Size Matters!

The recent Arizona Town Hall on “Funding PreK–12 Education”, reported that, after “three days of serious and intense deliberations, [we] believe there is a state of emergency with respect to Arizona’s underfunding of our preK–12 education system, which requires urgent, decisive action.” This Town Hall effort was non-partisan, including a cross-section of diverse participants traveling from across the state to convene in Mesa. The intent of the effort was to discuss how best to fund preK–12 education now and in the future while improving the quality of education provided.

In their yet draft report, the Town Hall states in that, “Arizona already dedicates approximately 43% of the state’s general fund to K–12 education spending – good enough for a ranking of 11th nationally, as compared to average general fund spending of 35% among other states – the problem has more to do with the ”size of the pie” than a lack of relative support for preK–12 education spending.

That led me to notice an Arizona Daily Star story today titled, “Here’s how to use your tax credits to help public schools.” Although there isn’t a public school out there that doesn’t appreciate the tax credit dollars that come in, in the bigger picture they are as much as part of the problem, as they help. Firstly, they exacerbate inequities between private schools and public schools and between public schools themselves. Taxpayers can claim a five-fold greater tax credit for private schools (up to $1,089 per person versus only $200 for public schools.) Secondly, the tax credit monies given to private schools can be used for any purpose versus the limitation to extracurricular activities or character education programs that public schools must live with.

There is also the reality that wealthier communities are always capable of providing more funding support to their public schools than more disadvantaged communities. Yes, tax credit donations to schools are a one-for-one deduction of the state taxes you owe, but first you must earn enough to owe the taxes you’re looking to offset. And, oh by the way, “when the impact of state tax credits is combined with federal [and sometimes state] tax deductions, some [wealthier] taxpayers in nine states (Arizona included) can actually turn a profit by making these so-called ”donations“ to School Tuition Organizations (STOs) which funnel money to private schools. The non-profit, non-partisan Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP) writes, ”The potential for wealthy individuals to turn a profit by claiming these credits is accelerating the diversion of critical resources away from public schools.”

The problem is compounded when we look at it from the state-level, especially when one considers all the tax credits available. In 2014, about $287 million was redirected by individual taxpayers from the state treasury including these widely available ones:
* Qualifying Charitable Organizations = 105,500 redirected $28.2 million
* Private-school tuition organizations = 109,300 redirected $84 million
* Public-school extracurricular = 266,000 redirected $51 million

To exacerbate the problem, Governor Ducey signed SB 1216 into law in 2016, doubling the Qualifying Charitable Organization tax credit donation limits and separating out the Foster Care Credit so as to allow taxpayers to claim both. The public school tax credit limit was not increased.

Arizona also allows corporations to claim tax credits through School Tuition Organizations (STOs) and is in fact, only one of four states that allow businesses to claim a larger credit than individual taxpayers. These corporate tax credits are for low-income students (from families not exceeding an annual income of $82,996 for a family of four) and, for displaced/disadvantaged students. In 2008, three-fourths of Arizona companies paid only the minimum $50 in corporate taxes and with a 20% increase in cap allowed every year, the program is causing significant impact to the state’s general fund. In fact, the “low-income corporate tax credit alone is expected to grow to more than $250 million a year” by 2025. It should be no surprise that in 2016, the $67 million annual limit on corporate tax credit donations in Arizona for low-income students was met in a matter of hours. For FY2017/18, that limit was over $74.3 million and the one for disabled/displaced students was $5 million.

What makes matters worse, is the plethora of evidence from around the nation that these tax credit programs do not improve student outcomes. In Arizona, it is hard to tell since there is no requirement for the private and parochial schools receiving the dollars to be accountable or transparent.

What these programs do very successfully though, is drain our state coffers of critical funding, shrinking the size of the pie that funds our public schools. This, while lining the pockets of wealthier taxpayers and helping fund private and parochial schools and the STOs that funnel taxpayer dollars to them (like the one owned by AZ Senate President Steve Yarborough.)

This is NOT what fiscal responsibility looks like, people. Fiscal responsibility means that we get what we pay for. Fiscal responsibility means that when we say we want our public schools adequately funded, we actually invest sufficiently in them, then hold them accountable for delivering a good return on our investment.

Workarounds to adequate funding like tax credits, may make taxpayers feel like they are doing their part, but they are just that…workarounds. If we really want our children to have every opportunity to succeed and our teachers to make a living wage, we must do our part to provide (as per the Town Hall report), “dedicated, sustainable funding sources for Arizona’s pre-K–12 education system that meet the needs of schools, teachers, and students in an equitable manner. The state’s funding system should also be transparent and promote accountability.”

My mantra over the coming year will be “if we want different, we must vote different.” I know I’m preaching overwhelmingly to the choir, but for those already on-board with supporting our public, district schools, you have more work to do. Until you’ve done everything possible to fight back against the assault on our public, district schools, you haven’t done enough. Get to know which of our Legislators are pro-public education by checking out the Friends of ASBA Voting Record and research the legislative candidates running throughout our state (I previously wrote about my favorite three.)

Remember, it doesn’t so much matter what district they are in as it does that we get more pro-public education legislators in our Legislature. That’s because no matter what district they are in, even if you can’t vote for them, they can vote for you and the high-quality public education you want to see. Help these candidates by donating, volunteering, and promoting them on social media. Yes, the education privatizers may have the money, but we have the many. Let’s show them our power!

In Defense of Full-Day K

One of the topics of discussion at the recent Arizona State Board of Education was the need for full day kindergarten. The minutes of the meeting report that Phil Francis, CEO of Petsmart, “gave a presentation about the importance of full day kindergarten as a grade and the efforts to bring this to Arizona. The intention of the group, comprised of business leaders, legislators and parents, is to make kindergarten a grade with rigor, requirements, accountability and benchmarks.” Arizona State Senator Steve Smith also spoke at the meeting “as a parent and as a legislator in support of this initiative.” He said “his goal is to first find out if this is something that Arizona wants and then the legislature will find money during the budget process.”

I have several issues with both their comments. First of all, there is no research data that shows kindergarten should be “a grade with rigor, requirements, accountability and benchmarks.” In fact, Finland (generally considered the best school system in the world), does not even start their children in school until they are seven years old. Numerous studies show young children need time to play and that putting too much pressure on our youngest students may cause them to miss out on other critical development and lose a love of learning.

Secondly, I am suspect whenever Senator Steve Smith appears to support something good for public education. According to the Friends of ASBA (Arizona School Boards Association) annual legislator report card, Smith only voted for our district schools and their students half of the time last year and that was better than previous years. He has consistently been a proponent of school choice and the diversion of taxpayer public education monies to private and religious schools via vouchers. Call me cynical, but if Smith is in favor of restoring the funding to full day kindergarten, there’s profit to be made by commercial schools. Further Empowerment Scholarship Account (vouchers) expansion anyone?

The meeting minutes also stated that Lisa Fink, founder of Adams Traditional Academy, spoke against the initiative saying that “many of the gains of full day k are gone by the second grade. I’m not sure what research Fink is using, but I can point to plenty that shows her conclusion is incorrect. A 2004 National Center for Education Statistics longitudinal study showed a 32 percent gain in reading and 22 percent gain in math achievement for kindergarten students in full-day programs versus half-day. A more recent study (2014) showed a sizable learning advantage for full-day students. For Hispanic full-day kindergarteners, the advantage was nearly twice that of Hispanic half-day students. In a study of over 17,000 students in Philadelphia, researchers found that “by the time they reached the third and fourth grades, former full-day kindergarteners were… 26 percent more likely than graduates of half-day programs—to have made it there without having repeated a grade.”  The National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) Center says the advantages of full-day kindergarten include: higher long-term achievement, fewer grade retentions, higher self-esteem and independence, and greater creativity.

Where the gains have been less than obvious, it is likely due to outside factors. In 2008, another early childhood longitudinal study found that full-day students were statistically more likely to live below the poverty line and be of low birth weight and have unmarried parents who did not pursue education beyond high school. That is why researchers such as Chloe Gibbs at the University of Virginia, used students in her 2014 study who had a lottery to allocate full-day kindergarten slots, thus ensuring a random sampling. She concluded that full-day kindergarten produces greater learning gains per dollar spent than other well know early education interventions (such as Head Start and class size reductions.) It not only ensured all students did better, it also closed the literacy achievement gap between Hispanic and other students by 70 percent. This is important for several reasons. First of all, Hispanics are now the majority/minority in our Arizona’s district schools. Secondly, their achievement levels on the latest AzMERIT tests are lower than that of their white counterparts. Thirdly, Dr. Rottweiler, reminded the Board that “the same year we created move on when reading to increase literacy scores, we cut the funding to full day kindergarten.” In other words, at the same time the Legislature cut funding for full-day kindergarten, they enacted a law to hold students back who couldn’t read adequately by the third grade. Talk about tying the students legs together and then asking them to run….

Sometimes though, “fadeout” (an apparent loss of gains as the student progresses through school) does occur. Studies documenting the phenomenon though, “often show better adult outcomes—better health, higher earnings, etc.,” than for students who didn’t have the full-day kindergarten experience. Additionally, there is no consistency across states for kindergarten programs. Quality matters and it really matters with our youngest students.  The National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) Center says the advantages of full-day kindergarten include: higher long-term achievement, fewer grade retentions, higher self-esteem and independence, and greater creativity.

One advantage of half-day kindergarten that matters to the Arizona Legislature is undoubtedly the fact that it costs less; $218 million less in 2010. Of course, the program cuts may not have been just about offsetting the state’s revenue shortfall. Cutting full-day kindergarten forced a choice on districts to either a) just offer half-day or b) trim other services (increase class sizes, eliminating art or music, cutting athletic directors) to pay for it. No matter which decision districts made, it hurt their ability to be fully successful. Not offering full-day kindergarten meant they might lose potential students who would likely have stayed through graduation. Since districts are funded on a per-student formula, this translates into lost funding. And I know there are those thinking “if the kid leaves, the cost of educating him leaves as well, so what’s the problem?” The problem is that districts have numerous fixed costs that continue to exist in full whether or not students attrit out (or never come in.) These include costs such as that for utilities, facility and grounds maintenance, and personnel.

Fortunately, there were others at the Board meeting who “get it.” Janiene Marlow, H.R. Director at Cave Creek USD, reiterated to the Board that “Full Day K programs are crucial.” Channel Powe, Balsz Elementary School District Board Member, also testified in support of full day kindergarten. Jack Smith, Yavapai County Board of Supervisors, spoke as a parent and discussed how kindergarten spring-boarded his children to success.

Of course, a move back to full-day kindergarten will cost significant monies. Kelley Murphy, from the Arizona Community Education Association (AZECA), stressed that in order to implement this in statute there must be a designated funding source. Remember that in his comments at the meeting, Senator Smith said, “the legislature will find money during the budget process.” I can guarantee you he is not talking about raising additional revenue to fund full-day kindergarten. I’m guessing he means the legislature will look at the K-12 budget to see what they can cut to fund it. Keep in mind that even after the Prop. 123 monies, Arizona is still 48th in the nation in K-12 per-pupil funding. Arizona’s GOP-led legislature is just not concerned and/or focused on truly improving the educational outcomes for the 80-plus percent of Arizonan students that attend our district schools. That’s why I’m only partially excited about the potential restoration of funding for full-day kindergarten, even though I think it is critical. It, like any other initiative we pursue in K-12 education, is not a silver bullet. It must be pursued as part of a comprehensive educational system. It must also be funded to a level that will help ensure a quality program. Junk in after all, produces junk out.

The hard truth is that as long as we accept mediocre support for our district schools, they will have a very hard time producing stellar results. The fact that some districts are excelling at the highest levels and most others are continuing to improve, is a testimony to the underpaid and undervalued but totally dedicated educational professionals in 230 community school districts around the state. They do it because they love the kids. Both they and the kids deserve much better.