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!

If we want better, we must do better

You might have noticed I’ve not posted anything in quite some time. For those of you who don’t already know, I am managing my wife’s, Hollace Lyon, campaign for the Arizona House of Representatives in LD 11. That, obviously, is taking up much of my bandwidth.

This morning though, while riding my spin cycle, I read an article on TucsonsSentinel.com from October 2016 titled “A decade after the recession, Arizona schools still suffer from budget cuts” that got me too spun up to keep spinning.

What really set me off was Senator John Kavanagh’s answer to why the AZ Legislature has cut $4.69 billion from our public schools since 2009. He claimed lawmakers didn’t neglect schools but actively worked to “give individual schools the most flexibility, because…I believe the districts themselves know the best choices for their students.”

Give me a freakin’ break! Why is it that Conservatives seem to love them some “choice” as long as that choice is not a woman’s. Let’s face it. The only “choice” the AZ Legislators give district schools, is a sort of “Sophie’s Choice”. For those who never saw this Meryl Streep movie set during Hitler’s Germany, Meryl played a mother to whom the Nazi’s gave a “choice” as to which of her children they would allow to live. Don’t get me wrong, it is certainly not my intention to minimize the horrors perpetrated on the Jewish people during the Holocaust, nor to equate the taking of a life with the underfunding of schools. But, when a school board is forced to make choices between the lesser of evils due to inadequate funding, this is not a real choice.

Okay, so this article was from a year ago…surely things have improved right? After all…we passed Prop. 123 and, the Governor “lavished” a 1.06% pay raise on teachers. Well…even after Prop. 123, (a 70% settlement of a debt already owed), state and local funding remained $1,300 less per pupil in FY 2016 than in 2008 when adjusted for inflation. As for teacher salaries, we still need an influx of $1 billion to get Arizona’s up to the U.S. median. And now, the Arizona School Boards Association, and others have sued the State of Arizona and the School Facilities Board for inadequate capital funding (cut by 85% since 2008).

None of this should surprise us. After all, the Arizona electorate continues to elect legislators that vote against our district schools and their students. The bottom line is that until we realize that doing what we’ve always done and expecting different results is the definition of insanity. We MUST accept that the ONLY way we are going to see things really change for the better with Arizona public education is if we elect more pro-public education candidates. As it turns out, I have three great ones for you to take a look at.

Hollace Lyon is a retired Air Force Colonel who served 26 years in the Communications career field, commanded twice, served in NATO, taught senior military leaders at Armed Forces Staff College, and retired out of the Pentagon where she helped set priorities for the Air Force budget. Since retirement, she has pursued several charitable endeavors and been involved in state-level politics at all levels, to include serving as campaign manager for a state Senate race and running for the House in 2014.

Hollace is obviously pro-public education (how could she not be living with me), but she is also focused on the need for voters to demand fiscal responsibility from our lawmakers. “Our lawmakers talk a lot about fiscal responsibility,” she says, “but they aren’t delivering it. Instead, they are busy diverting education tax dollars to private schools with no accountability or transparency, sweeping our highway maintenance funds away for corporate tax breaks and offering us the “opportunity” to double or even triple tax ourselves with measures like Propositions 416/417, and pulling monies out of the state employee pension trust fund requiring them to pay increased premiums to replenish the fund.” Hollace likes to point out that fiscal responsibility means more than cutting taxes or reducing programs and services. What it really means is that we…the taxpayers…get what we pay for. Learn more about Hollace at http://www.LyonforAZ.com where you can donate to her campaign, join her email list, or sign up to volunteer.

As the current Past-President of the Arizona School Boards Association, a member of the Peoria USD Governing Board and a former teacher, Kathy Knecht is another huge public education advocate. Aside from the fact that she will be a wonderful state Senator, her race is all the more important because she is running in LD 21 against Arizona’s Chair for the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and sponsor of SB 1431 (the full expansion of vouchers), Senator Debbie Lesko (cue the hissing.) Learn more about Kathy and donate to her campaign at www.ElectKnecht.org. Let’s all help her give Debbie Lesko the boot!

Another fabulous candidate is Christine Marsh. Christine was Arizona’s 2016 Teacher of the Year and an outspoken advocate for Arizona’s students. She is running in LD 26 for the Arizona Senate. Like many of our education professionals, Christine doesn’t do it for the money, (I teased her once that if she gets elected, she’ll actually make less than she does as a teacher), but rather, for the love of her students and the opportunity to make a real difference in their lives. Go to www.ChristinePorterMarsh.com to learn more about Christine and contribute to her campaign while you are there!

These races are critical because we actually have a chance in 2018 for real change. We only need to flip two Senate seats for parity in that chamber and only five in the House. The tea leaves say it’s possible, but it will take all of us to make it happen. You see, that’s the thing about a Democracy, it requires participation by the voters. Not everyone can actually run for office, but EVERYONE can do something. All three of these candidates need money and almost everyone can donate something. Campaigns also need lots of volunteers to canvass, drive, make phone calls, have house parties, write letters to the editor, install signs and much more. No matter what your limitations or your skills, I guarantee campaigns have something you can do to help.

Finally, you need to be registered to vote and then actually vote. I can’t tell you how disheartening it was in 2014 to find out that not even half of the people in LD 11 with mail-in ballots, bothered to mail them in. RIDICULOUS! Joseph de Maistre, a visionary French counterrevolutionary, is credited with originally saying, “we get the government we deserve”. If we want better, we must do better. It is beyond time to step up. DO. IT. NOW!