We Get What We Deserve

Wow! I normally think of Laurie Roberts as a fair-minded reporter with a pro-public education bent. I don’t know what happened to her this morning, maybe she ran out of leaded coffee and had to drink decaf. At any rate, I couldn’t let her opinion piece, “Does Arizona really need 236 school districts?” go unanswered.

First of all, the answer is no. But of course, this isn’t the sort of question that can be answered with a simple “yes” or “no” because there are so many variables that must be factored in. For example, I was recently on the Diné (Navajo) reservation where even relatively close to Tuba City, the students must travel over REALLY bad roads for over an hour each way every day to get to and from school. Could we do more to consolidate district schools on tribal lands? Maybe a little, but I’m guessing opportunities would be very few and far between.

Sure you say, but that’s a really different situation than what they have in downtown Phoenix. Yes, that’s true, but I’m guessing there are other unique circumstances in those schools and the voters elect locally elected governing boards to make decisions about what is best for their students and their communities. Do they always get it right? No – no one ever does. But, they are closest to the action and have the best chance of making the right calls.

Roberts finds it curious Governor Ducey has never shown interest in merging school districts. I seriously doubt she really finds it curious and suspect she understands that this is a hot potato issue the Governor would rather just keep off his plate. And as for Robert’s claim that Governor Napolitano’s plan to reduce the number of districts went down in flames because “school officials fired up torches in defense of ‘local control’”, I don’t believe that was where the main pushback originated. If school officials were fighting the consolidations, I’m betting it was because their parents and community members were pushing them to do so. What parent after all, wants their child on longer school bus rides than necessary, or further away from home during the school day?

As for her assertion that “On average, school districts in Arizona spend a woeful 53.8 percent of their budget in the classroom”, Roberts knows this is “woefully” misleading. Here’s the facts about what public district schools spend in the classroom and what they spend on administration:
1. Yes, Arizona districts spent 53.5 percent of their available operating dollars on instruction in FY 2016 per the AZ Auditor General’s Arizona School District Spending report. But, the Arizona School Boards Association disagrees with what is included in that “classroom spending” and the Governor and Arizona Legislature agreed back in 2015. That’s because the AG’s report doesn’t count instructional support (5.7 percent) and student support services (8.2 percent). These areas include physical and occupational therapists, reading and math intervention specialists, media specialists/librarians, counselors and social workers. All of these specialists are critical to a student’s academic success and when included, take the total amount of classroom spending up to 67.4 percent.
2. Even at that, as Roberts points out, Arizona districts spend less on administration than the national average. My research shows we spend only 67 percent of the U.S. average spent on administration, not just the one percent she cites. Even assuming she is correct, the important point is that we do better than the national average.
3. For all their touting of efficiencies gained due to their relief from bureaucracy, Arizona charter schools spend DOUBLE the amount on administration than do district schools.

She really loses me though, when she opines, “if the school lobby succeeds with its plan to soak the rich with a massive income tax hike….” Words have meaning and it is by no accident that she chose “lobby” and “soak”. I mean, imagine if she’d wrote the sentence this way: “if public education advocates succeed with their plan to more fairly distribute additional taxation to ensure our districts are funded just at 2008 levels….”

Besides, if you want to make a case for efficiency of public school operations, how about we start exercising more control over where charter schools can build and operate. Does it really make sense for a Legacy Traditional Charter School to have been built in Peoria a couple of years ago for 1,500 students when there were 8 “A” and “B” rated schools WITH capacity, within a two-mile radius of where the charter went in? And that’s just one example of the waste generated via the lack of accountability in a state that is intent on siphoning taxpayer dollars away from its public schools with little transparency to the process.

The bottom line is that district schools, with their locally-elected governing boards, open meeting law requirements, and procurement rules, (unlike charters and certainly, private schools) offer the greatest degree of accountability and transparency of any school choice option. But…for the system to work, the public must be informed and engaged, and government MUST provide the checks and balances. Just like with government at large, we get the public schools we deserve.

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False Choices for Arizona

Just when I was starting to think highly of the AZ Republic Editorial Board’s judgement, they came out today with: “The focus of this budget was clearly education – from kindergarten through the university level. It is the beginning of a long climb to provide Arizona’s schools with the resources they need to serve our youth and help drive the state’s economic growth.” Wow! Talk about drinking the Koolaid!

After all, this headline a couple of days ago: Gov. Doug Ducey gets much of what he wanted for education, was bad enough. Those in Ducey’s camp no doubt read it as him being successful, but those who know what he proposed against what our districts need, know that his getting “much of what he wanted” wasn’t well…all that much.

Instead, it is clear that his commitment to delivering tax cuts every year he is in office is much more important to him than fixing our state’s severe teacher shortage. That’s clear in his woefully inadequate proposal of a permanent 2% increase, rolled out over five years which amounted to only $15 per month  in the first year for the average teacher. As it turns out, the Legislature funded a 1% increase for next year with a “promise” to fund it again the following year. This funding is only for existing teachers, is more a stipend than a “raise” since it is not distributed on a per-student basis and therefore doesn’t increase with inflation. It amounts to about $500 per year, or about $40 per month. The Republic Editorial Board writes that, educators “will be watching next year to see if this is a good-faith effort.” Not so much I think. I mean, fool us once, shame on you. Fool us twice, shame on us. I don’t think educators or public education advocates have much faith in any promises the GOP-led Legislature or this Governor make to public education.

The Results Based Funding Plan of $37.6M he proposed for students attending excelling district or charter schools was pushed by none other than the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry (led by “teachers are crybabies” Glenn Hamer.) That tells me up front this isn’t going to be a great deal for our district schools. Appears I am right with The Republic reporting that 65% of this funding ($25M) will go to middle and higher-income schools. And, 26% of the monies would go to charters schools (and 12% of that to BASIS and Great Heart chains exclusively) versus districts, even though charters only educate 16% of the state’s public-school students. The money is misplaced infers Dr. Anabel Aportela, director of research for the Arizona Association of School Business Officials and Arizona School Boards Association. “BASIS is receiving a lot of attention for its top spots in the rankings and that’s great, but collectively the five BASIS school graduated just over 200 students, according to the latest data,” Aportela said. This a mere drop in the bucket of the 94% of the 13,778 students district high schools graduated in 2015, and doesn’t even begin to represent the diversity of those district graduates or the state at large. In addition, Ducey’s results-based funding uses only AzMERIT scores to determine where the money goes, but Arizona’s new A-F school accountability plan uses a more realistic set of factors that gives any school in the state the opportunity for a higher grade, not just those in higher socio-economic areas. Public education advocates would much rather have seen this funding added to teacher compensation where they believe it would have done the most good.

Speaking of good, that may be what Ducey’s proposed $10M next fiscal year and $20M the following year (the final budget allocates $8M and $12M) for full-day kindergarten or early literacy programs at schools looks like, but there is more to the story. This program provides additional funding where at least 90% of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch (FRPL), but will help certain charter schools much more than it is likely to help school districts. That’s because in order to qualify, the entire school district must meet the 90% threshold even though they may have several schools that meet it. Charter schools though, are each considered separate districts, even if they are managed by the same for-profit corporation. Once again, Ducey leans in for school choice over our 1.1M district students.

Yes, Ducey’s plan included $20M the Legislature didn’t fund, to help school districts deal with the negative impact of the change to current-year funding. Keep in mind though, that this change to current year funding versus prior year funding was totally a self-inflicted wound on the part of the Legislature last year. This, even though they had tried current year funding prior in 1980 and it proved to not work. The GOP-led Legislature didn’t care about that last year when they saw it as a way to save $31M in the budget. This change will hit districts with declining enrollment hard this year, making long-term planning difficult and making it even harder for them to attract and retain teachers.

Our Governor also asked for and got $17.2M in one-time money for school construction and building maintenance and the Legislature added $63M more for new school construction projects. But – and this is a big but – districts have been denied about $2B in funding in this area since the AZ Supreme Court ruled that the state needed to fund it. This is why now, 20 years after the Arizona Supreme Court originally ruled that the state’s method for capital funding to districts was unconstitutional, education plaintiffs are forced to file suit again. “Districts are funded at about 15 cents on the dollar for capital” and Joe Thomas, president of the Arizona Education Association said, “When you give a child an option of you’re going to have an air-conditioned room or you’re going to have a teacher, that’s a false choice for Arizona.”

In my mind, these are all “false choices for Arizona.” We know what needs to be done to recruit and retain quality teachers, properly maintain our facilities and buses, and give our students every opportunity to succeed. We, and I mean the collective “WE”, just don’t have the political will to do it. Money is not the only answer, but it is definitely a big piece of the equation and all this pretension that it isn’t is just freakin’ exhausting.