Bottom Five List – Discouraged but Hopeful

A recent article in The Atlantic magazine featured experts on K-12 education who offered their reasons for hope and despair with regard to education. It was an interesting read and prompted me to come up with my own list for Arizona. In this first of two posts, I share my “Bottom Five” list of what discourages me and what I’m hopeful about. First, what discourages me:

10. The extremely well funded efforts of the corporate “reformers.” Make no mistake about it, the effort by the corporate “reformers” to make sweeping changes to the Nation’s public education system is as much about making a profit as it is an interest in making a difference. The exact number is up for debate, but The Nation magazine says the American K-12 public education market is worth almost $800 billion. Now, everyone from basketball players to Turkish billionaires want a piece of the pie. It is no accident that the Koch brothers backed, corporate bill mill ALEC is pushing many of the reforms, and the technology magnates Bill Gates and Mark Zuckenberg are heavily involved in the “reforming.” All you have to do is follow the money and the intent becomes clear.

9.  The apathy of Arizona voters. I worked on three Arizona Legislative campaigns in the past few years and although I mostly enjoyed talking to voters, I was beyond dismayed when I learned that in 2014, not even half of the LD11 voters with mail-in ballots bothered to mail them in. These are people who are registered to vote and are on the Permanent Early Voters List (PEVL). They are mailed their ballots and can fill them out in the comfort of their home. They don’t even have to put a stamp on them, postage is pre-paid. These votes should have been the “low-hanging fruit.” Combined with the overall Arizona voter turnout of 27%, this is pathetic by anyone’s definition.

8.  The fact that Arizona leads in all the wrong metrics. Does Arizona care about children? Let me count the ways maybe not so much. According to the Annie E. Casey’s “Kids Count Databook”, Arizona ranks: 46th in overall child well-being, 42nd in economic well-being, 44th in education achievement, and 42nd in children’s health. The Databook also reports that 26% of Arizona’s children live in poverty, 4% more than the nationwide average. The personal finance website WalletHub reports much the same, ranking Arizona 49th for child welfare which shouldn’t surprise anyone given the dysfunction in our Department of Child Safety. I don’t know about you, but these statistics disgust me and should absolutely drive what our Legislature spends our taxpayer dollars on. It is about defining what kind of people we are, it is about helping those who can’t help themselves and it is about the future of our state.

7.  Some seem to think the path to success is to lower the bar. Even though there are people whose opinions I value that think Senator Sylvia Allen will do a good job as the Chair of the Senate Education Committee, I remain hopeful but have my doubts. Call me crazy, but I think the legislator with the most sway over what education bills see the light of day should actually have more than a high school education. Along those same lines, Arizona Representative Mark Finchem (LD11-Republican) evidently doesn’t think teaching experience is valuable for our county schools superintendents. He has already submitted House Bill 2003 for this legislative session, which seeks to delete the requirement for county schools superintendents to have a teaching certificate. Instead, it will require only a bachelor’s degree in any subject, or an associate’s degree in business, finance or accounting. I know some would ask why should county schools superintendents have certificates when the state superintendent of public instruction doesn’t require one. Well, I’d rather see us make it a condition of both jobs.

6.  The polarization of our county makes it seem impossible to come together to find real, workable solutions. I was recently speaking to a friend of mine who I’ve known for over 25 years. We started talking about education and he started railing about how all public schools do is waste money. He talked about the fancy new high school in his town that was built (in his opinion) much more ostentatious than necessary. “Why do the kids need that to learn” he asked? “Why not just give them a concrete box?” Really?? Where do I begin? Truth is, I didn’t even try because I knew he wouldn’t listen. He knew what he knew and no amount of fact was going to sway him.

But all is not lost and I am more optimistic than pessimistic about Arizona’s public education. Here’s what makes me hopeful:

10.  Across the Nation, more and more charter school scandals come to light every day highlighting the need for more transparency and accountability. I’m not glad there are charter school scandals, but I am glad the public are learning more about the dangers of a profit-making focus with inadequate oversight. That’s one of the reasons district schools have rules and controls; they are after all, dealing with taxpayer dollars. And oh by the way, it’s no longer just charter schools we need to watch. The continuous expansion of vouchers exponentially broadens the potential for abuse and requires the same kind of public oversight. There just is no magic pill to student achievement. It takes resources, dedicated professionals, and hard work. Short cuts in other words, don’t cut it.

9.  The fact that we still have dedicated professionals willing to teach in our district schools. Despite low pay, higher class sizes than the national average, insufficient supplies, inadequate facilities, and ever-changing mandates, Arizona still has close to 50,000 district teachers willing to be in our classrooms because they love the kids and they love their work. They are underappreciated and sometimes even vilified, but they know their work is important. Now, if only our Legislature acted like they knew this too.

8.  Recognition is growing that early childhood education is really important. Even Governor Ducey said in April 2015: “Research shows that a quality early childhood education experience can yield significant long-term benefits on overall development of a child. It’s the most profitable investment we can make in their future.” A recent review of 84 preschool programs showed an average of a third of a year of additional learning across language, reading and math skills. Preschool has also been shown to have as much as a seven-fold return on dollars spent over the life of the child. The public is starting to “get it” and support for preschool funding is growing.

7.  Speaking of Common Core, it seems to be working okay. Yes, I saw the recently released AzMERIT results, but we knew they would be low. That’s what happens when you raise the bar. Despite no additional funding or resources to implement Common Core (oops, I mean Arizona College and Career Standards), our districts made it happen and the numerous teachers and administrators I’ve talked to say our students are now learning more. Efforts are underway to determine what should be changed about the Arizona standards, but my guess is that they will be minor.

6.  If nothing else, the passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) saves us from the really bad legislation that was No Child Left Behind. Everything I’ve read about the new ESSA touts it an improvement over its predecessor. It reduces what some considered Federal overreach and provides states more flexibility in implementing their K-12 education programs. Which, oh by the way, makes me concerned our state legislature will look to relax requirements where it serves them, at the expense of those children who most need our help. At least now though, they won’t be able to blame everything on “the Feds”, to include whatever version of the Common Core standards we end up with.

Please stay tuned, still to come are the top five reasons I’m discouraged and hopeful.

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Doing the Right Thing Isn’t Complicated

When I read the recent Cronkite News Service article “20 Years in, Arizona charter schools on firm ground” I wanted to rename it “20 Years in, Arizona charter schools still serve only 15 percent of the state’s students.” That’s when I realized how pointless this debate is. You know, you tout charter school offerings and performance and I come back with “yeah, but charters cherry pick their students and don’t have to put up with the same level of transparency and accountability.” Enough already!

How about we try something different? First, we recognize that charter schools weren’t originally designed to compete with community district schools, but rather, “to allow teachers the opportunity to draw upon their expertise to create high-performing educational laboratories from which the traditional public schools could learn.” Except for the part of allowing “teachers the opportunity” some charter schools have mostly done that. Take BASIS schools for example. Known for their rigor and academic success, these schools have an in-depth enrollment process that includes a placement test, they push their students hard, and they require significant involvement by parents who are likely already more engaged with their child’s education than the average. These factors no doubt contributed to BASIS Scottsdale ranking #2 high school in the nation for 2015 by U.S. News & World Report. There are takeaways from the BASIS model that would likely improve academic success at some district schools, but their high attrition rate is proof enough that it won’t work for the vast majority of students.   District schools can’t “attrit” students – they must educate all.

Unfortunately, our system doesn’t encourage schools to learn from one another. Open enrollment and school choice force schools to compete for the students that bring the dollars they need to exist. This competition comes at a cost. Today’s schools must spend valuable education dollars branding themselves and marketing to attract students. Larger districts now have marketing and public relations people on staff, but there’s no new money to cover these costs. The reality is that in the existing climate of “no new taxes” there is only so much education money to go around and adding more schools to the mix can only dilute the quality for the majority of our students. Instead of focusing on what model can perform better given the right circumstances, we should be looking at what will work best for all the children in our public schools. We need to revise an antiquated school funding model that simply “counts noses” rather than considering student demographics, performance and other measures.

We also must find a way to give our schools more stability in their funding. Our school administrators are professionals and they can make wise adjustments when they know what’s coming. Problem is, education funding has been volatile and unpredictable and even that which is mandated by voters and adjudicated by the courts cannot be counted on. And although charters complain that they can’t go out for bonds and overrides, the $1,100 (in 2014) more per pupil funding they receive is much more stable than the locally controlled funding districts have the option to seek. An analysis from the AZ Republic showed that from 2002 to 2012 69 percent of school districts had not issued bonds (or were shot down by voters when they did) and 73 percent hadn’t gone out for capital overrides or couldn’t win voter’s approval. Of course, school choice also supports instability as when money flows from a district school to a charter; the costs do not go down proportionately at the district school. Rather, the district school cannot shift their costs fast enough as students and revenue leave and the fixed costs for the principal, utilities, building debt, etc. remain often resulting in larger class sizes and cuts to academic programming.

The Payson RoundUp was way on-point recently: “We’re dismayed that Arizona seems more intent on nurturing for-profit charter schools than in adequately supporting our existing public schools. It makes little sense for the state to spend public money supporting a privately operated school that will result in shutting down a school already paid for by those same taxpayers.” They also asked why if the Legislature believes that giving free rein to charters and paving the way for them to thrive is good for our kids, why didn’t they just do that for our district schools? Great question!

So instead of revisiting the 2008 initiative to combine 76 elementary and high school districts into 27 K-12 districts, maybe we should look at whether encouraging the establishment of 600-plus new charter schools (many of them run by for-profit companies) made Arizona’s public education system more cost-effective in general. Although Arizona Charter Schools Association CEO Eileen Sigmund claims that less than 5 percent of Arizona charters operate through for-profit companies, I was unable to verify her claim. In 2012, Arizona had 108 schools managed by for-profit EMOs, the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools reported at least 30 percent of Arizona’s charter schools were run by for-profit EMOs in 2013 and in 2014, Arizona had close to 204 for-profit companies managing the state’s charter schools. In fact, the national trend is for charter schools to be increasingly managed by for-profit EMOs and it is estimated as much as 40 percent of all charter schools are operated by EMOs and account for close to 45 percent of all charter school enrollments. These statistics matter because when decisions are made by for-profit EMOs, they are often made at out-of-state corporate headquarters with profit, not students, in mind such as when they divert higher amounts of funding to administration. BASIS schools for example, directed close to $2,000 per pupil for administrators in 2014 while Peoria Unified School District only spent $732 per pupil for administration. Additionally, EMOs take advantage of the virtually non-existent requirements for accountability and transparency as well as favorable tax codes.

Ultimately, you can’t get the right result going after it for the wrong reason. I have to believe that if all we really cared about all our students receiving the best education possible, we could make it happen. In fact, if we only didn’t care who got the credit, we would be light years ahead. We know what we are doing now is more profit- and politics-based than truly pupil-based.  I know this is true, because we aren’t doing what we already know helps students thrive: high expectations, quality teachers who are respected as professionals, preschool, lower class sizes for at least the younger students, wrap-around services and community support for high poverty students, after school programs, remedial programs, home visitation programs and high quality child care. It won’t be easy, but it really isn’t that complicated. Of course, doing the right thing rarely is.

Taxpayer dollars belong to all of us

It was very interesting to read of the Washington Supreme Court’s recent decision on charter schools. On September 4, 2015, the Court declared the state’s charter school law unconstitutional. As reported in the Washington Post, Wayne Au, an associate professor at the University of Washington Bothell, was a plaintiff in the charter school legal challenge.   At the hear of the ruling Au said, “was the idea that charter schools, as defined by the law, were not actually public schools.” This stems from the provision in Washington’s state constitution that only “common schools” shall receive tax dollars for public education. In Washington State evidently, an appointed board, not an elected one, governs charter schools. The Washington State Supreme court decided the lack of oversight this allowed did not meet the definition of “common schools.”

While reading the article, I found myself thinking of the frenzied march in Arizona, toward the privatization of public education. Arizona has long been a leader in the number of charter schools established and our Legislature has established numerous work-arounds to divert taxpayer dollars into private and for-profit school coffers.

The Post article’s allegation that “ALEC’s influence on Washington State’s charter law is unmistakable”, is no surprise to me. The American Legislative Exchange Council is no friend of public education, the common good, or our democracy. As pointed out by the Post, ALEC is known for promoting a broad privatization agenda, “stand-your-ground gun laws, and anti-democratic voter registration laws.   ALEC’s agenda to privatize public education includes the promotion of charter schools (corporate charters and virtual schools specifically), private school vouchers, anti-union measures, “parent trigger” laws, increasing testing, reducing or eliminating the power of local school boards and limiting the power of public school districts.

Of course, anyone tuned into Arizona education or politics knows that ALEC has also had significant influence in our state. The Goldwater Institute acts, as the ALEC’s Mini-Me in Arizona and AZ Senator Debbie Lesko, as the AZ ALEC chair, has been the organization’s chief water carrier. Half of our state Senators and one-third of our representatives are known members of ALEC and there may be more.  It should be no surprise then that Arizona earns a “B” grade (3rd best) in education policy as the state leads the nation in number of charter school and has a very robust program to divert tax payer dollars to alternatives to traditional public education.

A disturbing similarity between Arizona and Washington State charter operations is that neither is overseen by a locally elected governing board. This fact ensures there is virtually no transparency nor accountability on how our tax dollars are spent therefore, no ability to ascertain the effectiveness of the programs or return on investment in general. This design is not by accident. As Peter Green has pointed out on his Curmudgucation blog, “charter supporters seek to redefine public schools as schools that have public money but without public accountability and regulation.” ALEC likes it this way because this smoothes the path to privatization. It goes like this: 1) drive a market for privatization by selling the story that public education is failing, 2) starve public education of funding to make it increasingly difficult for them to succeed, 3) continuously expand ways to divert taxpayer dollars from public education to private options, 4) sell the idea that public tax dollars for education should follow each child to the school of their choice, and 5) prevent the requirement of transparency and accountability such as is required of community district schools.

That is not the only similarity between the states’ two education systems. Just like Washington State, Arizona’s Legislature continues to withhold funding they owe the school districts. In Arizona, the funding in immediate question is the $300M in inflation funding from the Proposition 301 law. The people voted this issue into law in 2000 and the courts ruled in 2014 that the districts are indeed owed the funding and still, the Legislature refuses to pay up. In 2012, the Washington State Legislature was ordered to fully fund education, but they failed to do so. In August of this year, the WA State Supreme Court ordered fines of $100,000 per day until the Legislature complies. They have yet to do so.

The Washington State Supreme Court said: If a school is not controlled by a public body, then it should not have access to public funds.” We should all agree with this concept and demand full transparency and accountability whenever public funds are involved. Taxpayer dollars don’t belong to any one of us, they belong to all of us. We as the primary stockholder of our government, have the right and responsibility to know how they are spent and what our return on investment is. Anything less is more than suspect, it is un-democratic and un-American.

Ed Feulner and your Heritage Foundation, me thinks thou protesteth too much…

Nothing like some conservative propaganda first thing in the morning to get a liberal’s blood flowing. Yesterday morning, my Google alert on Arizona public education sent me a commentary from “The Daily Signal” which is the multimedia news organization of The Heritage Foundation. I try to be well read, especially on matters of public education, but I also know the source is important. So, I noted this commentary was 1) written by Ed Feulner who for 36 years, served as president of The Heritage Foundation and “transformed the think tank from a small policy shop into America’s powerhouse of conservative ideas”; 2) was originally published in the Washington Times; and 3) The Heritage Foundation (a 501(c)(3) charitable organization, touts itself as “the trusted conservative leader” and probably more telling, has endorsements by Senator Ted Cruz, Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity on its website home page.

Okay, so this is a commentary from a hard-core conservative. That got me thinking about what being a conservative really means. Wikipedia says conservatism is a political and social philosophy that promotes retaining traditional social institutions in the context of culture and civilization. It also says that there is no single set of policies that are universally regarded as conservative, because the meaning of converts depends on what is considered traditional in a given place and time. According to Merriam-Webster.com, conservative describes someone who: believes in the value of established and traditional practices in polities and society and is not liking or accepting of changes or new ideas.

It seems to me, somewhere along the line what it means to be a conservative became perverted. Conservatives today seem to be about exploring new ways to do things (when it provides profit), keeping government small and out of business (unless it is the private business of same-sex couples or a woman’s medical choices), and tearing down traditional social institutions (such as public education.)

Mr. Feulner’s commentary makes the point that children deserve more options than just public schools. What our children (all of America’s children) DESERVE, is well-funded, high quality public schools. Thomas Jefferson said, “Educate and inform the whole mass of the people…they are the only sure reliance for the preservation of our liberty.” Public schools have always been what best served to “educate and inform the whole mass of the people” and even today, in a state that leads the nation in the number of charter schools, a full 83 percent of Arizona’s students attend community public schools. Among the reasons for this is that no matter how much school choice is expanded, choice doesn’t guarantee opportunity or availability and, it is hard for the kids to be the priority when profit is the motive.

I’m on the governing board of a small rural district. Of the 410 students in my district, about 150 students living in our District have opted to exercise their school choice options. The other 410 students that attend our District are either happy with their community school, or they can’t take advantage of the opportunity. It is ironic that those who can’t take advantage of the opportunity are often the same disadvantage students those promoting school choice claim they want to “help.”

Mr. Feulner says that Education Savings Accounts (vouchers) enable families to deposit their children’s state per-pupil” funding in an account that can be used for a variety of education options. Since when did the state per-pupil funding belong to each child? I thought it belonged to all Arizonans collectively. In 2014, the average state and local taxes paid were $5,138. The primary funding source for K-12 education in Arizona is property tax, both at the primary and secondary (where approved) rates. The rest of it comes from the state general fund in the way of equalization funding, where required. The average property tax collection per capita in Arizona was $1,052. The amount deposited in ESA accounts is much more however, than parents pay in “school tax.” The range of funding for ESAs is from $2,000 to $5,500 for non-disabled students, and $2,000 to $30,000 for disabled students. The average ESA funding in 2014-15 was $5,300 per student without special needs and $14,000 when special needs students were factored in. As you can see, it isn’t only the parent’s taxes that provide for the per-pupil funding, the rest of us contributed as well. That’s why I don’t buy the assertion that the funding should follow the child, as if it belongs to them. It doesn’t belong to them or their parents, it belongs to all of us and we deserve transparency and accountability for how it is spent.

In addition to questions as to how my tax dollars are spent, I question the education being offered these students. Yes, unlike when you take your child and educate them with your money (not public tax dollars), I believe I have a legitimate say in what children are taught, when my tax dollars are used to teach them. In community public schools, locally elected school boards provide oversight of District operations and parents and community members are welcome and encouraged to stay tuned into what is taught, how it is taught, and who is teaching it. Locally elected school boards even approve textbooks. This process is not always perfect (such as with the Gilbert School Board recently voting to put abstinence-only avocation stickers in their science textbooks), but at least it is done in the light of day and can be addressed by those in disagreement.

Feulner is incensed that the ALCU is suing Nevada to keep its Education Savings Account law from taking affect. The ALCU says the ESA program “violates the Nevada Constitution’s prohibition against the use of public money for sectarian (religious) purposes.” He makes the point that the ESA funds go from the state to parents, not from the state to religious schools as if this makes all the difference. This is the same logic the Arizona Supreme Court used in legalizing Empowerment Scholarship Accounts (vouchers) in Arizona. Sounds like hair splitting to me.

Then, Feulner cites the example of a legally blind student and his parents used his ESA to provide him a great alternate education and save money for his college as well. Sure there are going to be many examples of how ESA’s serve children, especially those with special needs. I’m not against all use of ESAs, just as I’m not against all charter schools. There are special needs and circumstances these alternatives provide well. But, I don’t buy that ESAs are the best way to educate the majority of our children. I also don’t buy the pretense that this is all about parental choice, saving taxpayer dollars, or improving education. I believe this is about 1) making the education of your child YOUR problem thereby relieving legislators of the responsibility, 2) providing more profit opportunities for private business, 3) hiding conservative education agendas, 4) giving taxpayers less say over how their tax dollars are spent and ultimately, and 5) weakening our democracy.

You might think that tying ESAs to the weakening of our democracy is a bit much. Well, as those who desire to, take advantage of vouchers, they reduce the funding available to our community district schools. As the funding is reduced, more parents will be dissatisfied with the quality of educational opportunity in their public schools and more will leave. Those eventually left in our public schools will be those with no alternative and most likely those of color whom, for the most part, live at the lower end of the socio-economic scale. Our public schools are already experiencing the worst segregation seen since the 1960; it will only get worse.

In addition to the downward spiral of funding school choice forces upon community public schools, those who leave these schools also take with them their parent’s support and involvement. These parents are those who have typically worked for improvement in their community public schools and they are missed when they leave. Local governance (as does our entire democratic process) counts on informed and involved community members. Make no mistake. The war currently being waged on public education is a war on our democracy. As for those who would point out our nation is a republic, not a democracy, I say “get over yourself.” In the United States, we each have a voice and a vote. Assaults on those most precious rights are decidedly “un-American” and “un-patriotic”, and must be met head on.  Oh by the way, did I mention that ESAs (whether they are Education Savings Accounts or Empowerment Scholarship Accounts or vouchers) are one of the primary weapons of the American Legislative Council (ALEC) in their war on public education?  Don’t know what ALEC is?  You should.

For the Public Good

Recent news that Arizona is tied for last in the nation for college completion rates and first in student loan default, just added fuel to the fire in the state’s education race to the bottom. But of course, there is more to the story (there always is.) The rest of the story is that Arizona’s public universities actually have a better than national average on graduation rates and loan payback. It is the for-profit and mostly on-line colleges (such as Phoenix University) that see half the average completion rate by their students and there numbers drag our public universities down.[i] This report mirrors numerous stories of late from for-profit K-12 charters around the country where corners are cut and children suffer.

Why do many of the for-profit institutions do so much worse? I believe the problem lies in the “for-profit” motivation. Corporate and legislative “reformers” of education would have us believe that schools should be run more like businesses and that the private sector can do a much better job if we will just unleash the dogs of industry. The truth is though, that business is in the business of making a profit; that is why it exists. Yes, a business may very well provide an important service or product, but in the end, they exist to make a profit.

I realize that increasingly, there are those who believe government is a beast that should be starved until it is a shell of its former self. But, when it comes to providing large-scale services for the public good, government is the answer. If business exists to make a profit, then government exists to serve the public.

In the interest of full disclosure, I am a product of government. I grew up in an Army family, in the Air Force for 22 years, and I have a Master’s degree in Public Administration. I’ve seen government work for people. I’ve seen countless, incredibly dedicated military members and civil “servants.” Yes, I’ve seen some losers too, but then those exist in all walks of life. What I’ve come away with from this lifetime of public service (military brats serve too, just in a different way) is that when it comes to providing for the public good, there is no substitute for a non-profit entity accountable to the people it serves. After all, the people are paying for the service.

By way of example, let’s compare the Army and Air Force Exchange Service (AAFES) and Walmart. AAFES is the Army and Air Force’s answer to Walmart. It provides stores on Army posts and Air Force bases, which sell goods and services to military members at lower than retail prices. The stores aren’t fancy and the selection isn’t super, but they do provide much of what members and their families want and need. AAFES does not exist to make a profit, but it does generate revenue, which then is funneled to help provide morale, welfare and recreation activities for service members and their families. Some of their stores generate a great deal of profit (location, location, location), with others operating at a loss. The Army and Air Force accept this outcome as a “cost of doing business” because the return on investment it seeks from AAFES is happier, healthier service members and their families. Walmart, on the other hand, exists to make a profit. If Walmart has a store that is continuously operating at a loss, chances are it won’t exist for long. That’s because Walmart’s business model is to produce a profit for their shareholders.

When it comes to educating our children, there may well be some for-profit schools that do a decent job. But, when profit is the priority, somewhere, somehow, the public good will suffer. Unfortunately, it is often those most disadvantaged to begin with that lose out. That’s because when your motive is profit, you do whatever you can to ensure efficiency and return on investment. In education, this means you work to ensure the best possible raw product (smart students with engaged, well-off parents.) You will try to avoid accepting English language learners and special needs children. Not because they don’t deserve an education, but because they cost more to educate. Along those same lines, you don’t provide services that are not profitable, such as transportation and food service. Elimination of these services has a side benefit for these businesses by the way, of discouraging students from the lower end of the socio-economic scale.

Until we recognize that the education of our children is the ultimate public good and, that we all have a stake in ensuring it is done properly, we are not going to make progress on improving results. Contrary to recent headlines, our public schools are NOT failing. But, if we continue to allow our education tax dollars to be siphoned off to private and for-profit schools, with virtually no accountability or transparency, we will continue to see our public education degraded and our state winning the race to the bottom.

[i] http://www.azcentral.com/story/news/local/arizona/2015/07/28/arizona-college-graduation-rate-lowest-nation/30769711/

Competition hurts money in the classroom

Corporate reformers of public education claim schools should operate more like businesses and although that mindset may bring some efficiencies, it can also result in less money in the classroom.

One example is the latest effort by the Education Finance Reform Group who has hired Jonathan Paton to “educate stakeholders” on behalf of participating districts.  Educating stakeholders is not new, the Arizona School Boards Association (ASBA) has been doing it for a long time.  A private, non-profit, non-partisan organization, ASBA provides training, leadership, and essential services to more than 240 governing boards representing nearly 1 million students in Arizona.

What is new however, is the competition for students that both corporate reformers and open enrollment have driven.  Competition in business helps ensure only the strong survive.  Competition in public education pits district schools against charters, private schools, home schools, and even against each other.  It drives the need for districts to include marketing line-items in their budgets such as the $54,000 per year Phoenix Union High School District spends.  It also lures away the very students and parents who if they stayed, could help make a difference for all.

I’m not advocating parents shouldn’t put their children first and foremost.  I understand they want the best for their own children.  But, I also agree with what John Dewey said over a century ago:  “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.”  It is natural for parents to care the most about their own children.  But, we’ll all have to live with these children when they become adults, whether or not they are well-educated, productive citizens.

There is a better way.  Arizona lawmakers could acknowledge that: 1) our K-12 per pupil spending (50th in the nation) is linked to our subsequent education performance (49th in the nation), 2) our teacher shortage is a crisis caused by low pay and even lower morale, 3) quality businesses looking to relocate to Arizona care more about an educated workforce than they do about tax breaks, and 4) all schools accepting taxpayer dollars should operate under the same rules for transparency and accountability. Finally, they could acknowledge that despite having open enrollment since 1994 and leading the nation in the number of charter schools, their formula isn’t working for our children!

There are some business practices that make sense for schools to adopt.  Public community schools however, are in the business of educating our children, not turning a profit.  Until we focus our efforts on ensuring all Arizona’s children have every opportunity to succeed, we haven’t addressed the problem.  And, until lawmakers step up to this reality and tackle it head-on, it’s all just smoke and mirrors.

1 http://azcapitoltimes.com/news/2015/07/06/group-seeks-funds-to-market-positives-of-public-schools/

2 http://azcapitoltimes.com/news/2015/07/06/group-seeks-funds-to-market-positives-of-public-schools/

Teach for America is NOT the Answer!

Arizona Legislators think spending $2 million on Teach for America (TFA) recruits is a solution for “supporting our teachers?” Get real. You don’t support teachers by bringing in “scabs” to take their jobs or, by claiming that young college graduates, with five weeks of training are “highly qualified teachers.” You support teachers by providing them what they need to do their jobs and paying them equitably.

I get that politicians want quick wins to show their constituents. But as the saying goes, politicians think of the next election, leaders think of the next generation. We need more leaders who understand sound bites don’t equal solutions. Using TFA corps members to supplant much more qualified teachers in an attempt to save long-term costs (such as earned retirement entitlements) is a short-term outlook that only hurts our children in the long run.

TFA recruits have shown some slightly higher gains on students’ assessments over comparable new teachers, but these “wunderkids” are far from the solution to our teacher shortage. Turnover, always a challenge with new teachers, is much higher with TFA recruits with 56% of them leaving after their initial commitment is up and a full 85% leaving by their fifth year.[i] TFA founder Wendy Kopp’s description of the organization as a “leadership development organization, not a teaching organization” is likely part of the problem.[ii] Corps members aren’t usually drawn to the program because they want to become teaching professionals. Their “gig” in the classroom is a jumping stone to more.

The real problem with using TFA corps members in place of teaching professionals though, is that it reinforces the thought that “if you can, you do…if you can’t, you teach.” Until we recognize that teaching is a critically important profession and invest in the education and retention of these valuable professionals, our country will never move the needle forward on education achievement. I wouldn’t consider five weeks of training sufficient for my doctor, lawyer, or accountant and I don’t consider it enough for our teachers.

Helping our schools succeed isn’t rocket science, but neither will it be easy. Money isn’t the total answer, but it is part of the equation. Yes, we have a teacher shortage in Arizona, but we can’t succumb to the quick fix. The solution lies in: 1) paying our teachers equitably so we can attract and retain the best, 2) keeping classroom sizes moderate so teachers can give each child the attention they deserve, 3) providing well-rounded curriculums that allow our children to explore their interests and fortify their strengths (since we never know where the next Einstein or Maya Angelou will come from) and 4) providing stability for our schools, staffs and students so they can focus on quality and growth, not churn and burn.

Diane Ravitch, our nations’ leading public education advocate, said recently at Lehigh University that: “public schools are the people’s schools, their doors are open to all…public education must be, as we once hoped, a bastion of equal opportunity. Public education is a public trust. It is not a business opportunity.”[iii] When a politician claims they support education, listen for the word “public” as part of their claim. If they don’t say it, they don’t mean it and don’t truly support quality education for everyone. It really is that simple.

[i] http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2011/10/04/kappan_donaldson.html

[ii] http://www.thenation.com/article/179363/teachers-are-losing-their-jobs-teach-americas-expanding-whats-wrong?page=0,1

[iii]https://www1.lehigh.edu/news/case-public-education

And the beat goes on…

Yesterday, the Arizona House Education Committee moved the state one step closer to fully privatized K-12 education with their passage of HB 2174 (empowerment scholarship accounts; grandchildren) on a 4-3 vote. This bill expands eligibility of Empowerment Scholarship Accounts (ESAs) or “vouchers” to grandchildren being raised by their grandparents. An amendment was adopted that removed the requirement that the grandchild meets the free and reduced price lunch eligibility requirements.

This removal of the requirement for the grandchild to meet the free and reduced price lunch eligibility requirements is significant. Let’s face it. The overall intention of this American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) promoted legislation is to provide for K-12 education via vouchers (taxpayer dollars intended for public education) given to parents to pay for private schools. The Arizona Legislature has been moving us down this road for several years.

In 2009, the Arizona Supreme Court found two similar school voucher programs violated the Arizona Constitution’s ban on aid for religious or private schools. The Goldwater Institute however, which had first proposed the idea in 2005, offered educational savings accounts as an alternative. In April 2011, Governor Brewer approved SB 15523 authorizing Arizona Empowerment Accounts (first state to do this) to give parents of eligible special-education students the opportunity to receive ESAs. Funds could be used for curriculum, testing, private school tuition, tutors, special needs services or therapies, or even seed money for college. According to the Arizona Department of Education, parents spent a total of $198,764 in scholarship funds in the first quarter of fiscal 2012. About 92 percent went to private schools.

The Arizona School Boards Association, the Arizona Education Association, and others filed a lawsuit, claiming the program unconstitutional. The Goldwater Institute, the Arizona Attorney General’s office, and the Institute for Justice defended the program. In January 2012, a Superior Court Judge ruled the savings accounts were constitutional. Her opinion was: “The exercise of parental choice among education options makes the program constitutional.” Education advocates continued to appeal this decision, but in October 2013, the Arizona Court of Appeals also ruled in favor of the accounts.”

In 2012, Gov. Jan Brewer signed HB 2622, expanding the program to include children from failing schools, children in active-duty military families, and children adopted from the state foster care system.2 These families began applying for accounts in 2013, and students began using the accounts in the 2013–14 school year. The legislature also expanded the program in 2013 to include incoming kindergarten students that meet the existing eligibility criteria, and increased the funding amount for each account award.3 More than 200,000 Arizona children are now eligible, or 1 in 5 public school students. New applicants must have attended a public school for at least 100 days in the prior school year.

The education profiteers won’t be happy until the public school districts are sucked dry of funding and private school and for-profit charter operators maximize profits on the backs of taxpayers. Shifting money from our public district schools to private schools and charters will not by and large pull disadvantaged children out of their situations and fix America’s education problems. Rather, it will continue to drive the highest level of segregation since the mid-1960s and ensure the advantaged continue to succeed and the disadvantaged fall further behind. Can’t help but wonder what the new Arizona College and Career Ready Standards and the accompanying AZ-Merits test will do to school performance grades and widening eligibility for these vouchers. Know this…I’ll be watching.

Time to Act Against Arizona’s Axis of Evil

Nope, not referring to North Korea or Iran, but the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), The Goldwater Institute and The Center for Arizona Policy led by Cathi Herrod. All of Arizona’s GOP legislators are or have recently been members of ALEC.  Led by Representative Debbie Lesko, ALEC’s Arizona Chair, they have introduced no less than 20 ALEC model bills including those that:

  • Criminalize undocumented workers, stripping native-born Americans of their citizenship rights and requiring that all materials disseminated by state agencies be written in English only;
  • Encourage the privatization of state prisons to the benefit of the private prison industry;
  • Disenfranchise tens of thousands of Arizonans via voter suppression bills
  • Attack workers by undermining unions and collective bargaining and eliminating public employment through outsourcing and privatizing of government functions;
  • Attack public education through private school voucher programs;
  • Attempt to prevent implementation of healthcare reform, and
  • Attack federal environmental regulation by attempting to deny the federal government the ability to supersede weak state environmental legislation.

SB1062, the so-called religious freedom (but really about state-sanctioned discrimination against gays and others) bill that Governor Brewer vetoed last week, was being pushed by Cathi Herrod and her Center for Arizona Policy.  The veto was a fairly significant setback for Herrod, but don’t worry, she has plenty of other tricks up her sleeve.  On next week’s House Education Committee agenda, is SB1237, which passed the Senate on a party line vote.  This bill expands the amount of this private school voucher to include the charter school additional assistance weight as well as 90% of the base support level funding the student would have otherwise received if they had attend a school district. This is a significant dollar increase as the additional assistance amount is $1,684 for K-8 and $1,962 for high school.

This bill is totally about increasing the diversion of public school funding to unaccountable private schools.  Not only is our GOP-led legislature taking orders from Cathi Herrod, but our State Superintendent of Public Instruction recently robocalled public school families to entice them to take state (taxpayer) funding to attend private schools.  When questioned about this, Huppenthal retorted that he is “the Superintendent of Public Instruction, not of Public Schools.”

Vouchers, by any other name, is model ALEC legislation.  “Wherever you see states expanding vouchers, charters, and other forms of privatization, wherever you see states lowering standards for entry into the teaching profession, wherever you see states opening up new opportunities for profit-making entities, wherever you see the expansion of for-profit online charter schools, you are likely to find legislation that echoes the ALEC model.”

It is important for people to understand that one can’t be pro community public schools while also being pro vouchers and school choice.  Despite what the privatization advocates are touting, school choice, and the various methods for providing options (empowerment scholarship accounts [vouchers], student tuition organizations, etc.), do not generally produce better results, especially when comparing similar populations.  In addition, this is a zero sum game.  When money is taken from public schools and diverted to for-profit charters, private and parochial schools, it begins a downward spiral that is very difficult for public schools to recover from.  In addition, open enrollment promotes competition over collaboration not just between schools, but also on the part of parents who act in the interest of their child without concern for all children.

The bottom line is that community public schools perform a huge public good.  In many cases, they are the thread that binds communities together.  They helped put America on the path to greatness and they are still where 85 percent of Arizona students are educated.  We don’t talk about how fire and police departments should be run by like a business or compete with one another for their raw product.  Public community schools should be treated no differently.  They are entrusted with an awesome responsibility, staffed by dedicated professionals, take all children who come through their doors and work against all odds to achieve their mission.  They need you on-board advocating for their success.  Please contact the members of the House Education Committee prior to Monday, March 10th and tell them to fail SB1237.  It is not in the best interest of our students or our state and will only serve to enrich those who would make profit on our public education dollars.

This is war!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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