The House Always Wins

I’m not a gambler, but I do know that Sin City isn’t prospering because those who visit its casinos win more than they lose. Rather, the casinos of Las Vegas and those all around the world, prosper because in the end, the house always wins.

That truism comes to mind when I think about our Arizona Legislature and their non-stop assault on the state’s public education system. Yes, it is sad that on the day Save Our Schools Arizona turned in over 111,000 petition signatures for a voucher expansion veto referendum to our Secretary of State, I’m thinking about how the battle has just begun. Not only that, but I’m worrying the battle is likely to not end in the people’s favor because just like the casinos, the game is rigged against us.

Senator Debbie Lesko, the sponsor of SB 1431, (full expansion of vouchers) is no doubt already planning repeal of the law should the referendum actually qualify for the ballot. Why would she do that? Well, for one, because when Arizonans are given the opportunity to vote on public education, they usually support it. For another, if the repeal of the voucher expansion actually gets on the ballot in November 2018, she and her GOP colleagues know that the issue will bring public education supporting voters out to the polls. We know which party the majority of those voters are likely to come from, right?

Of course, there is no guarantee the referendum will qualify for the ballot in the first place. First, there is the hurdle of actually having 75,321 valid signatures and even what a valid signature is. That’s because in the last legislative session, Arizona lawmakers passed a bill to enforce “strict compliance” for voter initiatives. The AZ GOP Chairman, back in April 2017, admitted that the purpose of the new law was to make it possible for the GOP-controlled Legislature to throw out ballot initiatives for “minor errors regarding language and paperwork.” Just to be clear, those minor errors could be something as trivial as a signer’s “g” or “y” in their name dipping below the line of the box on the petition they are signing. Lawmakers know it is hard enough to collect the required number of signatures; and yet they set out to make it impossible. Organizers believe this law doesn’t yet apply, but others fully expect lawmakers to deny that claim and if so, a court of law will no doubt be the place the issue is resolved.

It is heartbreaking to know all the tremendous effort that went into this effort may be all for naught because our lawmakers are determined to thwart the will of the people. It is also sobering to realize that they will continue to get away with it, until we gain more parity between parties in the Legislature to force solutions that work for all of us. The only thing that will really make a difference is for us to elect more pro-public education candidates to our Legislature. Then, when “the house” wins, our students and their teachers win.

No matter what happens in the end, this petition signature gathering effort is an example of what Margaret Mead was referring to when she said, “Never doubt a small group of concerned citizens can change the world. It is the only thing that ever has.” Started by a few Moms, it blossomed into a statewide effort of grassroots organizing that at the very least, sent a clear message that Arizonans value our public education.

Even though I started out by saying “the house always wins”, I also believe in karma. You know, that concept that in the end, everyone gets what they deserve. I believe pro-public education advocates are on the good side of history and we will win in the long run. Let’s just hope we can recover from the damage done.

Vouchers: Some Common Sense Questions

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last few years, you know corporate reformers are anxious to implement vouchers as a way to expand school choice. The secret sauce they say, is that the dollars follow the student because parents know best about what is best for their child’s education.

Just for a few moments though, I’d like to ask you to please forget whether or not you believe school choice and vouchers are the answer to “Make American Education Great Again.” Forget all the hype and promises, just ask yourself which of these scenarios makes more sense?

  1. Which is more accountable and transparent to parents, the taxpayers and voters and therefore less likely to experience less fraud, waste and abuse? #1 Hint to the answer. #2 Hint to the answer. #3 Hint to the answer.
    a. District schools that must report every purchase, competitively bid out purchases over a certain amount, have all purchases scrutinized by a locally elected governing board, undergo an extensive state-run audit each year, and are publicly reported on for performance efficiency and student achievement by the AZ Auditor General’s office each year?
    b. A voucher system which puts the onus on recipient parents to submit proof of expenditures to an understaffed AZ Department of Education office responsible for monitoring the $37 million ($99.7 million since 2011) in voucher expenditures for 4,102 different students?
  2. Which is more likely to be held accountable for student achievement and thereby taxpayer return on investment? Hint to the answer.
    a. A district school where students are given a standardized state test with scores rolled up to the state and made public, where data is reported (following federal guidelines for data protection) by subgroups to determine achievement gaps, and where high school graduation and college attendance rates are reported?
    b. A private school that does not provide any public visibility to test results and where the state (per law) has no authority to request or require academic progress from voucher recipients or the school?
  3. Which is more likely regarding the portability (with no impact) of per student funding when students leave their district schools?
    a. When a student leaves a district school with their education funding in their backpack, they take all associated expenses with them?
    b. That there are fixed costs left behind (approx. 19%) that the school is required to still fund such as teachers and other staff that cannot be eliminated just because a couple of students left a classroom, or a bus route that can’t be done away with just because one student is no longer taking that bus, or a building air conditioner that can’t be turned off because the occupancy in the classrooms is down by three students. That what the “drain” causes instead, is larger class sizes, less support services, less variety in the curricula, etc.?
  4. Which is more likely to serve disadvantaged students — the ones most in need of our help? Hint to the answer.
    a. A district school, where the vast majority of educational expenses are covered by the taxpayer, where students are transported from their home to school, where free and reduced lunches are provided and which must accept all comers?
    b. A $5,200 voucher to a private or parochial school which has total control over which students they accept, does not provide transportation and according to PrivateSchoolReview.com costs an average of $6,000 for elementary schools and $18,000 for high schools in 2016-17?

I hope you came to the same conclusions I did some time ago, that when it comes to transparency, accountability and equity, district schools outperform private schools. I’d also like to make the unequivocal claim that district schools also (across the board) produce more achievement than private schools, but as you can see, they don’t report their results so I don’t know that for sure.

And yet, the Arizona Legislature continues to push expansion of vouchers in our state. A push for full expansion last year by Debbie Lesko (Peoria-R) was killed, largely due to its potentially negative impact on the passage of Proposition 123, but she has revived the effort this year in the form of SB 1431. This bill, which would fully expand vouchers to ALL 1.1 million Arizona students by the 2020-2021 school year has been assigned to the Senate Education and Rules Committees and is scheduled to be heard by the Senate Ed Cmte on 2/9/17. Senator Steve Smith (Maricopa-R) has sponsored an associated bill, SB 1281, that requires the AZ DOE to contract with an outside firm (I’m sure that’s much better…just like private prisons) to help administer the ESA program, and makes various changes to the program. The bill stipulates that AZ DOE may request (not MUST request) confirmation toward graduation from high school or completion of a GED. This is obviously an attempt to defuse the argument there is insufficient accountability in the AZ voucher programAZEDNEWS also reports that Lesko supports adding a requirement to her bill to track achievement of ESA students, but that requirement would be only to report test results to parents, not the AZ DOE.

No matter how much sugar the commercializers try to coat vouchers with, they are still just a vehicle for siphoning tax dollars away from our district community schools to private and parochial (religious) schools with no accountability or transparency. For every person who says “parents have the right to use their child’s education tax dollars as they see fit”, I say, “and taxpayers have the right to know the return on investment for their tax dollars.” The former right in no way “trumps” the latter.

We must stop this terrible legislation. If you are signed up for the Legislature’s Request to Speak system, please click here to log in today and leave a comment for the Senate Education Committee about why you oppose SB 1431 and SB 1281. If you aren’t signed up, please leave me a comment to this post and I will get you signed up and ensure you are trained to use it. The system allows you to comment on pending legislation from your home computer or mobile device, you don’t have to go to the Legislature and speak in person unless you want to.

If you don’t want to use RTS, please call or email the members of the Senate Education Committee (listed below) and your district legislators (click here to find out who they are) to let them know how you feel. There is strength in numbers and the people do have the power, we just have to exercise it!

Senate Education Committee Members

Sylvia Allen, Chairman – 602.926.5409

David Bradley – 602.926.5262

Kate Brophy McGee – 602.926.4486

Catherine Miranda – 602.926.4893

Steve Montenegro, Vice-Chairman – 602.926.5955

Steve Smith – 602.926.5685

Kimberly Yee – 602.926.3024

 

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.