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.

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

“Someone to Shine Our Shoes”

In a recent article titled “Chartered Cruise” on knpr.org, the author Hugh Jackson wrote: “Today’s charter industry, much like Nevada’s voucher plan, reflects a chronic civic defeatism. Echoing the perverse social Darwinism of more than a century ago, faith in free-market education is surrender to pessimism. Society really isn’t incapable of providing a fair educational opportunity to every citizen. Some people are doomed to fail, that’s just the way it is, so best to segregate those with promise, the achievers, in separate schools. As for everyone else, well, too bad for them.” Of course, this attitude isn’t confined to only Nevada; I have a real life example of it right here in Arizona. Three or so years ago, an acquaintance of mine asked an Arizona Senator whether or not he supported public education. He replied, “of course I do, we need someone to shine our shoes.”

It’s bad enough the Senator thought this, let alone that he said it out loud to a public education advocate. That says as much about the voter contempt some of our lawmakers hold (especially when the voter is from a different party) as it does what they think of public education. As the primary water carrier for the American Legislative Exchange Council’s (ALEC), the Arizona Legislature has led the nation in efforts to offer school choice options. Proponents tout school choice as the way to help disadvantaged children, but truth is, they’ve already written these children off. Instead, school choice is really about resegregation (the highest we’ve seen since the mid 1960s) and profiteering.

The school choice and education privatization movement gives me great pause because:

  1. The vast majority of our students (85%) are attending significantly underfunded district schools;
  2. Taxpayer dollars are increasingly being siphoned off to profiteers with very little (if any) accountability and transparency;
  3. The claim of school choice proponents that school choice provides much better results, either isn’t backed up by facts, or is an oranges and pineapple comparison;
  4. Voucher and charter schools actually provide parents less choice than district schools.

Allow me to explain. By now, most Arizonans probably know our state is 48th in per pupil funding. Even if the $3.5 billion infusion from Prop 123 is approved by voters this month, it won’t move us from 48th place in overall per pupil funding. To move up just one notch (above Oklahoma), we’d have to give out districts twice that much. That’s how far behind Arizona is.

As for the lack of accountability and transparency in Arizona’s school choice programs, for-profit companies dominate the charter school movement.  These companies do not have school boards, let alone locally elected boards and are not required to disclose the details of their business operations. As for private schools that take Empowerment Scholarship Account (voucher) or Student Tuition Organization tax credit dollars, there is no way for taxpayers to determine funding efficacy. Private school students are not required to take state assessments nor provide any academic results. Neither are private schools required to disclose any information regarding their business operations.

Then, there’s the apple and oranges comparison. Irrespective of the law requiring charter schools to accept all students, it is a well documented fact that most manage to steer clear of special needs and English language learning students and that they manage to attrit (at incredibly high rates) students of color or those on the lower end of the socio-economic scale. Of course, when these students return to the district schools, it is often after the 100th day of the school year, when the average daily attendance has been calculated and the charter school has cemented the funding for the year for that student. The district school is forced to absorb that same student for the rest of the year with no compensation.

Finally, district schools are run by locally elected governing boards that are accountable to the community. School district residents have the right to be present at board meetings and have their voice heard. They also have a right to know how their tax money is spent. Charters and private schools are run by executive boards not accountable and often not responsive to parents. If you aren’t happy with the way they are being run, your only recourse is to withdraw your child.

The myth perpetuated by those bent on destroying pubic district education is that district schools are failing and that privatization in various forms is the answer. The reality says that school choice will never be the answer for the vast majority. The evidence also shows despite charters and private schools being much more selective of their students, most charters and almost all cyber charters do worse than their district schools. We don’t really know how private schools do since they aren’t required to provide any information about results.

The movement to privatize public education is straight from the GOP playbook on reducing government. As President Reagan said in his first inaugural address: “Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” That might have been a good sound bite for the right, but I believe concentrated, unchecked power is the problem. Our system works best when we have a balance of power that ensures all sides are heard and produces compromises to come up with the best possible solution. It also works best when government provides for the public good and checks and balances are put in place to ensure efficiencies and effectiveness of both the public and private sectors where taxpayer dollars are involved. Those checks and balances are lacking in school choice options and taxpayers are paying the price. Examples abound of virtual (on-line) school scams, greedy charter school operators, and even illegal purchases with voucher dollars. No, district schools are not entirely immune from fraud, but at least they have locally elected school boards responsible to the taxpayer for oversight and the state conducts annual audits. Neither of these happens when taxpayer dollars fund school choice options.

The original intent of charter schools was to provide teachers greater flexibility to experiment with new ways to educate students. Charters were not meant to compete with or replace district schools, but rather complement them. Now, charters and vouchers have become a way for state legislatures to deflect their responsibility to provide a quality public education for all. When funding follows the child, it becomes the parent’s responsibility to ensure a quality education. School choice also allows our lawmakers to obfuscate the real problem, poverty and all the challenges it brings to our district schools.  Of course, the focus on school choice creates demand which causes funding loss in districts, making it harder for them to excel and reinforces the message that they are failing. The truth is, that despite significant funding shortfalls, severe teacher shortages and crumbling infrastructure, our district schools continue to do well. It makes one wonder what miracles could be achieved if they received the funding and support currently being siphoned off to charters and private schools.

The one thing I know for sure is that until we elect new pro-public education candidates, nothing is going to change. We will continue to see efforts to take the brakes off vouchers, create laws more favorable to charter schools, and attempts to de-professionalize the teaching profession. We have the power to create change; the only question that remains is do we have the will? Prop 123 has raised the level of attention to the challenges of our district schools. Many have been vocal on both sides of the issue. Let’s come together on May 19th at 4 pm for a Pro-Public Education Rally to tell our Legislature that enough is enough, we are done with them short-changing our kids and our state’s future! #ItStartsNow #YouPlusOne #RememberInNovember

Screw you, I’ve got mine

Now that it looks like the AZ Legislature will be successful in finally opening the floodgates on vouchers (empowerment scholarship accounts) for K-12 education, I’ve got some other ideas they should consider. After all, the Legislature has made it clear that taxpayers are the ones best equipped to decide where their tax dollars go and that transparency and accountability don’t matter. Other than quarterly reports on spending, there is virtually no accountability in the voucher program; students aren’t even required to test and private schools don’t need to report any kind of results so there is no way for taxpayers to determine if their tax dollars were well spent.

Since I don’t have any children or grandchildren, I’ve been thinking about how I can take advantage of the Legislature’s privatization fixation. My first idea is one of safety and security. We don’t live in an incorporated township, so we rely on the county sheriff’s department to ensure our safety and security. The service provided is adequate, but I really think I can do better by looking to a private security firm to meet my needs. After all, surely a private security firm can do a better job right? That Blackwater firm was just an anomaly, right? So, I’m not sure what percentage of my tax dollars support the county sheriff’s office, but I want the state to give that back to me and I’ll hire my own guys. I’ll probably have to pay extra for the private solution, but it will be worth it.

While I’m at it, think I’ll look at the taxes I pay for maintenance of roads. After all, what do I care about roads in other parts of the state? I want the roads I drive each and every day to be in pristine condition. Maybe the state should just turn every road into a toll road and then I would only pay for those roads on which I drive. What? There would be many cases where there isn’t enough traffic to support maintenance of roads in remote areas? Too bad, so sad, not my problem.

Oh, and I live within a half mile of a fire department so I don’t think I should have to pay as much in taxes as those who live further away. After all, if there is a fire at my house, the department will save money in fuel and travel time to deal with it.

Obviously, I provide the above to make a point. When did we descend into this “screw you, I’ve got mine” mentality? No matter what proponents claim, vouchers are NOT the solution for the vast majority of Arizona’s children. What they are, is a way to: 1) redistribute our tax dollars from the greater good to those who LEAST need the help; 2) bolster the private education industry and; 3) relieve the state Legislature of the responsibility for ensuring and providing for education. The two major jobs of the state are to provide for public safety and public education. Once these voucher bills pass, legislators will no doubt feel they can wash their hands of the responsibility to “provide for the establishment and maintenance of a general and uniform public school system.” Truth is, they will have just done the very thing that drives a stake in the heart of their ability to ensure a “uniform” system.

Make no mistake; this is NOT about providing parents a choice. What it is about, and has always been about, is the corporate “reform” of public education or in other words, taking the “public” out of public education. Vouchers are also not ensuring the best for ALL our students. With every student exits their district school on a voucher, the fixed costs of running that district must be born by a smaller budget, which means the students left in are increasingly short-changed. The nature of the beast is that these students will invariably be those with the most challenges such as English Language Learners, special needs students, or just those lowest on the socio-economic ladder. Unlike district and charter schools, private schools can choose whom they wish to admit. They also don’t provide transportation and their tuition commonly exceeds the $5,200 parents receive with the voucher. It is not hard to see why many of Arizona’s parents will continue to choose to send their children to their community district schools and yet, these schools will increasingly be abandoned in terms of state support.

I’ve made it known that I am for the approval of Prop. 123 to get more funding into our schools now! Is it the way I would want to do it? NO!! I want to Arizona to stop giving corporate handouts and if necessary, to raise taxes to fund the type of schools our students needs for the future we all want. After all, Arizonans largely support this. If this opening of the floodgates on vouchers passes though, I may have to rethink my position. It is bad enough that the Legislature has thumbed it’s nose at the will of the voters, the decisions of the court and has finally agreed to pay our schools only 70 percent of what they owe with money that is already technically theirs. I can’t stomach the thought of this money getting siphoned off by those who could largely afford to go to private schools without the voucher money.

If you agree, you can’t just sit silently by and let this happen. If you want things to be different, you MUST ACT. Call your legislator, send them an email and make comments in the Legislature’s “Request to Speak” program. If you aren’t signed up for the program, please email me and I’ll personally go to the Capitol and sign you up (you must be signed up through the kiosk at the Capitol to be able to actually comment on bills.) Then you can, from the comfort of your home, tell the Legislature just what you think about the bills they are considering and, your comments will become part of the permanent record.

Ultimately though, the only long-term solution is to elect pro-public education legislators to replace those who aren’t acting in our students’ or our state’s best interest. Please ACT NOW. Our kids are counting on you and they can’t wait any longer for us to come to their rescue.

 

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!

Part 2 – Why Ducey’s Promise to Lower Taxes is a Lie

In my previous post, I showed why Governor Ducey’s focus on tax reduction is a disastrous recipe for our state. Now let’s look at how those tax reductions we’ve been seeing aren’t really helping the average Arizonan. Instead, we continue to see the tax burden transferred from those who have, to those who can least afford.

Governor Ducey is intent on eliminating income tax in Arizona. Why might you ask? Because, for this Governor and others like him, it is ALL about business. And although corporate tax breaks are good for large business, 97% of the employers in Arizona are small businesses like S-corporations, LLCs and partnerships. These businesses amount to over 40% of the private workforce and are currently taxed by the state via income tax. I’m not sure whether ASU’s Center for the Study of Economic Liberty 2015 policy report by Stephen Slivinski is the “policy roadmap to elimination of the Arizona income tax” as it claims, or, if it was written to support Governor Ducey’s tax reduction plan. At any rate, Slivinski concludes in the report that: “The best hope Arizona policymakers have to eliminate the income tax is to phase it out over a number of years while maintaining budget balance.” He also makes the point that now that the state is on “surer fiscal footing”; it is time for Arizona policymakers “to look at important and necessary reforms over the next couple of years.” Waiting longer he claims, “may result in losing a golden opportunity.” Sounds like a Ducey talking point commercial to me.

Arizona already has though, the 13th-lowest individual income tax and the 10th-lowest combined state and local income tax in the Nation. Additionally, according to an article in Business Insider in August 2014, Arizona’s economy was ranked the 4th fastest growing in the US after Colorado, California and Texas. Of course, we also have the 4th highest poverty rate in the US with one in five Arizonans living in poverty. Obviously, there are winners and losers in Arizona’s current economy and Governor Ducey’s insistence on eliminating the state income tax and shifting state revenue collection to increased sales tax will do nothing to help those who most need it. Although sales tax is said to be a less volatile form of revenue than income tax, it also is the most regressive, hitting the poorest the hardest.

Of course, income and sales taxes are just two ways a state can tax its residents, there are a multitude of others. Here’s just a few examples of how we continue to be “taxed” all the while Governor Ducey claims he is reducing our tax burden.

 1.  The highest per-pupil cuts in K-12 education funding in the Nation from 2008 to 2012 caused Arizona school districts to seek more locally controlled funding as a way to survive. The number of districts asking their communities for funding through bonds and overrides in 2015 was up 150 percent since 2008. The good news for districts is that the voters recognized the need for the funding and the approval rate for these measures was also high. The bad news is that this was no reduction in taxes, but just a shifting from the state to the local level. Unfortunately, often the communities with districts most in need have the least amount of capacity to help.

2.  Another solution many districts were forced to try in order to make ends meet was to reduce their school week from five days to four. As of May 2015, 43 districts (most in rural communities) in Arizona have already gone this route with many others considering following suit.  Arizona districts make up one-third of all four-day week districts in the Nation. There is debate over whether this move really produces the touted savings in the long run, but parents certainly don’t come out on top.  Rather, a four-day school week often requires parents to find childcare or, reduce the hours they work in order to care for their children when they are not in school. It also results in decreased wages for cafeteria workers and bus drivers. These people (especially in rural areas) may not have any real options to make up the difference.

3.  The state’s push of school choice via charters and Empowerment Scholarship Accounts (essentially vouchers) has been another way to transfer education costs to the local level. Charters usually require parents to transport their children to the school, do not offer any free and reduced lunch programs, and often require donations of parents. Schools in the Great Hearts Academy schools for example, “recommend parents contribute at least $1,200 to $1,500 per year per child to the school. There are also a variety of fees that are either not charged at all in district schools, or are much lower than what the charters charge.

4.  Even before Governor Ducey and the Legislature cut $99 million from our state universities and $19 million from our community colleges, Arizona had the deepest cuts in the Nation to higher-education spending. Those cuts drove the significant fee hikes and steepest tuition hikes as well, rising 83.6% since 2008.

5.  The Highway User Revenue Fund (HURF) which includes several taxes and fees such as the gasoline and vehicle license tax, was established to maintain roads, bridges and other transportation needs in the state. The Legislature swept about $860 million from this fund from 2000 to 2014 for other priorities. This forced local government to try to keep up with a more than $455 million in backlogs (with only 70% of cities reporting) for construction, repair, and maintenance of municipal streets. This isn’t just a double tax on Arizona residents (pay taxes to maintain the roads, then pay for car repairs after unmaintained roads cause damage), but also translates into a significant loss of jobs that could employ Arizonans to repair infrastructure and ensures that if and when the repairs occur, they will cost significantly more than if we had just maintained the infrastructure to begin with.

6.  In 2015, the state shifted 25% of the cost (about $12 million) for housing juvenile offenders to the counties, based on total population of the county. The counties are now required to raise the funds for this bill either through increased taxes or reduced services.

7.  Also in 2015, the cost to pay the Arizona Department of Revenue to collect and distribute sales taxes was passed down from the state to cities and counties. The change is expected to cost cities and counties about $17 million. This change applied even in counties that don’t charge a sales tax (such as Pima whose share of this new bill is $1.6 million.)

8.  In the past, the state picked up most of the cost of presidential primary elections. In 2016 however, the cost for these elections will be pushed down to the counties who will pay more than $3 million extra to cover those costs.

There are countless examples of this shifting of real costs, and even more in lost opportunity costs. Local governments say the state merely balanced its budget on their backs and saddled them with a huge financial burden that will continue to result in layoffs, tax increases and crumbling roads. Governor Ducey’s office responded that it is up to local government leaders to make responsible decisions. Really? How can local government leaders make responsible decisions when budget expenses they had no part in approving, are forced upon them without any vote in the process? Leave it to Ducey and Company to not only make a really bad brown matter sandwich for local governments to eat, but then also blame them for complaining how it tastes.

In this, as with any debate, it is possible to find a source to support any point of view. For me it is really this simple…does it make sense that you would tax the poor more to provide tax relief for the rich? Does it make sense that corporations are lured to locate in a state so they can pay even less than the under one percent they generally pay in corporate taxes? Or, does it make more sense that corporations are savvy and look at a variety of indicators to determine where to locate such as the quality of local schools, availability of a quality workforce, or a solid infrastructure? One doesn’t need to be a genius to understand basic economic concepts, all it really takes is a little common sense. A strong middle class is the best path to prosperity for our communities and our nation and economic policies that support its growth are the solution. Our tax policies should incentivize the behavior we need for the health of our communities, states and nation, not for the enrichment of a few. Finally, business definitely has a critical role to play, but so does government. It should ensure we are provided the basic essentials of safety, security, infrastructure and education and our tax policies should ensure sufficient revenue to do that properly. And, it should do that at the right level so as to ensure proper oversight and economies of scale.

No one party has the right answer here and there is no one right solution. It takes a smart application of available tools, wise employment of lessons learned and yes, a whole lot of common sense. Alas, as Voltaire is credited with saying in the early 1700’s: “Common sense is not so common.”

 

Ducey on Education…What’s he really saying?

Governor Ducey’ State of the State address today at the AZ Legislature’s opening day was a fairly typical “state of” address. He talked about what he’s accomplished thus far and provided sound bites about what else he’ll do. He promised he’ll lower taxes each year and still invest in education. He claimed it doesn’t have to be either/or, it can be both. He did not of course, dilineate any specific plan to do this, but that isn’t really what a “state of the state” address is for. He provided examples of good things happening in public education, and stated that Prop 123 will give us opportunity to make substantial progress.” Have to inject here that although I am supporting Prop 123, it won’t really help us “make substantial progress.” Even if with the passage of Prop 123, Arizona won’t move up from 49th in per pupil funding. After all, it is only going to provide about $300 per student, still less than has been cut since the recession began. Not nothing, but not a game changer either.

Governor Ducey then made the prediction that: “In the years ahead, Arizona will be among the states investing the most new dollars in public education – all without raising taxes.” Just to be clear here, the Prop 123 monies aren’t “new monies”, they are monies that were already owed to our schools. Not sure the Governor sees it that way, but that is the truth. More funding, much more funding is needed and every bit will be welcome, but I just don’t see how we can make a dent in the need without raising taxes. I am positive we can’t do it by cutting taxes and giving our surplus away as corporate handouts. We just need to look at what Governor Brownback did to Kansas with his tax cuts.   When he took the reins in Kansas, he dropped the top income-tax rate by 25%, lowered sales taxes and created a huge exemption for business owners filing taxes as individuals. He claimed it would spur investment, create jobs and bolster the state’s coffers through faster growth, sound familiar? Now, five years after doubling down, his state lags in job creation, tax revenue is far short of expectations and bond and credit ratings have been downgraded. Rating agencies claimed the tax breaks were unsustainable and that the promised economic growth would be elusive. It is with great hubris this lesson would be ignored.

Ducey then touted the conservative mantra that more money doesn’t equal better education with “We know spending is not the measure of success. And it shouldn’t just be about the billions of dollars we are putting into public education; it must be about what our kids are getting out of their education.” He’s right, it shouldn’t be just about the spending. But again, just look at the schools wealthy people send their kids to. Those schools aren’t bargain basement…they cost big money because they have small class sizes, highly qualified teachers (some with PhDs from Harvard, Yale and Stanford), extensive curricula, fabulous facilities and the very latest in technology. Money is not the only solution, but it does matter.

Facts also matter, so I have to call a “not so fast” on the Governor’s reference to “until the thousands of kids on public school wait lists have access to our finest teachers and principals, our job isn’t done.” Firstly, although Ducey refers to “public school wait lists”, he means “charter school wait lists.” Yes, charter schools are technically public schools, but district schools don’t really have wait lists, they must take all who reside in their boundaries and also accept the vast majority of those students who apply via open enrollment. So how about those much touted charter school wait lists? Although the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools (NAPCS) claims that waiting lists for charters across the Nation would top one million for the first time in 2014, a May 2014 report by the National Education Policy Center (NEPC) gave nine reasons we should be skeptical of these numbers. Among the reasons were: students apply to multiple charter schools; waitlists can’t be confirmed and record-keeping is unreliable; charters accept applicants for students they have no intention of ever admitting; and many charter schools choose not to “back-fill” students who vacated during the school year (because accepting new students mid-year can create turmoil in the classroom), which would reduce their waiting list. Without the ability to verify the wait list data to determine its reliability, the NEPC study concluded that “policymakers would be wise to set aside NAPCS’ claims and wait for verifiable data.” After all, where charter schools are managed by for-profit corporations, the facilities built with taxpayer funding assistance eventually become property of the corporations. Paint me cynical, but when a governor cites waiting lists as the reason to expand these schools and says he is going to provide more dollars for this expansion, it is easy to see it is in the corporation’s interest to inflate those lists. He also though, talked about the “need to provide resources for aging schools to repair and rebuild their facilities for future students.” I’m hoping he is including district schools here since their facility maintenance and repair has been funded at only two percent of the need over a recent four year period.

Of course, Governor Ducey continues to want to reward those schools that are already succeeding. In his speech he spoke of “the need to reward schools that are helping kids reach their full potential…and that under our plan, schools that produce students who successfully complete AP-level, college-prep courses will be rewarded with more dollars.” Likewise, he said: “Schools in low-income areas – where educators and students face added challenges – will receive an even greater boost for helping kids beat the odds.” I totally understand his wanting to reward “good behavior”, but am concerned about a lack of concern about helping those schools and their students who are struggling. In my former Air Force life, higher-heaquarters inspection teams routinely visited bases to evaluate their performance. Where there were significant problems, “staff assistance teams” would be sent in to help fix them. Although the boss (wing commander) might be fired if the dysfunction was severe, the assistance provided after the fact was not punitive, but meant to help things get back on track. The vast majority of our struggling schools have administrators, teachers and staff working hard to make a difference. They need help, not punishment likely to accelerate their race to the bottom.

I was very happy to hear him acknowledge the importance of career technical education (CTE): “I know not every child plans to go to college – their K-12 experience also needs to prepare them for life. Which is why I’m targeting high-need employment sectors with a new focus on career and technical education. There is bipartisan support for this – so let’s get it done.” Of course, this wouldn’t be quite as critical this legislative session if it weren’t for the Legislative mandated cut of $30 million scheduled to go into effect next year. Nonetheless, he’s right, CTE is a win-win-win and the funding must be restored and hopefully, increased.

The Governor also gave note to the fact that “The state isn’t the only player in public education. Every day, philanthropic foundations in Arizona are investing in our schools. They are developing new school leaders, expanding educational opportunities for low-income children and funding the arts and sciences. I intend to partner with the heads of these foundations to provide an even greater opportunity and impact in our schools.” Good for you Governor! Just don’t forget that it isn’t the job of these philanthropic foundations to provide for public education. That, as outlined in the Arizona Constitution, is the primary job of the Legislature and you! Irrespective of how much you promote the growth of for-profit charter schools and the expansion of Empowerment Scholarship Accounts (essentially vouchers), the responsibility for the public education of Arizona’s one million plus students is still ultimately rests on your shoulders. I hear you saying many of the right things, I just hope your intent is pure and your commitment is real. Our students are not a talking point, they are young people who deserve every opportunity to succeed and reach their full potential.  Not only for themselves, but for the future of our State and our Nation.

 

 

Bottom Five List – Discouraged but Hopeful

A recent article in The Atlantic magazine featured experts on K-12 education who offered their reasons for hope and despair with regard to education. It was an interesting read and prompted me to come up with my own list for Arizona. In this first of two posts, I share my “Bottom Five” list of what discourages me and what I’m hopeful about. First, what discourages me:

10. The extremely well funded efforts of the corporate “reformers.” Make no mistake about it, the effort by the corporate “reformers” to make sweeping changes to the Nation’s public education system is as much about making a profit as it is an interest in making a difference. The exact number is up for debate, but The Nation magazine says the American K-12 public education market is worth almost $800 billion. Now, everyone from basketball players to Turkish billionaires want a piece of the pie. It is no accident that the Koch brothers backed, corporate bill mill ALEC is pushing many of the reforms, and the technology magnates Bill Gates and Mark Zuckenberg are heavily involved in the “reforming.” All you have to do is follow the money and the intent becomes clear.

9.  The apathy of Arizona voters. I worked on three Arizona Legislative campaigns in the past few years and although I mostly enjoyed talking to voters, I was beyond dismayed when I learned that in 2014, not even half of the LD11 voters with mail-in ballots bothered to mail them in. These are people who are registered to vote and are on the Permanent Early Voters List (PEVL). They are mailed their ballots and can fill them out in the comfort of their home. They don’t even have to put a stamp on them, postage is pre-paid. These votes should have been the “low-hanging fruit.” Combined with the overall Arizona voter turnout of 27%, this is pathetic by anyone’s definition.

8.  The fact that Arizona leads in all the wrong metrics. Does Arizona care about children? Let me count the ways maybe not so much. According to the Annie E. Casey’s “Kids Count Databook”, Arizona ranks: 46th in overall child well-being, 42nd in economic well-being, 44th in education achievement, and 42nd in children’s health. The Databook also reports that 26% of Arizona’s children live in poverty, 4% more than the nationwide average. The personal finance website WalletHub reports much the same, ranking Arizona 49th for child welfare which shouldn’t surprise anyone given the dysfunction in our Department of Child Safety. I don’t know about you, but these statistics disgust me and should absolutely drive what our Legislature spends our taxpayer dollars on. It is about defining what kind of people we are, it is about helping those who can’t help themselves and it is about the future of our state.

7.  Some seem to think the path to success is to lower the bar. Even though there are people whose opinions I value that think Senator Sylvia Allen will do a good job as the Chair of the Senate Education Committee, I remain hopeful but have my doubts. Call me crazy, but I think the legislator with the most sway over what education bills see the light of day should actually have more than a high school education. Along those same lines, Arizona Representative Mark Finchem (LD11-Republican) evidently doesn’t think teaching experience is valuable for our county schools superintendents. He has already submitted House Bill 2003 for this legislative session, which seeks to delete the requirement for county schools superintendents to have a teaching certificate. Instead, it will require only a bachelor’s degree in any subject, or an associate’s degree in business, finance or accounting. I know some would ask why should county schools superintendents have certificates when the state superintendent of public instruction doesn’t require one. Well, I’d rather see us make it a condition of both jobs.

6.  The polarization of our county makes it seem impossible to come together to find real, workable solutions. I was recently speaking to a friend of mine who I’ve known for over 25 years. We started talking about education and he started railing about how all public schools do is waste money. He talked about the fancy new high school in his town that was built (in his opinion) much more ostentatious than necessary. “Why do the kids need that to learn” he asked? “Why not just give them a concrete box?” Really?? Where do I begin? Truth is, I didn’t even try because I knew he wouldn’t listen. He knew what he knew and no amount of fact was going to sway him.

But all is not lost and I am more optimistic than pessimistic about Arizona’s public education. Here’s what makes me hopeful:

10.  Across the Nation, more and more charter school scandals come to light every day highlighting the need for more transparency and accountability. I’m not glad there are charter school scandals, but I am glad the public are learning more about the dangers of a profit-making focus with inadequate oversight. That’s one of the reasons district schools have rules and controls; they are after all, dealing with taxpayer dollars. And oh by the way, it’s no longer just charter schools we need to watch. The continuous expansion of vouchers exponentially broadens the potential for abuse and requires the same kind of public oversight. There just is no magic pill to student achievement. It takes resources, dedicated professionals, and hard work. Short cuts in other words, don’t cut it.

9.  The fact that we still have dedicated professionals willing to teach in our district schools. Despite low pay, higher class sizes than the national average, insufficient supplies, inadequate facilities, and ever-changing mandates, Arizona still has close to 50,000 district teachers willing to be in our classrooms because they love the kids and they love their work. They are underappreciated and sometimes even vilified, but they know their work is important. Now, if only our Legislature acted like they knew this too.

8.  Recognition is growing that early childhood education is really important. Even Governor Ducey said in April 2015: “Research shows that a quality early childhood education experience can yield significant long-term benefits on overall development of a child. It’s the most profitable investment we can make in their future.” A recent review of 84 preschool programs showed an average of a third of a year of additional learning across language, reading and math skills. Preschool has also been shown to have as much as a seven-fold return on dollars spent over the life of the child. The public is starting to “get it” and support for preschool funding is growing.

7.  Speaking of Common Core, it seems to be working okay. Yes, I saw the recently released AzMERIT results, but we knew they would be low. That’s what happens when you raise the bar. Despite no additional funding or resources to implement Common Core (oops, I mean Arizona College and Career Standards), our districts made it happen and the numerous teachers and administrators I’ve talked to say our students are now learning more. Efforts are underway to determine what should be changed about the Arizona standards, but my guess is that they will be minor.

6.  If nothing else, the passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) saves us from the really bad legislation that was No Child Left Behind. Everything I’ve read about the new ESSA touts it an improvement over its predecessor. It reduces what some considered Federal overreach and provides states more flexibility in implementing their K-12 education programs. Which, oh by the way, makes me concerned our state legislature will look to relax requirements where it serves them, at the expense of those children who most need our help. At least now though, they won’t be able to blame everything on “the Feds”, to include whatever version of the Common Core standards we end up with.

Please stay tuned, still to come are the top five reasons I’m discouraged and hopeful.

Doing the Right Thing Isn’t Complicated

When I read the recent Cronkite News Service article “20 Years in, Arizona charter schools on firm ground” I wanted to rename it “20 Years in, Arizona charter schools still serve only 15 percent of the state’s students.” That’s when I realized how pointless this debate is. You know, you tout charter school offerings and performance and I come back with “yeah, but charters cherry pick their students and don’t have to put up with the same level of transparency and accountability.” Enough already!

How about we try something different? First, we recognize that charter schools weren’t originally designed to compete with community district schools, but rather, “to allow teachers the opportunity to draw upon their expertise to create high-performing educational laboratories from which the traditional public schools could learn.” Except for the part of allowing “teachers the opportunity” some charter schools have mostly done that. Take BASIS schools for example. Known for their rigor and academic success, these schools have an in-depth enrollment process that includes a placement test, they push their students hard, and they require significant involvement by parents who are likely already more engaged with their child’s education than the average. These factors no doubt contributed to BASIS Scottsdale ranking #2 high school in the nation for 2015 by U.S. News & World Report. There are takeaways from the BASIS model that would likely improve academic success at some district schools, but their high attrition rate is proof enough that it won’t work for the vast majority of students.   District schools can’t “attrit” students – they must educate all.

Unfortunately, our system doesn’t encourage schools to learn from one another. Open enrollment and school choice force schools to compete for the students that bring the dollars they need to exist. This competition comes at a cost. Today’s schools must spend valuable education dollars branding themselves and marketing to attract students. Larger districts now have marketing and public relations people on staff, but there’s no new money to cover these costs. The reality is that in the existing climate of “no new taxes” there is only so much education money to go around and adding more schools to the mix can only dilute the quality for the majority of our students. Instead of focusing on what model can perform better given the right circumstances, we should be looking at what will work best for all the children in our public schools. We need to revise an antiquated school funding model that simply “counts noses” rather than considering student demographics, performance and other measures.

We also must find a way to give our schools more stability in their funding. Our school administrators are professionals and they can make wise adjustments when they know what’s coming. Problem is, education funding has been volatile and unpredictable and even that which is mandated by voters and adjudicated by the courts cannot be counted on. And although charters complain that they can’t go out for bonds and overrides, the $1,100 (in 2014) more per pupil funding they receive is much more stable than the locally controlled funding districts have the option to seek. An analysis from the AZ Republic showed that from 2002 to 2012 69 percent of school districts had not issued bonds (or were shot down by voters when they did) and 73 percent hadn’t gone out for capital overrides or couldn’t win voter’s approval. Of course, school choice also supports instability as when money flows from a district school to a charter; the costs do not go down proportionately at the district school. Rather, the district school cannot shift their costs fast enough as students and revenue leave and the fixed costs for the principal, utilities, building debt, etc. remain often resulting in larger class sizes and cuts to academic programming.

The Payson RoundUp was way on-point recently: “We’re dismayed that Arizona seems more intent on nurturing for-profit charter schools than in adequately supporting our existing public schools. It makes little sense for the state to spend public money supporting a privately operated school that will result in shutting down a school already paid for by those same taxpayers.” They also asked why if the Legislature believes that giving free rein to charters and paving the way for them to thrive is good for our kids, why didn’t they just do that for our district schools? Great question!

So instead of revisiting the 2008 initiative to combine 76 elementary and high school districts into 27 K-12 districts, maybe we should look at whether encouraging the establishment of 600-plus new charter schools (many of them run by for-profit companies) made Arizona’s public education system more cost-effective in general. Although Arizona Charter Schools Association CEO Eileen Sigmund claims that less than 5 percent of Arizona charters operate through for-profit companies, I was unable to verify her claim. In 2012, Arizona had 108 schools managed by for-profit EMOs, the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools reported at least 30 percent of Arizona’s charter schools were run by for-profit EMOs in 2013 and in 2014, Arizona had close to 204 for-profit companies managing the state’s charter schools. In fact, the national trend is for charter schools to be increasingly managed by for-profit EMOs and it is estimated as much as 40 percent of all charter schools are operated by EMOs and account for close to 45 percent of all charter school enrollments. These statistics matter because when decisions are made by for-profit EMOs, they are often made at out-of-state corporate headquarters with profit, not students, in mind such as when they divert higher amounts of funding to administration. BASIS schools for example, directed close to $2,000 per pupil for administrators in 2014 while Peoria Unified School District only spent $732 per pupil for administration. Additionally, EMOs take advantage of the virtually non-existent requirements for accountability and transparency as well as favorable tax codes.

Ultimately, you can’t get the right result going after it for the wrong reason. I have to believe that if all we really cared about all our students receiving the best education possible, we could make it happen. In fact, if we only didn’t care who got the credit, we would be light years ahead. We know what we are doing now is more profit- and politics-based than truly pupil-based.  I know this is true, because we aren’t doing what we already know helps students thrive: high expectations, quality teachers who are respected as professionals, preschool, lower class sizes for at least the younger students, wrap-around services and community support for high poverty students, after school programs, remedial programs, home visitation programs and high quality child care. It won’t be easy, but it really isn’t that complicated. Of course, doing the right thing rarely is.

Taxpayer dollars belong to all of us

It was very interesting to read of the Washington Supreme Court’s recent decision on charter schools. On September 4, 2015, the Court declared the state’s charter school law unconstitutional. As reported in the Washington Post, Wayne Au, an associate professor at the University of Washington Bothell, was a plaintiff in the charter school legal challenge.   At the hear of the ruling Au said, “was the idea that charter schools, as defined by the law, were not actually public schools.” This stems from the provision in Washington’s state constitution that only “common schools” shall receive tax dollars for public education. In Washington State evidently, an appointed board, not an elected one, governs charter schools. The Washington State Supreme court decided the lack of oversight this allowed did not meet the definition of “common schools.”

While reading the article, I found myself thinking of the frenzied march in Arizona, toward the privatization of public education. Arizona has long been a leader in the number of charter schools established and our Legislature has established numerous work-arounds to divert taxpayer dollars into private and for-profit school coffers.

The Post article’s allegation that “ALEC’s influence on Washington State’s charter law is unmistakable”, is no surprise to me. The American Legislative Exchange Council is no friend of public education, the common good, or our democracy. As pointed out by the Post, ALEC is known for promoting a broad privatization agenda, “stand-your-ground gun laws, and anti-democratic voter registration laws.   ALEC’s agenda to privatize public education includes the promotion of charter schools (corporate charters and virtual schools specifically), private school vouchers, anti-union measures, “parent trigger” laws, increasing testing, reducing or eliminating the power of local school boards and limiting the power of public school districts.

Of course, anyone tuned into Arizona education or politics knows that ALEC has also had significant influence in our state. The Goldwater Institute acts, as the ALEC’s Mini-Me in Arizona and AZ Senator Debbie Lesko, as the AZ ALEC chair, has been the organization’s chief water carrier. Half of our state Senators and one-third of our representatives are known members of ALEC and there may be more.  It should be no surprise then that Arizona earns a “B” grade (3rd best) in education policy as the state leads the nation in number of charter school and has a very robust program to divert tax payer dollars to alternatives to traditional public education.

A disturbing similarity between Arizona and Washington State charter operations is that neither is overseen by a locally elected governing board. This fact ensures there is virtually no transparency nor accountability on how our tax dollars are spent therefore, no ability to ascertain the effectiveness of the programs or return on investment in general. This design is not by accident. As Peter Green has pointed out on his Curmudgucation blog, “charter supporters seek to redefine public schools as schools that have public money but without public accountability and regulation.” ALEC likes it this way because this smoothes the path to privatization. It goes like this: 1) drive a market for privatization by selling the story that public education is failing, 2) starve public education of funding to make it increasingly difficult for them to succeed, 3) continuously expand ways to divert taxpayer dollars from public education to private options, 4) sell the idea that public tax dollars for education should follow each child to the school of their choice, and 5) prevent the requirement of transparency and accountability such as is required of community district schools.

That is not the only similarity between the states’ two education systems. Just like Washington State, Arizona’s Legislature continues to withhold funding they owe the school districts. In Arizona, the funding in immediate question is the $300M in inflation funding from the Proposition 301 law. The people voted this issue into law in 2000 and the courts ruled in 2014 that the districts are indeed owed the funding and still, the Legislature refuses to pay up. In 2012, the Washington State Legislature was ordered to fully fund education, but they failed to do so. In August of this year, the WA State Supreme Court ordered fines of $100,000 per day until the Legislature complies. They have yet to do so.

The Washington State Supreme Court said: If a school is not controlled by a public body, then it should not have access to public funds.” We should all agree with this concept and demand full transparency and accountability whenever public funds are involved. Taxpayer dollars don’t belong to any one of us, they belong to all of us. We as the primary stockholder of our government, have the right and responsibility to know how they are spent and what our return on investment is. Anything less is more than suspect, it is un-democratic and un-American.