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.”

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.

When is a charter school a bad idea?

Hint: the answer is not,  “never.” It is a bad idea, according to education blogger Peter Green, “when charters disrupt and displace [district] public schools.” I would add that often, these district schools are the hubs of their communities so charters contribute to disrupting these communities as well.

Case in point is a new charter school (Legacy Traditional School) being built in Glendale, Arizona. Scheduled to open in time for the 2016/17 school year, the new campus will serve 1,200 K-8 students at the northeast corner of 67th Avenue and Thunderbird Road. Sounds good, right? Problem is, this school is being built within the boundaries of the Peoria Unified School District, within two miles of 10 of their “A” or “B” rated elementary schools (50 percent of PUSD’s schools are rated “A”, another 25 percent are rated “B.)  When PUSD has the capacity to serve the 1,200 students Legacy hopes to eventually attract, why is this school necessary, or even in the best interest of this community?When the charter school concept was first embraced back in 1988, it was as “a new kind of public school where teachers could experiment with fresh and innovative ways of reaching students.” In Cologne, Germany, Albert Shanker visited a public school where teachers made the critical decisions about what and how to teach and the school had students with a broad mix of abilities, family incomes, and ethnicity. He said charter schools could “reinvigorate the twin promises of American public education: to promote social mobility for working-class children and social cohesion among America’s increasingly diverse populations.” Shanker also believed charter schools should be unionized because of the critical role he believed unions played in democratic societies.

Unfortunately, today’s charter schools are an entirely different animal than Shanker envisioned. They are more autocratic (empowering management versus teachers) and more segregated (by race and income) than ever and only about 12 percent of charters provide their teachers union representation. No wonder an “astounding 24 percent of charter school teachers leave their school each year, double the rate of turnover in traditional public schools.”

They are now seen as “a vehicle for infusing competition and market forces into public education.” Whether intentionally or not, charters have served to re-segregate education to a level not seen since the 1960s. A side benefit for the corporate reformers was also no doubt, the weakening of teacher unions and therefore less democracy in our schools and communities. All this eventually brought us to where we are today. Instead of charter schools augmenting and serving as “laboratory partners to public schools”, they are now in direct competition for students and the dollars they bring. Make no mistake, today’s charters – whether they are for-profit or non-profit – are as much about making a profit, as they are about educating children.

What suffers from this “competition” mindset is the collaboration between schools, overall efficient and effective use of available education funding, the richness of the educational experience that truly diverse schools can bring, and the strong school climate vibrant teacher voices can bring. This diversity isn’t just valuable for our students of color, but for their white counterparts as well. Those students who’ve experienced more diversity will be more successful in the ever-increasingly global economy.

So, here we are. A brand new charter school is under construction, right in the middle of 10 excellent district schools with plenty of capacity. As Legacy Traditional School is a non-profit entity, I suspect the school is funded with a bond issued by the Phoenix Industrial Development Authority (quasi-private so the taxpayer is not on the hook.) Nonetheless, the Legacy charter will compete directly with PUSD for what are already too few maintenance and operation dollars. As for other for-profit charters, they’ll likely turn to SB 1531 signed into law during this year’s legislative session which, provides $100 million to provide collateral for lower interest rates on charter school project loans. When those charters default, Arizona taxpayers will get the bill. (Don’t even get me started on how the $100 million could have helped our district schools.) In either case, said Tracey Benson, of the Arizona School Boards Association, charter schools added will “build corporate assets – those held by privately operated charter schools – versus community assets – our local district public schools that add value to our cities and neighborhoods.”

I’m not a charter “hater”, I’ve seen some that serve a special niche and provide a valuable alternative. What I do hate is the narrative that charters are superior to district public education, that they ensure disadvantaged students have access to a “high-quality choice”, and that they save the state money…because that narrative is largely false. At the end of the day, over 80 percent of Arizona’s students attend district public schools and that should be our first priority for funding and support.

 

 

 

 

 

AZ again at bottom in “50 States Report”

The Network for Public Education (NPE), a public education advocacy group headed by the Nation’s preeminent public education expert and advocate, Diane Ravitch, released their “A 50 State Report Card” today. As the name indicates, the report card grades the 50 states and the District of Columbia on six criteria: No High Stakes Testing, Professionalization of Teaching, Resistance to Privatization, School Finance, Spend Taxpayer Resources Wisely, and Chance for Success. Letter grades from “A” to “F” were then averaged to create the overall GPA and letter grade for each state.

I was proud to note the study was conducted with the help of Francesca Lopez, Ph.D. and her student research team at the University of Arizona. They assisted in the identification of 29 measurable factors that guided the ratings of the six criteria and created a 0-4 scale for ratings and then evaluated each state on the 29 factors. The graders were tough, with only 5 states earning an “A” grade and no state’s overall grade exceeding a “C.”

Not surprising to anyone who keeps up with Arizona public education, the state ranked 48th, but I assume only because Arizona begins with an “A.”   Arizona’s grade of 0.67 earned it an overall “F”, numerically tying it with Idaho and Texas (in 49th and 50th place), just above Mississippi.

The first criterion evaluated was “High Stakes Testing” which according to NPE has caused “the narrowing of the curriculum and excessive classroom time devoted to preparing for tests.” The organization also points to peer-reviewed studies highlighting “the potentially negative impacts of this practice, including the dismissal of quality teachers and the undermining of morale.” Five states received an “A” grade for their rejection of the use of exit exams to determine high school graduation, the use of test results to determine student promotion, and educator evaluation systems that include test results. Arizona received a grade of “C” in this area.

The second criterion evaluated was “Professionalization of Teaching”, because “many of the current popular American reforms give lip service to the professionalization of teaching while displaying an appalling lack of understanding of what professionalization truly means.” NPE points to research that “shows that experience matters and leads to better student outcomes, including increased learning, better attendance and fewer disciplinary referrals.” High grades were given to states that exhibited a commitment to teaching as a profession. Unfortunately, no states were awarded an “A” in this area and only two states, Iowa and New York received a “B.” Arizona received a grade of “F” which goes a long way towards explaining our state’s critical shortage of teachers.

In the area of “Resistance to Privatization”, seven states received an “A” grade. The evaluation of this criterion was centered on school choice policies that “move control of schools from democratic, local control to private control.” Market-based approaches (vouchers, charters and parent trigger laws) reports NPE, “take the governance of schools out of the hands of democratically elected officials and the local communities they serve, and place it in the hands of a few individuals – often elites or corporations with no connections to the community.” Such policies drain resources from neighborhood schools and don’t overall, produce better results in general. NPE writes “they also serve to undermine the public’s willingness to invest in the education of all children while creating wider inequities across the system as a whole.” Since NPE believes in strengthening community schools, they evaluated states on whether they have laws, policies and practices that support and protect their neighborhood schools. As an early leader in school choice, Arizona more than earned the “F” grade it was awarded.

Since the level of poverty in a school is the single best predictor of average student performance, “School Finance” was another criterion evaluated. NPE looked at whether states adequately and fairly funded their schools noting that “resources like smaller class sizes and more support staff lead to significantly higher achievement and graduation rates – especially for poor and minority students.” Only one state, New Jersey, received an “A” grade in this area. This is not surprising since in the past decade, the gap in spending between rich and poor districts has grown by 44%. NPE calls for states to sufficiently fund public education and implement progressive financial polices that “provide the most funds to districts that demonstrate the greatest need.” The factors used to determine a state’s grade were: per-pupil expenditure adjusted for poverty, wages and district size/density; resources spent on education in relation to the state’s ability to pay based on gross product; and increased proportion of aid given to high-poverty districts than to low-poverty. Once again, Arizona received an “F” grade in this area.

In evaluating the criterion of “Spend Taxpayer Resources Wisely”, NPE looked at how states’ education dollars are spent. As research shows the significant benefit of early childhood education, high quality pre-school and all-day Kindergarten were a significant factor in the evaluation as were lower class sizes and the rejection of virtual schools.   In this area, Arizona received a “D” grade, with no states receiving an “A” and only Montana receiving a “B” grade.

“Chance for Success” was the final criterion evaluated. It looked at state policies directly affecting the income, living conditions and support received by students and their parents/guardians. NPE says that residential segregation is largely responsible for school segregation. However, the organization says, “state policies that promote school choice typically exacerbate segregation and charters often isolate students by race and class.” The states that had fewer students living in or near poverty, and have the most integrated schools received the highest grades. No states received an “A” grade, but 10 received a grade of “B.” In this final area, Arizona received a grade of “D.”

It can be no coincidence that Arizona continues to finish last, or close to last, in the vast majority of every report on state public education performance. In fact, the only report I’ve found it to be rated better than at the bottom is from the American Legislative Exchange Council’s (ALEC) Report Card on American Education. Not surprising from this highly conservative “bill mill” for the Koch Brothers and the GOP, which works to develop model legislation favorable to its corporate members and provide it to legislators for implementation in their states. It speaks volumes about ALEC’s focus when even though Arizona ranked 47th on the 2013 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), they gave the state an overall B- on education policy. That’s because ALEC values states’ support of charter schools, embrace of home schools and private school choice programs, teacher quality (as defined by the National Council on Teacher Quality) and digital learning. For the most part, the positions ALEC takes on education policy are the exact opposite of NPE’s positions. ALEC pushes school choice and the privatization of public education and in Arizona, the Goldwater Institute does it’s part to support ALEC in it’s efforts to kill public education. What’s in it for ALEC, the Goldwater Institute, their legislators, donors and corporate members? As is often the case, it’s all about money in the form of campaign donations for legislators, profits for those in the for-profit charter and private school business, increased tax breaks for donors and welfare for corporate members. You might ask how privatizing education can lead to increased corporate welfare when such privatization will undoubtedly lead to increased costs? (Think privatization of prisons.) Easy, when the state’s cost for “public” education is passed on to those taking advantage of the privatized option via vouchers and charters. It is well known that both often cost more than the state provided funding covers and parents must pick up the tab.

I attended the first NPE Conference held in 2013 in Austin, Texas where I was privileged to meet and hear Diane and numerous other leaders in the effort to save public education. I, like them, believe (as Diane writes in the NPE report) “educating all children is a civil responsibility, not a consumer good.” And although the phrase “civil rights issue of our time” is way overused, I deeply believe it rings true when, (as Diane writes) it refers to “sustaining our system of free, equitable and democratically-controlled public schools that serve all children.”  I’ve quoted him before, but John Dewey’s words bear repeating until we, as a nation “get it”: “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.” Yes, we should act on public education as our very democracy is at stake, because it is!

Accountability in Arizona…not so much

Two headlines in the AZ Star caught my attention this morning: “Plan adds state cash for private education” and “Veto-proof majority backs repeal of JTED cuts.” The first one is about Representative Justin Olson’s bill to remove any limits on Empowerment Scholarship Accounts (ESAs.)  The second is about the Legislature’s plan to reinstate the $30 million in JTED cuts they made last year. Evidently the Legislature is now saying “my bad” about the 7.5% cut (about $400 per student) to charters and districts with students enrolled in JTED. According to Diane McCarthy at West-MEC, legislators weren’t really aware of what they were doing. “After the fact, some legislators said they didn’t understand what the impact of that (cut) was,” McCarthy said. “There’s a lot of talk about how do we fix it.”

I’m really glad the Legislature has come to its senses and intends to restore the funding, since 96% of Arizona students enrolled in CTE graduate from high school, 21% above those who don’t. Most CTE graduates also go on to post-secondary education and jobs and they score higher on standardized tests. CTE really is a win-win-win as the recent letter to the AZ Legislature signed by 32 business and education entities made clear. What really caught my eye about the JTED article was a quote from Senator Don Shooter who introduced the legislation to repeal the cuts. In response to Senate President Andy Bigg’s accusation that the program has insufficient oversight, Shooter said one key is “transparency.” Thanks for the segue Don.

Don Shooter is correct that transparency leads to more accountability, but evidently he and his fellow GOP legislators don’t understand that concept when it comes to ESAs (basically vouchers by another name.) As of mid-April 2014, approximately $17 million had been handed out through ESAs. That is a lot of money to be handed out without any way to ascertain return on investment. Unlike district school students, ESA recipients are exempted from all state assessments so there is no way to know whether the money was well spent.  Although there is a quarterly spending report required from ESA recipients, parents must only provide proof of spending 25% of the funding they receive each year. The money they don’t spend can be saved from year to year and can even be used for college. If the money isn’t spent, does it mean the parent was efficient with their child’s education or does it mean they skimped? Also, the vast majority of ESA funding goes to private schools (92% in 2012) and at least in Arizona, 70% of private schools are religious. I know this has been deemed constitutional because the money is given to parents who then give it to the schools, but sorry if it looks like a rose and smells like a rose…

The ESA program has been expanded little by little, (students: with disabilities, wards of the court or those that were, students of active duty military members or those killed while serving on active duty, those who had attended a D or F school the prior year, siblings of students currently in the program, and students who reside within the boundaries of an Indian reservation) but it has always been the intention of the GOP-led Legislature to open up the program to all. So far, pro-public legislators and those who believe in good stewardship of government dollars have been able to keep the wolves at bay. Make no mistake however; this legislation is much more about privatizing public education than it is about opportunities for disadvantaged children. Proponents say we need to transition from financing schools to funding students. Problem is, when students accept an ESA and leave the district school, they take all the funding with them, but none of the costs of running the school. A certain amount of overhead costs are fairly independent of student count and schools are incapable of rapidly adjusting their operating expenses with each student lost.

School choice is alive and well in Arizona and still a full 85% of Arizona’s students choose district schools.   The Legislature can pretend they care about these kids, but the truth is that they have a stranglehold on the necks of our district schools and as they continue to restrict the flow of resources to these schools, our kids are the losers. The more they encourage parents to look for greener grass outside our district schools, the more likely it is that resources will be pulled away from these schools making it harder for them to continue to educate the majority of students who remain.

If the Legislature really cares about Arizona students, why not just support our district schools why not just support what we know works: great teachers, small class sizes, infrastructure that supports learning and curriculum that is rich and challenging. We also know that schools can’t do it on their own. Many of our children face obstacles outside of school that affect their ability to learn inside school.

I am incredibly tired of our children being used as a political football. It is time for all good people to say enough is enough. We must stand up and speak for those who have no voice and no power to save themselves. It will be hard to make Arizona public education the envy of the Nation. But, it is possible and that possibility gives me hope.