Ooops, there it is!

We knew it was coming and awaited it with dread. And, drumroll please…crash goes the cymbal! Yes, here it is, this year’s attempt to exponentially expand Arzona’s voucher (Empowerment Scholarship Accounts, or ESA) program. Of course, the American Legislative Exchange Council’s (ALEC) chief water carrier for Arizona, Senator Debbie Lesko, R-Peoria, is the one proposing the expansion. Lesko claims the expansion of ESAs will “not lead to a mass exodus of children from public schools.” I, for the most part, agree with that statement since Arizona parents have made it clear district schools are their choice with 80% of students attending district schools and another almost 15% in charter schools.

But, to infer a massive voucher expansion will have no negative impact on district schools is disingenuous at best. No matter how slowly students may attrit from district schools, each student’s departure leaves behind a 19% budget shortfall. That’s because there are numerous fixed costs (teacher salaries, facility maintenance, utilities, buses, etc.) that cannot be reduced student by student. The siphoning of dollars from our district schools has been steadily increasing and just exacerbates an already inadequately resourced system.

This isn’t the first year the Legislature has attempted to expand the voucher program. In fact, they’ve been successful in expansions every year since the ESA program was launched in 2011. This isn’t even the first time a full expansion has been attempted, with a very similar proposal going down in flames last year due to public outcry and a perceived conflict with securing voter approval of Prop. 123. This year though, Lesko has sweetened the deal by requiring the testing of students attending private schools on vouchers. She says she “doesn’t personally think this requirement is necessary,” but obviously is trying to defuse the argument from voucher opponents that there is no accountability or return on investment for vouchered students.

She is right about one thing, district education advocates want more accountability and transparency where taxpayer dollars are spent on the myriad of school choice options. As the only schools governed by locally elected school boards and with annual efficiency reports published by the Office of the AZ Attorney General, district schools are the only schools fully accountable and transparent to the taxpayers. Pro-choice advocates tout that parents should have the right to choose where they send their child to school at government expense. As a taxpayer, I maintain I have the right to know the return on investment of my tax dollars. Their right should not trump mine.

Senator Lesko also infers that vouchers will save money because the average voucher amount for students without special needs is $5,200, yet it costs $9,529 to educate Arizona’s average student in public schools. This is misleading because she is comparing apples and oranges and she knows it. The $9,529 figure she quotes is a total of all funding sources, federal, state and local (bonds and overrides) while the $5,200 is only state funding. So, if a student transfers from a district where state funding is offset by locally supported funding (due to the equalization formula), that student’s voucher will actually cost the state general fund more than if that student had remained in their district school. Lesko also notes that vouchers and school choice are a national trend as evidenced by President Trump’s nomination of Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education.

Oh no, she did NOT go there! Trying to sell vouchers as mainstream by pointing to Trump’s nomination of DeVos is akin to denying global warming by citing colder temperatures in parts of the country. After all, DeVos’ success with promoting school choice in Michigan has been dismal. In the two-plus decades she has championed this crusade (those knowledgeable about DeVos will understand my choice of that word), she has purchased legislative influence to expand charters and greatly reduce accountability. She has also worked hard to introduce vouchers in the state, but thus far, the voters have prevailed to keep those “wolves” at bay. And the improvements she has promised haven’t materialized with scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) for 4th graders declining from 28th in reading and 27th in math in 2003, to 41st in reading and 42nd in math in 2015.

According to the Arizona Capitol Times, the American Federation for Children (AFC) is pushing vouchers nationwide. I’m only going to give you three guesses as to who the chair of AFC is, and the first two don’t count. Yep, none other than Betsy DeVos. In addition to pushing for school choice and vouchers around the country, AFC has spent big bucks on rewarding those legislators working to expand privatization and punishing those who try to stand up for the 90% of students attending our nation’s districts schools. As reported by Richard Gilman on his website BringingUpArizona.com, AFC is a 501(c)4 free to pour dark money into political campaigns. And pour they have. Gilman writes, “Since its inception in 2010, the organization has poured nearly three-quarters of a million dollars into Arizona elections in a largely successful effort to sway the makeup of the Legislature.” The state’s “demonstrated appetite for school choice” is what AFC cites for its focus on Arizona. Of course, common causes make “strong” bedfellows and Gilman tracks AFC’s interest in Arizona back to Clint Bolick (once Vice President of Litigation at the Goldwater Institute and now AZ Supreme Court Justice.) Bolick served as the first president and general counsel for the Alliance for School Choice (AFC’s predecessor.)

But, I digress. The point is that no matter what snake oil the corporate reformers try to sell us, there is an incredibly well-funded, high-powered effort to have two school systems in Arizona. One is the commercial system of charters, private, parochial, virtual and homeschools that serve the whiter and wealthier students, and the other is the district schools, starved for resources, that will have the poorer, browner, and more challenged students to educate. According to recent polls, this is not what the vast majority of Arizonan voters want. But, until Arizonans clearly draw the nexus between voting for Legislators who don’t support our public district schools (most of them with an “R” after their name), and the fact that our district schools are way under resourced, nothing will change. If we want something different, we have to do something different. To continue doing the same thing and expecting different results, is as you know…the definition of insanity.

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Government vs. Commercial

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I understand parents wanting to ensure the best for their child, but what about the rest of the children? John Dewey, arguably the most significant educational thinker of the 20th century said, “What the best and wisest parent wants for his child, that must we want for all the children of the community. Anything less is unlovely, and left unchecked, destroys our democracy.”

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