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.

 

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Five Biggest Lies by School Choice Advocates

Linda Retire Crop#5.  School choice saves the taxpayers money.  First of all, did you know that in the state of Arizona, charter schools get $1,000 more per pupil in state funding than traditional district schools?  Secondly, all the funding workarounds concocted (often by the American Legislative Exchange Council or ALEC) and implemented by our legislators, only serve to obfuscate the reality and prevent blame being laid where it belongs.  Tax credit donations, empowerment scholarship accounts, and school tuition organization donations serve to redistribute state revenue and hide the truth that Arizona led the nation in per public spending cuts between 2008 and 2012 ($3 billion).  Tax credits reduce funding into the state coffers and in the case of district schools, give the taxpayers the impression they are doing their part to support education when the reality is the funding doesn’t go into the classrooms, but only for extracurricular, fee-based activities.  In the case of private schools, it is even worse since tax revenue is diverted directly into private education.  Although proponents say school choice saves the state money, this is true only if students who started out in public schools, end up in private schools.  Unfortunately, many tuition scholarships funded by the tax credits have gone to students who would have attended private schools anyway, representing a financial loss for the state.

#4.  School choice puts parents in control.  Au contraire.  Local control puts parents in control.  School choice promotes competition versus collaboration amongst district schools, and encourages charter school development.  Although non-profit charter schools are technically classified as public schools, they are often owned or run (behind the scenes) by for-profit companies who don’t follow the same rules of transparency as district schools and, aren’t accountable to taxpayers.  Charter schools are also legally required to accept all, but they are very adept at cherry picking their students and therefore have less than their “fair” share of special education and English language learning students.  Despite this, charter schools do not by and large perform better than district schools.  Parents are often aware of this and just assume charters perform better.  Some do, but many don’t.

#3.  School choice is the rising tide that will lift all.  Arizona State Senator Al Melvin, now a gubernatorial candidate, says that giving $9,000 vouchers to parents for each child will allow them to send their children to the school of their choice.  This, he says, will cause the bad schools to close and improve the quality of the rest.  First of all, there isn’t enough money in the entire Arizona state budget for all 1.6 million school children in the state.  Secondly, those who have access to make the choice will go, leaving those who don’t “stuck” with less funding in the public schools and much less opportunity for improvement.  As Diane Ravitch writes in her latest book, Reign of Error, “in a democracy, important social goals required social collaboration.”  Schools are not businesses that can reject “inferior” raw product.  They must take all and teach all.  Yes, they should operate efficiently but that should never be their primary concern.

As profiled by Malcom Gladwell in The New Yorker, economist Albert Hirschman, in his best know book Exit, Voice, and Loyalty, said there are two strategies people have for dealing with badly performing organizations and institutions.  Hirschman said the “exit” option “failed to send a useful message to underperformers.”  When engaged parents “exit” the system, versus using their “voice” to improve it, they remove agitation that could have improved the school for all.

#2.  School choice is about the children.  To put it plainly, baloney!  School choice is about business…big business.  Those on the right are up in arms about “government shoving Common Core standards down the states’ throats.”  The real drivers behind the standards though, are huge corporations and their foundations such as Microsoft, Wal-Mart, and Koch Industries just to name a few.  The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation alone gave at least $150 million for the development and implementation of the standards.  The National Governor’s Association Center for Best Practices and the Council of Chief State Schools Officers were big recipients and key to the adoption of the standards.  The education industry in the United States is a big pie (worth over $600 billion dollars) and everyone wants a piece of it.  This effort has been building for a long time, but Diane Ravitch says the current administration’s Race to the Top initiative and push for Common Core Standards is the “first time in history that the U.S. Department of Education designed programs with the intent of stimulating private sector investors to create for-profit ventures in American education.”

#1.  School choice is the civil rights issue of our time.  School Choice advocates say school choice ensures disadvantaged children the same opportunities as those more fortunate.  Not hardly.  By and large, disadvantaged children don’t have the access to make the choice.  Their parents either can’t drive them to the charter or private school, or their language skills don’t allow them to complete the complicated application, or they can’t donate time to help out at the school as often required.  School choice is not the civil rights issue of our time, poverty is.  Segregation, largely by socio-economic status (which often translates into race), is the highest it has been since 1964.  This has happened quietly and by design and the result is that those with less have a very good chance of always having less.  The American Dream is really now just a dream for many people.

Ultimately, parents shouldn’t have to make a choice.  Every district school should provide an equally high quality education.  The original intent of charters was not to compete with traditional district schools; rather, it was to meet unique needs.  In many cases, that original intent has now devolved into just another business opportunity and way to milk the taxpayer.  A strong public education system helped provide a sense of community and make our nation the greatest on earth.  The current trend of privatization will do nothing to help promote the public good and keep America strong.  School choice isn’t the solution, it is the easy way out and won’t work in the long run.  Blogger Steve Hinnefeld, in his blog School Matters, wrote “the contempt that school choice advocates commonly express for public schools is, at its root, contempt for democracy itself.”  I tend to agree since the democratic process requires education, engagement and is rarely easy or efficient.  It is much easier to cut and run.