Balance is the key

I just listened to “The Coming Storm”, by Michael Lewis. I didn’t carefully read the description before diving in, and thought it would inform me about the increasing violence of weather. Rather, I learned about the privatization of weather, or at least the reporting of it, and the Department of Commerce.

Turns out, the Department of Commerce has little to do with commerce and is actually forbidden by law from engaging in business. Rather, it runs the U.S. Census, the Patent and Trademark Office, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology. Over half of its $9B budget though, is spent by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to figure out the weather. And figuring out the weather, is largely about collecting data. “Each and every day, NOAA collects twice as much data as is contained in the entire book collection of the Library of Congress.” One senior policy adviser from the George W. Bush administration, said the Department of Commerce should really be called the Department of Science and Technology. When he mentioned this to Wilbur Ross, Trump’s appointee to lead the Department, Ross said, “Yeah, I don’t think I want to be focusing on that.” Unfortunately for all of us, Ross also wasn’t interested in finding someone who would do it for him.

In October 2017, Barry Myers, a lawyer who founded and ran AccuWeather, was nominated to serve as the head of the NOAA. This is a guy who in the 1990s, argued the NWS should be forbidden (except in cases where human life and property was at stake) from delivering any weather-related knowledge to Americans who might be a consumer of AccuWeather products. “The National Weather Service” Myers said, “does not need to have the final say on warnings…the government should get out of the forecasting business.”

Then in 2005, Senator Rick Santorum (a recipient of Myers family contributions) introduced a bill to basically eliminate the National Weather Service’s ability to communicate with the public. Lewis asks his readers to “consider the audacity of that manuever. A private company whose weather predictions were totally dependent on the billions of dollars spent by the U.S. taxpayer to gather the data necessary for those predictions, and on decades of intellectual weather work sponsored by the U.S. taxpayer, and on the very forecasts that the National Weather Service generated, was, in effect, trying to force the U.S. taxpayer to pay all over again for the National Weather Service might be able to tell him or her for free.”

It was at this point in my listening that I began to think how this privatization story was paralleling that of education’s. In both cases, those in the public sector are in it for the mission, not the money. In both cases, the private sector only “wins” if the public sector “loses”. In both cases, it is in the interest of the private sector to facilitate the failure of the public sector or make it look like it is failing.

Just as private and charter schools profit when district schools are perceived to be of lower quality, Barry Myers has worked hard to make government provided weather services look inferior to that which the private sector can provide. As Lewis points out, “The more spectacular and expensive the disasters, the more people will pay for warning of them. The more people stand to lose, the more money they will be inclined to pay. The more they pay, the more the weather industry can afford to donate to elected officials, and the more influence it will gain over the political process.”

Myers clearly understood the private weather sector’s financial interest in catastrophe and had no qualms about maximizing on it. One of those opportunities presented itself in Moore, Oklahoma when the NWS failed to spot a tornado that had spun up quickly and rapidly vanished. AccuWeather managed to catch it and immediately sent out a press release bragging that they’d sent a tornado alert to their paying corporate customers 12 minutes before the tornado hit. But, they never broadcast the warning…only those who had paid for it got it. This focus on profit above all else is why when the Trump Administration asked a former Bush Commerce department official to provide a list of those who should lead NOAA, Barry Myers’ name was not on it. “I don’t want someone who has a bottom line, or a concern with shareholders”, said the official, “in charge of saving lives and protecting property.”

That sentiment is how I feel about the provision of “public” education by private and charter schools. I don’t want someone who has a bottom line, or a concern with corporate shareholders, in charge of educating America’s children without full transparency and complete accountability to taxpayers and the public. Rather, when taxpayer dollars are funding a service previously provided by the public sector, the potential must be weighed, for damage to the common good caused by the motive to profit.

Unfortunately, that’s not what’s happening today. As described by Jim Sleeper in a recent Salon.com article titled “Republic derangement: A party I used to respect has gone off the cliff”, “the disease of turbo-marketing [is] reducing American education, entertainment, social media, politics and the dignity of work itself to levels determined by a mania to maximize profits and shareholder dividends, no matter the social costs.

No, I’m not saying there aren’t problems with the public sector. But, the idea that the public has more control over a private corporation than it does over a public entity is ludicrous. The idea that parents have more say over a charter school’s Education Management Organization (EMO) or a private school’s owner, than they do over a school district governing board is ludicrous. Ever try to attend an EMO’s board meeting, let alone be allowed to make a “call to the public” at one? How about gaining visibility to the financial documents of a private school? Not happening.

The key to public sector performance is public engagement. For-profit corporations are generally motivated by profit. That is as it should be. Public entities are generally motivated by doing good for the public, again, as it should be. Neither is inherently bad or good, they each have their place and purpose. In some cases, there can even be a good mix of the two, such as with the U.S. Postal Service. But, the focus on privatization is currently being overplayed, to the detriment of our public institutions and the common good of our Nation and our world.

Truth is, government can provide a valuable check on corporate greed. Likewise, fair competition from the private sector can provide a check on the potential for government complacency or really, that of any monopoly, private or public.

Balance is the key. As Simon Sinek said, “The trick to balance is to not make sacrificing important things become the norm.” One of the most “important things” in my mind, is to care for those who do not have the capacity to care for themselves. To ensure ALL OUR children have the opportunity to lead healthy, productive lives, no matter the circumstances of their birth, or the zip code in which they live. In the words of John Dewey, “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.”

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Government vs. Commercial

During his first inaugural address, President Ronald Reagan said “government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” Grover Norquist, of the “no new taxes pledge”, doubled down on this line of thinking with his goal to “to get [government] down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub.” This GOP focus on government as the problem helps explain why those out to kill district schools refer to them as “government” schools. After all, “government” is the problem so how can “government” schools be any kind of solution for America’s students?

Yet the truth is that there are great district schools, great charter schools, great private schools and yes, even top-notch home schools. Of course, there are bad examples of all these options. Each option is just one of the tools in our country’s educational tool kit. The most useful tool in the tool kit by far however, (as proven by the 94.3% of American students who use it), is our system of public district schools. Charter schools have been around for twenty-five years, yet the overwhelming “school choice” for American families is still district schools. There is a place for other school choice options, but it shouldn’t be first place. Not in terms of taxpayer funding and not in terms of our nation’s focus.

Most families didn’t make this choice because they had no other options. Rather, they chose to send their children to district schools because those are the schools in their communities, those are the schools that offer a more diverse experience with a wider array of extracurricular programs and, those are the schools that are locally governed and therefore provide recourse when it is needed. The “haters” can refer to these choice schools as “government” schools, but that doesn’t change the fact that for the vast majority of American students, they work. Our community public schools helped make America great and, they continue to be integral in keeping it that way.

For those who insist on referring to our district schools as “government” schools, I say “sticks and stones…”. Don’t be surprised though when I refer charter and private schools as “commercial” schools. After all, the vast majority of charter schools, whether for-profit or non-profit, are business entities. Non-profit doesn’t mean no profit is made or even, that the entity is operating for the common good. It just means that the entity has qualified for federal tax exemptions.

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, there are many definitions of commercial. The first is “occupied with or engaged in commerce or work intended for commerce.” Then, there is “being of an average or inferior quality” or “producing artistic work of low standards for quick market success.” There is also, “viewed with regard to profit”, “designed for a large market”, “emphasizing skills and subjects useful in business”, and “supported by advertisers.”

Some of these definitions fit commercial schools better than others. We’ve all heard stories about the “fly by night” schools set up for “quick market success” but then fail their students. We also know that some charters are big chains “designed for a large market.” And, there can be no doubt that the corporate reformers with their mantra of “school choice” have been focused on “emphasizing skills and subjects useful in business” to ensure a trained workforce to meet their needs.

This focus on developing a trained workforce is just one step away from replacing the idea of citizens in our democracy with consumers focused on nothing more than what’s in it for me? This attitude helps drive the concept of “backpack funding”, where taxpayer dollars for education follow the student and the hell with those left behind.

An encouraging note though in a very crazy election year is that of young people’s response to Bernie Sanders’ campaign. As Harry Boyte writes on Moyers & Company, “championing public goods – from schools to parks, infrastructure to health provision – suggests a generation hungry for the commonwealth.”

I understand parents wanting to ensure the best for their child, but what about the rest of the children? John Dewey, arguably the most significant educational thinker of the 20th century said, “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.”

So, send your kids to those “commercial” schools if you want, my money is on our community district schools to prevail at both providing ALL our children well-rounded educations and, at helping ensure our democracy stays strong.

Partisan? You bet! My party is Public Education.

I am a big believer in the two-party system. Our system of government works best when all sides are heard and considered. That is most likely to happen when the power is balanced, forcing legislators to negotiate and compromise. Our founding fathers purposefully designed many checks and balances into our system and I believe our two-party system helps in that regard.

In Arizona, the Democrats must gain only two additional seats in the State Senate to reach parity with the Republicans and in my opinion that would be a very good thing. Then, our senators from both parties would be forced to work together in finding good compromises to solve the problems facing our state.

One of the biggest problems facing our state is the inadequate resources provided our district schools. Arizona is one of the nation’s leaders in promoting school choice and although 80-plus percent of our students choose district schools, resources continue to be siphoned away from these schools in favor of other options. Many of our legislators, largely the Democrats, get this. Several Republicans are also on board.

Friends of ASBA, a sister organization of the Arizona School Boards Association, publishes an annual voting record of our legislators. This “Friends of ASBA Educating Arizona” report shows how every Arizona legislator voted on high priority K-12 education bills in 2016. The bills are grouped into three focus areas: funding, vouchers and local control, and the voting record is based on whether the legislators voted with, or against the ASBA position.

I encourage you to click here for the report to get the entire story. As you go through the report, you’ll note 56 legislators received “extra credit” for their behind the scenes efforts on behalf of public education. This credit is noted by + signs and the maximum extra credit points awarded were +++. Below, I show the Republican legislators who voted with ASBA’s position more than two-thirds of the time. I’d like the percentages to be even higher, but 33 Republican legislators didn’t even have a score higher than 50%. I should note that four Democratic legislators, Rep Sally Ann Gonzales (57%), Rep Jennifer Benally (43%), Rep Albert Hale (57%), and Rep Juan Mendez (57%) did not meet my “two-thirds of the time voting with ASBA” threshold.

LD Senator % Representative % Representative %
1 Steve Pierce++ 67 Karen Fann+ 71 Noel Campbell 71
2 Christopher Ackerley++ 71
8 TJ Shope+ 71
15 Heather Carter++ 71
16 Doug Coleman++ 100
18 Jeff Dial++ 67 Jill Norgaard 63 Bob Robson++ 71
20 Paul Boyer++ 63
21 Rick Gray+ 63
28 Adam Driggs++ 89 Kate Brophy McGee++ 71

The legislators in the chart above have at times taken brave stances on behalf of our district school students. Those I’ve actually met with seemed sincerely intent on doing the right thing for our students. They have earned my respect.

It is never a good idea to be closed to the opinions and ideas of others, nor is it smart to vote straight party line without regard to the issues and how candidates lean on those issues. For incumbents, the voting record tells us where they stand on public education. For candidates who haven’t ever been elected, it is our duty to read and listen to what they say about where they stand. And oh by the way, it is not good enough for a candidate to say he/she is “for education.” If you want to be sure they support the efforts of the schools educating over 80 percent of our students, they must say they are “for public education.” Of course, this leaves the door open for them to be staunchly pro-charter, but at least there is a modicum of transparency and accountability for the taxpayer dollars provided charter schools unlike with private options.

No matter what problems you most want solved, there can be no doubt that the more our students are prepared to deal with them, the better off we will all be. In my opinion, locally elected, governing board-led, public school districts offer the best chance we have to ensure every student has every opportunity to succeed. That’s why I am passionately pro-public education and why that’s the “party” that most matters to me.

Open Letter to Diane Douglas

Dear Diane,

It is with great sadness I write you this letter. I say that because I just had my hopes dashed once again that people of different political ideology could actually trust each other to put the mission over self-interest. In my Air Force career the “mission” was almost always paramount, but I’ve not found it to be quite as prevalent in civilian life, especially when politics are involved. I must admit that after my most recent meeting with you, I was encouraged that you were “mission-focused” on behalf of all Arizona students. In my opinion, you said all the “right” things and your “AZ Kids Can’t Afford to Wait” plan outlines 30 proposals that with few exceptions, seem like the way right to go. And, although you support school choice, you also recognize that 85 percent of Arizona’s students attend district schools and that you stated you are committed to getting them the resources they need.

I supported your opponent for Superintendent of Public Instruction in 2014 and was incredulous and very disappointed when you won. Your tumultuous beginning as the Superintendent confirmed my belief you were not the right person for the job. Of late though, I’ve begun to feel that you’ve settled down and if not yet “hitting your stride”, at least properly “setting up in the chocks.” Unfortunately, my breath was taken away this morning when I read my public education Google Alerts. The headline that caught my eye was Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction Diane Douglas endorses Donald Trump for President. OMG!!! Are you freakin’ kidding me?

Don’t get me wrong, the purpose of this letter is not to harangue you on your choice of who to vote for. Yes, I personally think anyone who votes for Trump is crazy, but I recognize it is your right as a U.S. citizen in the greatest democracy in the world to vote for whomever you wish. What does bother me, is that you felt the need to publicly endorse this misogynistic, xenophobic, racist candidate who has shown himself to lack the temperament, knowledge or even the desire to learn what he needs to know to serve as President of the United States of America, let alone as Commander in Chief. Even a FOX news poll from May of this year showed only 38 percent of registered voters trusted Trump to do a better job than Clinton on the use of nuclear weapons.

Geo-politics and nukes aside however, I ask you what is Mr. Trump’s plan for education? You wrote in your news release that you endorsed him because he “shares my belief that the federal government’s role in education needs to be reduced rather than expanded.” Well, that certainly will solve ALL our educational problems…especially here in Arizona! After all, we have a Legislature and Governor totally dedicated to serving the needs of our one million plus students and their teachers in Arizona’s district community schools. Wait…what…we don’t? Oh yeah, that was just the dream I have. Besides, as you already well know, the new Every Student Succeeds Act signed into law in December 2015 has already greatly reduced the federal government’s role in education. 

The National Education Association (NEA) published an article on August 29th about Mr. Trump’s education plan titled “Trump to release ed plan; details so far show little understanding.” First of all, Trump has yet to release his education plan. What we know thus far is that Trump is “the product of private schools, stands behind school vouchers, which in community after community have diverted scarce resources from community schools to private and religious schools that are allowed to reject students with special needs.” Of public [presumably district] schools, Trump has said, “Schools are crime-ridden and they don’t teach.”

And who is Trump’s point man on education other than Neurosurgeon Ben Carson who he credits as an expert on the subject. In a news conference, Trump said, “I was most impressed with his views on education. It’s strength. It’s a tremendous strength. So Carson is going to be involved with us, particularly on health and education.” Please keep in mind that Ben Carson is the guy whom Donald Trump compared to a child molester. Carson also thinks little of public school students saying, “The best education is the education that is closest to home, and I’ve found that for instance homeschoolers do the best, private schoolers next best, charter schoolers next best, and public schoolers worst.” This statement seems to call into question his knowledge about the fact that charter schools are public schools and, he is wrong…on the whole, charter schools don’t do better than district schools. But then, Mr. Carson seems to have a penchant for rejecting facts since he also doesn’t believe in evolution. As a Seventh-day Adventist, he espouses the “creationist theory that holds all life on Earth was created by God about 6,000 years ago.” This believe rejects Darwin’s theory of evolution which virtually all of today’s scientists agree is true.

All this is disturbing, but still isn’t really at the crux of my dismay about your endorsement of Trump. What really bothers me is the kind of leadership he projects. According to a national survey of educators by the Southern Poverty Law Center, the presidential campaign is producing an alarming level of fear and anxiety, [The Trump Effect], among children of color and inflaming racial and ethnic tensions in the classroom.” In the report, 67 percent of educators reported students in their schools (often immigrants, children of immigrants, Muslims, African Americans and other students of color), were concerned about what might happen to them or their families after the election. Students are stressed and anxious and it is detrimental to their well being and learning. SLC reports that dozens of educators reported daily worries from students “being sent back or having their parents sent back.” Many of these students and/or their families are American citizens or are here legally and yet they feel under attack and teachers are having a very hard time responding. A high school teacher in Boston for example, said her students are, “confused as to how a person who has no respect for American ideals can be so popular.”

Of course, it isn’t just the racism that is detrimental to the learning environment, it is also the hateful and mean rhetoric Trump has used. After an anti-bullying assembly, a middle school teacher in Michigan told us that [insults, name-calling, trash talk] isn’t bullying, they’re just ‘telling it like it is.’” Likewise, a high school teacher in Georgia wrote, “Students have become very hostile to opposing points of view, regardless of the topic”, and “any division now elicits anger and personal attacks.”

In your “Kids Can’t Wait Plan”, you discussed the action committees and other steps you’ve taken to help improve educational outcomes for African-American, Native-American and Latino students. Your plan, and willingness to engage these students and their communities left me hopeful. But now, I must ask you how in you think these students or their communities can have faith you are truly committed to helping them when you have publicly endorsed a candidate for President who has made it clear he prefers a homogenous (read white) America and, has total disdain for our community district schools?

You gave me one of your challenge coins at our last meeting and told me your challenge to me was to ALWAYS put the kids first. In fact, you shared that you constantly challenge your staff to ask themselves if what they are doing has really “moved the needle” for Arizona’s children? So, I now ask you whether your endorsement of Trump has “moved the needle” for the one million plus Arizonan students in our district schools? I think both of us know the answer to this and it doesn’t start with a “Y.”

Just rearranging the deck chairs ain’t gonna cut it

Representing the AZSchools Now Coalition, Arizona’s 2016 Teacher of the Year Christine Marsh and I recently attended and spoke at a Classrooms First Initiative Council meeting in Phoenix. The Coalition consists of the Arizona Associations of: Education, Business and Education, School Boards, Superintendents, and Parent and Teachers. Also part of the coalition are the Children’s Action Alliance, Valley Interfaith Project, and Support Our Schools AZ. It was formed post-Prop 123 to provide focus to reinvesting in public schools as a way to boost student achievement.

The Classrooms First Initiative Council was established by Governor Ducey in January 2015 and charged with modernizing the school finance formula to ensure adequate funding is available for teachers and classroom instruction. The first of the two main events of this latest meeting was a presentation by Expect More Arizona on the Education Progress Meter. This meter has been accepted by virtually every education group, numerous community and municipality organizations, and 26 major business entities. It measures Arizona’s progress in eight areas to include teacher pay, preschool enrollment, 3rd grade reading, 8th grade math, high school graduation, opportunity youth, college going, and post-secondary attainment.

The other main discussion was about the proposals submitted by education groups for the Council’s consideration. In speaking for the AZSchools Now proposal, I advocated for additional resources to attract and retain high quality teachers in light of the both the current shortage as well as the some 26,000 eligible for retirement starting in 2018. Not only is the shortage critical, but teacher turnover is disruptive and expensive, costing as much as $50,000 to find and contract a new one. ADE reports we have almost 93,000 certified teachers in Arizona, but only 67,000 of them are working in the profession. Many of those who left would love to still be teaching, but were forced to seek employment that would better support their families. (According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median Arizona elementary school teacher salary is $40,590 while the national median is $54,120. Starting salaries are much lower, often in the $30,000-per-year range.) Even so, one of the changes under consideration by the Council is to eliminate the Teacher Experience Index. As you might guess, this index helps keep experienced teachers in our AZ classrooms and the Coalition believes eliminating it will only exacerbate the problem. If we want to ensure high-quality education, we must have high-quality teachers and that can’t be done on the cheap. With fewer teachers entering the pipeline and over 26,000 eligible to retire by 2018, merely “rearranging the deck chairs on Titanic” I said, won’t do anything to keep this “boat from sinking.”

I also spoke about the Coalition’s recommendation to consider adding a B-weight for poverty to the school finance formula. This is critical because statewide, 58 percent of our K-12 students are eligible for free and reduced meals and many deal with a multitude of poverty related challenges at home, greatly affecting their preparedness to learn at school. That’s why the Coalition believes it is one of the most significant steps needed to make the school finance formula more equitable and fair. We know these students typically face barriers relating to transportation, housing, and levels of support in their communities and families for which additional resources are needed to help them achieve success.

Christine also made a case for additional funding, but her impassioned plea was focused on ensuring reasonable classroom sizes so that no students fall between the cracks. She told of average student loads for AZ high school teachers of 170 students and said that makes it tough for teachers to give each student the individualized attention they deserve. (The National Center for Education Statistics’ reports Arizona has 1.1 million K-12 students, and just 48,358 full-time teachers making our student-teacher ratio almost 23:1 compared to the national average of 16:1. According to WalletHub, only California and Utah are worse.)

She also pointed out that a future President of the United States is in a K-12 classroom somewhere, and current events highlight the importance of our getting this right. Stating that yes, salary is an important factor to encourage teachers to stay in their profession, Christine said it is also important that teachers feel they have what they need to really make a difference. And although she wanted to focus on the needs of students, not teachers, she noted the reality of workloads on the ability to do the job. Even if, she said, she only assigns three writing assignments per week to her 160 students, and each of those papers only takes five minutes to grade, that can amount to over 40 hours of grading time per week, and that takes place outside of the classroom. As if illustrating this point, after she spoke to the Council Christine resumed grading the stack of student papers she had brought with her.

Chris Thomas, Lead Council for the Arizona School Bards Association, said Arizona has one of the most equitable funding formulas in the nation, but is not adequately funding the formula. He highlighted the need for reinstating the cost analysis for special education funding as a way to ensure costs to provide service to these students are adequately funded while not pulling funding away from other programs. Chris also made the point that in considering a new funding formula, transparency should be ensured for the use of all public funds. Sarah Ellis, a Flagstaff Governing Board member, spoke during public comments, reiterating the need for locally controlled funding and the continuation of desegregation funding. For the Flagstaff Unified School District she said, the desegregation funds exceed that received from Prop. 123.

I was encouraged by the questions asked by members of the Council as well as the number of attendees in the audience. There was standing room only and attendees had come from all over the state to participate. I was pleased to hear some Council members voice their concerns that viable solutions to the finance formula would not be possible without additional resources, including the Chair, Jim Swanson. One member did note the reality of convincing the state legislature of this reality, but Swanson indicated he is ready to take on those who may not agree with the Council’s eventual recommendations.

Overall, I was encouraged by the meeting. Although I would have liked the membership of the Council to be more representative of the K-12 population in our state (majority Hispanic), I found them to be actively listening and serious about finding the best solutions. I am also very encouraged about the AZSchools Now coalition. One of the Coalition members, Support Our Schools AZ and its subsidiary the Arizona Parents Network, is an example of the grassroots efforts that has blossomed during and since the post-Prop 123 battle. What is especially important about this development is that it involves mostly parents who are naturally fierce advocates for their children.

One such fierce parent is Alana Brussin, whose My Turn” op-ed titled Tying school success to vouchers is a sham was recently published by the Arizona Republic. Her piece highlights the reasons community district schools are the overwhelming choice of Arizona families, in spite of the best efforts of state leaders and other school privatization advocates.

Just as Mothers Against Drunk Driving turned the tide on the public’s acceptance of drinking and driving, I’m confident our fierce parents can turn the tide on the assault on community district schools and ultimately the students they serve. Every child deserves every opportunity to succeed and when that happens, we all succeed. It really is that simple.

Educated Workforce = State Prosperity

Okay. Let me get this right. Daniel Scarpinato, Press Aide to Governor Doug Ducey says Arizona schools are the 4th worst in the nation because school choice siphons taxpayer dollars out of community (district) schools into private and parochial schools, leaving those community schools underresourced. Okay, those weren’t his exact words, but that is what he intimated. His intent was of course, to invalidate the WalletHub study because it only looked at our public schools and not private schools. So, he thinks the study is invalid because it ONLY pertains to 96 percent of Arizona’s K-12 students?

WalletHub looked at 17 key metrics and found that Arizona is: 49th for pupil to teacher ratio; near the bottom in average ACT score; and below average for low-income student high school graduation rate. Even though these types of rankings are nothing new for Arizona and, he doesn’t dispute the numbers, Scarpinato called the study “baloney.” Rather, he went on to deflect the blame by citing Arizona’s rapidly increasing population as part of the problem for low per-pupil funding and sidestepped whether this meant funding should be increased to keep up with that growth. He also dismissed the idea of halting corporate tax cuts. His justification – Arizona needs to remain competitive with other states in its efforts to cut corporate taxes. The Economic Policy Institute (EPI) says “cutting taxes to capture private investment from other states is a race-to-the-bottom state economic development strategy that undermines the ability to invest in education.” We need only look at Kansas to see how this strategy works.

EPI research shows “income is higher in states where the workforce is well-educated and thus more productive.” There is, the Institute says, “a clear and strong correlation between the educational attainment of a state’s workforce and median wages in the state.” Those workers then pay more taxes to boost state budgets. The best companies know they need to go where they can get the kind of educated workforce they need, where their current employees will find good communities with high quality schools, and where the infrastructure can support their business model. That’s why states like Massachusetts (ranked #1) see education as an investment, not an expense.

Unfortunately, the AZ Legislature seems hell-bent on pushing the privatization of our community school system and will continue down this path until the voters boot them out of office. We need lawmakers who understand there can be no significant progress for our state over the long haul unless we ensure all our children are given the tools to grow and prosper. Community schools remain the schools of choice for the vast majority of our students and must be our first priority for state resources. Yes, school choice has its place in our overall educational system, but it shouldn’t be first place.

It’s Complicated

To my post on Blog for Arizona yesterday, former AZ Superintendent of Public Instruction, John Huppenthal posted the following comment:

“The 170,000 charter school students save taxpayers over 290 million dollars per year. The Peoria school district is projected to grow substantially over the next decade. With charter schools, they will not grow as much. They have enormous advantages, both financially and organizationally, over charter schools and if they can keep improving, they will actually be able [to] suck these students back into their school system from charter schools. I actually see this effect in the Chandler Unified school system. As Chandler has improved from 38% excellent rating to 75% excellent rating you can see certain charter school[s] dying on the vine. Meanwhile, public schools nationally have dropped from 36% excellent rating to 24%. Wrong direction. Competition and great leadership were both necessary for Chandler to get to where it is. We will see if Peoria is also the racehorse that responds to the challenge.”

As far as Huppenthal’s blog comments go, this is one of the more coherent ones and the statistics he cites made me want to dig in. Let’s look at a few: 

1.  170,000 charter school students – True. There are 170K or so charter school students in AZ – 170,700 at 556 schools during the 20015-16 school year to be exact.

2.  Charters save taxpayers over 290 million dollars per year – Misleading. According to the Joint Legislative Budget Committee in an overview prepared 6/22/2015, charter schools cost the state $1,232 per pupil more in Basic State Aid funding than district schools in FY 2014. Of course, that’s where it really starts to get interesting because district and charter schools each receive funding the other doesn’t. For example, districts can seek overrides and bonds and School Facilities Board funding for construction, emergency deficiency corrections and building renewal (of which there have been zero dollars for over the last three years.) Charter schools on the other hand, get “additional assistance” monies from the state general fund to compensate, and have much more flexibility in spending these monies. Charters can also get AZ Charter School Incentive Program funds to start new locations and charter land and buildings become capital assets of the charter holder regardless of whether taxpayer dollars were used to acquire said land or buildings. New this year, Governor Ducey included $100 million in the 2017 budget for the creation of an Arizona Public School Achievement District (PSAD) that will use taxpayer dollars to reduce bond borrowing costs for charter expansion or new builds. Unlike the funding provided through private investors (such as the Phoenix Industrial Development Authority enables), taxpayers are on the hook for PSAD monies if the charter holder defaults and I suspect (as with any charter bonds) the loan is ultimately repaid with taxpayer dollars.

For the actual numbers, I went to the 2014-15 AZ Superintendent’s Report, which shows that total revenues for districts exceeded those for charters by $1,278 per pupil. Given the students enrolled in each at that time, that amounts to a total amount of almost $206 million less spent on charters, not $290 million. But, only 86.57% of the total revenues for districts came from various in-state sources whereas 91.18% of charter’s revenues did. This means that in strictly “state” dollars, the district schools only cost the state $776 more per pupil for a total “savings” by charters of $125 million last year. Of course, I didn’t yet mention the $800 more per student in “small school funding” charters can get through legal, but creative accounting of their multiple locations. Oh by the way, it is also important to note that one reason district schools get more federal dollars than charters is because they educate significantly more special needs students, which are more expensive to educate and for which, districts almost never receive sufficient funds (from any source) to cover the costs.  (If I got all of this wrong, someone please correct me! I find it hard to believe charters save any substantial money over districts, maybe there’s funding I’m not counting.

Rather than focusing on who spends more though, shouldn’t we really be focusing on who uses the money more effectively? A report written this year by the Grand Canyon Institute, shows charters spend twice the amount ($1,403 vice $628 per pupil in 2014/15) on purely administrative costs than their district counterparts resulting in less money getting into the classroom. In fact, if the seven largest charter holders spent the same on administrative costs as districts, the state would save $54 million per year. BASIS Inc. alone, with 8,730 students, spent 30 times more on general administration than the six largest districts combined (225,000 students.)

3.  They have enormous advantages, both financially and organizationally – False.  If anything, charters have the advantage. From the beginning, Arizona’s charter laws were designed to free charter schools from most regulations and reporting requirements. They aren’t required for example, to follow the same procurement procedures as districts, which allows them to avoid getting competitive bids on major purchases. This lack of accountability/transparency has raised concerns about charter holders “double-dipping” for profit by procuring goods and services with their own companies. In addition, charter teachers aren’t required to be certified, nor are charters required to meet the minimum facilities standards set by the School Facilities Board (SFB) nor the requirement to provide transportation to school for their students. They also don’t have the same requirements for accountability and transparency with no locally elected governing boards and no requirement to be included in the annual AZ Auditor General’s (AG) School District Spending reports. The fact the AG does not compile, analyze spending, or make their review available to the public contributes to the overall lack of accountability we see with Arizona charter schools.

As for the improvement in Chandler “excellent” ratings or the national “excellent” ratings, I looked at the Arizona’s A-F accountability system and AIMS scores, the AzMerit scores, and the NAEP assessment, but was unable to verify the data. With regard to Huppenthal’s assertion that  “competition” was necessary for Chandler to improve, I don’t buy it. After all, Arizona has had “competition” between district schools since 1994 when “open enrollment” was first approved.  And, I find it offensive that he refers to Peoria as a racehorse that needs to “rise to the challenge.” As an “A” district they are one of the top 45 districts and charters in the state. I think they have more than already “risen to the challenge.” Besides, the education of Arizona’s children isn’t some sort of sports competition. It is important work critical to the successes of our communities, our state and our nation. The professional educators in our district schools get that, while some of the state’s charter holders laugh all the way to the bank.