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.

Advertisements

Graham Keegan is “Very Pleased” With DeVos…What a Shock!

I started reading Thomas Friedman’s latest book this morning, “Thank You for Being Late, An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations.” I’m only in the second chapter, but in it he credits Craig Mundy, former Chief of Strategy and Research at Microsoft, with using the terms “disruption” and “dislocation” when speaking about the effect of acceleration. Mundy defines “disruption” as, “what happens when someone does something clever that makes you or your company look obsolete. “Dislocation” is the next step — “when the rate of change exceeds the ability to adapt.

I argue the education reform movement has been working hard for some time now to disrupt truly public education; to find “something clever” that makes district education look obsolete. Unfortunately for them, the results haven’t quite matched up to the rhetoric. While school choice advocates like to promote the “magic of the marketplace thinking,” they just don’t have a good track record of improving overall student achievement. And yet, Lisa Graham Keegan, Executive Director of A for Arizona & Glenn Hamer, President & CEO of the Arizona Chamber of Commerce & Industry fall all over themselves in an exuberant support piece for Trump’s Secretary of Education (SecED) nominee, Betsy DeVos. They are “very pleased with her nomination” writing that it, “signals a shift in the conversation around education policy in exactly the right way.” Let’s be real. What they are really hoping is that if confirmed, Betsy DeVos will propel the commercialization of district community schools at a “rate of change” that “exceeds the ability to adapt”, i.e., that it will cause “dislocation.”

Tulane University’s Douglas Harris argues though that, “The DeVos nomination is a triumph of ideology over evidence that should worry anyone who wants to improve results for children.” That’s because the evidence from DeVos’ backyard is far from pro-commercialization. Michigan has become a Mecca for school choice over the past 23 years and its charters are among the most-plentiful and least-regulated in the nation. Approximately 80% of Michigan’s 300 publicly funded charters are operated by for-profit companies, more than any other state. Yet, a 2015 federal review of Michigan’s charters found an ‘unreasonably high’ percentage that were underperforming. In response, DeVos and friends successfully defeated state legislation “that would have prevented failing charter schools from expanding or replicating.” By doing so, they enabled the doubling of charter schools on the list of lowest performing and the competition she’s driven has district and charter schools fighting over students, ensuring no one thrives. Randi Weingarten, President of the American Federation of Teachers,  writes that DeVos has long been, “working in Michigan to undermine public schools and to divide communities. And now—she’s poised to swing her Michigan wrecking ball all across America.”

DeVos’ “wrecking ball” isn’t just about using charters to do the “disrupting and dislocating”, but virtual schools and vouchers as well. In fact, Rachel Tabachnick, a researcher, writer and speaker on the impact of the Religious Right on policy and politics, calls her “the four star general of the voucher movement.” Tabachnick, no doubt like many others, is concerned that DeVos will gleefully work to make good on Trump’s promise of $20 billion for school choice, by siphoning off Title I funds designed to help the most vulnerable kids to the benefit of wealthy families for private and religious schools. There are real doubts among many though, that even if the money were available, Trump’s voucher idea (had typed “plan”, but I don’t think Trump is big on those) just won’t work. Current SecED John King said, “Vouchers, I don’t think, are a scalable solution to the challenges that we face in public education, and I think (they) have the potential to distract us from focusing on how we strengthen public education.” Teacher and writer Retired Professor and writer, Joseph Natoli writes, “Unless we deconstruct the narrative that privatized schools somehow have uncovered the secret to how humans learn and have a monopoly on the most effective ways to implement that knowledge, we are allowing false assertions to stand.” Natoli also writes, “Weakening public education to the point that privatization looks like rescue is accomplished by funding that is decreased when tax funds are siphoned off to for-profit charter [or private] schools.”

Most of us also understand, as Steven M Singer, blogger at gadflyonthewallblog writes, that school choice “privileges the choice of some and limits the choices of others.” This is bad he posits, because district schools “pool all the funding for a given community in one place. By doing so, they can reduce the cost and maximize the services provided.” Adding parallel systems increases the costs thereby providing less for the same money. “Public [district] schools are designed to educate. Corporate schools are designed to profit” Singer notes, and eloquently writes, “Instead of fixing the leak in our public school system, advocates prescribe running for the lifeboats. We could all be sailing on a strong central cruise-liner able to meet the demands of a sometimes harsh and uncaring ocean together. Instead we’re told to get into often leaky escape craft that even under the best of circumstances aren’t as strong as the system we’re abandoning.”

Mitchell Robinson at ecletablog.com, believes DeVos’ “ultimate goal, appears to be a two-tiered educational system.” One, a system of well-funded elite private and religious schools with highly qualified teachers and a rich curriculum for wealthy whites and another of “fly by night” virtual and for-profit charters with little to no regulation or oversight, and a bare bones, “back to basics” curriculum delivered by unqualified and uncertified “teachers”.

Back in Arizona though, Graham Keegan and Hamer write that DeVos is not a “gradual improvement” kind of leader, but a “true reformer who believes in immediate transformation of lives through quality education because she sees it happening. (One might ask where, since it ain’t in her home state of Michigan.) Of course, they follow that up with ”we’re optimistic that under Mrs. DeVos’ leadership we can take a national break from seeking to impose improvement from on high…” Her soon to be boss though, doesn’t seem to want to give up the bully pulpit to affect change saying, “There’s no failed policy more in need of urgent change than our government-run education monopoly. ”It is time to break up that monopoly.” His words are of course, hyperbolic and untrue, as government is not the sole provider of K-12 education, nor is competition prohibited by law.

What is not hyperbole, is that DeVos and other elites understand that truly public education helps make the American Dream possible. That’s why they are fighting so hard to dismantle it. “Educator Stan Karp argued that what is ultimately at stake in school reform debates is ”whether the right to a free public education for all children is going to survive as a fundamental democratic promise in our society, and whether the schools and districts needed to provide it are going to survive as public institutions, collectively owned and democratically managed – however imperfectly by all of us as citizens. Or will they be privatized and commercialized by the corporate interests that increasingly dominate all aspects of our society?”

This fight is not just about what kind of schools America’s children attend and who pays for it. It is also about weakening the power of our Democracy and its people. Will we continue to be a nation “of the people, by the people, for the people” or will the oligarchy turn us into a caste or feudal system where only a few have a say and the rest of us serve? If you want to continue to have a say in our Democracy, exercise it today by clicking here to contact your U.S. Senators today and tell them to vote “NO” on the confirmation of Betsy DeVos as America’s next SecEd. Then stand at the ready, because the cause is just and the fight is far from over.

NOTE: For those of you who may know me as a member of the Oracle School District Governing Board, I want to make it clear that these views are my own and do not represent the views of the Governing Board of the Oracle School District.

Our Kids Have Given Enough!

God, I’m tired of the whole district versus commercial (private and charter) school debate.  But, I feel strongly that district schools should be our Nation’s first choice to educate the majority of our children. I will therefore, continue to fight for not only their survival, but also success.

Usually, that means I’m at odds with school choice proponents. Today though, I read a blog post by Robin J. Lake and found myself agreeing with much of what she wrote. Ms. Lake is the Director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington. In her piece titled “Will the New Administration Love School Choice to Death?” she writes “Our study of Detroit’s current choice environment, now at 50 percent charter schools, offers an important caution: choice alone is no panacea. In fact, ”School choice“, she writes, ”presented as a panacea is dangerous, both rhetorically and as policy.” She points out that in Detroit, charter schools slightly outperform district schools [I found dissenting stories about this], but their students are still some of the lowest-performing in the nation. Detroit school management is dysfunctional to say the least. There are a dozen different government agencies sponsoring schools without any coordination. This results in a parental nightmare with no one managing transportation, no one taking responsibility for closing low-performing schools, and no one making sure special needs students are well served.

Providing the complete package is one of the things district schools generally do well. They transport your child to and from school and they feed him or her breakfast, lunch and maybe even during the summer if need be. They provide both special need and advanced placement education, usually some sort of tutor support where required, and have a full range of programs such as sports, band, art, and much, much, more. And, most importantly, they take all comers, regardless of their socio-economic status, special needs, ethnicity, etc.

The real truth I have come to believe, is that no matter what school option (including district schools) one looks at, it takes sufficient funding, quality administrators and teachers, engaged parents and high expectations to produce real, positive results. It also takes an environment where if the child starts at a disadvantage in school and life, he or she can get help (especially if there is none at home) to rise above it. I once heard a presentation making the point how just one caring adult can make a huge difference in a child’s life. It struck me as incredibly sad to think that some children don’t even have that. That’s right…some children don’t even have one adult that cares about them.

When adults do care, good things usually happen. But, the more focused attention to a problem, the more likely the solution will be successful. Ms. Lake writes, “Choice is a powerful force, but it must be accompanied by thoughtful government oversight and supports for quality. There must be mechanisms to ensure that schools of choice serve the most challenging students. And there must be coordinated efforts across localities to empower parents with information, transportation, and other support systems. Without these efforts, families most often end up with a lot of choice and very little in the way of better options.” If there’s one clear lesson she has gleaned from the last 25 years of charter school implementation, she writes, it’s that “choice and competition are necessary but by no means sufficient to dramatically improve outcomes for students.”

I couldn’t agree more with Ms. Lake that, “To avoid choice becoming permanently polarized…scholars and advocates need to fight new programs that don’t promote quality and accountability.” They must advocate for policies that promote collaboration among school providers, ALL school providers, both district and commercial. They also must address equitable access for students with disabilities and other special needs and, maximize the effectiveness and accountability of any private voucher/scholarship and education savings account proposals.

And to her statement that “The new Department of Education should invest in strategies to prevent harm to students in districts facing major enrollment losses”, I say AMEN! Instead of fighting each other over who has the best answer, just imagine what we could do if we recognized there is good in all options and worked together for the best overall solution. Unfortunately, the pie is only so big and with the GOP fixation on tax cuts, it is getting smaller all the time. As long as the various school choice options are pitted against each other for resources, it is hard to see how we can work together for a better outcome. Something though, has to give and it damn well shouldn’t be our district school kids and their teachers. They’ve given enough.

Partisan? You bet! My party is Public Education.

I am a big believer in the two-party system. Our system of government works best when all sides are heard and considered. That is most likely to happen when the power is balanced, forcing legislators to negotiate and compromise. Our founding fathers purposefully designed many checks and balances into our system and I believe our two-party system helps in that regard.

In Arizona, the Democrats must gain only two additional seats in the State Senate to reach parity with the Republicans and in my opinion that would be a very good thing. Then, our senators from both parties would be forced to work together in finding good compromises to solve the problems facing our state.

One of the biggest problems facing our state is the inadequate resources provided our district schools. Arizona is one of the nation’s leaders in promoting school choice and although 80-plus percent of our students choose district schools, resources continue to be siphoned away from these schools in favor of other options. Many of our legislators, largely the Democrats, get this. Several Republicans are also on board.

Friends of ASBA, a sister organization of the Arizona School Boards Association, publishes an annual voting record of our legislators. This “Friends of ASBA Educating Arizona” report shows how every Arizona legislator voted on high priority K-12 education bills in 2016. The bills are grouped into three focus areas: funding, vouchers and local control, and the voting record is based on whether the legislators voted with, or against the ASBA position.

I encourage you to click here for the report to get the entire story. As you go through the report, you’ll note 56 legislators received “extra credit” for their behind the scenes efforts on behalf of public education. This credit is noted by + signs and the maximum extra credit points awarded were +++. Below, I show the Republican legislators who voted with ASBA’s position more than two-thirds of the time. I’d like the percentages to be even higher, but 33 Republican legislators didn’t even have a score higher than 50%. I should note that four Democratic legislators, Rep Sally Ann Gonzales (57%), Rep Jennifer Benally (43%), Rep Albert Hale (57%), and Rep Juan Mendez (57%) did not meet my “two-thirds of the time voting with ASBA” threshold.

LD Senator % Representative % Representative %
1 Steve Pierce++ 67 Karen Fann+ 71 Noel Campbell 71
2 Christopher Ackerley++ 71
8 TJ Shope+ 71
15 Heather Carter++ 71
16 Doug Coleman++ 100
18 Jeff Dial++ 67 Jill Norgaard 63 Bob Robson++ 71
20 Paul Boyer++ 63
21 Rick Gray+ 63
28 Adam Driggs++ 89 Kate Brophy McGee++ 71

The legislators in the chart above have at times taken brave stances on behalf of our district school students. Those I’ve actually met with seemed sincerely intent on doing the right thing for our students. They have earned my respect.

It is never a good idea to be closed to the opinions and ideas of others, nor is it smart to vote straight party line without regard to the issues and how candidates lean on those issues. For incumbents, the voting record tells us where they stand on public education. For candidates who haven’t ever been elected, it is our duty to read and listen to what they say about where they stand. And oh by the way, it is not good enough for a candidate to say he/she is “for education.” If you want to be sure they support the efforts of the schools educating over 80 percent of our students, they must say they are “for public education.” Of course, this leaves the door open for them to be staunchly pro-charter, but at least there is a modicum of transparency and accountability for the taxpayer dollars provided charter schools unlike with private options.

No matter what problems you most want solved, there can be no doubt that the more our students are prepared to deal with them, the better off we will all be. In my opinion, locally elected, governing board-led, public school districts offer the best chance we have to ensure every student has every opportunity to succeed. That’s why I am passionately pro-public education and why that’s the “party” that most matters to me.

Open Letter to Diane Douglas

Dear Diane,

It is with great sadness I write you this letter. I say that because I just had my hopes dashed once again that people of different political ideology could actually trust each other to put the mission over self-interest. In my Air Force career the “mission” was almost always paramount, but I’ve not found it to be quite as prevalent in civilian life, especially when politics are involved. I must admit that after my most recent meeting with you, I was encouraged that you were “mission-focused” on behalf of all Arizona students. In my opinion, you said all the “right” things and your “AZ Kids Can’t Afford to Wait” plan outlines 30 proposals that with few exceptions, seem like the way right to go. And, although you support school choice, you also recognize that 85 percent of Arizona’s students attend district schools and that you stated you are committed to getting them the resources they need.

I supported your opponent for Superintendent of Public Instruction in 2014 and was incredulous and very disappointed when you won. Your tumultuous beginning as the Superintendent confirmed my belief you were not the right person for the job. Of late though, I’ve begun to feel that you’ve settled down and if not yet “hitting your stride”, at least properly “setting up in the chocks.” Unfortunately, my breath was taken away this morning when I read my public education Google Alerts. The headline that caught my eye was Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction Diane Douglas endorses Donald Trump for President. OMG!!! Are you freakin’ kidding me?

Don’t get me wrong, the purpose of this letter is not to harangue you on your choice of who to vote for. Yes, I personally think anyone who votes for Trump is crazy, but I recognize it is your right as a U.S. citizen in the greatest democracy in the world to vote for whomever you wish. What does bother me, is that you felt the need to publicly endorse this misogynistic, xenophobic, racist candidate who has shown himself to lack the temperament, knowledge or even the desire to learn what he needs to know to serve as President of the United States of America, let alone as Commander in Chief. Even a FOX news poll from May of this year showed only 38 percent of registered voters trusted Trump to do a better job than Clinton on the use of nuclear weapons.

Geo-politics and nukes aside however, I ask you what is Mr. Trump’s plan for education? You wrote in your news release that you endorsed him because he “shares my belief that the federal government’s role in education needs to be reduced rather than expanded.” Well, that certainly will solve ALL our educational problems…especially here in Arizona! After all, we have a Legislature and Governor totally dedicated to serving the needs of our one million plus students and their teachers in Arizona’s district community schools. Wait…what…we don’t? Oh yeah, that was just the dream I have. Besides, as you already well know, the new Every Student Succeeds Act signed into law in December 2015 has already greatly reduced the federal government’s role in education. 

The National Education Association (NEA) published an article on August 29th about Mr. Trump’s education plan titled “Trump to release ed plan; details so far show little understanding.” First of all, Trump has yet to release his education plan. What we know thus far is that Trump is “the product of private schools, stands behind school vouchers, which in community after community have diverted scarce resources from community schools to private and religious schools that are allowed to reject students with special needs.” Of public [presumably district] schools, Trump has said, “Schools are crime-ridden and they don’t teach.”

And who is Trump’s point man on education other than Neurosurgeon Ben Carson who he credits as an expert on the subject. In a news conference, Trump said, “I was most impressed with his views on education. It’s strength. It’s a tremendous strength. So Carson is going to be involved with us, particularly on health and education.” Please keep in mind that Ben Carson is the guy whom Donald Trump compared to a child molester. Carson also thinks little of public school students saying, “The best education is the education that is closest to home, and I’ve found that for instance homeschoolers do the best, private schoolers next best, charter schoolers next best, and public schoolers worst.” This statement seems to call into question his knowledge about the fact that charter schools are public schools and, he is wrong…on the whole, charter schools don’t do better than district schools. But then, Mr. Carson seems to have a penchant for rejecting facts since he also doesn’t believe in evolution. As a Seventh-day Adventist, he espouses the “creationist theory that holds all life on Earth was created by God about 6,000 years ago.” This believe rejects Darwin’s theory of evolution which virtually all of today’s scientists agree is true.

All this is disturbing, but still isn’t really at the crux of my dismay about your endorsement of Trump. What really bothers me is the kind of leadership he projects. According to a national survey of educators by the Southern Poverty Law Center, the presidential campaign is producing an alarming level of fear and anxiety, [The Trump Effect], among children of color and inflaming racial and ethnic tensions in the classroom.” In the report, 67 percent of educators reported students in their schools (often immigrants, children of immigrants, Muslims, African Americans and other students of color), were concerned about what might happen to them or their families after the election. Students are stressed and anxious and it is detrimental to their well being and learning. SLC reports that dozens of educators reported daily worries from students “being sent back or having their parents sent back.” Many of these students and/or their families are American citizens or are here legally and yet they feel under attack and teachers are having a very hard time responding. A high school teacher in Boston for example, said her students are, “confused as to how a person who has no respect for American ideals can be so popular.”

Of course, it isn’t just the racism that is detrimental to the learning environment, it is also the hateful and mean rhetoric Trump has used. After an anti-bullying assembly, a middle school teacher in Michigan told us that [insults, name-calling, trash talk] isn’t bullying, they’re just ‘telling it like it is.’” Likewise, a high school teacher in Georgia wrote, “Students have become very hostile to opposing points of view, regardless of the topic”, and “any division now elicits anger and personal attacks.”

In your “Kids Can’t Wait Plan”, you discussed the action committees and other steps you’ve taken to help improve educational outcomes for African-American, Native-American and Latino students. Your plan, and willingness to engage these students and their communities left me hopeful. But now, I must ask you how in you think these students or their communities can have faith you are truly committed to helping them when you have publicly endorsed a candidate for President who has made it clear he prefers a homogenous (read white) America and, has total disdain for our community district schools?

You gave me one of your challenge coins at our last meeting and told me your challenge to me was to ALWAYS put the kids first. In fact, you shared that you constantly challenge your staff to ask themselves if what they are doing has really “moved the needle” for Arizona’s children? So, I now ask you whether your endorsement of Trump has “moved the needle” for the one million plus Arizonan students in our district schools? I think both of us know the answer to this and it doesn’t start with a “Y.”

Just rearranging the deck chairs ain’t gonna cut it

Representing the AZSchools Now Coalition, Arizona’s 2016 Teacher of the Year Christine Marsh and I recently attended and spoke at a Classrooms First Initiative Council meeting in Phoenix. The Coalition consists of the Arizona Associations of: Education, Business and Education, School Boards, Superintendents, and Parent and Teachers. Also part of the coalition are the Children’s Action Alliance, Valley Interfaith Project, and Support Our Schools AZ. It was formed post-Prop 123 to provide focus to reinvesting in public schools as a way to boost student achievement.

The Classrooms First Initiative Council was established by Governor Ducey in January 2015 and charged with modernizing the school finance formula to ensure adequate funding is available for teachers and classroom instruction. The first of the two main events of this latest meeting was a presentation by Expect More Arizona on the Education Progress Meter. This meter has been accepted by virtually every education group, numerous community and municipality organizations, and 26 major business entities. It measures Arizona’s progress in eight areas to include teacher pay, preschool enrollment, 3rd grade reading, 8th grade math, high school graduation, opportunity youth, college going, and post-secondary attainment.

The other main discussion was about the proposals submitted by education groups for the Council’s consideration. In speaking for the AZSchools Now proposal, I advocated for additional resources to attract and retain high quality teachers in light of the both the current shortage as well as the some 26,000 eligible for retirement starting in 2018. Not only is the shortage critical, but teacher turnover is disruptive and expensive, costing as much as $50,000 to find and contract a new one. ADE reports we have almost 93,000 certified teachers in Arizona, but only 67,000 of them are working in the profession. Many of those who left would love to still be teaching, but were forced to seek employment that would better support their families. (According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median Arizona elementary school teacher salary is $40,590 while the national median is $54,120. Starting salaries are much lower, often in the $30,000-per-year range.) Even so, one of the changes under consideration by the Council is to eliminate the Teacher Experience Index. As you might guess, this index helps keep experienced teachers in our AZ classrooms and the Coalition believes eliminating it will only exacerbate the problem. If we want to ensure high-quality education, we must have high-quality teachers and that can’t be done on the cheap. With fewer teachers entering the pipeline and over 26,000 eligible to retire by 2018, merely “rearranging the deck chairs on Titanic” I said, won’t do anything to keep this “boat from sinking.”

I also spoke about the Coalition’s recommendation to consider adding a B-weight for poverty to the school finance formula. This is critical because statewide, 58 percent of our K-12 students are eligible for free and reduced meals and many deal with a multitude of poverty related challenges at home, greatly affecting their preparedness to learn at school. That’s why the Coalition believes it is one of the most significant steps needed to make the school finance formula more equitable and fair. We know these students typically face barriers relating to transportation, housing, and levels of support in their communities and families for which additional resources are needed to help them achieve success.

Christine also made a case for additional funding, but her impassioned plea was focused on ensuring reasonable classroom sizes so that no students fall between the cracks. She told of average student loads for AZ high school teachers of 170 students and said that makes it tough for teachers to give each student the individualized attention they deserve. (The National Center for Education Statistics’ reports Arizona has 1.1 million K-12 students, and just 48,358 full-time teachers making our student-teacher ratio almost 23:1 compared to the national average of 16:1. According to WalletHub, only California and Utah are worse.)

She also pointed out that a future President of the United States is in a K-12 classroom somewhere, and current events highlight the importance of our getting this right. Stating that yes, salary is an important factor to encourage teachers to stay in their profession, Christine said it is also important that teachers feel they have what they need to really make a difference. And although she wanted to focus on the needs of students, not teachers, she noted the reality of workloads on the ability to do the job. Even if, she said, she only assigns three writing assignments per week to her 160 students, and each of those papers only takes five minutes to grade, that can amount to over 40 hours of grading time per week, and that takes place outside of the classroom. As if illustrating this point, after she spoke to the Council Christine resumed grading the stack of student papers she had brought with her.

Chris Thomas, Lead Council for the Arizona School Bards Association, said Arizona has one of the most equitable funding formulas in the nation, but is not adequately funding the formula. He highlighted the need for reinstating the cost analysis for special education funding as a way to ensure costs to provide service to these students are adequately funded while not pulling funding away from other programs. Chris also made the point that in considering a new funding formula, transparency should be ensured for the use of all public funds. Sarah Ellis, a Flagstaff Governing Board member, spoke during public comments, reiterating the need for locally controlled funding and the continuation of desegregation funding. For the Flagstaff Unified School District she said, the desegregation funds exceed that received from Prop. 123.

I was encouraged by the questions asked by members of the Council as well as the number of attendees in the audience. There was standing room only and attendees had come from all over the state to participate. I was pleased to hear some Council members voice their concerns that viable solutions to the finance formula would not be possible without additional resources, including the Chair, Jim Swanson. One member did note the reality of convincing the state legislature of this reality, but Swanson indicated he is ready to take on those who may not agree with the Council’s eventual recommendations.

Overall, I was encouraged by the meeting. Although I would have liked the membership of the Council to be more representative of the K-12 population in our state (majority Hispanic), I found them to be actively listening and serious about finding the best solutions. I am also very encouraged about the AZSchools Now coalition. One of the Coalition members, Support Our Schools AZ and its subsidiary the Arizona Parents Network, is an example of the grassroots efforts that has blossomed during and since the post-Prop 123 battle. What is especially important about this development is that it involves mostly parents who are naturally fierce advocates for their children.

One such fierce parent is Alana Brussin, whose My Turn” op-ed titled Tying school success to vouchers is a sham was recently published by the Arizona Republic. Her piece highlights the reasons community district schools are the overwhelming choice of Arizona families, in spite of the best efforts of state leaders and other school privatization advocates.

Just as Mothers Against Drunk Driving turned the tide on the public’s acceptance of drinking and driving, I’m confident our fierce parents can turn the tide on the assault on community district schools and ultimately the students they serve. Every child deserves every opportunity to succeed and when that happens, we all succeed. It really is that simple.

Educated Workforce = State Prosperity

Okay. Let me get this right. Daniel Scarpinato, Press Aide to Governor Doug Ducey says Arizona schools are the 4th worst in the nation because school choice siphons taxpayer dollars out of community (district) schools into private and parochial schools, leaving those community schools underresourced. Okay, those weren’t his exact words, but that is what he intimated. His intent was of course, to invalidate the WalletHub study because it only looked at our public schools and not private schools. So, he thinks the study is invalid because it ONLY pertains to 96 percent of Arizona’s K-12 students?

WalletHub looked at 17 key metrics and found that Arizona is: 49th for pupil to teacher ratio; near the bottom in average ACT score; and below average for low-income student high school graduation rate. Even though these types of rankings are nothing new for Arizona and, he doesn’t dispute the numbers, Scarpinato called the study “baloney.” Rather, he went on to deflect the blame by citing Arizona’s rapidly increasing population as part of the problem for low per-pupil funding and sidestepped whether this meant funding should be increased to keep up with that growth. He also dismissed the idea of halting corporate tax cuts. His justification – Arizona needs to remain competitive with other states in its efforts to cut corporate taxes. The Economic Policy Institute (EPI) says “cutting taxes to capture private investment from other states is a race-to-the-bottom state economic development strategy that undermines the ability to invest in education.” We need only look at Kansas to see how this strategy works.

EPI research shows “income is higher in states where the workforce is well-educated and thus more productive.” There is, the Institute says, “a clear and strong correlation between the educational attainment of a state’s workforce and median wages in the state.” Those workers then pay more taxes to boost state budgets. The best companies know they need to go where they can get the kind of educated workforce they need, where their current employees will find good communities with high quality schools, and where the infrastructure can support their business model. That’s why states like Massachusetts (ranked #1) see education as an investment, not an expense.

Unfortunately, the AZ Legislature seems hell-bent on pushing the privatization of our community school system and will continue down this path until the voters boot them out of office. We need lawmakers who understand there can be no significant progress for our state over the long haul unless we ensure all our children are given the tools to grow and prosper. Community schools remain the schools of choice for the vast majority of our students and must be our first priority for state resources. Yes, school choice has its place in our overall educational system, but it shouldn’t be first place.