Yet Another Scheme to Raid School Funding

An article titled, “Proposed GI Bill Model For K–12 Schools Would Impact Arizona Education Funding” by Claire Caufield on KZJJ.org recently caught my attention. Ah…coming to a state near us I thought, the latest school privatization effort to be shoved down our throats. Evidently, the conservative Heritage Foundation has written policy that would make all children of active-duty military members eligible to receive education savings accounts (ESAs) to attend private schools. These ESA would provide “from $2,500 to $4,500 annually to help parents send their child to a private or online school or to pay for tutoring and special education services.”

The idea of ESAs for military children is not new, we already have that in Arizona. What is new, is that the proposal calls for the funding to come from Impact Aid, a fund established by Congress in 1950 to assist districts with the cost of educating children who live on federal lands, and therefore don’t pay local taxes that support the districts. “Today, Impact Aid is disbursed to schools connected to tribal lands, military bases, low-rent housing and other federal properties.”

“Because of the state’s high number of students on tribal lands, Arizona districts received $169 million last year in Impact Aid, the highest total in the country. Over $11 million was for children of military and uniformed services families, according to data from the U.S. Department of Education.”

This initiative shouldn’t surprise us, as when there is money to be had, you can bet the school privatizers will be bellying up to the trough. Of course, Lindsey Burke, director of education policy at Heritage said, “We need to ensure we are providing the children of our armed services with an education option that serves them, as well as their parents who are serving the United States.” In other words, it’s “all about the kids.”

Eileen Huck, government relations deputy director for the National Military Family Association, said, “This kind of proposal would disadvantage far more military kids and families than could benefit from it” and pointed out that about 80% of military children attend their local district school. Huck also made the point that “Public schools offer a great way for military families to become connected to their communities.” Having grown up in an Army family and then serving for 22 years in the Air Force myself, I can personally attest to the value of both military children attending local community schools and, in military families establishing ties to their local communities.

The solution to underperforming public schools isn’t to subsidize attendance at private schools, but rather, to get these underperforming schools the resources and support they need to do better. After all, if the local community schools are inadequate for military children to attend, they shouldn’t be considered adequate for any of our children to attend. Fixing these schools though, is much easier to say, than do. That’s because, as public school proponents know, underperforming schools are often schools in high poverty areas. It is hard enough for schools to address factors they actually have control over, let alone get saddled with trying to fix overarching societal issues like poverty.

Privatizers of course, recognize they can profit from our lack of political and societal will to address these problems. Rather, they are intent on selling us Trojan horses that look like solutions, but in the end, just exacerbate the real problem. An example of this is the fact that segregation in our schools is now as high as it was in the mid–1960s and plenty of research shows this segregation doesn’t help either children of color, or white ones, achieve to their fullest.

Nonetheless, Heritage’s Burke supports her organization’s desire to provide military families options by citing a Military Times survey that found “35 percent of respondents said dissatisfaction with their child’s education was a “significant factor” in their decision to continue or end their military career.” Guess what? During Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) reviews, the military looks closely at the quality of local schools in determining whether or not to keep a base open in a certain area. Quality corporations also look at the schools in a community when they consider locating there. In fact, back in 2011, the former CEO of Intel, Craig Barrett said, “The educational system in the United States and in Arizona in particular is not particularly attractive”, indicating that Arizona won’t be a real magnet for new business until it turns out more qualified high school and college graduates. That’s why I believe investing in our district schools is often a much better incentive to bring quality businesses to Arizona, than offering tax incentives. At least this is true for those businesses we really want…those that invest in our people and our local communities.

Burke goes on to say, “It is a national security issue, it’s a retention issue, it’s a recruitment issue for the U.S. armed services.” To that I respond with, ensuring a quality public education for ALL of America’s children is a more critical national security issue and is not getting the attention it deserves. Yes, there are likely some children who can be better served in non-traditional public education environments. But, the only way to ensure ALL children have equal opportunity to be all they can be, is in our public district schools.

I suspect Arizona lawmakers are all for this effort as in our state, both children of military families and children on tribal lands were already eligible for vouchers or, as we call them here, “Empowerment Scholarship Accounts”, even before the 2017 expansion. I assume that if Impact Aid is made available for these ESAs, that will relieve the state from having to fund the accounts. It doesn’t hurt that Secretary Devos, whose “American Federation for Children” contributed $275K to AZ Republican candidates in 2016 alone, has also expressed support for the proposal.

Never mind, that at least in Arizona, the majority of children attending private school on vouchers could have afforded to do so without taxpayer help. After all, the average basic voucher is worth around $5K and the average private elementary school tuition is $6K and the high school $18K. Vouchers alone are not going to get disadvantaged students in these private schools.

Impact aid is designed to ensure school districts on federal lands are not negatively impacted by the lack of property tax that support other districts. It is designed, to ensure adequate funding for all the students in the affected district, not to be doled out for just a few who can take advantage of it.

It all gets back to a couple of key fundamental questions. One, do we still believe in the common good and thereby recognize the role each of us plays to make it possible? Two, who do taxpayer dollars belong to? I fervently believe in the need for the common good and our responsibility toward it. I also believe that taxpayer dollars, both those that have actually already been paid, and those still owed, belong to all of us.

That’s why I will continue to fight for full transparency and accountability anytime our tax dollars are expended. As I’ve said many times, your right to send your child to the school of your choice, doesn’t trump my right to know the return on my investment. And, your right to ensure a quality education for your child, doesn’t abrogate the responsibility for all of us to work for the same for every child.

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.