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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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.

From the K-12 Public Education War Front in Arizona

The war on public education has been waging for several years in Arizona, but this year has seen some especially heavy fighting. The attacks on public education by the first session of the 52nd Legislature (hereafter referred to as the ENEMY) have been asymmetrical and relentless. Recognizing that K-12 public education (hereafter referred to as FRIENDLY FORCES) can’t accomplish the mission unless well-resourced, General (Governor) Ducey has already signed a budget cutting $113M more from their budget. This, on top of the ENEMY’S continuing battle to deny FRIENDLY FORCES the people’s mandated and court adjudicated inflationary funding ($317M definitely owed with another $1.6B in question.) The ENEMY is also continuing the assault on the FRIENDLY FORCES’ supply lines with their attempts to exponentially expand vouchers, (Empowerment Scholarship Accounts) and corporate tax breaks for donations to private schools (Student Tuition Organization scholarships.) And, just to be sure it is as difficult as possible for the FRIENDLY FORCES to communicate their resource needs to the public (hereafter referred to as ALLIES), the ENEMY continues to try to mandate additional language in bond and override descriptions to obfuscate and in fact, mislead the ALLIES. Of course, there are also bills to dump Common Core since renaming the controversial standards the Arizona College and Career Standards didn’t really fool the ALLIES. The ENEMY believes this is an important battle to fight so they can keep the FRIENDLY FORCES in a constant state of instability and uncertainty and continue to win the hearts and minds of the fringe that supports them.

Up until recently however, FRIENDLY FORCES were able to communicate to their ALLIES ramifications of the ENEMY’S strategy and intent. Now though, the ENEMY has countered with Senate Bill 1172 to totally cut the FRIENDLY FORCES’ lines of communication. Initially, this bill was written to prohibit school districts and charters from releasing directory information for the purpose of political activity, which would limit the ability of local parent and community organizations from engaging other parents on district bond or override issues. In a last minute change to their strategy, the bill has now been amended to also fine an employee of a school district or charter school $5,000 for distributing written or electronic materials to influence the outcome of an election or to advocate support for or opposition to pending or proposed legislation.

On one level, this tells me the FRIENDLY FORCES are gaining ground in this war on public education. Surely, if the ENEMY feels the need to “gag” the FRIENDLY FORCES, they must be making headway. Perhaps the showing of over 1,000 FRIENDLY FORCES and ALLIES at the Capitol in early March to protest General Ducey’s cuts to public education gave the ENEMY pause. The FRIENDLY FORCES cannot however, underestimate the ENEMY’S objective to seize, retain, and exploit their initiative to kill public education and turn it over to private profiteers. They will not be happy until all the FRIENDLY FORCES are subdued and the economically safe (largely white) students are safely ensconced in private schools and the socio-economically disadvantaged students (largely students of color) are stuck in pathetically underfunded and therefore underperforming schools.

Make no mistake. This isn’t a matter of the ENEMY not understanding the needs of the FRIENDLY FORCES and those they are charged to protect and serve. This is a matter of not caring about them. The ENEMY is backed by the AXIS OF EVIL (corporate money, American Legislative Exchange Council, and ideological fanatics) and is committed to victory in this fight. FRIENDLY FORCES must recognize we are at war and employ the strategies and principles thereof to win the fight.

#AZEDSpring

When it comes to Arizona funding for public education, I just don’t get why the public body isn’t in the streets with pitchforks. Please walk down memory lane with me on the matter of voter mandated inflationary funding for school districts:

2000

  • AZ voters mandated (Proposition 301) the state sales tax be raised by 0.6 percent and that the money be spent on annual inflation increases for schools.

2009

  • Lawmakers quit providing the annual boosts for inflation.
  • The Arizona School Board Association (ASBA) and the Arizona Education Association (AEA) offered to “move on” if the Legislature would only begin to comply, but they refused.
  • Several school districts, ASBA and AEA filed a lawsuit to force compliance.

2011

  • A Superior Court Judge ruled Prop 301 did not require the Arizona legislature to annually inflate education funding for Arizona’s public schools.
  • The plaintiffs filed an appeal.

2013

  • AZ Court of Appeals reversed the lower court.
  • AZ Supreme Court ruled with the Court of Appeals that the inflationary increases must be paid.  The decision emphasized that the Voter Protection Act limits the legislature’s power to modify voter initiatives and referenda.
  • The legislature began paying the increases again in the 2013-2014 budget year.

2014

  • The trial court ordered the base level funding be reset to the level it would have been if it had been inflated properly over the last five years (estimated to be $1.6B over the next five years.)
  • The court also ordered an evidentiary hearing be held on whether the state should pay the $1.3 billion in inflationary funding not given the districts from 2010 to 2012.[i]
  • The parties in the lawsuit agreed to mediation in an attempt to resolve the matter.[ii]

So where are we now, seven months after the ruling the monies must be paid? Yep, that’s right, nowhere. Not only has the Legislature refused to comply with law and judicial order, but they continue to further cut the public education budget. This legislative session, three new expansions of voucher eligibility have passed their committees of origin as has a bill to make it even harder for Districts to pass bonds and overrides. In addition, Governor Ducey is proposing a five percent reduction to “non-classroom” expenses.

Then yesterday, the House Education Committee gave a “due pass” to basically dump the Arizona College and Career Ready Standards “common core.” This, after our school districts have spent huge amounts of financial and human capital since 2010 to implement these standards. Statewide, the costs are estimated to have been $156M just for the 2013-2014 school year, and that doesn’t consider the turmoil caused by changing course yet again.[iii]

Okay, so to recap, the Legislature has refused to comply with both the people’s mandate and with judiciary orders for the same. In addition, they are working on legislation to divert even more taxpayer dollars from public education to private providers and, the Governor’s budget looks to cut another $113.5M from district budgets across the board, as with a sequestration.[iv]

Are you kidding me? It is beyond time for us to demand our representatives listen to us. I’m calling for an Arizona Education (AZED) Spring . Yes, that’s a play on the Arab Spring. Of course, I’m not looking to start a real revolution; I’ll leave anything to do with guns to our legislature to obsess over. What I do hope for though, is for the public body to wake up after a very long hibernation that has allowed our representatives to continue to ignore the will of the people and the rule of law. I’d love to hear what you think.

[i] http://www.azcentral.com/story/news/politics/2015/01/11/arizona-school-funding-lawsuit-settlement-talks/21590417/

[ii] http://azcapitoltimes.com/news/2015/01/23/schools-legislature-agree-to-use-appeals-court-to-resolve-inflation-funding-suit/

[iii] http://www.azsba.org/advocacy/resource-center/

[iv] http://www.bizjournals.com/phoenix/news/2015/01/16/ducey-melts-tourism-education-budgets-proposes.html

Survival of the Fittest Mentality Won’t Keep Our Nation Great

Properly educating all Arizona’s children isn’t just important to parents, it is important for all of us. Our state simply won’t progress if we don’t start focusing on improving the educational outcomes for all children, 85 percent of whom attend our traditional public schools. These schools are where we should be focused. The bottom line is that parents shouldn’t have to make a choice. Every public school should be a quality school that offers a complete curriculum that will ready our students to be productive citizens of our state and country.

School choice is not a magic panacea and it will not ensure more accountability. No school choice option provides more transparency and accountability to both taxpayers and parents than traditional community school districts overseen by locally elected school boards. The Arizona Auditor General performs and publishes an independent appraisal on public schools, looking at variety of factors such as operational efficiency, student achievement, teacher measures and financial assessment. In addition, public schools are subjected to state and federal audits of financial data, all matters of public record. That level of transparency and accountability just isn’t available when it comes to vouchers paying for private school. “A recent article in the Arizona Capitol Times[i] reported parents with ESAs have saved up roughly $2.5 million of taxpayer dollars over the past three years causing many to question the program’s accountability. “One tight-fisted parent” writes the Times, has “hung onto $61,047 while spending only $825.” I have to ask how this can be in the child’s best interest?

It seems we’ve always been reluctant to admit the role socio-economic states plays in educational outcomes. Improving our public education system ultimately means making headway on Arizona’s opportunity gap where one in four of our children live in poverty and we are ranked 46th in overall child well being[ii]. This will take more than testing, it will take political will and hard work and it won’t happen overnight. The well funded, hard charging push to “throw the baby out with the bathwater” in privatizing public schools obfuscates the real problem and is designed to turn huge profits for those who already have plenty.

I get that parents want to ensure their child has the best they can provide. Our state legislators and education officials though, are supposed to ensure that every child has an adequate education, taxpayer dollars are well spent and, the educational needs of our state workforce are met. This isn’t happening. Instead, our nation has the highest rate of segregation since the mid-1960s and the “idea of social responsibility for the common good[iii]” seems all but gone. While families with the wherewithal to avail themselves of options are leaving public schools to pursue options they perceive as better, educational opportunities for the middle and low-income students left behind continue to decline. In the end, this gulf between the haves and have-nots serves to “defeat the goals of a democratic society, which does best when there is integration across class, race and ethnic lines.”[iv]

The survival of the fittest mentality isn’t one I think we should be proud of. I always thought the American dream was that if you applied yourself in school, “kept your nose clean” and worked hard, you and your children would wind up better off than where you started. America was the land of opportunity…and a free public education was both a driver of that opportunity and of our rapid ascension to greatness as a nation. I believe it is key to keeping us there.

[i] http://azcapitoltimes.com/news/2014/04/15/millions-remain-unspent-in-school-choice-program/

[ii] http://www.aecf.org/KnowledgeCenter/Publications.aspx?pubguid=%7B68E8B294-EDCD-444D-85E4-D1C1576830FF%7D

[iii] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/arthur-camins/why-god-bless-the-child-t_b_5118915.html

[iv] 50 Myths & Lies that Threaten America’s Public Schools, The Real Crisis in Education, David C. Berliner and Gene V Glass and Associates, Teachers College, Columbia University, 2014

A Moment of Reason in the Arizona Legislature – Voucher Expansion Bill Defeated

Somewhat unbelievable, but reason prevailed today in Arizona. Against all odds, the latest grand attempt to expand vouchers failed 31 to 27. HB2291, as amended, would have expanded eligibility for vouchers to any student living within qualified zip codes (as defined by the average household income is below 185% of the federal poverty level for a family of four) regardless of family income.  If passed and signed into law by the Governor, this bill would have expanded eligibility to 112,000 and exponentially increased costs for the program.

I watched a live feed of the Arizona House Committee of the Whole discuss this bill, HB 2291, Empowerment Scholarships Accounts; Expansion, sponsored by Rep Debbie Lesko (R). Some great points were made on the part of those against the bill and the same Rep. Ontondo (D), a former teacher said that in her legislative district, there are people who earn $300,000 and others who make $15,000. If you average this out, she said, it probably is about 40,000 so those who don’t need the “vouchers” to afford the private schools will get taxpayer dollars anyway. She also expressed the concern about the lack of transparency and oversight and referred to the fact that 21% of the ESA funding has been banked by parents and therefore not used for the education of their children. She said that taxpayers deserve to know how their dollars are being spent. Another representative (D) said that if we want great outcomes, we need to keep money in public education and stop choking our public schools. Another (D) said we’ve had choice in Arizona since the early 1990s and what has it done to improve our public education. If we can’t get everyone a voucher, we shouldn’t be doing it.

Rep Hale (D), from the Navajo Nation, asked Rep Lesko (the AZ Chair for the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC) several questions to subtly make his points. The first was whether she was aware of the income levels on the Navajo Nation and whether she knows how many private schools there are on the Navajo Nation. She said she did not know the answer to his questions. He replied that there are no private schools. She said ESAs don’t only offer funding for private schools, but for on-line learning or tutoring as well. He then asked if she was aware of how few people had access to the Internet on the Navajo Nation and she said she was not. I was impressed with how he led her down the path to divulging how ignorant she was about some of the state’s most needy children.

Rep Wheeler (D) provided information about the funding issues of this bill. He said recent changes to ESAs ensure funding at 90% of charter versus public, to the amount of $1007 per pupil more. He said that under the current basic state funding, a non-disabled student gets $5,400 as opposed to $5,800 per student (90% of $6,400 for vouchers.) This alone, according to the AZ Joint Budget Legislative Committee (JBLC), will increase costs of this program by $950K this fiscal year. He also said that if there were 600K students on ESAs, it would cost $3.6B and if there were 800K, it would cost $4.8B. Currently he said, there are 150K students eligible. With this bill, and addition of free or reduced, the increase in 2017 would be by 485K and cost another $2.19B. He also said that the cap of 5,400 per year meant nothing as it could easily be raised.

In a surprise to me, Rep Goodale (R) said she voted no because 100K expansion is too much at this time for the ESA program to absorb.

Finally, I’m quickly becoming a fan of Rep Heather Carter. She is a Republican, but first of all, she is a rationale representative of the people and, a strong advocate for public education. She was an articulate advocate for public education today and made some great arguments. When Rep Kavanaugh (R) referred to the district charters as faux charters, she called him on it. She pointed out that the laws allowing districts to convert their schools to charters had been on the books for 20 years. If the districts followed the rules, why change the rules now? All Kavanaugh could say was that “the timing was suspect.” When the bill proponents praised charters, she pointed out it is the 20th anniversary of charters and how the AZ Legislature just voted to remove the option of charters from the toolbox of our school districts. She pointed out how this is entirely against the purported goal of offering competition to improve achievement. She also said that the choice policies not going to help rural districts if we don’t put local options of choice in place.

In explaining her vote, she said she supported ESA accounts the way they were originally marketed, which was to provide academic opportunities who had unmet needs in our public schools. She said there were good public policy reasons why certain students’ needs were not met and it was marketed that ESAs would save the state money. Recent changes to allow ESAs to get additional charter assistance however, changed all that and now, ESAs cost more. She eloquently discussed what choice means to her: the choice of whether to send her daughter to public, charter, or private school, or to home school her. What this bill was really talking about though, was putting the AZ public education budget on a debit card. She pointed out that we lead the country in choice policy and have had open enrollment since 1994. If parents really want to send their children to another school, they can do that. Choice is different than the funding issue. This bill confuses the dollars we spend in AZ with school choice. It is the job of the legislature to fund public schools and they need to do it!

The last speaker before the vote was Rep Lesko, the sponsor of the bill. She made one last-ditch effort to get her colleagues to support her bill, but her arguments just weren’t compelling. She said the bill gives low-income students the opportunity to improve their situation and yet, Rep Hale had already pointed out it won’t help those on the Navajo Nation. She pointed out that although the bill would make 112K students eligible, the current cap in only about 5,400 per year so what is everyone worried about? Rep Wheeler pointed out during the debate that the cap means nothing because it can always be raised. Lesko also claimed that the program will actually save over $3,000 per year per student, but as the AZ JLBC noted, costs are now higher for ESAs than for educating a student in public schools.

Yes, the bill was defeated today, but I’m not going to rest easy because it is crazy (okay, craziest) time at the AZ Legislature. In addition to Rep Mesnard (R) changing his vote for a likely reconsideration on HB2291, there are several other anti-public education bills working their way to the Governor’s office. Here’s a quick rundown:

  • HB2139 (sponsor: Rep. Petersen) – Expands the ESA program to any sibling of a student who has an ESA and any preschool special education student. This will significantly grow the ESA program, and the money to fund all of these students will be placed directly on the state’s General Fund. Money out the door with zero accountability.
  • HB2150 (sponsor: Borrelli) – Removes the 100 day requirement for students to attend a public school before getting an ESA for students who have parents in the military.  Thus, students with parents in the military will be eligible for ESA private school vouchers without ever having attended public school.
  • HB2328 (sponsor: Rep. Livingston) – This bill amends the eligibility for the corporate tax credit STO program for students with special needs and foster kids.  It eliminates the current requirement that these students must attend a public school for at least 90 days to be eligible for an STO. This means that students who are already in private schools will now be eligible to get STO monies under this corporate tax credit STO program.
  • SB1237 (sponsor: Sen. Yee) – This is the Arizona Department of Education’s ESA administrative bill.  One provision of the bill clarifies that all ESA students get 90% of the base support level funding + the charter school additional assistance.  This means that students who leave a traditional school district to attend private school using an ESA will actually be given more funding to go to a private school then the public school would receive to educate them.
  • SB1236 (sponsor: Yee) – This bill is identical to HB2291, expanding the ESA program to any student living in a zip code where the federal poverty rate is 185% (family of four making $46,000). Because this bill is identical to HB2291, the bills can be switched out during a third read vote in each chamber so they will not have to go to the other chamber.  If passed in the Senate, the bill gets transmitted to Governor Brewer.

People often ask me what the hell the AZ Legislature is thinking with regard to the actions they are taking against public education. I tell them they know exactly what they are thinking and doing. I believe they are out to destroy public education and turn over tax payer dollars for such to the privateers to expand their profits. We must remain vigilant and keep up the pressure. For our students, for our public schools, for our communities and for our future!

Senator McGuire Votes Against Public Education

Senator McGuire, AZ LD8, did not prove herself a friend of public education at the end of 51st Legislative Session.

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Although the Senate had initially defeated SB1363 [empowerment scholarship accounts (ESAs)], in the final hours of session on June 14, 2013, she alone brought the bill back to life by moving to reconsider the bill.  This “private school voucher expansion bill” then passed the Senate by a vote of 16 ayes – 13 nays.  Senator McGuire was the only Democrat to vote for this bill with the other 12 Democrats in  the Senate and Republican Senator Rich Crandall voting against it for the second time.

As a school board member and locally elected guardian of public education, I am concerned this bill will siphon off even more funding from our public schools.  It further expands the Arizona ESAs Program to kindergarteners and increases the amount available.[i]  Currently ESA funding per pupil is the same regardless of whether a pupil previously attended a school district or charter school.  SB1363 will increase ESA per pupil funding for former charter school pupils by adding charter school “Additional Assistance” to the ESA formula increasing ESA funding to former charter school pupils by approximately $1,600 per pupil (90% of the average “Additional Assistance” amounts defined in A.R.S. § 15-185B3) and increase total ESA costs by an estimated $100,000.[ii]

Both the Arizona Education Association (AEA) and Arizona School Board Association (ASBA) opposed the bill and are appealing a Maricopa District Judge ruling that taxpayer dollars may fund private schools.  This, after the Arizona Supreme Court found in 2009 that two similar school voucher programs violated the Arizona Constitution’s ban on aid for religious or private schools.[iii]

The 2011 law gave parents of special needs children access to public education monies and was further expanded for this school year, essentially doubling eligibility to 200,000.[iv]  Funds can be used for curriculum, testing, private school tuition, tutors, special needs services or therapies, or even seed money for college.  The program however, requires parents to waive their child’s right to a public education…a right that is guaranteed under the state constitution, in order to receive the benefits.[v]

Only 362 students in Arizona had ESAs last year, but 92 percent of ESA funds went to private schools, in many cases for children whose parents could afford the schools without the assistance. For students without special needs, the program provides from $3,000 to $3,500 a year. As this is not nearly sufficient to cover the cost of tuition to a private school (which can be as much as $10,000), the program is unlikely to benefit students from low-income families.[vi]  Last year, this voucher program took $5.2 million from public education funding. With Senator McGuire ensuring passage of SB1363, the amount could potentially increase to over $20 million and public school funding tied to enrollment will likely be reduced.[vii]

Barbara McGuire identifies herself as a “moderate Democrat who promised to work to improve state and local economies, create jobs, improve our kids’ education, address real estate recovery, growth, and quality-of-life issues.”  Her responses to an election questionnaire for State Legislature posted on AZCentral.com also bill her as a supporter of education.  When asked: “how would you change the state’s approach to spending”, she said she would “focus on making Arizona competitive by investing in education.”  When asked, “to name one state agency or program you believe gets too little money and why”, she responded: “Education. Our children are our future. Investment in that future will enable them to be competitive and successful in the global market. Without a good educated work force we risk becoming subservient to other nations.”  Finally, when asked, “would spending more money on public schools increase the quality of education in Arizona, why or why not?” she responded with “Absolutely. It must be spent in ways that create the best outcomes. Such as smaller class size, classroom resources, and dedicated well-paid teachers. Quality education is necessary to build a competitive future workforce.”[viii]

Today I am left feeling as though Senator McGuire threw public education under the bus for political expediency.  She has told me before that sometimes you have to give a little, to get a little.  This however, isn’t giving a little.  It is a fundamental move against public education in our state and against the commitment to public education she originally espoused.  I encourage the voters of LD8 to hold her accountable.