Not Fake News, Just Propaganda

Yesterday, a friend emailed me a copy of a Goldwater document that had been placed in all the “mail” boxes at his “Life Plan Community” (retirement/assisted living). The document was titled, “The Truth about Teacher Pay”, and dated April 12, 2018.

Even without the Goldwater logo at the top, I could have easily identified it as a right-wing propaganda piece. In it, the Goldwater Institute Director of Education Policy, Matthew Simon, began by making the point that “though fingers are pointed at state legislatures with calls for higher teacher salaries, the reality is that in many cases, locally elected school district governing boards are responsible for the size of paychecks.” He went on to write that, “independently elected governing boards wield considerable power in their positions by creating policies, crafting school district budgets and setting teacher pay.”

Simon provides a couple of examples of the significant difference in pay between various school districts to make his point. He then writes that, “teachers in Arizona have launched their demands at legislators in a well-coordinated campaign.” Of course, this “well-coordinated campaign”, is just a dog-whistle to infer the big bad “union” is driving the train. Truth is, the #RedForEd effort comes from a grassroots movement. There is no statewide collective bargaining unit in Arizona, because our state is a “Right to Work” state. Which means, employees really have no rights at work.

“If Arizona teachers and the public have a gripe with elected officials”, Simon continued, “the elected officials they should be targeting with this anger need to be their locally elected school district governing boards. When a school district governing board prioritizes teacher pay, teacher pay is higher.”

The problem with Simon’s piece isn’t that it isn’t factual, but rather, that he propagandizes the facts. As defined by Merriam-Webster, is “ideas, facts, or allegations spread deliberately to further one’s cause or to damage an opposing cause.” I believe, the “particular political cause” in this case, is to try to take the pressure off the state legislature for their failure to adequately fund public education, and instead, put it on the backs of governing board members. If I wanted to be really cynical, I could say it is just another attempt by the Goldwater Institute and monied out-of-state interests, to force the privatization of our public schools down Arizonans’ collective throats. You know, discredit governing board members and local control and tout that the only way to fix the resulting dysfunction is to turn our kids over to the profiteers.

Yes, it is true that the Arizona Constitution gives school board members the authority to set salaries for their district’s teachers. Arizona Revised Statute 15–341.A.17 states, “The governing board shall: Use school monies received from the state and county school apportionment exclusively for payment of salaries of teachers and other employees and contingent expenses of the district.” The phrase “contingent expenses of the district” however covers a wide range of other costs governing board members must ensure are not only budgeted for and appropriately allocated.

Therein, they say, lies the rub. You see, governing board members can only allocate that which the state Legislature, (which oh by the way, has responsiblity for the “establishment and maintenance of a general and uniform public school system”), provides. In fact, education, along with public safety, roads and infrastructure, is one of the three constitutionally-mandated functions the Legislature is responsible for. Thing is, over the past decade, that has been woefully inadequate. You’ve probably already heard that Arizona had the highest cuts per pupil in the nation, 2008 to 2014, that the average salary of our elementary teachers is 50th in the nation and high school teachers is 49th, and that our capital funding, (for facility maintenance and repair and other big-ticket items like buses), was cut 85% in the last decade. You’ve also probably heard that the Legislature continues to funnel public tax dollars to private and religious schools with almost zero accountability and transparency; passing the full expansion of vouchers for all school children last year.

You may not have heard, that in the past couple of years, two non-partisan, serious studies of education funding determined that there can be no meaningful fix to the way Arizona’s education funding is allocated, until additional funding is resourced. In 2016, the Governor Ducey appointed chair of the Governor’s Classrooms First Council said, “that, ”the schools aren’t going to significantly improve unless they get more money.“ In a previous post, I wrote about the statewide, non-partisan 2017 AZ Town Hall on PreK–12 Education Funding, which determined that the problem is not so much the percentage of the state budget allocated to our districts, but the size of the overall state budget ”pie”.

And yet, Arizona governing board members continue to lead to deliver with the resources they are provided. After Proposition 123 was passed, they ensured 90% of the additional funding was allocated to teachers. Between FY 2015 and FY 2018, they enabled their districts to hire almost 1,800 more full-time equivalent teachers, and raised teacher salaries across the state by an average of $2,044.

Governing board members know that the number one in-school factor for determining student success is a high-quality teacher and with our ongoing critical shortage of teachers, they are eager to incentivize good teachers to stay in their classrooms. But, teachers aren’t the only critical need. After all, when 30% of Arizona buses fail safety inspections, schools are closed for emergency repairs to fix unsafe facility conditions, and some classrooms are forced to use 12-year old computers, governing board members must make tough decisions about resource allocation.

Matthew Simon did not write his piece to inform, but rather, to deflect blame for the funding crisis we find ourselves in. A funding crisis which is largely self-manufactured. Yes, our Legislature also had to make tough calls during the recession in 2008, but “economists say the real culprit is the cumulative impact of two decades of Arizona governors and lawmakers chipping away at the bottom line.” In 2016, tax cuts over that period cost the state’s general fund $4 billion in revenue according to an analysis by economists with Arizona State University. These economists also wrote “More than 90% of the decline in revenue resulted from tax reductions.”

According to an AZ Capitol Times article from May 2017, data compiled by the Arizona Department of Revenue showed that more than 50% of all state taxes hadn’t been collected for at least the past ten years. ‘Called “tax expenditures,” they amount to $136.5 billion since fiscal year 2007, roughly equivalent to the sum of the state budgets spanning the past 15 years.’ In FY 2016 alone, over $12 billion was excluded from sales tax collection. Governor Ducey has continued the trend, vowing (and thus far keeping that promise) to cut taxes every year he is in office.

Governing board members share no more, and no less blame for this situation than does the average voter. After all, they are also voters and the reason our lawmakers have gotten away with pursuing the repeatedly failed “trickle-down” (Kansas anyone?) philosophy is that Arizona voters continue voting the same lawmakers into office. The bottom line is that until voters truly draw the nexus between the results they want and the candidates they elect, we can’t expect any different or better.

What IS glaringly obvious…

After I became an Arizona school board member and public education advocate, I was routinely asked, “doesn’t the Legislature understand what they are doing to our public schools?” I would respond with, “of course they do, it is all part of their plan.” That was five years ago and although we are still fighting the same battles, some things have changed.

Today, many more people understand that the privatization of America’s system of public education is actually the end game. The public is more “woke” than ever to the privatizers’ pursuit of profit and power via the $500B+ K-12 education market in the United States. Of course, the privatizers don’t refer to it that way. Rather, as reported in the Washington Post, they couch their war on public education as a benign attempt to improve the system. As Stacy Hock, a major Koch donor and co-founder of Texans for Educational Opportunity, said, “The lowest hanging fruit for policy change in the United States today is K-12, I think this is the area that is most glaringly obvious.”

What is glaringly obvious to me is that this fight isn’t just about a “policy change” and it definitely isn’t about improvement for all students. It is also glaringly obvious, that Arizona’s Governor Doug Ducey is chief water carrier for the movement with Koch donors seeing the state “as ground zero in their push.” Ducey’s been a member of the Koch network since 2011, the same year the Empowerment Scholarship Account (ESA) program (or vouchers) was passed in Arizona. Pushed by the Goldwater Institute, it was the first of its kind in the country. The AZ Legislature has increased the scope of the program every year since, and in 2017, with significant Koch network investment, Ducey was able to sign into law, a full expansion of the program.

It is also obvious to anyone willing to face facts, that vouchers are not the panacea to anemic academic outcomes. On EducationNext.org, Robert Pondiscio writes, “If shares in the education reform movement could be purchased in the stock market, neutral analysts would grade them ‘underperform’ and probably ‘sell.’ We’ve seen gains in student outcomes particularly among disadvantaged subgroups. But those gains have been mostly in math and almost entirely in the younger grades. The ‘historic’ rate of high school graduation is frothy at best, fraudulent at worst. It is not possible to look at the big indicators of K–12 performance over the last few decades—NAEP, PISA, SAT, and ACT scores—and claim that ed reform at large has been a success. The payoff is simply not there.”

None of that matters to the privatizers though, because in the end, it isn’t the kids they are focused on. “Tom Jenney, the senior legislative advisor for the Arizona chapter of Americans for Prosperity, says “We believe in competition. That’s the most important thing. … Competition is the only reason why, frankly, anything in the world improves without monumental effort and luck.”

I find that viewpoint incredibly cynical. What about those who do a good job because of pride in a job well done? Also, competition pits individuals and groups against each other and, it produces winners and losers…is that what we want for our children?

The Washington Post article also claimed, “Teacher unions, worried that this will undermine the public system, collected enough signatures to put the law on hold and create a ballot proposition to let voters decide in November whether to expand vouchers.” That claim comes from either sloppy or totally biased and purposefully misleading reporting. First of all, as a “right to work” state, Arizona has no statewide collective bargaining unit for our teachers. Secondly, Save Our Schools Arizona, the grassroots organization who collected the signatures, is not a union, but rather, a dedicated group of mom’s who ignited an army of volunteers tired of out-of-state monied interests forcing on Arizonans legislation we don’t want. “SOS Arizona enlisted about 2,500 people to help with its referendum. They ended up paying about six people to collect signatures, but the rest of its base was a patchwork of volunteers.”

Those gathering at a recent Koch brothers’ meeting outside Palm Springs, CA, are definitely not grassroots volunteers, but rather, those monied interests referred to earlier. Governor Ducey was also there, touting Arizona’s 2017 voucher expansion as further reaching than anything that’s been tried in other states. Now though he warned, that achievement is under attack with Prop. 305 set to go to be on the ballot in November”, saying that under Arizona law, if advocates lose at the ballot box, they will not be able to legislate on the topic in the future. “This is a very real fight in my state,” Ducey said. “I didn’t run for governor to play small ball. I think this is an important idea.” Ducey also introduced the headmaster of Capital Prep Charter Schools, who has been traveling Arizona to speak in support of the law. “The teacher unions are unencumbered by the truth,” he told the Koch donors. “It is a distant relative that is never invited to dinner.”

Maybe it takes one “unencumbered by the truth” to try to manufacture the same in others. What seems apparent though, is that it is much easier for Ducey and his gang to blame “teachers’ unions for “working to deny parents school choice options” than it would be to acknowledge that a group of concerned mom’s are the ones fighting for our public schools to ensure ALL children have equitable opportunity. Seems to me that if vouchers and school choice were really the end all/be all, the privatizers wouldn’t have to work so hard to convince us of that. Problem is, they are working really hard and they are throwing an awful lot of money into their effort.

Which brings me to my constant mantra of late. I received several concerned emails and phone calls from people who had read the Washington Post article and wondered what they could do to combat the incoming Koch network onslaught. My answer is simple. If we want to save our system of public education, that system which helped build the strongest middle class in the world, we simply must elect more lawmakers who care about that system and the children it serves. And, we must start right here in Arizona. If you care about our public district schools and the one million children in them, you must learn which candidates share your concern and will fight for the full accountability, transparency, and locally elected governance that district school boards provide. And remember, that although “they” have the money, we have the many. We can fight back, but we must do it together, and we must do it now.

 

A Cautionary Tale

Arizona may be at, or near, the bottom in many education related statistics, but when it comes to a school choice friendly environment, we are #1. That’s why, when executive committee members of their state school boards associations got together last year in Oakland for the Pacific Region National School Boards Association meeting, the Arizona team shared their story of eroding legislative support (funding and supportive legislation) for our district schools as a cautionary tale.

It all began in Arizona with the Legislature’s authorization for charter schools in 1994 and of course, open enrollment so parents could choose to enroll their children in any public school in the state, not just in their district. This mattered because 1) it told parents they were free to look for greener grass elsewhere, versus watering the grass they had, and 2) all that mattered was their child’s education, the hell with the rest.

Arizona’s first charter school opened in 1995. Now 180,000 students attend about 550 charter schools in Arizona equating to 16% of the students and 30% of the public schools. In 2010 in fact, Arizona had the highest number of charter schools per capita in the nation. The competition created with district schools wasn’t all bad. Many district schools offer fuller curriculums with more specialty programs than they once did. But, for corporate reformers, that wasn’t enough.

The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) ranks our state as #1 with regard to school choice policy. This should not surprise anyone, since ALEC has been aggressive in working with corporations and state lawmakers all over the country to create legislation favorable to school choice and the privatization of education. Likewise, the American Federation for Children (previously led by our new SecED, Betsy DeVos) has been very active in pushing school choice around the nation through both significant campaign contributions and strong arming of legislators.

These organizations and others with the same agenda, have enjoyed much success. When vouchers for private and parochial schools were first introduced in Arizona in 2009, the AZ Supreme Court deemed them unconstitutional since the state constitution (as most do) requires that “No public money or property shall be appropriated for or applied to any religious worship, exercise, or instruction, or the support of any religious establishment.” The Court stipulated though, “[t]here may well be ways of providing aid to these student populations without violating the constitution. School choice proponents such as the Center for Arizona Policy (CAP) jumped on that and according to their website, ”CAP and its attorneys were heavily involved in the drafting and development of this [Empowerment Scholarship Accounts or ESAs] program.” Then in 2013, the AZ Supreme Court, in Niehaus v. Huppenthal approved ESAs, (vouchers or Educational Subsidies for the Affluent as AZ’s 2016 Teacher of the Year calls them), saying that the fact the funding goes to the parent and the parent decides what to do with it, makes the program constitutional.

Initially, only students with disabilities were eligible for vouchers but the Arizona Legislature managed to expand ESAs each year to eight different categories including students living on tribal lands, wards of the state, military dependents, students from D or F rated district schools and more. Then, on April 6, 2017, the Legislature passed and the Governor signed, a law making all Arizona children eligible for vouchers. For now, there is both an annual cap of 5,500 and an overall cap of 30,000 by 2022. In addition, there is a by-grade implementation that staggers eligibility over several years.

With Arizona’s conservative and libertarian public-policy think tank, the Goldwater Institute, already promising donors they would eliminate the cap before the Governor even signed it into law, these speed bumps undoubtedly won’t be in place long. That’s because the end game for the corporate reformers and the lawmakers they’ve purchased is to commercialize our public schools. It doesn’t matter what innocuous name you give a voucher, it is still about siphoning taxpayer dollars away from our district schools, to private and parochial schools. And, vouchers aren’t the only way these tax dollars are siphoned away.

Remember I wrote that ALEC thinks Arizona is #1 in school choice policy? Well, that’s because we not only have open enrollment, charter schools, and Empowerment Scholarship Accounts, but also individual tax credits, School Tuition Organizations and the corporate tax credits that feed them. And yes, we even have legislators that have ownership of, or vested interests in, all of the above. But that discussion is for another day.

As for school tax credits, Arizona allows five separate types. There are three individual; one for public schools and two for private schools. The private school tax credit, begun in 1997, is now worth five times as much as the amount that can be claimed for public schools. Maybe that’s part of the reason why the program the legislative budget staff estimated would cost $4.5 million a year 20 years ago, topped $140 million in 2015 without including the $50 million in tax credits taken for public schools.

Tax credits were originally sold as a way to help special-needs and low-income students, but it hasn’t largely worked out that way. According to the AZ Republic, “Only about 3 percent of the money is designated specifically for special-needs students.“ As for the ”low-income” families, only 32% of the money went to them. Aside from the fact they don’t serve the most needy, tax credits divert funding away from the state coffers and in the case of district schools, give the taxpayers the impression they are doing their part to support public education when the reality is the funding isn’t really allowed for classroom expenses, but for extracurricular, fee-based activities. In the case of private schools, the tax revenue is diverted away from the general fund directly into private education.

Corporate tax credits are made to School Tuition Organizations (STOs) which are 501(c)(3) tax exempt organizations that must allocate at least 90% of their annual revenue to tuition awards for students to attend private and parochial schools. The two types of corporate tax credits allowed are one for corporate contributions for low-income students and another for displaced/disadvantaged students. The definition of “low income” though, is misleading. For these scholarships, a family of four with an annual income of $82,996, qualifies leading many to claim that the scholarships are going to families that could afford the private schools without the taxpayer welfare. Critics also say it is fairly impossible for the poor to benefit because even if they get a scholarship, they still have to come up with the rest of the tuition. Regardless of who else is benefiting from the tax credits, the general fund and therefore district schools and other critical programs and services are not. 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 by 2025 to grow to more than $250 million a year.”

In the end, one thing has been abundantly clear here in Arizona. The corporate reformers are dead set on commercializing our district schools. That’s why every legislative session, we public education advocates gear up for battle and “look for incoming.” And that’s why, one of our favorite phrases is “sine die” which literally means “without assigning a day for a further meeting or hearing”, but in layman’s terms, signifies the end of the legislative session. It is a very sad state of affairs that rather than counting on our Governor and GOP-led Legislature to do good for our one-plus million district school students, the best we can usually hope for is for them to do no harm. This year, with the full expansion of vouchers, they did tremendous harm that will be hard to recover from. A word to the wise…if you give them (corporate reformers) an inch, they will take a mile and stretch it out to 10. Stay focused and vigilant, this really is a war and the stakes couldn’t be higher.

Happy Valentines Day…NOT!

On this Valentine’s Day, I thought I’d ask, when it comes to our public schools students in Arizona, “who loves you baby?”  Yesterday, I was listening in on the AZ House Education Committee meeting. There were many bills on the agenda, but I was primarily interested in HB 2394; empowerment scholarship accounts [ESAs]; expansion; phase-in. I wasn’t hopeful the bill would die, as its companion bill SB 1431, had already been given a due-pass by the Senate Education Committee. As expected, HB 2394 followed suit on a 6–5 vote as did HB 2465, which will allow all students eligible for an ESA account to remain on the program until age 22 and for up to $2,000 a year to be put into a 529 savings account.

The passage of these bills, along with the companion ones in the Senate, demonstrate the disdain many GOP legislators have for our district schools and, for the underpaid educators who toil within. This, because ESAs divert more general fund revenue per student to private schools than district schools receive. As reported by the Arizona School Boards Association, an ESA student, on average, costs the state general fund $1,083 more in grades K–8, and $1,286 more in grades 9–12 than a district student. This is in part because there are many school districts that enjoy a fair amount of locally controlled support in the way of overrides and bonds. The state therefore, is relieved of providing equalization funding to them, but when students leave to go to private schools, all the funding must come from the state general fund. ESA students also receive charter additional assistance funding of roughly $1,200 per student, which district schools do not receive. Turns out that the claim of voucher proponents that they save the state money, is not just “alternative facts” but totally untrue. And, although voucher proponents love to claim there is no harm to district schools when students take their funding and leave, the truth is that about 19 percent of a districts costs are fixed (teacher salaries, transportation, facility repair and maintenance, utilities) and can’t be reduced with each student’s departure.

I am slightly encouraged though by the two Republican members on the House Education Committee who had the courage to stand up and do the right thing. Huge kudos to Representatives Doug Coleman and Michelle Udall who voted against the voucher expansion! I encourage each of you to email them and let them know how much you appreciate their show of support for the one million public school students in Arizona’s district schools. What also gives me hope, is the 400 plus people and their almost seven pages of 10-font, single spaced comments made against the bill in the Arizona Legislature’s Request to Speak System. Here’s a word cloud of the comments:

esa-wordcloud

This is compared to the 30 people who signed in to Request to Speak in favor of the bill. The vast majority of whom represent organizations in favor of commercialization of district schools such as The Goldwater Institute, Americans for Prosperity, Center for Arizona Policy, AZ Catholic Conference, AZ Chamber of Commerce and the American Federation for Children.

So, why these organizations? Well, let’s see. According to its website, the Goldwater Institute is a “national leader for constitutionally limited government.” Corporate reformers love to paint district schools as “government” schools, making them just another one of the targets to shrink the government, or as Grover Norquist said, “get it down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub.” The Goldwater Institute also works closely with the corporate bill mill, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) to promote conservative corporate agendas (such as commercialization of district schools) in Arizona.

Cathi Herrod and her Center for Arizona Policy (CAP) have long pushed school choice. CAP’s website states the belief that, “Religious freedom is affirmed and protected, free from government interference.” Of course, they are for vouchers. They would love for every student in Arizona to attend religious schools on the taxpayer’s dime.

Americans for Prosperity is a conservative political advocacy group funded by the Koch brothers. On their website they write, “at the very top of AFP-Arizona’s 2017 legislative agenda is the expansion of our state’s program of parental choice Empowerment Scholarship Accounts (ESAs).” They also encourage their supporters to thank Senators Flake and McCain for voting to confirm Betsy DeVos.

It should be no surprise to anyone that the AZ Catholic Conference is also interested in fully expanding voucher eligibility. Around the nation, Catholic schools have been closing at rapid rate, from 13,000 schools enrolling 12 percent of U.S. school children in the mid–1960s, to about 7,000 schools enrolling five percent in 2012. In 2015 alone, 88 Catholic schools closed. But, a tax credit program highly favorable to private and parochial schools has helped stem previous losses in Arizona but charters are still causing them much competition for students. There are now 73 Roman Catholic private schools in Arizona and six of them are among the most expensive private schools in the Phoenix area charging from $13,300 to $17,712 per year in tuition. A $5,200 voucher obviously won’t help poor students get into these schools, but it will be a nice offset for those wealthy enough to afford the schools irrespective of the help. The average cost for private schools in Arizona by the way is about $6,000 at the elementary level and $18,000 at the high school level.

As for the Arizona Chamber of Commerce, let’s not forget how their President and CEO, Glenn Hamer, recently characterized teachers as “crybabies” for wanting adequate pay. This, when our teachers are the lowest paid in the nation and 53 percent of Arizona’s teaching positions were vacant or filled by uncertified personnel at the beginning of this year. Study after study shows a high-quality teacher is critical to student success. What does that say about the commitment of Hamer and his chamber to our students in Arizona?

Finally, let’s not forget that until she was confirmed as Secretary of Education, Betsy Devos was the Chairwoman of the American Federation for Children (AFC). AFC is a huge proponent of school choice and vouchers and has invested millions in purchasing legislators favorable to their causes. Since 2010 in fact, it has contributed some $750,000 to pro school choice legislative candidates in Arizona.

Looking at the list and knowing the resources at their disposal (just think of the Koch brothers and DeVos alone), it is easy to assume most of them have invested heavily in legislative outcomes in Arizona and around the country. Does anyone really believe these organizations have Arizona’s district school students, 56 percent of whom qualify for free and reduced lunch (an indication of their low socio-economic status) children at heart?

We all know when we read something, especially these days, we must consider the source. Well, when looking at the support for voucher expansion in Arizona, I highly encourage you to do the same. This fight against the full expansion of vouchers is far from over. Those pushing for it are no doubt emboldened by pro-voucher stance of the new POTUS and his SecED. But, the people of Arizona understand district COMMUNITY schools are the key to not only achievement for all our students, but also to the health of our communities, and the preservation of our Democracy. We must not sit on the sidelines and watch these bills get signed into law. Much too much is at stake. Want to know more about how to plug-in? Comment on this post and I’ll be in touch. Please don’t let it be said we let our students get sold out!

Ooops, there it is!

We knew it was coming and awaited it with dread. And, drumroll please…crash goes the cymbal! Yes, here it is, this year’s attempt to exponentially expand Arzona’s voucher (Empowerment Scholarship Accounts, or ESA) program. Of course, the American Legislative Exchange Council’s (ALEC) chief water carrier for Arizona, Senator Debbie Lesko, R-Peoria, is the one proposing the expansion. Lesko claims the expansion of ESAs will “not lead to a mass exodus of children from public schools.” I, for the most part, agree with that statement since Arizona parents have made it clear district schools are their choice with 80% of students attending district schools and another almost 15% in charter schools.

But, to infer a massive voucher expansion will have no negative impact on district schools is disingenuous at best. No matter how slowly students may attrit from district schools, each student’s departure leaves behind a 19% budget shortfall. That’s because there are numerous fixed costs (teacher salaries, facility maintenance, utilities, buses, etc.) that cannot be reduced student by student. The siphoning of dollars from our district schools has been steadily increasing and just exacerbates an already inadequately resourced system.

This isn’t the first year the Legislature has attempted to expand the voucher program. In fact, they’ve been successful in expansions every year since the ESA program was launched in 2011. This isn’t even the first time a full expansion has been attempted, with a very similar proposal going down in flames last year due to public outcry and a perceived conflict with securing voter approval of Prop. 123. This year though, Lesko has sweetened the deal by requiring the testing of students attending private schools on vouchers. She says she “doesn’t personally think this requirement is necessary,” but obviously is trying to defuse the argument from voucher opponents that there is no accountability or return on investment for vouchered students.

She is right about one thing, district education advocates want more accountability and transparency where taxpayer dollars are spent on the myriad of school choice options. As the only schools governed by locally elected school boards and with annual efficiency reports published by the Office of the AZ Attorney General, district schools are the only schools fully accountable and transparent to the taxpayers. Pro-choice advocates tout that parents should have the right to choose where they send their child to school at government expense. As a taxpayer, I maintain I have the right to know the return on investment of my tax dollars. Their right should not trump mine.

Senator Lesko also infers that vouchers will save money because the average voucher amount for students without special needs is $5,200, yet it costs $9,529 to educate Arizona’s average student in public schools. This is misleading because she is comparing apples and oranges and she knows it. The $9,529 figure she quotes is a total of all funding sources, federal, state and local (bonds and overrides) while the $5,200 is only state funding. So, if a student transfers from a district where state funding is offset by locally supported funding (due to the equalization formula), that student’s voucher will actually cost the state general fund more than if that student had remained in their district school. Lesko also notes that vouchers and school choice are a national trend as evidenced by President Trump’s nomination of Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education.

Oh no, she did NOT go there! Trying to sell vouchers as mainstream by pointing to Trump’s nomination of DeVos is akin to denying global warming by citing colder temperatures in parts of the country. After all, DeVos’ success with promoting school choice in Michigan has been dismal. In the two-plus decades she has championed this crusade (those knowledgeable about DeVos will understand my choice of that word), she has purchased legislative influence to expand charters and greatly reduce accountability. She has also worked hard to introduce vouchers in the state, but thus far, the voters have prevailed to keep those “wolves” at bay. And the improvements she has promised haven’t materialized with scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) for 4th graders declining from 28th in reading and 27th in math in 2003, to 41st in reading and 42nd in math in 2015.

According to the Arizona Capitol Times, the American Federation for Children (AFC) is pushing vouchers nationwide. I’m only going to give you three guesses as to who the chair of AFC is, and the first two don’t count. Yep, none other than Betsy DeVos. In addition to pushing for school choice and vouchers around the country, AFC has spent big bucks on rewarding those legislators working to expand privatization and punishing those who try to stand up for the 90% of students attending our nation’s districts schools. As reported by Richard Gilman on his website BringingUpArizona.com, AFC is a 501(c)4 free to pour dark money into political campaigns. And pour they have. Gilman writes, “Since its inception in 2010, the organization has poured nearly three-quarters of a million dollars into Arizona elections in a largely successful effort to sway the makeup of the Legislature.” The state’s “demonstrated appetite for school choice” is what AFC cites for its focus on Arizona. Of course, common causes make “strong” bedfellows and Gilman tracks AFC’s interest in Arizona back to Clint Bolick (once Vice President of Litigation at the Goldwater Institute and now AZ Supreme Court Justice.) Bolick served as the first president and general counsel for the Alliance for School Choice (AFC’s predecessor.)

But, I digress. The point is that no matter what snake oil the corporate reformers try to sell us, there is an incredibly well-funded, high-powered effort to have two school systems in Arizona. One is the commercial system of charters, private, parochial, virtual and homeschools that serve the whiter and wealthier students, and the other is the district schools, starved for resources, that will have the poorer, browner, and more challenged students to educate. According to recent polls, this is not what the vast majority of Arizonan voters want. But, until Arizonans clearly draw the nexus between voting for Legislators who don’t support our public district schools (most of them with an “R” after their name), and the fact that our district schools are way under resourced, nothing will change. If we want something different, we have to do something different. To continue doing the same thing and expecting different results, is as you know…the definition of insanity.

A Familiar Recipe for Disaster

I recently came across an August 2013 report by Lindsey M. Burke from The Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice titled: The Education Debit Card – What Arizona Parents Purchase with Education Savings Accounts. The report makes many claims begging to be refuted. In the executive summary, the author credits Arizona with creating “a model that should be every state policymaker’s goal when considering how to improve education: funding students instead of physical school buildings and allowing that funding to follow children to any education provider of choice.” The model referred to here are Empowerment Scholarship Accounts (ESAs).

In September 2011, Arizona’s ESA program started with a modest enrollment of 153 students with special needs. In 2012, enrollment had grown to include more than 300 children with special needs.   Expansion continued that year with eligibility granted to more than 220,000 Arizona students, including 125,000 children with special needs, 87,000 children in underperforming public schools (rated D or F), 11,500 children of active- duty military families, and any additional foster children.Currently, according to AZ Ed News, more than 250K students are eligible to apply.

Although I totally “get” a parent wanting the very best for their own child, I am also brought back to a quote by John Dewey’s (possibly the most significant educational thinker of the 20th century): “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.”

The real truth is, the majority of children (for a multitude of reasons) will simply not be able to avail themselves of the ESA opportunity. So, I find myself asking what are the real reasons Arizona legislators and other leaders are pushing vouchers as the solution for educating our children? Color me cynical, but let me offer some thoughts:

1. A voucher by any other name. The ESA bills are model American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) legislation. As reported by education activist and blogger David Safier: “The Goldwater Institute came up with the idea for ESAs as a second workaround (the first is our tuition tax credit law) to make vouchers legal in a state where the constitution prohibits the use of public money for religious instruction. (Did you know over 70% of Arizona’s private schools are religious?) The term of art for this kind of legislation is “backdoor vouchers.” The conservative’s ultimate goal is vouchers for all.”

2. What can parents afford with an ESA? AZ Senator Al Melvin (who is running for Governor this year) likes to tout vouchers for every child at $9,000 per child is either ignorant or disingenuous. First of all, if every child in Arizona were given that much funding, it would cost as much as entire budget of the state of Arizona ($9.054B vs. a budget of 9.18 billion.) Secondly, the ESA base rate this year is only $5,400 per child, not $9,000. So, what private school can parents send their children to for $5,400? The website Private School Review shows the average tuition at Arizona’s private elementary schools as $5,465. Please note, this is not the total cost. Private schools do not typically offer free transportation to/from school or like public schools do, nor is a free/reduced fee lunch program offered. Additionally, parents are often expected to donate time, or in the case of at least one school, get charged $10 per hour when they don’t donate the requisite amount. Finally, please note the $5,465 cost is just tuition. What else is not included in this cost – books, athletics, extracurricular activities?

3. Despite claims to the contrary, competition is not the answer for everything. Whereas public school districts should be collaborating with each other to ensure the most effective use of taxpayer dollars, open enrollment and school choice encourages just the opposite. Marketing campaigns and intra-district bussing is now the norm to boost enrollment numbers. Additionally, where engaged, caring parents would once get involved as part of the solution in their community public schools, now they vote with their feet and take their talents to private options versus applying them to the common good.

4. There is little accountability or transparency in the use of the ESA funding. A recent Arizona Capitol Times article 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. After all, these unspent funds equal 21 percent of the almost $12 million handed out since 2012 and represent 68 parents holding onto amounts from $10,000 to over $61,000. A representative for the Arizona Department of Education (AZ DOE) said they have no authority over how much of the quarterly disbursements must be spent, only that the receipts for the expenses reflect allowed expenditures. The AZ DOE administrator of the program said the department is aware of the growing accounts, but has no authority over how much of the quarterly disbursements must be spent. Obviously though, money held onto is not money spent on a child’s education. As a vivid case in point, one “tight-fisted parent has hung onto $61,047 while spending only $825.” How can this be in the child’s best interest?

5. But wait, weren’t ESAs supposed to save the state money? ESAs were supposed to save the state money, but now they will cost Arizona more than educating children in the public school system. Despite the legislature’s unwillingness to change the law to allow it, John Huppenthal, the AZ Superintendent of Public Instruction has unilaterally moved to provide all ESA students funding at 90 percent of the charter school funding level, which is currently higher than the district school level. This translates to all students on ESAs getting the charter school amount, an additional $1,684 to $1,963 over what was given for students transferring from traditional schools. Additionally, according to the AZ Joint Legislative Budget Committee, the newly expanded availability to kindergarteners that might have attended private schools anyway at parental expense drives up the cost as well.

6. Superintendent of Public Instruction, not public schools! Superintendent Huppenthal recently shilled for The Alliance for School Choice recording a robo-call that went out to 48,000 qualifying families and referred families to a Goldwater Institute website for more information. His$250,000 marketing campaign evidently produced results with applications for the 2014-15 school year doubling from 2,479 from 1,100 the previous year. When questioned about his actions, he said “he is the Superintendent of Public Instruction, not public schools.

Given the facts surrounding the push to expand ESAs, one must ask why? I suspect politics is largely responsible. “Arthur Camins, a teacher and director, center for innovation in Engineering and Science Education, Stevens Institute of Technology” posits the corporate reformers believe (or want us to believe) that “Improving all schools is hopeless. Poverty will always be with us.” That’s why he says, they believe they need to offer privately governed schools to serve the “best among the unfortunate.” They know not all children will be successful, they just need a system for sorting through those who can be. “This is the cold hard truth. Only we (the best and smartest) have the guts to act on it.”

Camins goes on to write that, “in-school tracking and magnet schools have long served to mediate dealing the hard truth that poverty undermines children’s readiness and ability to engage in and sustain learning.” Now though, the new well-funded partnerships trying to provide a systemic alternative to public schools is more “explicitly elitist and anti-democratic” than ever before. “As long as the only seeming rational choice is self-preservation, people who can, will choose it.” What is new now is “the scale of the effort and resulting damage, the ever-widening disparity in income and differential life chance opportunities and the erosion of the very idea of social responsibility for the common good.”

Dr. Tim Ogle, Executive Director of the Arizona School Board Association writes that “allowing some selected children to “opt out” of public education to go to schools with unknown aims and objectives removes incentives to develop new creative solutions to education’s toughest challenges. Let’s call these accounts what they are: government subsidies for private enterprise using children as the currency.”

Voucher programs aren’t about offering parents a choice, they aren’t about ensuring special needs children have every opportunity, and they aren’t about improving the educational outcomes for our students. What they are about is making money…lots of it. Big money, lack of transparency and accountability, and legislators collaborating with big business…sound like a familiar recipe for disaster to anyone else?

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.