A Moment of Reason in the Arizona Legislature – Voucher Expansion Bill Defeated

Somewhat unbelievable, but reason prevailed today in Arizona. Against all odds, the latest grand attempt to expand vouchers failed 31 to 27. HB2291, as amended, would have expanded eligibility for vouchers to any student living within qualified zip codes (as defined by the average household income is below 185% of the federal poverty level for a family of four) regardless of family income.  If passed and signed into law by the Governor, this bill would have expanded eligibility to 112,000 and exponentially increased costs for the program.

I watched a live feed of the Arizona House Committee of the Whole discuss this bill, HB 2291, Empowerment Scholarships Accounts; Expansion, sponsored by Rep Debbie Lesko (R). Some great points were made on the part of those against the bill and the same Rep. Ontondo (D), a former teacher said that in her legislative district, there are people who earn $300,000 and others who make $15,000. If you average this out, she said, it probably is about 40,000 so those who don’t need the “vouchers” to afford the private schools will get taxpayer dollars anyway. She also expressed the concern about the lack of transparency and oversight and referred to the fact that 21% of the ESA funding has been banked by parents and therefore not used for the education of their children. She said that taxpayers deserve to know how their dollars are being spent. Another representative (D) said that if we want great outcomes, we need to keep money in public education and stop choking our public schools. Another (D) said we’ve had choice in Arizona since the early 1990s and what has it done to improve our public education. If we can’t get everyone a voucher, we shouldn’t be doing it.

Rep Hale (D), from the Navajo Nation, asked Rep Lesko (the AZ Chair for the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC) several questions to subtly make his points. The first was whether she was aware of the income levels on the Navajo Nation and whether she knows how many private schools there are on the Navajo Nation. She said she did not know the answer to his questions. He replied that there are no private schools. She said ESAs don’t only offer funding for private schools, but for on-line learning or tutoring as well. He then asked if she was aware of how few people had access to the Internet on the Navajo Nation and she said she was not. I was impressed with how he led her down the path to divulging how ignorant she was about some of the state’s most needy children.

Rep Wheeler (D) provided information about the funding issues of this bill. He said recent changes to ESAs ensure funding at 90% of charter versus public, to the amount of $1007 per pupil more. He said that under the current basic state funding, a non-disabled student gets $5,400 as opposed to $5,800 per student (90% of $6,400 for vouchers.) This alone, according to the AZ Joint Budget Legislative Committee (JBLC), will increase costs of this program by $950K this fiscal year. He also said that if there were 600K students on ESAs, it would cost $3.6B and if there were 800K, it would cost $4.8B. Currently he said, there are 150K students eligible. With this bill, and addition of free or reduced, the increase in 2017 would be by 485K and cost another $2.19B. He also said that the cap of 5,400 per year meant nothing as it could easily be raised.

In a surprise to me, Rep Goodale (R) said she voted no because 100K expansion is too much at this time for the ESA program to absorb.

Finally, I’m quickly becoming a fan of Rep Heather Carter. She is a Republican, but first of all, she is a rationale representative of the people and, a strong advocate for public education. She was an articulate advocate for public education today and made some great arguments. When Rep Kavanaugh (R) referred to the district charters as faux charters, she called him on it. She pointed out that the laws allowing districts to convert their schools to charters had been on the books for 20 years. If the districts followed the rules, why change the rules now? All Kavanaugh could say was that “the timing was suspect.” When the bill proponents praised charters, she pointed out it is the 20th anniversary of charters and how the AZ Legislature just voted to remove the option of charters from the toolbox of our school districts. She pointed out how this is entirely against the purported goal of offering competition to improve achievement. She also said that the choice policies not going to help rural districts if we don’t put local options of choice in place.

In explaining her vote, she said she supported ESA accounts the way they were originally marketed, which was to provide academic opportunities who had unmet needs in our public schools. She said there were good public policy reasons why certain students’ needs were not met and it was marketed that ESAs would save the state money. Recent changes to allow ESAs to get additional charter assistance however, changed all that and now, ESAs cost more. She eloquently discussed what choice means to her: the choice of whether to send her daughter to public, charter, or private school, or to home school her. What this bill was really talking about though, was putting the AZ public education budget on a debit card. She pointed out that we lead the country in choice policy and have had open enrollment since 1994. If parents really want to send their children to another school, they can do that. Choice is different than the funding issue. This bill confuses the dollars we spend in AZ with school choice. It is the job of the legislature to fund public schools and they need to do it!

The last speaker before the vote was Rep Lesko, the sponsor of the bill. She made one last-ditch effort to get her colleagues to support her bill, but her arguments just weren’t compelling. She said the bill gives low-income students the opportunity to improve their situation and yet, Rep Hale had already pointed out it won’t help those on the Navajo Nation. She pointed out that although the bill would make 112K students eligible, the current cap in only about 5,400 per year so what is everyone worried about? Rep Wheeler pointed out during the debate that the cap means nothing because it can always be raised. Lesko also claimed that the program will actually save over $3,000 per year per student, but as the AZ JLBC noted, costs are now higher for ESAs than for educating a student in public schools.

Yes, the bill was defeated today, but I’m not going to rest easy because it is crazy (okay, craziest) time at the AZ Legislature. In addition to Rep Mesnard (R) changing his vote for a likely reconsideration on HB2291, there are several other anti-public education bills working their way to the Governor’s office. Here’s a quick rundown:

  • HB2139 (sponsor: Rep. Petersen) – Expands the ESA program to any sibling of a student who has an ESA and any preschool special education student. This will significantly grow the ESA program, and the money to fund all of these students will be placed directly on the state’s General Fund. Money out the door with zero accountability.
  • HB2150 (sponsor: Borrelli) – Removes the 100 day requirement for students to attend a public school before getting an ESA for students who have parents in the military.  Thus, students with parents in the military will be eligible for ESA private school vouchers without ever having attended public school.
  • HB2328 (sponsor: Rep. Livingston) – This bill amends the eligibility for the corporate tax credit STO program for students with special needs and foster kids.  It eliminates the current requirement that these students must attend a public school for at least 90 days to be eligible for an STO. This means that students who are already in private schools will now be eligible to get STO monies under this corporate tax credit STO program.
  • SB1237 (sponsor: Sen. Yee) – This is the Arizona Department of Education’s ESA administrative bill.  One provision of the bill clarifies that all ESA students get 90% of the base support level funding + the charter school additional assistance.  This means that students who leave a traditional school district to attend private school using an ESA will actually be given more funding to go to a private school then the public school would receive to educate them.
  • SB1236 (sponsor: Yee) – This bill is identical to HB2291, expanding the ESA program to any student living in a zip code where the federal poverty rate is 185% (family of four making $46,000). Because this bill is identical to HB2291, the bills can be switched out during a third read vote in each chamber so they will not have to go to the other chamber.  If passed in the Senate, the bill gets transmitted to Governor Brewer.

People often ask me what the hell the AZ Legislature is thinking with regard to the actions they are taking against public education. I tell them they know exactly what they are thinking and doing. I believe they are out to destroy public education and turn over tax payer dollars for such to the privateers to expand their profits. We must remain vigilant and keep up the pressure. For our students, for our public schools, for our communities and for our future!

Parents shouldn’t have to choose, kids shouldn’t have to lose

The education reform movement loves to tout that parent’s right to choose is the “civil rights issue of our time.”  They point to how charter and private schools, and the vouchers to fund them will allow disadvantaged children to leave the public schools they are at and move to better performing schools which will better serve them.  This will eventually cause the bad public schools to close and raise the tide for all.  There are several reasons why this line of reasoning just doesn’t meet the smell test.

First of all, choice doesn’t always equal opportunity.  Not every parent can complete the complex applications sometimes required, or transport their children to the charter or private school, or put in the requisite number of volunteer hours sometimes required.  Secondly, there is no evidence that charter schools on the whole perform better than public schools.  In fact, despite the fact that charter schools are supposed to be open to  all, they still often cherry pick their students, accepting less than their share of special education or English language learning students.  Lastly, as I just mentioned, there just won’t be a wholesale departure from public education to charter and private schools.  Arizona is a leader in the charter school movement and yet almost 90 percent of our school children still attend district schools.  What will happen is the better students with more advantages, will potentially try other alternatives.  Those that can’t take advantage of opportunity however, will remain and segregation, the highest now since 1964, will just continue to increase.

The real truth however, is that parents should not have to make a choice.  Every public school in America should provide a quality education with a full curriculum including music, art and physical education.  Unfortunately, now in the Oracle School District, we no longer offer music or art and because of our recently failed override continuation (by 98 votes), we’ll most likely be forced to cut physical education.  And so the death spiral continues.  Funding is cut, forcing schools to cut the program or take it “out of hide”.  Of course, our education professionals work hard to find a way to still do it all.  That in itself contributes to the death spiral because then the taxpayer can claim “see, you didn’t need that funding after all.”  Cutting programs is just as bad, because it can cause students to leave the district for another that still provides the desired program.  This then reduces the District’s budget and means they can provide even less.  This is a formula for failure, not success.

In the meantime, we owe our all our children the opportunity to succeed, regardless of zip code or skin color.  Our future as a nation depends on it because we never know from where our best and brightest will emerge.  Charter schools have a place in our education system.  There are needs they best serve.  But…they were never intended to replace public community schools and in Arizona, they cost the taxpayers $1,000 more in state-provided funding per pupil than district schools.

America is a great nation.  Public education for all contributed greatly to our success.  The full-on assault currently being waged on public education threatens our success.  Contrary to what the education reformists would have you believe, our public schools are performing well.  Our graduation rate is higher than ever, our dropout rate is lower than ever, and our students’ performance on international tests is on par with just about any other nation when we factor out the affects of poverty.  Poverty is the issue that threatens our education system, and our schools can’t solve this problem.  It will take all of us working together to address it.

The AZ Legislature is Busy…How Will Education Fare?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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