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.

“Someone to Shine Our Shoes”

In a recent article titled “Chartered Cruise” on knpr.org, the author Hugh Jackson wrote: “Today’s charter industry, much like Nevada’s voucher plan, reflects a chronic civic defeatism. Echoing the perverse social Darwinism of more than a century ago, faith in free-market education is surrender to pessimism. Society really isn’t incapable of providing a fair educational opportunity to every citizen. Some people are doomed to fail, that’s just the way it is, so best to segregate those with promise, the achievers, in separate schools. As for everyone else, well, too bad for them.” Of course, this attitude isn’t confined to only Nevada; I have a real life example of it right here in Arizona. Three or so years ago, an acquaintance of mine asked an Arizona Senator whether or not he supported public education. He replied, “of course I do, we need someone to shine our shoes.”

It’s bad enough the Senator thought this, let alone that he said it out loud to a public education advocate. That says as much about the voter contempt some of our lawmakers hold (especially when the voter is from a different party) as it does what they think of public education. As the primary water carrier for the American Legislative Exchange Council’s (ALEC), the Arizona Legislature has led the nation in efforts to offer school choice options. Proponents tout school choice as the way to help disadvantaged children, but truth is, they’ve already written these children off. Instead, school choice is really about resegregation (the highest we’ve seen since the mid 1960s) and profiteering.

The school choice and education privatization movement gives me great pause because:

  1. The vast majority of our students (85%) are attending significantly underfunded district schools;
  2. Taxpayer dollars are increasingly being siphoned off to profiteers with very little (if any) accountability and transparency;
  3. The claim of school choice proponents that school choice provides much better results, either isn’t backed up by facts, or is an oranges and pineapple comparison;
  4. Voucher and charter schools actually provide parents less choice than district schools.

Allow me to explain. By now, most Arizonans probably know our state is 48th in per pupil funding. Even if the $3.5 billion infusion from Prop 123 is approved by voters this month, it won’t move us from 48th place in overall per pupil funding. To move up just one notch (above Oklahoma), we’d have to give out districts twice that much. That’s how far behind Arizona is.

As for the lack of accountability and transparency in Arizona’s school choice programs, for-profit companies dominate the charter school movement.  These companies do not have school boards, let alone locally elected boards and are not required to disclose the details of their business operations. As for private schools that take Empowerment Scholarship Account (voucher) or Student Tuition Organization tax credit dollars, there is no way for taxpayers to determine funding efficacy. Private school students are not required to take state assessments nor provide any academic results. Neither are private schools required to disclose any information regarding their business operations.

Then, there’s the apple and oranges comparison. Irrespective of the law requiring charter schools to accept all students, it is a well documented fact that most manage to steer clear of special needs and English language learning students and that they manage to attrit (at incredibly high rates) students of color or those on the lower end of the socio-economic scale. Of course, when these students return to the district schools, it is often after the 100th day of the school year, when the average daily attendance has been calculated and the charter school has cemented the funding for the year for that student. The district school is forced to absorb that same student for the rest of the year with no compensation.

Finally, district schools are run by locally elected governing boards that are accountable to the community. School district residents have the right to be present at board meetings and have their voice heard. They also have a right to know how their tax money is spent. Charters and private schools are run by executive boards not accountable and often not responsive to parents. If you aren’t happy with the way they are being run, your only recourse is to withdraw your child.

The myth perpetuated by those bent on destroying pubic district education is that district schools are failing and that privatization in various forms is the answer. The reality says that school choice will never be the answer for the vast majority. The evidence also shows despite charters and private schools being much more selective of their students, most charters and almost all cyber charters do worse than their district schools. We don’t really know how private schools do since they aren’t required to provide any information about results.

The movement to privatize public education is straight from the GOP playbook on reducing government. As President Reagan said in his first inaugural address: “Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” That might have been a good sound bite for the right, but I believe concentrated, unchecked power is the problem. Our system works best when we have a balance of power that ensures all sides are heard and produces compromises to come up with the best possible solution. It also works best when government provides for the public good and checks and balances are put in place to ensure efficiencies and effectiveness of both the public and private sectors where taxpayer dollars are involved. Those checks and balances are lacking in school choice options and taxpayers are paying the price. Examples abound of virtual (on-line) school scams, greedy charter school operators, and even illegal purchases with voucher dollars. No, district schools are not entirely immune from fraud, but at least they have locally elected school boards responsible to the taxpayer for oversight and the state conducts annual audits. Neither of these happens when taxpayer dollars fund school choice options.

The original intent of charter schools was to provide teachers greater flexibility to experiment with new ways to educate students. Charters were not meant to compete with or replace district schools, but rather complement them. Now, charters and vouchers have become a way for state legislatures to deflect their responsibility to provide a quality public education for all. When funding follows the child, it becomes the parent’s responsibility to ensure a quality education. School choice also allows our lawmakers to obfuscate the real problem, poverty and all the challenges it brings to our district schools.  Of course, the focus on school choice creates demand which causes funding loss in districts, making it harder for them to excel and reinforces the message that they are failing. The truth is, that despite significant funding shortfalls, severe teacher shortages and crumbling infrastructure, our district schools continue to do well. It makes one wonder what miracles could be achieved if they received the funding and support currently being siphoned off to charters and private schools.

The one thing I know for sure is that until we elect new pro-public education candidates, nothing is going to change. We will continue to see efforts to take the brakes off vouchers, create laws more favorable to charter schools, and attempts to de-professionalize the teaching profession. We have the power to create change; the only question that remains is do we have the will? Prop 123 has raised the level of attention to the challenges of our district schools. Many have been vocal on both sides of the issue. Let’s come together on May 19th at 4 pm for a Pro-Public Education Rally to tell our Legislature that enough is enough, we are done with them short-changing our kids and our state’s future! #ItStartsNow #YouPlusOne #RememberInNovember

Screw you, I’ve got mine

Now that it looks like the AZ Legislature will be successful in finally opening the floodgates on vouchers (empowerment scholarship accounts) for K-12 education, I’ve got some other ideas they should consider. After all, the Legislature has made it clear that taxpayers are the ones best equipped to decide where their tax dollars go and that transparency and accountability don’t matter. Other than quarterly reports on spending, there is virtually no accountability in the voucher program; students aren’t even required to test and private schools don’t need to report any kind of results so there is no way for taxpayers to determine if their tax dollars were well spent.

Since I don’t have any children or grandchildren, I’ve been thinking about how I can take advantage of the Legislature’s privatization fixation. My first idea is one of safety and security. We don’t live in an incorporated township, so we rely on the county sheriff’s department to ensure our safety and security. The service provided is adequate, but I really think I can do better by looking to a private security firm to meet my needs. After all, surely a private security firm can do a better job right? That Blackwater firm was just an anomaly, right? So, I’m not sure what percentage of my tax dollars support the county sheriff’s office, but I want the state to give that back to me and I’ll hire my own guys. I’ll probably have to pay extra for the private solution, but it will be worth it.

While I’m at it, think I’ll look at the taxes I pay for maintenance of roads. After all, what do I care about roads in other parts of the state? I want the roads I drive each and every day to be in pristine condition. Maybe the state should just turn every road into a toll road and then I would only pay for those roads on which I drive. What? There would be many cases where there isn’t enough traffic to support maintenance of roads in remote areas? Too bad, so sad, not my problem.

Oh, and I live within a half mile of a fire department so I don’t think I should have to pay as much in taxes as those who live further away. After all, if there is a fire at my house, the department will save money in fuel and travel time to deal with it.

Obviously, I provide the above to make a point. When did we descend into this “screw you, I’ve got mine” mentality? No matter what proponents claim, vouchers are NOT the solution for the vast majority of Arizona’s children. What they are, is a way to: 1) redistribute our tax dollars from the greater good to those who LEAST need the help; 2) bolster the private education industry and; 3) relieve the state Legislature of the responsibility for ensuring and providing for education. The two major jobs of the state are to provide for public safety and public education. Once these voucher bills pass, legislators will no doubt feel they can wash their hands of the responsibility to “provide for the establishment and maintenance of a general and uniform public school system.” Truth is, they will have just done the very thing that drives a stake in the heart of their ability to ensure a “uniform” system.

Make no mistake; this is NOT about providing parents a choice. What it is about, and has always been about, is the corporate “reform” of public education or in other words, taking the “public” out of public education. Vouchers are also not ensuring the best for ALL our students. With every student exits their district school on a voucher, the fixed costs of running that district must be born by a smaller budget, which means the students left in are increasingly short-changed. The nature of the beast is that these students will invariably be those with the most challenges such as English Language Learners, special needs students, or just those lowest on the socio-economic ladder. Unlike district and charter schools, private schools can choose whom they wish to admit. They also don’t provide transportation and their tuition commonly exceeds the $5,200 parents receive with the voucher. It is not hard to see why many of Arizona’s parents will continue to choose to send their children to their community district schools and yet, these schools will increasingly be abandoned in terms of state support.

I’ve made it known that I am for the approval of Prop. 123 to get more funding into our schools now! Is it the way I would want to do it? NO!! I want to Arizona to stop giving corporate handouts and if necessary, to raise taxes to fund the type of schools our students needs for the future we all want. After all, Arizonans largely support this. If this opening of the floodgates on vouchers passes though, I may have to rethink my position. It is bad enough that the Legislature has thumbed it’s nose at the will of the voters, the decisions of the court and has finally agreed to pay our schools only 70 percent of what they owe with money that is already technically theirs. I can’t stomach the thought of this money getting siphoned off by those who could largely afford to go to private schools without the voucher money.

If you agree, you can’t just sit silently by and let this happen. If you want things to be different, you MUST ACT. Call your legislator, send them an email and make comments in the Legislature’s “Request to Speak” program. If you aren’t signed up for the program, please email me and I’ll personally go to the Capitol and sign you up (you must be signed up through the kiosk at the Capitol to be able to actually comment on bills.) Then you can, from the comfort of your home, tell the Legislature just what you think about the bills they are considering and, your comments will become part of the permanent record.

Ultimately though, the only long-term solution is to elect pro-public education legislators to replace those who aren’t acting in our students’ or our state’s best interest. Please ACT NOW. Our kids are counting on you and they can’t wait any longer for us to come to their rescue.

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Tale of Two States

As a kid, one of my favorite authors was Charles Dickens. In his 1859 novel, A Tale of Two Cities, he “depicts the plight of the French peasantry demoralized by the French aristocracy in the years leading up to the revolution.” Hmm, peasantry demoralized by the aristocracy…that reminds me of something…wait, I’ll think of it. Maybe, it is the fact that the 62 richest people in the world now own more than the poorest half? In fact, their wealth has increased 44% since 2010 while the bottom half’s has dropped by 41%. And in the U.S., the wealth inequity is now worse than at any time since the Great Depression. The Walton family alone owns more wealth than 42% of American families combined and CEO-to-worker pay-ratio is 354-to-1. Americans haven’t taken to the streets with pitchforks (the “Occupy” movement aside) to demand “off with their heads” yet because for the most part, they still believe in the American Dream. That is if one works hard enough, they can move up the economic ladder. The truth is more like comedian George Carlin joked: “the reason they call it the American Dream is because you have to be asleep to believe it.”

Although reference to the concept of the American Dream was made as early as the 1600s by those who came to America from England for the chance of a better life, it was most likely “codified” in the Declaration of Independence, which proclaims that “all men are created equal” with the right to “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Part of this right and critical to achieving the dream are the opportunities to receive a good education and work that provides at least a living wage. But, the game is now stacked. Stacked in favor of the wealthy, stacked in favor of corporations, stacked against the middle class who is increasingly squeezed, and stacked against children who don’t come from a family of means.

Of course, everyone has a different idea about how to “unstack” the deck. In fact, as I mentioned earlier, some don’t even see the deck as unfairly stacked. I am firmly in the “”deck is stacked” camp and believe if we don’t start to make progress at turning the tide, pitchforks may be in our future. In Arizona, Governor Ducey thinks the way to move our economy forward is vouchers and charter schools, no individual state income tax and very little tax on the corporate side, and oh yeah, the “sharing economy.” Really, a “sharing economy”? Could it be that Ducey and I agree on something? I mean, I think it would be great if we would all share equally in our economy. After all, when Arizona’s top 1% pays only 4.6% of their income in state and local taxes while the bottom 20% pays 12.5%, we could really use some sharing. What you say? He was referring to “sharing” type businesses like Über and Lyft where the services are cheap and convenient, but the workers have no rights or benefits? Oh, okay, that sounds more like current Arizona leadership.

Just for kicks, let’s look at another state’s version of the way forward. Interestingly, Massachusetts has almost exactly the same population as Arizona, 6.8 million. Both states also have the Tea Party in common although with Massachusetts, it is mostly in their past (as in Boston in 1772) and in Arizona it is very much in the present.

Politically, Arizona is GOP led with no statewide Democratic leaders and both the state senate and house under GOP control. Massachusetts conversely, is almost entirely led by Democrats with the exception of their governor who is a Republican. Given the political parties’ priorities, it should be no surprise then that MAZ vs MAassachusetts ranks much better in education and child well being than Arizona. What may surprise some though, is that while Arizona’s economy ranks 25th in the Nation, Massachusetts’ comes in at #6.  

Why might you ask? Well, I have a few theories and as you can imagine, the state’s prioritization of public education is at the top of my list. Take Career Technical Education (CTE) for example. It produces significantly higher graduation rates than traditional district high school programs, often provides living wage jobs to graduates, and helps provide skilled workers for the employers who so badly need them. It is, by all accounts, a win-win-win. Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker obviously gets this as indicated by his recent proposal to add an additional $83.5M for vocational education.   Included in this is a $75 million five-year capital program to finance grants for school equipment and expansion an additional $8.5 million for grants for “school-to-career connecting activities.

At the same time, we have Governor Ducey objecting to restoring the $29 million in cuts to CTE made in last year’s budget. Instead of embracing the AZ Legislature’s veto-proof coalition to restore the funding, Ducey wants to only restore one-third of the funding for only three years and, attach a variety of strings to the money including a requirement for business matching of the funds. This despite a plea for repeal of the cuts signed by 32 business and education leaders as to the importance of CTE.

Maybe Governor Baker just had better advice than Governor Ducey. Tim Murray, a regional chamber of commerce president who toured 64 votech and agriculture education programs when he was the Lieutenant Governor of Massachusetts, said “the single biggest need” of the business community “regardless of the size of the company, regardless of the sector” is a “pipeline” of available workers. Surveys of 352 employers and 475 parents recently conducted by The Dukakis Center in Massachusetts revealed that 90% of employers see a need to increase CTE graduates, while 96% of parents had a favorable opinion of the CTE programs they children attend.K-12 az ma

But wait, there’s more. I believe one of the best determinants of the value someone or an entity places on something is what they are willing to pay for it. Massachusetts obviously values education. I know there are those of you ready to say: “there are plenty of examples of more money not producing better results.” Yes, that is true. But in almost every case, I’d be willing to bet where money doesn’t help, there are significant social issues outside of the schools that keep students from learning and achieving. It is obvious, by Massachusetts’ #1 ranking in education achievement, that their money is well spent.

Of course, as mentioned earlier, we know there are factors outside of the school that determine how children do in school. Massachusetts has lower unemployment, their residents earn higher salaries and they are less likely due to lose their homes to foreclosure. Their residents are also better educated, safer, and healthier. They also have fewer disabilities, likely from the better health care they experience. It should be no surprise that Arizona also has four times the adults in state prison as does Massachusetts, spending hundreds of millions more in this area. Yet, Arizonans are no safer with over double the murder rate.

Some claim that Massachusetts is more successful in some areas because society is more homogenous with 74.3% of its residents being white as opposed to only 56.2% in Arizona. There may be some truth to that since unfortunately in the U.S. today, socioeconomic status often has to do with the color of one’s skin. But, Arizona is doing little to address this issue even though our state’s share of white K-12 students dropped below 50% in 2004 and Latin@s K-12 students are on the cusp of breaking 50%. One example of this blind eye toward the problem is new HB 2401 sponsored by Vince Leach-R SaddleBrooke. The bill, titled “Schools; Desegregation Funding; Phase-Down” phases out funding for desegregation expenses, a cut of about $211 million dollars. These funds will hit some of our most vulnerable children, about 22,500 English Language Learners (ELL) and leave high performing magnet schools, such as Phoenix Union’s Metro Tech High School, without their primary source of funding. It is in two words, extremely shortsighted. Learning English is critical to these student’s future success and by extension, that of our state. They will either be contributing members of our society or drains on it. This is a clear example of “you can pay me now, or you can pay me later.”

So let’s recap. Massachusetts performs better than Arizona in education, child welfare, health and safety, the economy and many other areas. Yes, taxes are a little higher ($1,706 per person in 2013), but look what you get for your money! I’m well aware of course that this line of reasoning will fall on many a deaf ear that think the only good government is a starved one. It can’t be said enough though that taxes are not bad or good, they are the price of living in a well-functioning society with a decent quality of life. There are many things such as education for all and safety that are best provided by the government. It our duty (the voters) to determine our priorities for our hard earned tax dollars and then elect candidates that will ensure those priorities are provided for and secured. That is how we keep ourselves free.

 

Part 2 – Why Ducey’s Promise to Lower Taxes is a Lie

In my previous post, I showed why Governor Ducey’s focus on tax reduction is a disastrous recipe for our state. Now let’s look at how those tax reductions we’ve been seeing aren’t really helping the average Arizonan. Instead, we continue to see the tax burden transferred from those who have, to those who can least afford.

Governor Ducey is intent on eliminating income tax in Arizona. Why might you ask? Because, for this Governor and others like him, it is ALL about business. And although corporate tax breaks are good for large business, 97% of the employers in Arizona are small businesses like S-corporations, LLCs and partnerships. These businesses amount to over 40% of the private workforce and are currently taxed by the state via income tax. I’m not sure whether ASU’s Center for the Study of Economic Liberty 2015 policy report by Stephen Slivinski is the “policy roadmap to elimination of the Arizona income tax” as it claims, or, if it was written to support Governor Ducey’s tax reduction plan. At any rate, Slivinski concludes in the report that: “The best hope Arizona policymakers have to eliminate the income tax is to phase it out over a number of years while maintaining budget balance.” He also makes the point that now that the state is on “surer fiscal footing”; it is time for Arizona policymakers “to look at important and necessary reforms over the next couple of years.” Waiting longer he claims, “may result in losing a golden opportunity.” Sounds like a Ducey talking point commercial to me.

Arizona already has though, the 13th-lowest individual income tax and the 10th-lowest combined state and local income tax in the Nation. Additionally, according to an article in Business Insider in August 2014, Arizona’s economy was ranked the 4th fastest growing in the US after Colorado, California and Texas. Of course, we also have the 4th highest poverty rate in the US with one in five Arizonans living in poverty. Obviously, there are winners and losers in Arizona’s current economy and Governor Ducey’s insistence on eliminating the state income tax and shifting state revenue collection to increased sales tax will do nothing to help those who most need it. Although sales tax is said to be a less volatile form of revenue than income tax, it also is the most regressive, hitting the poorest the hardest.

Of course, income and sales taxes are just two ways a state can tax its residents, there are a multitude of others. Here’s just a few examples of how we continue to be “taxed” all the while Governor Ducey claims he is reducing our tax burden.

 1.  The highest per-pupil cuts in K-12 education funding in the Nation from 2008 to 2012 caused Arizona school districts to seek more locally controlled funding as a way to survive. The number of districts asking their communities for funding through bonds and overrides in 2015 was up 150 percent since 2008. The good news for districts is that the voters recognized the need for the funding and the approval rate for these measures was also high. The bad news is that this was no reduction in taxes, but just a shifting from the state to the local level. Unfortunately, often the communities with districts most in need have the least amount of capacity to help.

2.  Another solution many districts were forced to try in order to make ends meet was to reduce their school week from five days to four. As of May 2015, 43 districts (most in rural communities) in Arizona have already gone this route with many others considering following suit.  Arizona districts make up one-third of all four-day week districts in the Nation. There is debate over whether this move really produces the touted savings in the long run, but parents certainly don’t come out on top.  Rather, a four-day school week often requires parents to find childcare or, reduce the hours they work in order to care for their children when they are not in school. It also results in decreased wages for cafeteria workers and bus drivers. These people (especially in rural areas) may not have any real options to make up the difference.

3.  The state’s push of school choice via charters and Empowerment Scholarship Accounts (essentially vouchers) has been another way to transfer education costs to the local level. Charters usually require parents to transport their children to the school, do not offer any free and reduced lunch programs, and often require donations of parents. Schools in the Great Hearts Academy schools for example, “recommend parents contribute at least $1,200 to $1,500 per year per child to the school. There are also a variety of fees that are either not charged at all in district schools, or are much lower than what the charters charge.

4.  Even before Governor Ducey and the Legislature cut $99 million from our state universities and $19 million from our community colleges, Arizona had the deepest cuts in the Nation to higher-education spending. Those cuts drove the significant fee hikes and steepest tuition hikes as well, rising 83.6% since 2008.

5.  The Highway User Revenue Fund (HURF) which includes several taxes and fees such as the gasoline and vehicle license tax, was established to maintain roads, bridges and other transportation needs in the state. The Legislature swept about $860 million from this fund from 2000 to 2014 for other priorities. This forced local government to try to keep up with a more than $455 million in backlogs (with only 70% of cities reporting) for construction, repair, and maintenance of municipal streets. This isn’t just a double tax on Arizona residents (pay taxes to maintain the roads, then pay for car repairs after unmaintained roads cause damage), but also translates into a significant loss of jobs that could employ Arizonans to repair infrastructure and ensures that if and when the repairs occur, they will cost significantly more than if we had just maintained the infrastructure to begin with.

6.  In 2015, the state shifted 25% of the cost (about $12 million) for housing juvenile offenders to the counties, based on total population of the county. The counties are now required to raise the funds for this bill either through increased taxes or reduced services.

7.  Also in 2015, the cost to pay the Arizona Department of Revenue to collect and distribute sales taxes was passed down from the state to cities and counties. The change is expected to cost cities and counties about $17 million. This change applied even in counties that don’t charge a sales tax (such as Pima whose share of this new bill is $1.6 million.)

8.  In the past, the state picked up most of the cost of presidential primary elections. In 2016 however, the cost for these elections will be pushed down to the counties who will pay more than $3 million extra to cover those costs.

There are countless examples of this shifting of real costs, and even more in lost opportunity costs. Local governments say the state merely balanced its budget on their backs and saddled them with a huge financial burden that will continue to result in layoffs, tax increases and crumbling roads. Governor Ducey’s office responded that it is up to local government leaders to make responsible decisions. Really? How can local government leaders make responsible decisions when budget expenses they had no part in approving, are forced upon them without any vote in the process? Leave it to Ducey and Company to not only make a really bad brown matter sandwich for local governments to eat, but then also blame them for complaining how it tastes.

In this, as with any debate, it is possible to find a source to support any point of view. For me it is really this simple…does it make sense that you would tax the poor more to provide tax relief for the rich? Does it make sense that corporations are lured to locate in a state so they can pay even less than the under one percent they generally pay in corporate taxes? Or, does it make more sense that corporations are savvy and look at a variety of indicators to determine where to locate such as the quality of local schools, availability of a quality workforce, or a solid infrastructure? One doesn’t need to be a genius to understand basic economic concepts, all it really takes is a little common sense. A strong middle class is the best path to prosperity for our communities and our nation and economic policies that support its growth are the solution. Our tax policies should incentivize the behavior we need for the health of our communities, states and nation, not for the enrichment of a few. Finally, business definitely has a critical role to play, but so does government. It should ensure we are provided the basic essentials of safety, security, infrastructure and education and our tax policies should ensure sufficient revenue to do that properly. And, it should do that at the right level so as to ensure proper oversight and economies of scale.

No one party has the right answer here and there is no one right solution. It takes a smart application of available tools, wise employment of lessons learned and yes, a whole lot of common sense. Alas, as Voltaire is credited with saying in the early 1700’s: “Common sense is not so common.”

 

$82,996 is low income…REALLY?

Kudos to Arizona Representative Doug Coleman, R-Apache Junction, who has introduced HB 2063 to cap the limit for corporate donations to School Tuition Organizations. His bill looks to cap the “year-over-year limit at 2 percent or inflation for the Phoenix metropolitan area” for corporate donations. 501(c)(3) tax-exempt organizations, these STOs allocate at least 90% of their annual revenue to tuition awards for students to use to attend qualified schools. Proponents claim STOs allow underprivileged students the opportunity to attend private schools they would otherwise not have access to. Critics however, note that these corporate credits don’t truly serve the “low-income” population.

According to Arizona law, the current definition of “low-income” for this credit is a “family of four with an annual income of $82,996.” Given that the median household income for an Arizona family of four in 2014 was $50,068, that annual income really can’t be legitimately defined as “low income.” Jonathan Butcher, of the Goldwater Institute, said: “The eligibility is set up to help students no matter where they are in their life and where their family is,” he said. “The scholarships seem to be pretty modest, often around $2,000. Families can use the scholarships to get close to where tuition may be.”

Problem is, tuition at many private schools is much more than the scholarship amounts and parents are left to cover the rest. Senator Steve Farley, D-Tucson said “it’s almost impossible for someone who is poor to benefit because even if they get a scholarship, they still have to come up with the rest of the tuition.” For the 2013/2014 school year, limits were $4,900 for grades K-8 and $6,200 for grades 9-12. The average corporate tax credit scholarship for students at All Saints’ Episcopal Day School in Phoenix was $9,405. With the average private school tuition in Arizona for 2015 at $10,236, it is hard for low-income families to bridge the gap. And, there is no rule to preclude parents from getting multiple scholarships for their child from multiple tuition organizations. The state doesn’t track how common that is. Senator Steve Yarbrough, R-Chandler, (who profitably runs the Arizona Christian School Tuition Organization), “admits many of the scholarship recipients likely would go to private school without the financial help.” Unfortunately, it is almost impossible to prove these allegations since the STOs aren’t required to divulge information required to get to the truth.

Representative Coleman’s bill is meant to help ensure the program’s sustainability. Although Arizona lawmakers placed a statewide $10 million annual cap on the corporate credits, the law allows a 20% per year increase.   Next year, the cap for all private school tuition corporate tax credits will increase automatically to $62 million and by 2030; it will be ten times that amount. That number is especially significant when one considers that for the last budget year, Arizona’s corporate income tax collections were $663 million, and more than 7 percent of state tax revenues. One has to wonder where all this money is going and what the diversion away from the general fund does to the state’s ability to operate.

Senator Debbie Lesko, R-Peoria, is against the cap claiming it gives “needy” children opportunities they wouldn’t otherwise have. She also claims that more money in scholarships means less students in public schools and that ultimately, saves taxpayers money. This claim only holds water if a student started out in public school before switching to a private school. A 2009 Arizona Republic article reported that out of the 50,000 private school students, only 7,350 students had been added since the tax-credit program started [in 1998]. Not exactly an indication of resounding success. The more likely driver for Senator Lesko’s support of this program is the fact that she is the Arizona state chair for the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC.) This Koch brothers-backed, tax-exempt organization works with its corporate members to create model legislation favorable to their corporate interests. Then ALEC provides these model bills to state legislators to implement back in their home states. ALEC’s Education Task Force has pushed school choice, vouchers, charters, parent trigger laws and yes, education tax credits. Along with providing the template for the legislation titled “The Great Schools Tax Credit Program Act” ALEC provides recommendations to state legislators designed to help them “sell” the program to the public. They acknowledge the model legislation includes “students presently enrolled in a private school” and therefore “reward[s] many families already financing their child’s education.” They tell legislators to consider limiting “eligibility to students who attended a public school in the last year or are starting school in their state for the first time.” This, they point out, will likely produce “a savings for state taxpayers since a scholarship covering private school costs in many cases will be less than the cost of state support provided to students attending a public school.”

They also recommend to lawmakers that if they “decide to include a statewide tax credit cap in the legislation…language should be added to automatically allow the cap to increase by 25% in any year after 90 percent of the cap was reached in the previous year.” As for the contribution amount allowed, ALEC states that although a 50% cap is deemed more equitable, making a higher “percentage of a donor’s tax liability eligible” for a credit can make it easier to raise donations. Higher amounts though they acknowledge, “open the program up to charges that money is being diverted from non-education programs to support private schools.”

The dollar amounts are significant. For the 2008 tax year, nearly three-fourths of corporations (over 35,500) that filed income taxes in Arizona had the minimum tax liability of $50. In 2009, there were 54 corporations reducing their state income tax via the private school tuition tax credits, lowering their income tax by over $5.5 million with a carry forward of $1.2 million to reduce future taxes. Then In 2010, 63 corporations donated $11 million to private school tuition organizations, with 8 donating at least $500,000.

This, all the while corporate taxes have been shrinking in Arizona. At 9.3% in 1990, corporate income tax is currently at 6.968% and will phase down to 4.9% by 2017. When fully phased in, these cuts will cost the state about $270 million each year, that’s enough to restore full-day kindergarten across the state and much, much more. This doesn’t even include the commercial property tax rate, which has also been cut from 25% in 2005 down to 18% this year.

 In addition to the issue of sustainability, is the issue of which private schools are getting the corporate tax credit money. At least one-fourth of the 64 schools on the states approved list of School Tuition Organizations certified to receive donations for the corporate income tax credits are religious institutions. Yes, the Arizona Supreme Court has deemed this constitutional via what many believe are convoluted reasoning, but it still should give pause to the majority of taxpayers – those that support the separation of church and state. Additionally, I was unable to determine of the $11 million donated by corporations in 2011 and in subsequent years, how much was actually paid out? There are numerous questions about these school tuition organizations and the corporate tax credits that fund them. Unfortunately, laws designed to preclude transparency and accountability prevent these questions being answered. It is obvious to me that Representative Coleman’s bill makes total sense, which unfortunately means it will probably be a tough sell in the Arizona Legislature. Let’s hope against hope that reason prevails.