Focus People, Focus!

I was at a SOS AZ presentation on public education funding last night and after a slide about corporate tax credits, one young woman advocated for holding the corporations responsible for not supporting our schools. Although I would normally be one of the first to vilify corporate America for their greed at the expense of the rest of us, I think her ire was a little misplaced. Arizona corporations after all, are just taking advantage of the laws incentivizing them to act a certain way. These aren’t loopholes that corporations are paying high-powered lawyers and accountants to find for them, but incentives the Legislature has directly handed to them to. It isn’t after all, like the tax credits allow the corporations to pocket more profit, they are still paying out the same amount of money (whether in taxes or credits), they just get to choose where their taxes go.

THEREIN lies the rub. THEY get to choose where their tax dollars go…not us, the people. That’s the problem with all these tax credits and exemptions, 331 is the number I heard last night, that the Arizona Legislature has granted. You see, ideally, tax credits should be granted to incentivize behavior that voters want and that produces good for all of us. We’ve all heard the saying though, that “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” When all the power in a government is consolidated on one side, the tendency is not to look at the common good, but the good of “your” people. And, when it is apparent to lawmakers that they can act with impunity because they will continue to get reelected despite their failure to provide for all the people in their care, the tendency is for them to do whatever they want.

Yes, corporations also have a responsibility to care about the common good, but I really don’t blame them for taking advantage of legal incentives for directing their tax dollars where the Legislature wants. The rest of us suffer though, because these incentives reduce the size of our general fund “pie”. We also suffer because the diverted funding, essentially our tax dollars, then has no accountability nor transparency associated with it. We don’t know if it is being used for the purpose intended and we certainly don’t know the return on our investment.

This is a huge problem in Arizona with at least 75% of corporations paying the minimum $50 in state taxes. Again, it isn’t like they aren’t giving up the money, but it isn’t coming into the general fund in the form of tax dollars that we can then hold the Legislature accountable for. In fact, on a budget of less than $10 billion, Arizona gives away almost $13 billion in corporate sales tax relief alone. This is just one of the reasons the Arizona Town Hall on PreK–12 Funding last year, wrote that it is the “size of the pie” that is the problem, not the relative percentage given to our public schools. This was clearly illustrated by the SOS AZ briefing when a slide comparing state populations versus annual budget was shown. AZ has about 7 million people, with a budget under $10 billion versus Wyoming with 585,00 people and a budget of $8.8 billion and Maine with a population of 1.33 million people and a budget of $7.6 billion. To be sure, there is a lot to unpack here, but it is interesting none the less.

None of this is by accident, the AZ Legislature is just following the “drown it in the bathtub” playbook to reduce the size of government. No sense, (I’m guessing they think), in having government do something the private sector could do better and cheaper AND…make a profit on.

Only problem is, that often isn’t the case. Take the privatization of Arizona prisons for example. Arizona’s corrections annual budget is over $1 billion—at 11% of the General Fund, the third largest appropriation of any state agency. When the decision was made to privatize them in 2005, bids by the prison companies no doubt touted lower operating costs than the state. Since then though, spending on prisons has grown by at least 45%. Of course, we aren’t entirely sure of the exact amount because in 2012, the state Legislature repealed the statute requiring cost and quality comparison reviews between the state’s public and private prisons. Before that repeal, the Arizona Department of Correction found in a 2010 review, that medium-security state prison beds cost $48.16 while medium-security private prison beds cost $55.30. In fact, between 2008 and 2010, Arizona overpaid for its private prisons by about $10 million. Now, the lack of transparency and accountability for our tax dollars is most assuredly guaranteeing skyrocketing costs, lackluster results, and pay-for-play abuses between lawmakers and the private prison corporations.

The same thing is happening with our public schools. Tax credits and Empowerment Scholarship Accounts (ESAs), divert or withdraw funding from our General Fund and the public schools it resources, and give it to private entities with no responsibility for transparency and accountability. And, because there are huge out-of-state monied interests that are using Arizona as ground zero for war against public education, our lawmakers are being bought off (via campaign contributions or influence peddling) to do their bidding. Numerous charter school operator abuses that have recently come to light are, no doubt, just the tip of the iceberg.

The Washington Post tag line, “Democracy Dies in Darkness” says it all. If our democratic republic is to stay strong and vibrant, we must have transparency and accountability so that our government, at all levels, can remain one of the people, by the people, and for the people. The privatization of programs and services that provide for the common good (the military, public schools, prisons, police, fire, etc), is simply a way to take “the people” out of the equation…to ensure we no longer have a say in how we are governed. It is absolutely critical for these “common good” programs and services to be paid for by all of us so that we retain ownership, the authority and yes, the responsibility, to ensure they produce OUR desired return on investment. It is really this simple, to have a government that works for us, we must work for it.

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The New Civil War

I don’t remember my parents being political at all. My Step-Dad was an Army Green Beret and my Mom a naturalized American citizen via Germany. I’m sure they voted, but it wasn’t like we sat around the dinner table discussing geopolitics. Neither of them had attended college while I was still living at home and being politically active wasn’t really congruent with my Dad’s military service.

After I joined the Air Force, that was also the case for me, especially when I became a commander. After retirement though, it was a different story. Since moving to Tucson in 2008, I ran for and won a seat on my local school board and worked on three Arizona campaigns, two Senate and one House, and supported various other campaigns in one way or another. It has been my service as a school board member though, that really led to my activism. Public K–12 education and the children it serves, (as it turns out) is my new passion.

Our recent Presidential election was traumatic for many and some people are totally shell-shocked. In my mind, much of the consternation is not about partisanship, but rather about the values we collectively subscribe to as a nation. Do we as stated in our Declaration of Independence, “hold these truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness”? Or rather, do we believe that (as with the Citizen’s United decision), corporations are people and should have as much say in our nation’s governance as “the people?” Do we still aspire to be Ronald Reagan’s “shining city on the hill” (words originally spoken in a sermon by Puritan John Winthrop), that serves as a beacon of democracy to the rest of the world or, do we only care about ourselves; about “America First”…and last.

I had for the most part managed to have a more pragmatic perspective about the recent turn of events until about two weeks ago when I visited our Nation’s Capitol. Seeing the multitude of protestors everywhere, in many cases controlled more tightly by increased police presence,  brought home to me the very real shift in our national direction. Then yesterday morning, I had a contentious conversation with my Mom about politics (whom I once could talk to about anything) and it occurred to me that what we are now experiencing is the New Civil War.

As with America’s original Civil War, this one is pitting family members against family members, friends against friends, and neighbors against neighbors. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t at all mean to minimize the 620,000 lives lost in the original Civil War, to this date the deadliest in our nation’s history. But, this New Civil War has the potential to be just as fractious to our country. It may be a war of words versus guns; but the divisions surrounding economics, equal rights, freedom of speech, state’s rights, and free trade vs. protectionism, all with a dose of nationalism mixed in, are every bit as real.

And just like the original Civil War, this one is comprised of “battles” of significance. The fight over Betsy DeVos is one. It was well-fought on the part of public education advocates, but in the end, they were out-gunned by the corporate reformers and the lawmakers they purchased. It would appear the Dakota Pipeline is another battle where “the people” have lost to corporate interests. There will be many more battles such as the one  over the Muslim travel ban currently underway. I’m guessing we are going to have at least four years of such battles. It is tiring to contemplate.

Wars are often though, contests of attrition. The side that remains better resourced in terms of troops and weapons and the intelligence and supplies to support them, is usually the victor. There are numerous examples however, of a grass-roots resistance (because it is supported by the hearts and minds of the people), that achieves victory against all odds.

If our nation is to remain a democracy, one which is “of the people, by the people and for the people”, we must all (each of us), remain engaged and vigilant. I understand it would be easier just to bow out and ride the “ignorance is bliss train,” until it jumps off the tracks. Believe me when I say I’ve considered that option more than once. But, as the American educator and author (born in 1899) Robert M. Hutchins said, “The death of democracy is not likely to be an assassination from ambush. It will be a slow extinction from apathy, indifference, and undernourishment.”

To those who care about our democracy and our right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, I implore you to not let current events discourage you or detour your resolve. Now, more than ever, we must keep our heads in the game. After all, (as attributed to Edmund Burke) “All it takes for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” Let it not be said that was our course.

The Festering Wound

First, let me be absolutely clear. I will applaud any modicum of success Donald Trump realizes as POTUS. It’s currently hard to envision, but if it does happen, I will give credit where credit is due. My bottom line is that I want our country to succeed and flourish.

Second, although I didn’t vote for him, I don’t believe President Trump is the worst threat to our democracy. He is just the most visible symptom…the metaphorical “pus” that oozes from the infected wound. Yes, part of reason he was elected is that middle America is tired of being ignored and wants change. I get that. I wish our system had offered them better choices. But, he was also propelled to victory because of the “bacteria” of racism and hatred, fed by the “talking heads” and Internet content of questionable veracity. Over time, this bacteria infected the wound, generating the “pus” which indicated a problem.

What was the original wound? Well, it depends on how far back you want to go. In my lifetime, I think it would have to be the denial of civil rights that led to the civil rights movement that led to resentments (that I believe were unjustified) that so significantly wounded our national psyche. Please don’t get me wrong. President Lyndon Johnson was absolutely right to sign the Civil Rights Act in 1964. It helped right many of the wrongs that had permeated for too long against way too many. Unfortunately, the change in law was, in some ways, just a band-aid that masked the wound. It helped the healing begin, but did not deliver the antibiotics to cure the sickness. No doubt, the antibiotics (eradicate poverty, fix the criminal justice system, win the war on drugs) were huge pills that we weren’t willing to swallow. As a result, the wound never properly healed.

The more optimistic part of me says, “at least now the hatred and resentment is out in the open. At least now we can see the extent of the sickness and begin to deal with it.” Problem is, it will now take even more powerful and costly antibiotics to heal the wound, assuming we could even agree what the wound is.

A couple of days ago, I was listening to NPR’s “On Point.” The discussion was about President Obama’s legacy and a caller said he was really glad Obama was gone because of “the hate he sowed.” The show’s host was obviously incredulous and asked the caller why he thought this. The caller said, “when Trayvon Martin was killed, Obama immediately came out with a statement about how ‘it could have been my son.’” The host said he didn’t think there wasn’t anything racist in that statement, rather, President Obama was trying to empathize with Trayvon’s family. The caller though seemed undeterred. I don’t think he was trying to be inflammatory, but sincerely believed Obama was stoking racism. Try as I might, I can’t begin to understand how he came to that conclusion and it makes me really sad for our country and our democracy. Day after day, especially since Trump’s election, I encounter viewpoints from neighbors and acquaintances that are 180 degrees different from mine on a myriad of issues. How did we get to this place and more importantly, what are we going to do about it?

Obviously there were a combination of factors that brought us here. First, the choice of “news” sources we now enjoy ensures there is much less homogeny in our perspectives than when Walter Cronkite told all of us “that’s the way it is” at the end of each day. Not only that, but algorithmed social media continually feeds us “news” that only serves to ingrain the beliefs we already hold. This is compounded by the “echo chambers” “that allow us to promote our favorite narratives, form polarized groups and resist information that doesn’t conform to our beliefs.”

Second, some of us have lost the true meaning of patriotism. I contend patriotism is not about symbolism such as wearing a flag pin or flying the flag. In fact, George Washington implored Americans to “Guard against the impostures of pretended patriotism.” Rather, as John F. Kennedy said, patriotism is about asking “what we can do for our country” versus what “our country can do for us.” Patriotism is also, as Republican President Theodore Roosevelt said, “to stand by the country. It does not mean to stand by the president or any other public official, save exactly to the degree in which he himself stands by the country. It is patriotic to support him insofar as he efficiently serves the country. It is unpatriotic not to oppose him to the exact extent that by inefficiency or otherwise he fails in his duty to stand by the country. In either event, it is unpatriotic not to tell the truth, whether about the president or anyone else.”  Our nations’ newest President would do well to heed the words of his 26th predecessor who was after all, immortalized on Mt. Rushmore for being one of the most popular and important of our Presidents.

Third, is our “me-first” attitude at the expense of any concern for the common good. Government is evil and should be reduced in size “where we can drown it in the bathtub” said Grover Norquist. And yet, government is us. It is our collective voice. It is the entity that we elect to ensure the safety and security of our citizens and the education of our children. In fact, our lack of national committment to a well-rounded, well-resourced, and truly public, educational system is a great example of the “me-first” attitude. The school choice movement, pushed by corporate profiteers, is cleverly devised to take advantage of this. It is not about ensuring ALL children have every opportunity to succeed, just “my” kid. It IS about resegregating our society by socio-economic status thereby over the long-term, ensuring wealth inequity is only exacerbated. It is also about reducing the people’s voice in our democracy and funneling as much of the $700 billion education market to the private sector as possible. It should be no surprise this is the goal of the rich and powerful. After all, as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., said, “The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically.” The less we all think it seems, the more our leaders can…well…“stink”, without us calling them on it.

Last, is our collective laziness surrounding the exercise of our civic duties. “Somebody” we say, should vote, should call, should march, should write letters, should run for office. Truth is, all of us should do most of those things. Charles de Montesquieu, a French philosopher who lived in the 17th and 18th century, said, “The tryanny of a prince in an oligarchy is not so dangerous to the public welfare as the apathy of a citizen in a democracy.” A democracy simply must have an engaged citizenry to be successful. I believe one of the important ways to be engaged is for each of us to pay our fair share of taxes. Author Alain de Botton eloquently said, “Paying tax should be framed as a glorious civic duty worthy of gratitude – not a punishment for making money.” Performing jury service or signing up for the draft are two other ways we fulfill our civic duties. The important point is that each of us realizes that the freedoms we enjoy don’t come free.

As for what we can do to turn things around, well therein lies the rub, right? I’m pretty sure that it starts with listening to each other again. As the saying goes, “that’s why God gave us two ears and one mouth.” It’s not just enough to listen though, we must actually hear and respond with compassion because even though it doesn’t seem like it now, we really are all in this together. If we could just find some common ground, we could start to rebuild. This rebuilding would initially look like tolerance of each other but hopefully would work its way up to acceptance. It would require respect for one another’s right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness; and that each of us strive to develop a “more perfect union.” Of course, to truly be a “more perfect union” we must understand that there are blue states and red states, white people and people of color, Christians and Muslims, men and women, etc. We must understand that our diversity doesn’t “ruin” America, it is what makes us great. It is what has always made us great. United we stand, divided we fall. Words to live by, now more than ever.

The New Fourth Estate

I recently read that today’s youth can’t determine whether or not a story is factual or fictional. Some of this no doubt is because there is just too much information available and there is no consequence of disseminating false information. I had an interesting conversation with a smart, older millennial recently and she didn’t know the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) once required holders of broadcast licenses to present controversial issues of public importance in a manner that was honest, equitable and balanced. The policy was called the Fairness Doctrine and its intent was to ensure viewers were exposed to a diversity of viewpoints. The FCC eliminated the Doctrine in 1987 and some believe its demise played a role in an increased level of party polarization.

Fast forward to 2016. We now have a President-Elect who tells outrageous falsehoods, (on TV no less), and then claims he didn’t say them. We have his surrogates who lied repeatedly during his campaign and continue to do so. We have Scottie Nell Hughes, Trump supporter and CNN commentator, who recently said “There’s no such thing, unfortunately, anymore of facts.” (Evidently, there’s no such thing as proper grammar either.) She followed that outrageous comment with “people believe they have the facts to back that [Trump’s tweets] up.” WHAAAAAAAT? No. Believing you have facts is not the same as well…ACTUALLY HAVING THE FREAKIN’ FACTS!!!

I believe if our democracy is to survive, we must find a way to once again agree on facts. Not on what to do with those facts–I’m not that delusional. Can’t we at least though, find a way to agree that the earth is round, it revolves around the sun, the gravitational pull of the moon causes tides, and climate change is real. Okay, okay, I know that last one is a bridge too far for now, but one can hope.

The media has been referred to as the Fourth Estate, but I wonder if it still holds that place. I offer that rather, money is the new Fourth Estate and the media (legacy media as some now call it) should be lumped in with bloggers and social media in the Fifth Estate. After all, Wikipedia defines the Fourth Estate as “a societal or political force or institution whose influence is not consistently or officially recognized.” Ever since the Citizens United ruling, the power of money has been exponentially increased. It buys access, which buys influence, and ultimately, buys votes. Yes, we still have the potential power of the individual vote, but that power only works if the voters are well-informed and then actually vote!

Amazing, isn’t it, in this time of incredible access to information and connectivity, we are less well-informed and truly connected than ever? We are bombarded with “breaking news” 24/7/365 and scandals are stretched out until the next one comes along. Not only do we have a dizzying array of sources for our unvetted information, but, complicated algorithms increasingly tailor the “news” to our liking. Google and other search engines, along with all the forms of social media have no doubt, contributed immensely to our country’s polarization. Yes, a person can still be well-informed if they really work at it, but now, they can think they are but in reality, only be getting news that validates their viewpoints irrespective of the truth. Who should arbitrate what is “real” news? How do we determine what is actually factual? Maybe when teaching our kindergarteners how to read, we need to teach them how to differentiate fact from fiction. It will be a long process, but we cannot afford to ignore the need.

As we learned during this presidential election, if people don’t have faith in the legacy media, its influence is greatly reduced. And, I doubt anyone would argue that social media and Internet “news” sites had a real impact on the election. Interesting that Trump and his supporters frequently throw the accusation of “media bias” at legacy media, but seem to give free rein to the entirely unfettered, unvetted world of social media. One thing is for sure, the days of Walter Cronkite reporting the “way it was” once each day without embellishment or sensationalism are long gone.

I’m generally an optimist and try to remain hopeful. I’m not one of those who since the election, is predicting the end of civilization as we know it. Our nation is resilient and the pendulum swings both ways. No doubt though, we’ve witnessed a wide ass swing this time. How long it will take to swing back and what damage will be done in the meantime has yet to be seen. But, I do worry that if we can’t get back to agreeing that facts and truth exist and they aren’t the same things as opinions, we are in trouble. And, if we don’t have a functioning, effective media that the people trust to give them those unbiased facts, our very democracy is at risk. A free press is after all, one of the freedoms that sets us apart form so many other countries around the world.

A fully functioning press is dependent however, on a well-informed and engaged citizenry. A Democracy cannot function as a spectator sport. Therein lies the rub. We can’t just blame others for the current state of our politics and governance and walk away. We all have a solemn responsibility to engage. Thomas Jefferson said, “An informed citizenry is at the heart of a dynamic democracy.” As hyperbolic as it may sound, I believe it is the key to saving our democracy.

Bitter Pill to Swallow

Emotions have run very raw in my household since Tuesday night and this is being played out across my community and across the country as evidenced by the protests in our major cities. Many of my friends have greeted me on the verge of tears and I’m watching them go through at least three of the five stages of grief: denial, depression, and anger.

I feel many of these emotions along with a small amount of relief, that at least the election is over. Of course, that sword cuts both ways. The election is over so we at least have an idea of what’s to come, but we also must face the reality that President-elect Trump is on the verge of being the most powerful man (some might say child), in the world. We also know that there is little possibility we’ll continue to move forward (at least for now), on the issues that we Progressives hold near and dear. How much damage can a President Trump and his GOP-led Congress and Supreme Court, do to the environment, to civil liberties, to international relations, and to world peace?

The truth is that the Left isn’t just grieving, we are viscerally fearful. How much of the rhetoric Trump spewed over the last year will turn into reality? And even if he doesn’t pursue his hateful agenda, how will others use him to further their’s (McConnell, Bannon, Giuliani, Gingrich, etc.?)

Those who supported Trump are telling us Liberals to get over it. Just as we, when Obama got elected, told them to do the same. I don’t remember hearing back then though, that anyone had concerns about Obama with the nuclear codes. That’s the big difference now. Trump’s campaign staff did after all, in the last week of the presidential election, take away his access to his Twitter account so he couldn’t tweet something that might further damage his ability to get elected. His campaign staff did not trust him to tweet, it is no wonder the vast majority of us don’t trust him with our nuclear weapons.

Nonetheless, the system that has elected the past 44 presidents of the United States, elected Donald J. Trump to be the 45th. No matter how devastated I am about it, he is our President-elect. And, I’ve made a choice to accept that fact. I will not forgive or forget the disdain he has demonstrated for the vast majority of Americans. Neither will I push aside my concerns for what damage he can bring not to just our Nation, but the entire world. I’ve also chosen to understand though, that we all helped him get elected. “Wait just a damn minute” you say “not me!” “I donated to Hillary, had her yard sign outside my home, canvassed for her, made calls for her, and voted for her.” But, I ask, were you ever glued to MSNBC to watch for the next outrageous thing Trump would say? Did you find yourself thinking that his supporters were either just “haters” or to stupid to know any better? I am guilty of both of those.

My decision to accept that he is our president-elect does not mean I am rolling over. Quite the contrary. Even though it might seem that the United States of America is less and less a place “of the people, by the people, and for the people, we are still are the greatest democracy in the world. It is not time to move to Canada or to throw our hands up in despair. It is time to turn our angst and anger into action. Write your elected officials at all levels or run for office yourself or support like-minded candidates who do. Donate to volunteer for organizations that work on behalf of causes you are concerned about and write letters to the editor to express your concerns. And please remember, with Hillary winning the popular vote by 395,595, Donald Trump does NOT have a mandate from the people. What he does have, is the title of President-elect, granted him by the Electoral College.

Through it all though, remember that blame is not constructive and hate is not who we are. The nation is divided for a reason and we must deal with that reason. I believe it is because we collectively haven’t been focused on solving the problems most negatively affecting our people. Flint, MI for example, still doesn’t have safe drinking water, the loss of manufacturing has left many without the hope for a better life, the education of our children of color lags, and college debt has made it very difficult for many to realize their American dream. Who is responsible for fixing these problems? Ultimately, it is up to all of us. After all, we elect representatives to, well…represent us. By either our support or our acquiescence, we give them their marching orders. As long as we continue to reward their performance with reelection, we’ll always get what we’ve always gotten.

I’ll close with the point that, it wasn’t “a Trump insurgency, but a Clinton collapse”) as Jonathan Webber coined) that elected him.” Hillary lost because she got 10 million fewer votes that Obama in 2012, and 15 million fewer than in 2008. That is probably the most bitter pill of all to swallow. But swallow it I must and then I will pick myself up, dust myself off, and rejoin the battle to keep the American Dream alive for ALL Americans.

This is war!

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Make no mistake about it, there is a full-blown war underway for public education funding.

Corporate reformers (who bill themselves as “education reformers”) are totally focused on their mission to access the over $600 Billion spent each year on educating America’s K-12 students.  Forget about wanting improved outcomes for our students.  The only improved outcomes corporate reformers are after is that of their profits and portfolios.

What public education advocates must realize is that this truly is a full-blown battle for the hearts and minds of parents and taxpayers.  The corporate reformers have been clever.  How else to describe their ability to sell “school choice” as something parents should want.  Forget about expecting our state legislators to do their primary job of ensuring a quality public education for all.  Forget about transparency, local control and concern for the common good.  It’s survival of the fittest, dog eat dog, and every student for themselves.  After all, as long as MY kid is taken care of, what does it matter?

Problem is, none of us lives in a bubble.  We must rely on each other for a well-functioning, civil society.  The purpose of education can’t be just to make a child college and career ready.  Thomas Jefferson said:  “Educate and inform the whole mass of the people… They are the only sure reliance for the preservation of our liberty.”

So ultimately, this is more than a war to save public education.  It is really a battle to save our Nation.  No, I am not overstating this.  If we really want to continue to be self-governing, where each of us has say as well as a shot at the American Dream, we must win this war.

The Corporate Reformers are right…this is the civil rights issue of our time.  But, their definition of the “this” is tied to school choice and that is absolutely the wrong focus.  The real civil rights issue of our time is whether or not we believe EVERY child has the right to equal opportunity to succeed or, if we are going to only focus on those with the resources to buy the opportunity to succeed.

A commitment to public education is what made America the greatest nation on earth.  Yes, we must win the hearts and minds and we must win this war.