve.

[i] http://www.schoolcounselor.org/school-counselors-members/careers-roles/state-school-counseling-mandates-and-legislation

[ii] http://www.schoolcounselor.org/school-counselors-members/careers-roles/why-elementary-school-counselors

[iii] http://azednews.com/2014/03/31/arizona-students-access-to-school-counselors-decreases-while-need-increases/

[iv] http://www.schoolcounselor.org

[v] http://www.aecf.org/m/databook/aecf-2014kidscountdatabook-rankings-2014.pdf

Time to Act Against Arizona’s Axis of Evil

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A rose by any other name…is just as thorny!

ImageIt is no surprise Arizona Legislators continue to seek expansion of Empowerment Scholarship Accounts AKA, vouchers.  The concept is model legislation for the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and has been introduced in numerous states around the country.  ALEC is the organization corporations pay big bucks to belong to so they can work together to develop model legislation to hand state legislators for introduction in their respective states.  ALEC claims it is non-partisan, but in 2012 it had only Democrat of 104 legislators in leadership positions.  In fact, every Republican legislator in Arizona is currently, or was recently, a member of ALEC.  The pipeline for the ALEC agenda in Arizona is the Goldwater Institute and Jonathan Butcher; Education Director from the Goldwater Institute is the “Private Chair” of ALEC’s Education Task Force.  Mr. Butcher has been collaborating with Rep Debbie Lesko, R-Peoria, ALEC’s Arizona State Chairman to expand Education Savings Accounts in Arizona.   Even the Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction, John Huppenthal, has actively promoted this private voucher program with a robocall directing parents to a Goldwater Institute website to pull their kids out of public school and send them to private school on the taxpayer’s dime, with no accountability.

Empowerment Scholarship Accounts were first introduced in Arizona in 2011 as a workaround to the state’s Supreme Court decision in 2009 that state school-voucher programs were unconstitutional because they violate a ban against appropriating public money for private or religious schools.  In Niehaus V. Huppenthal the Arizona Supreme Court determined ESAs were not the same as vouchers because the specified object of the ESA is the beneficiary families, not private or sectarian schools.  This decision is under appeal by the Arizona School Board Association and others.

ESA funds can be used for curriculum, testing, private school tuition, tutors, special needs services or therapies, or even seed money for college.  The program however, requires parents to waive their child’s right to a public education…a right that is guaranteed under the state constitution, in order to receive the benefits.

The original ESA bill, SB 1553, was signed into law April 12, 2011 and at that time, qualified students were only those eligible to received disability related services from a school district, or had been identified as disabled either by the school district or under federal guidelines.  Since then, we’ve seen expansions or at least attempted expansions, every year.  In 2012, the legislature attempted to expand the law with HB 2626, to include those attending a school or district that had been assigned a letter grade of D or F, previous recipient of a scholarship, child of a parent or guardian who is a member of the Armed Forces, child who is a ward of the court, or who has been identified as a gifted pupil.  Governor Brewer vetoed this bill on April 4, 2012.  In 2013, SB1363 was introduced to expand to all those categories above, and increased funding provided to 90% of the sum of the base support level and Additional Assistance if the student were attending a charter school.  Governor Brewer signed this bill into law on June 20, 2013.

Now, in its 51st Legislative Session, the Arizona Legislature is working fast and furious to further expand the state’s voucher program.  Here’s a list of what’s on the docket per the Arizona Legislature website:

Bill Purpose Status
HB 2291 & SB1236 Expands students eligible to those whose parents are police, fire, or EMT, as well as any child who has a sibling who is already receiving an ESA. Also extends eligibility to any student on free or reduced-price lunch programs and increases the household income threshold eligibility by 15% each year thereafter.  Would make a potential 881,000 students, or 73 percent of the total public-school population, qualified for the ESA program. The program is currently capped at 5,500 students until 2019 (per Legislative Report 2/26 AZ Capitol Reports.) House bill up for House vote 3/6/14.  Senate bill waiting to get on Senate Rules Cmte agenda.
HB2150 Allows children whose parents are an active-duty member of the armed forces to immediately enroll in a private school using vouchers and retain 25% of each voucher amount per student Ready for a floor vote
HB 2139 Expands eligibility to a sibling of a current or previous ESA recipient and those eligible to enroll in a program for preschool children with disabilities. Passed by House Approp Cmte
SB1237 Expands funding for ESAs to include the charter school additional assistance weight as well as 90% of the base support level funding the student would have otherwise received if they had attended a public school. Significant dollar increase, as the additional assistance amount is $1,684 for K-8 and $1,962 for high school. Passed the Senate along party lines
HB2036 Failed after Representative Eric Meyer added an amendment to the bill to require any student who uses the voucher to take the same assessment as public school students. Representatives Allen and Boyer specifically mentioned they were voting against the bill because the testing language was added to it. (per AEA) Defeated in House Education Committee

Pro-voucher folks argue that such programs level the playing field—low-income students can have the same educational options as their wealthier counterparts. In fact, they like to infer, if not outright state, that it is all about ensuring those low-income students are not stuck in bad schools. Really?  Only 362 students in Arizona had ESAs in 2012, but 92 percent of ESA funds went to private schools, in many cases for children whose parents could afford the schools without the assistance. For students without special needs, the program provides from $3,000 to $3,500 a year. As this is not nearly sufficient to cover the cost of tuition to a private school (which can be as much as $10,000), the program is unlikely to benefit students from low-income families.  Additionally, according to William J. Mathis, managing director at the National Education Policy Center, the best private schools often aren’t interested in participating in voucher programs, so voucher programs end up supporting lower quality alternatives. On top of all this, opponents of vouchers argue that the policy doesn’t improve educational outcomes or performance.

ESAs are really just another way for Arizona legislators to make the education of YOUR child, YOUR problem.  After all, under the Arizona constitution, “The legislature shall enact such laws as shall provide for the establishment and maintenance of a general and uniform public school system.” This is one of the primary responsibilities of the state of Arizona.  When state funding for educating is passed on to parents however, so will be the responsibility for that education.  After all, when you make a choice where to send their children, it won’t be your legislator’s fault you made the wrong choice.  Of course, ESAs are also good for those desiring to profit from the privatization of public education.  For-profit companies now run most charter schools and the lack of transparency and public oversight of charters and private schools will ensure profits can be maximized without repercussion.

Make no mistake about it; this push for vouchers is not in the best interest of the majority of Arizonans.  Over 85 percent of Arizona’s school children still attend public community schools.  Each time a student leaves with a voucher, schools lose the funding they would otherwise have received. Yet their overhead costs—for things like salaries and infrastructure—don’t go decrease just because a handful of kids left.  Jeremy Calles, the Kyrene School District chief financial officer, said “the state continues to use tax dollars and tax credits to make private school more affordable for the approximately 5 percent of the Arizona student population that makes the choice to attend those schools, while causing significant damage to the education of the 95 percent of students who are choosing to attend public schools.” Representative Eric Meyer added that supporting public education should be a priority of anyone at the Legislature who is interested in investing in the economic security of the state. “Legislation that undermines the public school system in our state is incredibly detrimental to our economic future,” Meyer said. “These vouchers use tax dollars to subsidize schools that are not subject to state testing standards. We need our kids in schools that can be held accountable for preparing them for the workforce. By starving public schools of resources, we are affecting the very foundation of our economy.”

The AZ Legislature is Busy…How Will Education Fare?

Several bills on education have been introduced recently in the Arizona Legislature.  Some will help support the majority of our students (almost 90% whom are enrolled in traditional public schools.)  Some however, will only serve to support privatization of education in Arizona which will not work to the advantage of most of our students.  The description of these bills has been provided by the Arizona Education Association.  My comments follow in italics.Thomas photo med_2

HB2399 would double school districts’ bonding capacity, which would help some districts out that are able to get voters to approve the bond, but this measure would also increase the economic inequities between school districts. – As many SaddleBrooke residents know, our latest bond issue for the Oracle School District failed in 2011.

HB2425 would disband the ELL Task Force and move its assignment to the Arizona Department of Education.  This task force was originally charged with the creation of the Structured English Immersion (SEI) program to be used in all school districts and with reviewing and approving alternative SEI models submitted by school districts.

HB2530 requires students enrolled in an Empowerment Scholarship Account (ESA) to annually take a norm-referenced achievement test or a college admissions exam. Kudos to Rep. Heather Carter for pushing this bill forward and ensuring there is accountability in this tax-payer funded voucher program.  Unfortunately, another bill (SB1363) expands the ESA voucher program to include students who are eligible for kindergarten. – HB 2530 is supported by the AZ Education Assoc. and the AZ School Board Assoc.  It is absolutely amazing to me that not only do we not have laws that require standards and testing in AZ’s work-around to a voucher program (ESA) and home schooling, but the AZ Legislature and AZ Dept. of Education is prohibited from regulating these programs.  How then do we know the children in these programs are being properly educated?

SB1285 would require the Arizona Department of Education to mail a pamphlet to parents about non-public school options such as private schools and vouchers. The bill would cost $1.5 million annually and proposes to use federal Title 1 funding.  AEA President Andrew F. Morrill told the Arizona Republic, “The bill appears to be a marketing ploy to use public funds to increase the customer base for private schools. This is unnecessary and probably would run into some legal challenges down the road.”  The bill is ALEC’s signature legislation this year.  It was held in Senate Education committee last week and is on the agendas for the Education and Appropriations committees this week.

SB1385 would make private charter school teachers’ evaluations so they could not be released under a public records request. – How can this be in anyone’s best interest except for those who profit from the charter school’s operation?

SB1450 seeks $5 million from the general fund for Arizona’s Alternative Teacher Development Program to be awarded to a qualifying service provider, i.e. Teach for America. – Both Diane Ravitch, former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education and an education policy analyst and Linda Darling-Hammond, Professor of Education at Stanford University, have criticized Teach for America (TFA) for sending inexperienced young people to teach the nation’s most vulnerable children.  In fact, a study in Arizona in 2002 held that TFA teachers had a negative impact on their students as compared to certified teachers.  Another study Darling-Hammond led with 4,400 teachers and 132,000 students concluded certified teachers consistently produced significantly higher achievement than those uncertified and TSA teacher had a negative or nonsignificant effect.