Are You Ready to Die Empty?

This past weekend in Brooklyn, I had the opportunity to spend some time with Diane Ravitch and many other heroes of public education. We were gathered for a Network for Public Education (NPE) project that left me buoyed about the future of public education. For those who might not know, the NPE is a national grassroots public education advocacy group founded by Diane Ravitch and Anthony Cody. I won’t go into the details of the project, but here’s an NPE notice about it.

It was to say the least, an amazing experience! I heard Texas Superintendent John Kuhn speak eloquently about how “education malpractice doesn’t start in the schoolhouse, it starts in the statehouse.” I had first heard of John Kuhn when he gained national prominence by speaking at the Save Texas Schools Rally in 2011. I was excited to meet John and he didn’t disappoint. He is incredibly articulate and passionate and as a dedicated education professional, knows of what he speaks firsthand. During his session, he brilliantly made the point that “naming and shaming teachers, while shielding legislators” to fulfill their responsibility to our children is unconscionable. Or as he later asked in another way, why is it that we use a microscope to analyze outcomes of our public schools, but wear a blindfold to look at the input?” Of course this was a rhetorical question, John knows it’s because we can’t stand the answer.

Next “up to bat” was Jesse Hagopian, a teacher from Seattle. I hadn’t previously heard of Jesse, but he was equally impressive. He said “we are turning the teaching profession into a one size fits all” factory that fails students and demoralizes teachers. He asked the audience (dozens of volunteers who had come from all over the country), whose side are they on? He said he is “on the side of the students, the teachers, and the parents, against the corporate takeover of public education.” Our country “has massive problems” he said, “that can’t be solved by circling in a bubble on a standardized test.”

Johanna Garcia was next up and as a Latino single mom she has learned that no matter how hard she works to provide for her children, the system is not predisposed in their favor. She has learned that “by taking the standardized tests, ”you are saying yes to being reduced to the money in your wallet.“ Because, she says, the tests are designed to rack and stack students and those on the low-end of the socio-economic scale will more often than not – because of the challenges poverty puts in their way – score on the low-end. She now advocates for parents to ”opt-out” of the standardized tests as a way to not allow your children to be used by a system that is increasingly rigged against them.

We also heard from Jitu Brown who is a community organizer, parent, grandparent and public education advocate in Chicago. In fact, I had first heard of Jitu when he and other activists participated in a 37-day hunger strike to keep Dyett High School from being closed by Mayor Rahm Emanuel. This was a school that had great community engagement and was making incredible progress in rewriting their narrative, but was still slated for closure. In the end, the activists won and the school remained open. He made the point that “the way you destroy a community, is to destroy its institutions.” He told us that it wasn’t just the impending closure that spurred the hunger strike, but the systemic inequity. Like the fact that a public elementary school on the north side of Chicago offered their students Mandarin Chinese, Arabic and Spanish; where every teacher had a teacher aid; where there was a full-time nurse, social workers, speech therapist, and drama teacher. Yet on the Southside, children ate lunch under the stairs due to overcrowding, there was one teacher aide in the entire building, and for the part-time Spanish instructor, they had to give up a librarian. “The trust we’ve given this system” he said, “has been betrayed.” Jitu also left us with some hope though, as he said that each of us can make a difference, especially parents. The key though for activists and organizers, is to “meet parents where they are, not where you want them to be.” Find what parents want, and help them get that, no matter how small it might be, because small wins will turn into big wins. And, he said, target those who can actually give you what you want, or, as I’ve heard it said before, never take a no from someone not empowered to tell you yes.

The pièce de résistance however, was Diane herself. She started out by saying that, “the latest and most serious threat to our public schools is DeVos” and her privatization agenda. The privatization effort she said, has become a “steamroller turning our citizens into consumers.” And like John Kuhn did, she made the point that “we have a culture in our schools now that suppresses the joy of learning and of teaching.” That, “test scores of 15 year olds are not a predictor of either their’s, or our nation’s future.” And that, “the achievement gap construct – created by standardized tests designed for some kids to fail” – does nothing to help them succeed. She also pointed out that “a nation ”that doesn’t trust its teachers’ judgement, will never have a great education system.”

Diane certainly wasn’t all doom and gloom however, highlighting the silver linings in DeVos’ selection as SecED. The DeVos appointment has galvanized public education advocates like never before, with membership in NPE skyrocketing from only 22,000 to 350,000 during the DeVos hearings and since then. She has also done us a favor in “taking away the false veneer of charter schools” and bringing together people from different communities to solve the problems.

That’s one of my main takeaways from this past weekend. DeVos and her buddies (of which Governor Ducey is undoubtedly one), may have the big bucks, but we’ve got the people, and better yet, we’ve got the parents. The parents of the 90% of America’s public school students who attend community schools with locally elected, fully transparent and accountable, governing boards. We’ve also got incredibly dedicated, passionate, selfless advocates such as the ones I’ve mentioned, that are standing up and speaking out for our kids not because they seek power or money, but just because they believe that every child deserves every opportunity to succeed.

My other main takeaway is that we must be vigilant and have great stamina to win this fight because with $700 billion on the line, these corporate raiders will not go quietly into the night. They no doubt, believe they can buy our democracy right out from under our noses, one schoolhouse brick at a time. As Miranda Beard, the past president of the National School Boards Association inspirationally said though at this year’s annual conference, “I will die empty to prevail in this fight.” Will you?

Note: if you are interested in grassroots public education advocacy here in Arizona, you can join us at Support Our Schools Az . You can join Diane’s national group at the Network for Public Education.

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We Do Not Fight Alone!

Arizona enjoys a multitude of great organizations fighting for our public schools  and I have written about some in previous posts. Our public education advocates also have a great friend beyond our state borders, (one the CEO of BASIS calls “one of the most virulent anti-school choice institutions in the country”), the Network for Public Education (NPE).

NPE was founded in 2013 by Diane Ravitch and Anthony Cody. For those who may not know, Diane Ravitch is undoubtedly the leading advocate for K–12 public education in the nation. She is a graduate of Wellesley College and holds a Ph.D. in the history of American education. She was a U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education under President George H. W. Bush, and is still an education policy analyst and a Research Professor of Education at New York University’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development. She is a prolific writer about education both on-line at her blog DianeRavitch.net, and in print with seminal books such as “The Death and Life of the Great American School System” and more recently, “Reign of Error.”

The NPE website states “They are an advocacy group whose mission is to preserve, promote, improve and strengthen public schools for both current and future generations of students. The goal of NPE is to connect all those who are passionate about our schools – students, parents, teachers and citizens. They share information and research on vital issues that concern the future of public education at a time when it is under attack.”

With privatizer Betsy DeVos as the Secretary of Education, our system of public education is now more under attack than ever. It is clear her intent is the destruction of this system she refers to as “a dead end.” DeVos and her allies have worked for decades to push charters, vouchers, and education tax credits. She even supports virtual charter schools which have the most abysmal track record of all when it comes to student success.

Despite a lackluster track record of producing any improved results and, numerous accounts of fraud, waste and abuse when it comes to charters, vouchers and other school choice options, the general public is still not fully aware of the threat these tools of profiteers pose to our public (district) schools. The mantra of “parents know best and should be free to choose the best school option for their child,” as well as terms such as “Empowerment Scholarship Accounts,” are destined to be not only innocuous sounding, but well…empowering and enticing.

I have been impressed with NPE since I first joined their email list and then attended the first annual conference in 2013 in Austin, TX. The energy at the conference was high; the majority of the people in attendance were there on their own dime and were highly motivated to fight for our public schools. I met Diane Ravitch and Mercedes Schneider (a teacher/advocate/education writer from Louisiana) among many others, and it helped propel my passion for this work.

It was at this conference that I learned about the Education Bloggers Network and I have been a fairly regular contributor, along with some 250 or so other bloggers around the country. There is though, an even closer to home connection as Tucson’s very own Robin Hiller, founder and Executive Director of Voices for Education, was NPE’s first Executive Director. I have now also had the pleasure of meeting and working with her replacement, Carol Burris. You may recognize Carol’s name as she recently took on BASIS in the Washington Post and then in the AZ Capitol Times. She has been very interested in our fight for public education here in Arizona and will no doubt continue to bring national attention to our struggle.

I have watched NPE’s advocacy efforts grow since 2013 and am excited about their latest efforts. Carol has recently led the development of a NPE Action Grassroots School Board Member Network Facebook page and intends to release a toolkit to help encourage advocates to consider running for a seat on their local school board. She also just released a toolkit called School Privatization Explained with 13 fact sheets on a variety of choice issues and an interactive map which allows people to learn how their state stacks up in this area.

I found the information valuable and encourage you to check it out. I also recommend that you sign up for NPE’s email list as well as Diane Ravitch’s blog if you have not already done so.

In her email about the School Privatization Explained tools, Carol writes the following, “Read, share, quote and even copy. They are designed for your use. Most of all, share the truth about school privatization far and wide. We cannot let the pillar of our democracy, our public schools, be destroyed.” Yes, there is much at stake here, and failure is not an option.

Warning: School Choice Can be Hazardous to Your Community

Carol Burris, Executive Director of the Diane Ravitch’s Network for Public Education, recently wrote about the direction President-Elect Trump appears headed with education. “There are clear indications” she said, “that President Obama’s Race to the Top will be replaced with something that could be called ‘Race to the Bank’, as the movement to privatize education seems certain to accelerate.” Trump’s promise to redirect $20 billion in federal funds (most likely in Title I monies), is a good indication of that desire to accelerate. Of the redirect, Trump himself said, “Not only would this empower families, but it would create a massive education market that is competitive and produces better outcomes, and I mean far better outcomes.” Recent studies though, just don’t bear out those “far better outcomes” and although Congress previously considered redirecting Title I funds, they scrapped it with the Every Student Succeeds Act.

Nonetheless, Trump seems determined to press ahead as indicated today by his pick of Betsy DeVos, a forceful advocate for private school voucher programs nationwide, as his Secretary of Education.  And although his website claims that school choice is “the civil rights issue of our time”, the Nation’s leading public education advocate, Diane Ravitch writes, “school choice is not the civil rights issue of our time, as its proponents claim; it is the predictable way to roll back civil rights in our time.” Her words are born out by the fact that segregation in the United States is now the highest it has been since the early 1960s. And to that point, the Arizona Republic writes that vouchers, tax credits and charters are used “by those who least need help”, “siphon money from traditional district schools”, and “are thinly disguised workarounds that wealthy parents can use to keep their kids out of the district schools where students of color are in the majority.” Jeff Bryant, on educationopportunitynetwork.org, writes, “it’s hard to see how a system based on school choice – that so easily accentuates the advantages of the privileged – is going to benefit the whole community, especially those who are the most chronically under-served.” After all, we all know there are plenty of disadvantaged families who will likely never be able to access school choice options, partially because it really is schools’ choice. This reality plays out every day when commercial schools either don’t admit those students they don’t want or, weed them out early on.  The desire to not call attention to that truth may be part of the reason we’ve begun to see the rebranding of “school choice” to “parental choice.”

The real problem though is much more than semantics, but what school choice is actually doing to not only our district schools, but our communities as well. Julie Vassilatos, on chicagonow.com, writes that “choice” “quietly diminishes the real power of our democratic voice while it upholds the promise of individual consumer preferences above all else.” (It’s all about me.)  The picture she paints of school choice is this: no schoolmates in neighborhoods, children traveling several hours a day to/from school, and “very little political and residential investment in the heart of neighborhood communities.” The school choice model she contends, is “fracturing and breaking down local bonds among families and within neighborhoods.” Could it be that “divide and conquer” is what this is really about? Vassilatos seems to think so contending that, “Democracies require stable communities with strong institutions that are of, by, and for the community. Democracies are built on strong, stable localities.” School choice she claims, is gutting our communities and robbing our voices.

Meanwhile, Carol Burris points out that our Vice President-Elect, Mike Pence, shepherded such a time of gutting and robbing while Governor of Indiana. His voucher program created $53 million in school spending deficits in the last school year alone and the damage continues to this day. If school choice proponents get their way she warns, we could be looking at the same sort of disastrous full-frontal school choice implementation both Chile and Sweden are now trying to dig themselves out of.

We, as a nation, Burris says, need to ask ourselves two important questions. First, do we want to “build our communities, or fracture them?” Second, do we believe “in a community of learners in which kids learn from and with others of different backgrounds”, or do we want to further segregate our schools by race, income and religion. She contends that we cannot have both and that “true community public schools cannot survive school choice.” I agree with Carol, but it isn’t because the district schools can’t compete. Rather, it is because the deck is stacked against them and politicians and profiteers continue to pile on.

Robin Lake, of the Center on Reinventing Public Education, which supports many school choice initiatives, said she believe there needs to be a focus on quality: “My fear is [that] a big ideological push for choice as an end, not a means, is a dangerous prospect. It’s not only dangerous for getting schools started that may not be effective, but it’s also dangerous for long-term politics.” Noah Smith on bloomberg.net, basically agrees, if from a different angle. “The evidence is clear that vouchers are a policy with underwhelming potential” he writes, and “if the U.S. cares about academic success, policy makers should focus not on turning the school system into a marketplace, but on reforming existing schools to improve their quality.

As Arthur Camins points out on HuffingtonPost.com, “there are better choices than school choice to improve education.” Unfortunately, those choices are not the path of least resistance for our politicians and our short attention spans make expediency a winning strategy. Too bad those who have no voice are the ones who will ultimately suffer the most.

Is It Really School’s Choice?

Representative Vince Leach, R-SaddleBrooke, recently replied to a constituent’s concern about SB1279, Empowerment Scholarships; expansion; phase-in, with:

“You are correct in assuming I am in favor of this bill.  Rather than a long, rambling explanation of my position, I simply refer you to the linked research paper: http://www.edchoice.org/research/2015-schooling-in-america-survey/. Please refer to page 27.  It reveals what I believe most people have missed in the school choice discussion.  And that is, while about ~85% of student attend public schools, given the choice, only ~36% would choose to attend public schools.  SB1279 is narrowly defined, it specifies that qualified student includes a child who meets the family income eligibility requirements for free or reduced price lunches under the National School Lunch and Child Nutrition Acts, rather than the specified educational scholarship. IT is for these reasons and many more that I support this bill.”

Obviously when quoting statistics, one must pay attention to the source of the information. The research paper Leach refers to is from the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice. The Foundation was named after Milton Friedman and his wife Rose who extolled the virtues of a free market economic system with minimal intervention. An eventual advisor to President Ronald Reagan, Friedman was the first to float the idea of school vouchers which many, particularly in the South, viewed as a way to fight desegregation. He wrote in 1955 that he would choose forced nonsegregation over forced segregation and that “under [private schools] there can develop exclusively white schools, exclusively colored schools, and mixed schools.”

Inspired by Friedman, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) made a nationwide push (sending a model voucher bill to 16,000 state and federal officials) toward private school vouchers in 1981. Education historian Diane Ravitch writes that the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) touted the voucher model legislation “to introduce normal market forces” and to “dismantle the control and power of teachers’ unions.” At a 2006 ALEC meeting, Friedman asked, “How do we get from where we are to where we want to be?” The ideal way he said “would be to abolish the public school system.” He recognized “you’re not gonna do that”, but that introducing a universal voucher system would be a more palatable way to achieve the same end result. Friedman went on to say that you have to change the way tax dollars are directed, instead of financing schools and buildings, the funding should follow the child.

ALEC has unfortunately enjoyed much success in pushing model voucher legislation to state lawmakers. It should be no surprise then that our schools are more segregated than at anytime since the mid 1960s. The Southern Education Foundation shows that private schools are whiter than the overall school-age population in the South and the West and that Black, Latino and Naïve American students are underrepresented. In fact, private schools are more likely to be virtually all white (90 percent or more) with 43 percent of the nation’s private school students attending these “white” schools versus 27 percent of public school students. These statistics, argues the Southern Education Foundation, show that more needs to be done to ensure equitable access to any schools that receive taxpayer monies. Basically, private schools should be required to admit anyone who applies, just as public schools do. If they don’t, they shouldn’t receive public funding.

The Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice however, maintains:

“School choice levels the playing field by helping those with lower incomes have access to the choices that others now have and even take for granted. It is not a scandal that those who are able to access better schools choose to do so; it is a scandal that because of the government school monopoly, only some are able to access better schools.”

The Southern Education Foundation counters that line of reasoning with:

 “The number of black, Latino and Native American students enrolled in private schools is far lower than the number of minority families that could afford it. The fact is that, over the years, African American families and non-white families have come to understand that these private schools are not schools that are open to them, especially in light of their traditional role and history related to desegregation of public schools.”

The Friedman Foundation does not see a problem with this of course (of course) and said:

“Just as parents should have the right to say to schools, ‘You’re not the right fit for my child, I’m going to find another school,’ schools should also have the right to say to parents, ‘We’re not the right fit for your child.’”

So, let me get this straight. Representative Leach supports the idea that private schools taking taxpayer dollars should be able to exclude children they don’t believe are a “right fit” for their school. Evidently, his definition of school choice is that schools should have the choice, not the students or their parents. This isn’t school choice; it is state endorsed discrimination.

 

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!

The needs of the many…

Spoiler Alert: I am really glad I didn’t drive to Phoenix today for the House Ways and Means Committee meeting during which they considered HB 2842, Empowerment Scholarship Accounts (ESAs); Expansion; Phase-In. I’m glad I stayed home because I’m sure my presence would have made no difference. Instead, I watched live streaming of the meeting and gleaned from the testimony that ESAs are lacking in accountability and transparency and serve the few at the expense of the majority.

The first “against” speaker I viewed was Ms. Stacey Morley from the Arizona Education Association. She talked about how when the full cap is reached, 5,500 students could have accepted ESAs at a cost of $13M to the state. Tory Anderson, from the Secular Coalition of Arizona expressed her organization’s opposition to any use of taxpayer dollars to fund religious schools. An AZ Department of Education representative said DOE is neutral on the bill, but wants to ensure they get their full 5% portion of the ESA funds for ensuring accountability. These funds are prescribed by law, but haven’t always been fully included in the budget. He talked about the importance of adequate oversight and referred to the 700 to 1 ratio currently in place for program liaisons that work with families to provide that oversight. As high as that number is, he wanted to ensure further budget cuts don’t make the challenge even tougher.

Mike Barnes, from the Arizona Superintendent’s Association talked about how ESAs make it very difficult for districts to determine their potential enrollment and therefore the impact on their budget. He said he doesn’t see how under this structure, the state doesn’t end paying for students that were going to attend private school anyway. He mentioned that the funds given in an ESA equal about $5,200 which is $600 more than is given to a district, but $600 less than what a charter costs. Representative Bruce Wheeler asked him if we knew how many of those students who take ESA have parents that make in excess of $100K. He said he did not.

The next speaker was Julie Horwin, a grandparent of two children who attend private schools. I assumed she was going to advocate for ESAs but that was not the case. She opened by saying that ESAs mean we are paying with two separate school systems with public funds. She then relayed a story of a private school principal who is paid $40K per year and found out that his board members each get paid $150K per year with public monies. She finished by saying that this bill will not help the greater majority of our students.

Janice Palmer from the Arizona School Boards Association (ASBA) said school choice is robust and noted that ASBA was the first school boards association to participate in National School Choice Week. She said the bill is disconcerting because in a competitive environment, it is important to be fair. Parents she said, definitely need to have the largest voice in their children’s education but when public dollars are involved, taxpayers also need to be part of the equation. Finally, she noted that this is not a zero sum game. If we choose to press ahead with the expansion of ESAs, but refuse to increase taxes, other programs will suffer to cover the additional expenses to the state budget.

The “for” speakers were three parents or grandparents of special needs children and Michael Hunter from the Goldwater Institute. Those who spoke regarding the value of ESAs for their special needs students were eloquent and convincing. There could be no doubt that the ESA program has provided them options they might not have otherwise had. But, the option for special needs students already exists in the law the expansion of HB 2842 is well beyond just them, but ultimately for all students in Arizona. Michael Hunter of the Goldwater Institute pointed out that changes like this are always met with resistance. First, there was open enrollment and then charter schools, both which were touted by opponents as being detrimental to district schools. He said that instead of looking at the impact on district schools, we should look at each family’s situation. Representative Reginald Bolding went back and forth with him a couple of times trying to pin him down (with little avail) about the difference in accountability and transparency, especially with regard to academic standards, but in the end Bolding was left to make his points on his own.

When the committee members voted, only Representative Bruce Wheeler and Reginald Bolding explained their votes. Wheeler called it subsidization of the rich and voted no and Bolling said he just wanted to ensure we have good schools for all our students and he was worried that individuals who might benefit from the program wouldn’t know about it. In the end, the vote was not surprisingly, along party lines and the measure passed (5-3-1.) The vote was predictable, but still depressing. I am convinced it will do nothing to improve education in Arizona and will do very little to help those who most need it. The Senate Education Committee meets this Thursday, February 4th at 9:00 am in Senate Hearing Room 1 and will be considering SB 1279, also about ESA expansion. If you are registered in the Request to Speak system, please make a request to speak on this bill and if not, please email or call your legislators to let them know you do not support it. Anyway you look at it, ESAs are vouchers and, they are siphoning valuable taxpayer dollars to private (to include religious) schools. Register your concerns and let your voice be heard. In this case, the needs of the many, must take precedence over the needs of the few.

 

 

 

 

 

 

AZ Public Education Funding is Far From Fixed!

Unless you’ve had your head under a rock, you’ve probably heard the Prop. 301 Inflation Funding lawsuit has been settled.  As with any compromise, no one got everything they wanted and there is still plenty of concern about various parts of the agreement. One of the more contentious is the Governor’s plan to increase the withdrawal percentage on the State Trust Lands Fund. AZ’s state treasurer, Jeff DeWitt, does not concur with any plan to pull more than 3.75 percent out per year, the Governor’s plan calls for 6.9 and will, says DeWitt, significantly reduce the amount of money available for public education down the road.

Public education supporters would certainly have liked to receive all districts were legally due. But, I’m guessing they just wanted to get what they could and move on. The harm though is that this agreement has proven to the AZ Legislature they can defy the people’s mandate and court orders with little impunity. I am guessing they will feel emboldened by the compromise reached, which because of all the loopholes they’ve put into place doesn’t really cost them anything in terms of doing whatever they want in the long run.

Secondly, I fear the settlement of the inflation lawsuit will convey to the public that public education funding has been fixed in Arizona. This is far from the truth, but with 45 districts’ bonds or override requests on the ballot this November, anything that drives doubt in the mind of the voters about the need could be very damaging.[i] Never mind the fact that it was the AZ Legislature that caused the necessity for local funding in the first place. After all, the Legislature made Arizona first in the nation in public education funding cuts since 2008 and these cuts just shifted the tax burden the local level in the form of bonds and overrides.   Unfortunately, this type of funding provides very little stability due to voter whim and is not the solution. An example is the Oracle School District override continuation that failed in 2013 by only 62 votes, costing the District $140,000 in funding the next year. Fortunately, the continuation passed in 2014, but numerous have had multiple years of failed override initiatives.

A big part of the problem is political. The Republican Party of Maricopa County recently announced their opposition to all 28 ballot initiatives in the Phoenix Valley, claiming that districts haven’t been fiscally responsible.[ii]  This allegation just isn’t true, as annual Auditor General Audits prove. Our public districts have also worked very hard to become more efficient and according to the AZ Office of the Auditor General 2014 report, administrative costs continue to decline. Yes, costs for plant operations, food service and transportation increased slightly,[iii] but with only two percent of the funding requirement provided for facility renovations and repairs between 2008 and 2012, increased expenses can be no surprise.

Of course, this is about much more than just our public schools. It is about an assault on our communities, our way of life and our very democracy. As Garrison Keillor said: “When you wage war on the public schools, you’re attacking the mortar that holds the community together. You’re not a Conservative, you’re a vandal.” No offense meant to our GOP brethren who support public education.

Arizona’s school children need your support on November 3rd. Six straight years of state cuts to education combined without success in seeking locally approved funding have led four school funding referendums on the ballot in Pinal County this year. Apache Junction is seeking an M&O Override for 15 percent, J.O. Combs Unified is pursuing a bond measure for $40 million, and Florence Unified and Coolidge Unified are seeking a consolidation/boundary change. Each one of these measures is critical to providing their students the opportunities they deserve. Each of these is in fact, critical to moving our communities, our county and our state forward.

Apache Junction has been forced to operate without override funds since 2010 and J.O. Combs has been unable to pass an override continuation for three years resulting in a loss of $2 million. The Florence and Coolidge Unified consolidation/boundary change will decrease the tax rate for CUSD, provide necessary classroom space for FUSD, provide more efficient use of taxpayer monies. Tax payer monies will be saved because FUSD will accept $16 million in CUSD debt bringing three schools and 40 percent of San Tan Valley area, vs. laying out $60 million for a new high school. These ballot measures make sense, are about our children, and make long-term best interest for the voter.

Now it is up to you. Ensure you are registered to vote, get informed and then actually vote. If not for Arizona’s children, then for yourself. Arizona can’t compete if our students can’t compete. Our students can’t compete if their teachers are underpaid, their schools are poorly maintained and their technology is yesterday’s. Today’s students, are tomorrow’s leaders, whether they are ready or not.   Let’s ensure they are ready!

[i] http://www.azcentral.com/story/news/local/arizona/education/2015/10/28/many-arizona-school-bond-override-races-face-polarized-voters/74416714/

[ii] http://www.azcentral.com/story/news/local/arizona/education/2015/10/28/many-arizona-school-bond-override-races-face-polarized-voters/74416714/

[iii] http://www.azauditor.gov/sites/default/files/AZ_School_District_Spending_FY2014_State_Pages.pdf