$82,996 is low income…REALLY?

Kudos to Arizona Representative Doug Coleman, R-Apache Junction, who has introduced HB 2063 to cap the limit for corporate donations to School Tuition Organizations. His bill looks to cap the “year-over-year limit at 2 percent or inflation for the Phoenix metropolitan area” for corporate donations. 501(c)(3) tax-exempt organizations, these STOs allocate at least 90% of their annual revenue to tuition awards for students to use to attend qualified schools. Proponents claim STOs allow underprivileged students the opportunity to attend private schools they would otherwise not have access to. Critics however, note that these corporate credits don’t truly serve the “low-income” population.

According to Arizona law, the current definition of “low-income” for this credit is a “family of four with an annual income of $82,996.” Given that the median household income for an Arizona family of four in 2014 was $50,068, that annual income really can’t be legitimately defined as “low income.” Jonathan Butcher, of the Goldwater Institute, said: “The eligibility is set up to help students no matter where they are in their life and where their family is,” he said. “The scholarships seem to be pretty modest, often around $2,000. Families can use the scholarships to get close to where tuition may be.”

Problem is, tuition at many private schools is much more than the scholarship amounts and parents are left to cover the rest. Senator Steve Farley, D-Tucson said “it’s almost impossible for someone who is poor to benefit because even if they get a scholarship, they still have to come up with the rest of the tuition.” For the 2013/2014 school year, limits were $4,900 for grades K-8 and $6,200 for grades 9-12. The average corporate tax credit scholarship for students at All Saints’ Episcopal Day School in Phoenix was $9,405. With the average private school tuition in Arizona for 2015 at $10,236, it is hard for low-income families to bridge the gap. And, there is no rule to preclude parents from getting multiple scholarships for their child from multiple tuition organizations. The state doesn’t track how common that is. Senator Steve Yarbrough, R-Chandler, (who profitably runs the Arizona Christian School Tuition Organization), “admits many of the scholarship recipients likely would go to private school without the financial help.” Unfortunately, it is almost impossible to prove these allegations since the STOs aren’t required to divulge information required to get to the truth.

Representative Coleman’s bill is meant to help ensure the program’s sustainability. Although Arizona lawmakers placed a statewide $10 million annual cap on the corporate credits, the law allows a 20% per year increase.   Next year, the cap for all private school tuition corporate tax credits will increase automatically to $62 million and by 2030; it will be ten times that amount. That number is especially significant when one considers that for the last budget year, Arizona’s corporate income tax collections were $663 million, and more than 7 percent of state tax revenues. One has to wonder where all this money is going and what the diversion away from the general fund does to the state’s ability to operate.

Senator Debbie Lesko, R-Peoria, is against the cap claiming it gives “needy” children opportunities they wouldn’t otherwise have. She also claims that more money in scholarships means less students in public schools and that ultimately, saves taxpayers money. This claim only holds water if a student started out in public school before switching to a private school. A 2009 Arizona Republic article reported that out of the 50,000 private school students, only 7,350 students had been added since the tax-credit program started [in 1998]. Not exactly an indication of resounding success. The more likely driver for Senator Lesko’s support of this program is the fact that she is the Arizona state chair for the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC.) This Koch brothers-backed, tax-exempt organization works with its corporate members to create model legislation favorable to their corporate interests. Then ALEC provides these model bills to state legislators to implement back in their home states. ALEC’s Education Task Force has pushed school choice, vouchers, charters, parent trigger laws and yes, education tax credits. Along with providing the template for the legislation titled “The Great Schools Tax Credit Program Act” ALEC provides recommendations to state legislators designed to help them “sell” the program to the public. They acknowledge the model legislation includes “students presently enrolled in a private school” and therefore “reward[s] many families already financing their child’s education.” They tell legislators to consider limiting “eligibility to students who attended a public school in the last year or are starting school in their state for the first time.” This, they point out, will likely produce “a savings for state taxpayers since a scholarship covering private school costs in many cases will be less than the cost of state support provided to students attending a public school.”

They also recommend to lawmakers that if they “decide to include a statewide tax credit cap in the legislation…language should be added to automatically allow the cap to increase by 25% in any year after 90 percent of the cap was reached in the previous year.” As for the contribution amount allowed, ALEC states that although a 50% cap is deemed more equitable, making a higher “percentage of a donor’s tax liability eligible” for a credit can make it easier to raise donations. Higher amounts though they acknowledge, “open the program up to charges that money is being diverted from non-education programs to support private schools.”

The dollar amounts are significant. For the 2008 tax year, nearly three-fourths of corporations (over 35,500) that filed income taxes in Arizona had the minimum tax liability of $50. In 2009, there were 54 corporations reducing their state income tax via the private school tuition tax credits, lowering their income tax by over $5.5 million with a carry forward of $1.2 million to reduce future taxes. Then In 2010, 63 corporations donated $11 million to private school tuition organizations, with 8 donating at least $500,000.

This, all the while corporate taxes have been shrinking in Arizona. At 9.3% in 1990, corporate income tax is currently at 6.968% and will phase down to 4.9% by 2017. When fully phased in, these cuts will cost the state about $270 million each year, that’s enough to restore full-day kindergarten across the state and much, much more. This doesn’t even include the commercial property tax rate, which has also been cut from 25% in 2005 down to 18% this year.

 In addition to the issue of sustainability, is the issue of which private schools are getting the corporate tax credit money. At least one-fourth of the 64 schools on the states approved list of School Tuition Organizations certified to receive donations for the corporate income tax credits are religious institutions. Yes, the Arizona Supreme Court has deemed this constitutional via what many believe are convoluted reasoning, but it still should give pause to the majority of taxpayers – those that support the separation of church and state. Additionally, I was unable to determine of the $11 million donated by corporations in 2011 and in subsequent years, how much was actually paid out? There are numerous questions about these school tuition organizations and the corporate tax credits that fund them. Unfortunately, laws designed to preclude transparency and accountability prevent these questions being answered. It is obvious to me that Representative Coleman’s bill makes total sense, which unfortunately means it will probably be a tough sell in the Arizona Legislature. Let’s hope against hope that reason prevails.

 

 

 

Ducey on Education…What’s he really saying?

Governor Ducey’ State of the State address today at the AZ Legislature’s opening day was a fairly typical “state of” address. He talked about what he’s accomplished thus far and provided sound bites about what else he’ll do. He promised he’ll lower taxes each year and still invest in education. He claimed it doesn’t have to be either/or, it can be both. He did not of course, dilineate any specific plan to do this, but that isn’t really what a “state of the state” address is for. He provided examples of good things happening in public education, and stated that Prop 123 will give us opportunity to make substantial progress.” Have to inject here that although I am supporting Prop 123, it won’t really help us “make substantial progress.” Even if with the passage of Prop 123, Arizona won’t move up from 49th in per pupil funding. After all, it is only going to provide about $300 per student, still less than has been cut since the recession began. Not nothing, but not a game changer either.

Governor Ducey then made the prediction that: “In the years ahead, Arizona will be among the states investing the most new dollars in public education – all without raising taxes.” Just to be clear here, the Prop 123 monies aren’t “new monies”, they are monies that were already owed to our schools. Not sure the Governor sees it that way, but that is the truth. More funding, much more funding is needed and every bit will be welcome, but I just don’t see how we can make a dent in the need without raising taxes. I am positive we can’t do it by cutting taxes and giving our surplus away as corporate handouts. We just need to look at what Governor Brownback did to Kansas with his tax cuts.   When he took the reins in Kansas, he dropped the top income-tax rate by 25%, lowered sales taxes and created a huge exemption for business owners filing taxes as individuals. He claimed it would spur investment, create jobs and bolster the state’s coffers through faster growth, sound familiar? Now, five years after doubling down, his state lags in job creation, tax revenue is far short of expectations and bond and credit ratings have been downgraded. Rating agencies claimed the tax breaks were unsustainable and that the promised economic growth would be elusive. It is with great hubris this lesson would be ignored.

Ducey then touted the conservative mantra that more money doesn’t equal better education with “We know spending is not the measure of success. And it shouldn’t just be about the billions of dollars we are putting into public education; it must be about what our kids are getting out of their education.” He’s right, it shouldn’t be just about the spending. But again, just look at the schools wealthy people send their kids to. Those schools aren’t bargain basement…they cost big money because they have small class sizes, highly qualified teachers (some with PhDs from Harvard, Yale and Stanford), extensive curricula, fabulous facilities and the very latest in technology. Money is not the only solution, but it does matter.

Facts also matter, so I have to call a “not so fast” on the Governor’s reference to “until the thousands of kids on public school wait lists have access to our finest teachers and principals, our job isn’t done.” Firstly, although Ducey refers to “public school wait lists”, he means “charter school wait lists.” Yes, charter schools are technically public schools, but district schools don’t really have wait lists, they must take all who reside in their boundaries and also accept the vast majority of those students who apply via open enrollment. So how about those much touted charter school wait lists? Although the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools (NAPCS) claims that waiting lists for charters across the Nation would top one million for the first time in 2014, a May 2014 report by the National Education Policy Center (NEPC) gave nine reasons we should be skeptical of these numbers. Among the reasons were: students apply to multiple charter schools; waitlists can’t be confirmed and record-keeping is unreliable; charters accept applicants for students they have no intention of ever admitting; and many charter schools choose not to “back-fill” students who vacated during the school year (because accepting new students mid-year can create turmoil in the classroom), which would reduce their waiting list. Without the ability to verify the wait list data to determine its reliability, the NEPC study concluded that “policymakers would be wise to set aside NAPCS’ claims and wait for verifiable data.” After all, where charter schools are managed by for-profit corporations, the facilities built with taxpayer funding assistance eventually become property of the corporations. Paint me cynical, but when a governor cites waiting lists as the reason to expand these schools and says he is going to provide more dollars for this expansion, it is easy to see it is in the corporation’s interest to inflate those lists. He also though, talked about the “need to provide resources for aging schools to repair and rebuild their facilities for future students.” I’m hoping he is including district schools here since their facility maintenance and repair has been funded at only two percent of the need over a recent four year period.

Of course, Governor Ducey continues to want to reward those schools that are already succeeding. In his speech he spoke of “the need to reward schools that are helping kids reach their full potential…and that under our plan, schools that produce students who successfully complete AP-level, college-prep courses will be rewarded with more dollars.” Likewise, he said: “Schools in low-income areas – where educators and students face added challenges – will receive an even greater boost for helping kids beat the odds.” I totally understand his wanting to reward “good behavior”, but am concerned about a lack of concern about helping those schools and their students who are struggling. In my former Air Force life, higher-heaquarters inspection teams routinely visited bases to evaluate their performance. Where there were significant problems, “staff assistance teams” would be sent in to help fix them. Although the boss (wing commander) might be fired if the dysfunction was severe, the assistance provided after the fact was not punitive, but meant to help things get back on track. The vast majority of our struggling schools have administrators, teachers and staff working hard to make a difference. They need help, not punishment likely to accelerate their race to the bottom.

I was very happy to hear him acknowledge the importance of career technical education (CTE): “I know not every child plans to go to college – their K-12 experience also needs to prepare them for life. Which is why I’m targeting high-need employment sectors with a new focus on career and technical education. There is bipartisan support for this – so let’s get it done.” Of course, this wouldn’t be quite as critical this legislative session if it weren’t for the Legislative mandated cut of $30 million scheduled to go into effect next year. Nonetheless, he’s right, CTE is a win-win-win and the funding must be restored and hopefully, increased.

The Governor also gave note to the fact that “The state isn’t the only player in public education. Every day, philanthropic foundations in Arizona are investing in our schools. They are developing new school leaders, expanding educational opportunities for low-income children and funding the arts and sciences. I intend to partner with the heads of these foundations to provide an even greater opportunity and impact in our schools.” Good for you Governor! Just don’t forget that it isn’t the job of these philanthropic foundations to provide for public education. That, as outlined in the Arizona Constitution, is the primary job of the Legislature and you! Irrespective of how much you promote the growth of for-profit charter schools and the expansion of Empowerment Scholarship Accounts (essentially vouchers), the responsibility for the public education of Arizona’s one million plus students is still ultimately rests on your shoulders. I hear you saying many of the right things, I just hope your intent is pure and your commitment is real. Our students are not a talking point, they are young people who deserve every opportunity to succeed and reach their full potential.  Not only for themselves, but for the future of our State and our Nation.

 

 

Top Five – Discouraged but Hopeful

So hopefully you already read my Bottom Five – Discouraged but Hopeful, here’s the rest of the story. First, the rest of what gets me really discouraged:

5.  The Legislature seems intent on killing the CTE/JTED, a critical program for our state. Career and Technical Education (CTE) offered by Joint Technical Education Districts (JTED), includes a variety of “votech” programs for which students earn high school credit, and in some cases, may earn college credit, industry certifications, and/or a state license through combination of hands-on training and classroom instruction. Since 2011, the Arizona Legislature has cut CTE funding by more than 53%. Some $30 million will leave the program next year and Districts will also take a 7.5% cut to their per-pupil funding for their students who participate. These cuts are stupid for Arizona! As I’ve previously written, CTE is a win-win-win. It has proven to decrease dropouts by as much as 72% and the Alliance for Excellent Education estimates that “if half of Arizona’s 24,700 high school dropouts in 2010 had instead graduated from high school, the economic impact on Arizona would include $91 million in increased earnings and $7 million in increased state tax revenue.” The Phoenix Business Journal also made a great case for CTE: “By destroying one of Arizona’s most successful education initiatives – one with real economic returns – the state will not be able to provide the skilled workforce that companies demand before they relocate or expand operations here. That means we can expect reduced workforce development, fewer young people escaping poverty and achieving economic independence, and higher social services costs.” There is still time to help. Please click here to sign a petition to restore CTE/JTED funding.

4.  Arizona’s teacher shortage. Actually, Arizona doesn’t have as much a teacher shortage as it has a shortage of certified professionals willing to work for salaries that won’t pay the bills. As of December of last year (according to the AZ Daily Star), 84 districts in Arizona had more than 1,200 teaching position open and 700 of those occurred during this school year. The state also had at least 1,000 vacant teacher positions to fill before the start of the current school year. The Arizona Educator Recruitment & Retention Task Force reported in January 2015 that there is a 7% decrease in teacher prep program enrollment, that Arizona loses 24% of first year and 20% of second year teachers and that 24% of the current education workforce is eligible to retire within the next four years. We have a huge problem that is only going to get worse and I haven’t even mentioned the school administrator shortage that is right around the corner.

3.  Proposition 123. Okay, so earlier I said I had hope because a settlement was reached in the inflation-funding lawsuit. Unfortunately, we are a long way from actually getting the requisite funding to our schools. First, the voters must approve it in a special election on May 17th  and those against the settlement filed almost 50 statements in opposition. There is also the matter that the state Treasurer is against the deal but he hasn’t been able to get much traction on his fight. That fact, combined with the $1.75 million proponents have raised to sell the prop to the public will probably carry the day. I do though, worry about the long-term impact to education funding and, I don’t really don’t like Governor Ducey and his buddies claiming a victory on this one. An example is Ducey’s “hay making” tweet on December 30, 2015:

ducey tweet

 

Sorry Guv, but no, you really just paid 70% of what the people mandated and the courts adjudicated and technically, you are paying the schools with their own money. You’ll be “shifting the trend line upward” when you plus up the K-12 public education budget this year. After all, its not like we don’t have the money. Arizona realized $150.5 million more revenue than expected in October and November of 2015 after ending the fiscal year with $266 million more in the bank than expected. Add that to a $460 million in the state’s rainy day fund and you’re starting to talk real money. And, Arizona voters are pretty clear about what they want done with that money. A recent poll of Arizona voters showed 72% believe investing in public schools should be a priority for this surplus. If the Legislature and Governor were listening to the citizens of Arizona (who are the “boss of them”), they would give some of this funding to public education and truly begin to reverse the trend, instead of following the abysmal fiscal example of Governor Brownback in Kansas by reducing taxes and giving more corporate handouts.

2.  Voting records of our legislature when it comes to support for public education. I already talked about this in a previous post but it bears repeating. The bottom line is that on average, Arizona’s Democratic legislators scored 48 percentage points higher for voting in accord with ASBA’s position, than the Republicans. There are of course, anomalies, but it is clear that in general, the GOP-led legislature is anti-public education. Want support for public education? Vote more pro-public education candidates into office. Some suggestions of those running for the first time are: Jesus Rubalcava running in LD4, Courtney Frogge in LD10, Corin Hammond in LD11, and Larry Herrera in LD20. I’m sure there are many more but I know all these individuals personally and they are young up and comers…just what we need to lead Arizona forward.

1.  ALEC’s influence on Arizona legislation, especially where it affects public education. The American Legislative Exchange Council’s (ALEC) agenda to privatize public education includes the promotion of charter schools (corporate charters and virtual schools specifically), private school vouchers, anti-union measures, “parent trigger” laws, increasing testing, reducing or eliminating the power of local school boards and limiting the power of public school districts. Anyone tuned into Arizona education or politics knows that ALEC has also had significant influence in our state. The Goldwater Institute acts, as ALEC’s “Mini-Me” in Arizona and AZ Senator Debbie Lesko, as the AZ ALEC chair, has been the organization’s chief water carrier. Half of our state Senators and one-third of our representatives are known members of ALEC and there may be more.  Corporations fund their trips to ALEC Conference where model legislation is handed out for Legislators to take back to their states for implementation. The organization awarded Arizona a “B-” grade in education policy for 2015. The state’s charter school laws and school choice programs were awarded “A” grades, teacher quality and policies were graded “C-.” This most certainly means we’ll see more ALEC-drafted bills coming down the pike.

Now, for what most gives me hope:

5.  Superintendent Douglas finally seems to be focusing on the education of our kids. It’s been a tough year for the Superintendent, much of it apparently of her own making. But, she went on not one, but two listening tours around the state and evidently, really listened. Her “AZ Kids Can’t Afford to Wait” plan is focused on how to make things better for Arizona’s students, much of it revolving around improving teacher support to include increased salaries. This report shows that at least she understands what needs to be done. She survived the attempt to recall her; time will tell whether she can lead real change.   Current leadership aside though, I share Representative Randy Friese’s question as to why the Superintendent of Public Instruction is an elected position. After all, Arizona is one of only 13 states where this is the case and, the position is basically just an administrator who is only one member on the state Board of Education which is responsible for exercising general supervision over and regulating the conduct of the public schools system. AZCentral.com reported this week that Representative Friese intends to introduce a bill to make the change.

4.  Christine Marsh, Arizona’s Teacher of the Year, is really, really impressive. She is poised, articulate, and passionate and when she talks about public education, she takes no prisoners. In a recent article published AZCentral.com, she said that giving each individual student an equal chance to succeed is the point of public school education.   She pointed out that over 26% of Arizona’s children live in poverty, 4% more than the national average. “People need to understand the impact of poverty on students…and when we discuss school funding, we need to understand the impact our decisions have on each student,” she said. “[We need to] make sure that our policies and funding formulas don’t contribute to the problems they are supposed to be helping.” It is clear this outstanding teacher won’t be shy about speaking “truth to power.” Of course, I’m sure Christine would be the first to say that there are many, many more teachers just like her out there. I’m hopeful because of all of the great teachers serving Arizona’s students and am so very grateful for their service.

3.  District schools are still the school of choice for 85% of Arizona’s students. Despite having open enrollment and charter schools since 1994 and Empowerment Scholarship Accounts (basically vouchers) since 2011, almost one million students still attend district schools. The primary reason is that district schools are community schools with locally elected leadership that is responsive to the needs of the community. Charter schools and voucher provided alternatives will never serve the majority of students, that’s just not realistic. As members of the more than 240 school boards govern to improve achievement for the almost one million students in their care, they work to ensure the bedrock of our democracy/republic, “an educated citizenry” according to Thomas Jefferson, is realized.

2.  Arizona’s education advocates are really getting their act together, literally! The Arizona School Boards Association (ASBA), the Arizona Education Association (AEA) and the Arizona Association of School Business Officials (AASBO) worked together to craft a palatable compromise to settle the inflation-funding lawsuit. I know many are not happy about the settlement, but these three organizations worked tirelessly for five years to get Arizona districts the funding they were due. Yes, it is only two-thirds of what was owed, but two-thirds is better than nothing and nothing was a distinct possibility. This is especially true with Governor Ducey’s appointment of Clint Bollick to the Arizona Supreme Court. Had this issue come before him, it most certainly would have died a quick death. Another public education advocate, Support Our Schools AZ (SOSAZ), saw its “Arizona Parent Network” grow wings and take flight. In October, the organization hosted the first-ever Education Excellence Expo at Salt River Fields with 26 districts from all over the state showing off the excellence in Arizona’s public schools.

1.  Maybe, just maybe, Arizona voters are waking up. 2015 saw some encouraging upticks in support for public education. In early March, two mothers sparked a day of peaceful protest at the state Capitol. Close to 1,000 parents, students, teachers, and community members showed up to protest Governor Ducey’s proposed education budget cuts. I was there, and it was exciting to be a part of a genuine grass-roots movement that helped bring education to the forefront. That renewed focus no doubt aided in the successful passage of so many bonds and overrides such as in Maricopa County, where 23 of 26 districts had successful ballot measures. Results elsewhere were not as good such as in Pinal County, where only half of the measures passed, but overall, the numbers were up and that bodes well for public education in general.

What this exercise made me realize is that I really am more optimistic than pessimistic about public education’s future. I had to work harder to come up with the “what’s discouraging” than “what gives me hope.” Maybe that’s who I am, or maybe, I just believe that ultimately, “good” wins. “Good” in public education is that which serves the majority of our children; that which recognizes each of them deserves equal opportunity to be the best they can be; and that which best serves our communities, our state and our nation.   I believe that “good” in public education is that which is transparent, accountable, and dedicated to helping each child achieve their full potential. Anything else is so very much less than good – it is just plain evil.

 

Bottom Five List – Discouraged but Hopeful

A recent article in The Atlantic magazine featured experts on K-12 education who offered their reasons for hope and despair with regard to education. It was an interesting read and prompted me to come up with my own list for Arizona. In this first of two posts, I share my “Bottom Five” list of what discourages me and what I’m hopeful about. First, what discourages me:

10. The extremely well funded efforts of the corporate “reformers.” Make no mistake about it, the effort by the corporate “reformers” to make sweeping changes to the Nation’s public education system is as much about making a profit as it is an interest in making a difference. The exact number is up for debate, but The Nation magazine says the American K-12 public education market is worth almost $800 billion. Now, everyone from basketball players to Turkish billionaires want a piece of the pie. It is no accident that the Koch brothers backed, corporate bill mill ALEC is pushing many of the reforms, and the technology magnates Bill Gates and Mark Zuckenberg are heavily involved in the “reforming.” All you have to do is follow the money and the intent becomes clear.

9.  The apathy of Arizona voters. I worked on three Arizona Legislative campaigns in the past few years and although I mostly enjoyed talking to voters, I was beyond dismayed when I learned that in 2014, not even half of the LD11 voters with mail-in ballots bothered to mail them in. These are people who are registered to vote and are on the Permanent Early Voters List (PEVL). They are mailed their ballots and can fill them out in the comfort of their home. They don’t even have to put a stamp on them, postage is pre-paid. These votes should have been the “low-hanging fruit.” Combined with the overall Arizona voter turnout of 27%, this is pathetic by anyone’s definition.

8.  The fact that Arizona leads in all the wrong metrics. Does Arizona care about children? Let me count the ways maybe not so much. According to the Annie E. Casey’s “Kids Count Databook”, Arizona ranks: 46th in overall child well-being, 42nd in economic well-being, 44th in education achievement, and 42nd in children’s health. The Databook also reports that 26% of Arizona’s children live in poverty, 4% more than the nationwide average. The personal finance website WalletHub reports much the same, ranking Arizona 49th for child welfare which shouldn’t surprise anyone given the dysfunction in our Department of Child Safety. I don’t know about you, but these statistics disgust me and should absolutely drive what our Legislature spends our taxpayer dollars on. It is about defining what kind of people we are, it is about helping those who can’t help themselves and it is about the future of our state.

7.  Some seem to think the path to success is to lower the bar. Even though there are people whose opinions I value that think Senator Sylvia Allen will do a good job as the Chair of the Senate Education Committee, I remain hopeful but have my doubts. Call me crazy, but I think the legislator with the most sway over what education bills see the light of day should actually have more than a high school education. Along those same lines, Arizona Representative Mark Finchem (LD11-Republican) evidently doesn’t think teaching experience is valuable for our county schools superintendents. He has already submitted House Bill 2003 for this legislative session, which seeks to delete the requirement for county schools superintendents to have a teaching certificate. Instead, it will require only a bachelor’s degree in any subject, or an associate’s degree in business, finance or accounting. I know some would ask why should county schools superintendents have certificates when the state superintendent of public instruction doesn’t require one. Well, I’d rather see us make it a condition of both jobs.

6.  The polarization of our county makes it seem impossible to come together to find real, workable solutions. I was recently speaking to a friend of mine who I’ve known for over 25 years. We started talking about education and he started railing about how all public schools do is waste money. He talked about the fancy new high school in his town that was built (in his opinion) much more ostentatious than necessary. “Why do the kids need that to learn” he asked? “Why not just give them a concrete box?” Really?? Where do I begin? Truth is, I didn’t even try because I knew he wouldn’t listen. He knew what he knew and no amount of fact was going to sway him.

But all is not lost and I am more optimistic than pessimistic about Arizona’s public education. Here’s what makes me hopeful:

10.  Across the Nation, more and more charter school scandals come to light every day highlighting the need for more transparency and accountability. I’m not glad there are charter school scandals, but I am glad the public are learning more about the dangers of a profit-making focus with inadequate oversight. That’s one of the reasons district schools have rules and controls; they are after all, dealing with taxpayer dollars. And oh by the way, it’s no longer just charter schools we need to watch. The continuous expansion of vouchers exponentially broadens the potential for abuse and requires the same kind of public oversight. There just is no magic pill to student achievement. It takes resources, dedicated professionals, and hard work. Short cuts in other words, don’t cut it.

9.  The fact that we still have dedicated professionals willing to teach in our district schools. Despite low pay, higher class sizes than the national average, insufficient supplies, inadequate facilities, and ever-changing mandates, Arizona still has close to 50,000 district teachers willing to be in our classrooms because they love the kids and they love their work. They are underappreciated and sometimes even vilified, but they know their work is important. Now, if only our Legislature acted like they knew this too.

8.  Recognition is growing that early childhood education is really important. Even Governor Ducey said in April 2015: “Research shows that a quality early childhood education experience can yield significant long-term benefits on overall development of a child. It’s the most profitable investment we can make in their future.” A recent review of 84 preschool programs showed an average of a third of a year of additional learning across language, reading and math skills. Preschool has also been shown to have as much as a seven-fold return on dollars spent over the life of the child. The public is starting to “get it” and support for preschool funding is growing.

7.  Speaking of Common Core, it seems to be working okay. Yes, I saw the recently released AzMERIT results, but we knew they would be low. That’s what happens when you raise the bar. Despite no additional funding or resources to implement Common Core (oops, I mean Arizona College and Career Standards), our districts made it happen and the numerous teachers and administrators I’ve talked to say our students are now learning more. Efforts are underway to determine what should be changed about the Arizona standards, but my guess is that they will be minor.

6.  If nothing else, the passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) saves us from the really bad legislation that was No Child Left Behind. Everything I’ve read about the new ESSA touts it an improvement over its predecessor. It reduces what some considered Federal overreach and provides states more flexibility in implementing their K-12 education programs. Which, oh by the way, makes me concerned our state legislature will look to relax requirements where it serves them, at the expense of those children who most need our help. At least now though, they won’t be able to blame everything on “the Feds”, to include whatever version of the Common Core standards we end up with.

Please stay tuned, still to come are the top five reasons I’m discouraged and hopeful.

Angry About the Apathy

Ever since election day, I’ve been very frustrated about the low voter turnout. After working very hard on two state legislative campaigns for the better part of a year, it is very disheartening to see how few people really care.  This is somewhat understandable when times are good. But how can the average Arizonan be happy with our current state of affairs?

I have to believe people voted or not based on their perceptions of who can deliver a better result.  “Perceptions” is the key word here.  I just have to say that the Regressives may have their own opinions, but they don’t get to have their own facts. Let’s just take a look at a few the myths they work hard to make us believe:

1. Trickle down hasn’t worked and doesn’t work.  The stats are clear, we have the biggest divide between the rich and poor we’ve ever seen.

2. Today’s wealthiest aren’t by and large job creators.   Hedge fund managers don’t contribute to our country’s economic well-being the way Henry Ford did.

3.  Charter schools and private school vouchers aren’t for the disadvantage children.  The vast majority of them won’t be able to go to them.

4.  Tax cutting our way to success just won’t work. Kansas anyone?

5.  The economy is recovering, but not for the average American and not at the pace it should.  With the wealthiest 40 Americans having more wealth than the bottom half of our population, the few richest just can’t buy enough houses, cars and appliances to move our economic engine forward.

We’ve all heard the saying “the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.”  Sounds like the AZ legislature in recent years.

But, I place the real blame for our current state of affairs on all those people who didn’t vote.  Many of these same people have the most reason to vote because they are most adversely affected by the trickle down philosophy the Regressives continue to push.  How anyone can believe voting can’t make a difference is beyond me.  Just think if Ron Barber had been successful in convincing only 167 more Democrats in two counties to get up off their butts and vote for him.

Yes, money in politics has always been an issue and now is a very mega major player in our electoral system.  At the end of the day though, each voter owns their own vote to use how they see fit.  If the rich and powerful exert undue influence on any of us, it is our own fault.

 

 

 

 

Definition of Insanity

I recently found myself thinking about the whole idea of “trickle down” economics. Aside from the discussion about whether or not it works, I wondered how the American public ever bought into the idea that we would be satisfied with the crumbs that drop from the table.  Of course, when the term was coined, we were in a time of general economic well-being. In other words, we were all living the good life, so it was easy to convince us the theory worked.

But it doesn’t work. It hasn’t worked in the past and it won’t work in the future. According to Wikipedia, this theory, (also referred to as supply-side economics to make it more palatable to the masses), was referred to in the 1890s by economist John Kenneth Galbraith as the “horse and sparrow” theory. This name came from the idea that “if you fed the horse enough oats, some would pass through to the road for the sparrows.” In other words, forget the crumbs from the table, the masses will only get what’s leftover after processing, and it doesn’t smell good.

Politico Magazine recently published an article by Nick Hanauer called “the Pitchforks Are Coming… For Us Plutocrats. Mr. Hanauer is one of those very wealthy one percenters who calls himself a proud and unapologetic capitalist. He credits much of his success to “a tolerance for risk and an intuition about what will happen in the future.” That intuition served him well when he invested very early on with Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon.com. The crux of his article is that rich people don’t have any “divine” right to all the spoils and that if they don’t recognize that severe wealth inequity is bad for all, revolution may be inevitable.

Hanauer makes the point that today, the wealthiest are “thriving beyond the dreams of any plutocrats in history” and the “divide between the haves and have-nots is getting worse really, really fast. Since 1950, CEO-to-worker pay ratio has increased 1,000 percent with CEOs earning 500 times the median wage as opposed to 30 times back then.  Robert Reich’s movie Inequality for All points out that since 1978, 1 percenters’ earnings have gone from eight times that of the average male U.S. Worker to 33 times more. Reich also points out that the “wealthiest 400 people in the country today have more money than the bottom 150 million Americans combined.”

Hanauer goes on to say that “these idiotic trickle-down policies are destroying [his] customer base and that the model for “rich guys” like him should be Henry Ford who figured that if he raised the wages for his employees, they’d be able to afford to buy his Model Ts. Yes, employees are also customers, what a concept! The CEO of COSTCO realizes this and that’s why he pays his employees a living wage as opposed to Wal-Mart who expects the rest of us to pick up the tab for their employees who don’t make enough to live without government assistance. When Hanauer wrote an article called “The Capitalist’s Case for a $15 Minimum Wage in June 2013, Forbes called it a “near insane proposal.” Now though, an analysis at the Center for Economic and Policy Research reports that states that raised their minimum wages are experiencing faster job growth. Business people may “love our customers rich and our employees poor” as Hanauer quips, but a growing economy loves more people with money to spend.

Instead of the failed trickle-down theory, Hanauer advocates “middle-out” economics which refers to the “much more accurate idea of an economy as a complex ecosystem made up of real people who are dependent on one another.” Rich business people aren’t the true job creators he says, but rather, middle-class consumers. Unfortunately, trickle-down economics has shrunk the middle-class so much now that there just isn’t enough purchasing power out there to move our economy forward at a reasonable pace. Rich people just can’t buy enough clothes, cars, houses, etc. to make up for the lack of purchasing power in a robust middle-class.

Honing in on what’s been going on in Arizona over the last several years, it is obvious our political leaders are advocates of trickle-down. The GOP has been in control of the legislature for the past 40 years and their approach has resulted in regressive tax policy or what I’ll refer to as trickle-down budgeting. Yes, instead of the “riches” trickling down to the little people, our legislature has worked hard to ensure the bills do. This is what happens when the state relies heavily on sales tax. This is what happens when the state underfunds public education so that locally controlled funding and contributions must try to make up the difference. This is also what happens when the state sweeps Highway User Revenue funds (HURF) to give corporations tax breaks instead of fixing roads. In the case of bad roads, we pay a double tax. We first pay a tax to maintain the roads and when the money is siphoned-off to be used for other reasons, we pay to get our cars fixed.

AZ Daily Star recently reported that Aruna Murthy, director of economic analysis for the state Department of Administration, called the state’s projected job growth “stagnant, slow, and subpar.” Yet, the 51st Legislature bragged about balancing the budget. Maybe so, but at what cost?  What they really did, was rob Peter to pay Paul, such as when   “they took $53 million from other accounts, like gasoline taxes and vehicle registration fees normally earmarked for road construction and maintenance, to help fill the gap. That money will be gone by the end of the coming fiscal year, but the looming budget hole did not stop lawmakers from cutting taxes in the name of economic development.

This, at a time when Arizonans are earning less than they were prior to the recession. Yet, under Governor Brewer, lawmakers voted to cut corporate income tax rates by 30 percent. The full impact of those cuts won’t even hit until 2018, when, according to budget analysts, the net loss to the state will be $270 million a year. Economist Dennis Hoffman, of the W.P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State University, said “if tax cuts were the key to prosperity, we would be swimming in a pool of prosperity right now.  We have clearly maximized on the tax-cut train.” Someone please relay that message to the current pool of AZ GOP governor candidates who are vowing to do away with state income tax if elected.

Albert Einstein once said that “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” It is way beyond time for us to demand better than the tired old ideas that don’t work. Two candidates for the Arizona Legislature in LD 11, Jo Holt for the Senate and Holly Lyon for the House, understand we need a new direction. They believe we must begin to invest in Arizona’s long-term health in areas such as public education and infrastructure. These are critical investments that will pay off over the long-term for both Arizona’s citizens as well as quality companies who would consider bringing good paying jobs to our state.

In my experience, if it seems to good to be true, it probably is. Arizona simply cannot continue to cut its way to prosperity. In its 2013 Kids Count Databook, the Annie E. Casey Foundation ranked Arizona 47th in the nation for our children’s welfare which included factors such as economic well-being, education, health and family and community. Not only is it obvious that going down the “trickle-down” rabbit hole is keeping our economy from recovering, but is also ensuring our next generation is handicapped from the get-go.

This November, we’ll get the chance to once again weigh in on what direction Arizona heads. Let’s make informed decisions with the long-term health of our state in mind. You owe it to yourself and to all future generations of Arizonans.

Survival of the Fittest Mentality Won’t Keep Our Nation Great

Properly educating all Arizona’s children isn’t just important to parents, it is important for all of us. Our state simply won’t progress if we don’t start focusing on improving the educational outcomes for all children, 85 percent of whom attend our traditional public schools. These schools are where we should be focused. The bottom line is that parents shouldn’t have to make a choice. Every public school should be a quality school that offers a complete curriculum that will ready our students to be productive citizens of our state and country.

School choice is not a magic panacea and it will not ensure more accountability. No school choice option provides more transparency and accountability to both taxpayers and parents than traditional community school districts overseen by locally elected school boards. The Arizona Auditor General performs and publishes an independent appraisal on public schools, looking at variety of factors such as operational efficiency, student achievement, teacher measures and financial assessment. In addition, public schools are subjected to state and federal audits of financial data, all matters of public record. That level of transparency and accountability just isn’t available when it comes to vouchers paying for private school. “A recent article in the Arizona Capitol Times[i] 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. “One tight-fisted parent” writes the Times, has “hung onto $61,047 while spending only $825.” I have to ask how this can be in the child’s best interest?

It seems we’ve always been reluctant to admit the role socio-economic states plays in educational outcomes. Improving our public education system ultimately means making headway on Arizona’s opportunity gap where one in four of our children live in poverty and we are ranked 46th in overall child well being[ii]. This will take more than testing, it will take political will and hard work and it won’t happen overnight. The well funded, hard charging push to “throw the baby out with the bathwater” in privatizing public schools obfuscates the real problem and is designed to turn huge profits for those who already have plenty.

I get that parents want to ensure their child has the best they can provide. Our state legislators and education officials though, are supposed to ensure that every child has an adequate education, taxpayer dollars are well spent and, the educational needs of our state workforce are met. This isn’t happening. Instead, our nation has the highest rate of segregation since the mid-1960s and the “idea of social responsibility for the common good[iii]” seems all but gone. While families with the wherewithal to avail themselves of options are leaving public schools to pursue options they perceive as better, educational opportunities for the middle and low-income students left behind continue to decline. In the end, this gulf between the haves and have-nots serves to “defeat the goals of a democratic society, which does best when there is integration across class, race and ethnic lines.”[iv]

The survival of the fittest mentality isn’t one I think we should be proud of. I always thought the American dream was that if you applied yourself in school, “kept your nose clean” and worked hard, you and your children would wind up better off than where you started. America was the land of opportunity…and a free public education was both a driver of that opportunity and of our rapid ascension to greatness as a nation. I believe it is key to keeping us there.

[i] http://azcapitoltimes.com/news/2014/04/15/millions-remain-unspent-in-school-choice-program/

[ii] http://www.aecf.org/KnowledgeCenter/Publications.aspx?pubguid=%7B68E8B294-EDCD-444D-85E4-D1C1576830FF%7D

[iii] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/arthur-camins/why-god-bless-the-child-t_b_5118915.html

[iv] 50 Myths & Lies that Threaten America’s Public Schools, The Real Crisis in Education, David C. Berliner and Gene V Glass and Associates, Teachers College, Columbia University, 2014

What about MY choice?

UGH!  Right on the heels of my last post about why school vouchers are a bad idea, comes the Arizona Supreme Court ruling yesterday that private-school vouchers are legal.  Okay, so there goes my belief that we had at least one sane decision making body in Phoenix!  In fact, they ruled without comment, refusing to override a Court of Appeals decision which said empowerment scholarship accounts “do not run afoul of a state constitutional provision that bars public funds from being used to subsidize private and parochial schools since parents decide where the money goes, not state officials.

This logic reminds me of another disastrous Supreme Court (the real one) decision that rule corporations are people and allowed unprecedented influence in our electoral system by the über-wealthy.  I mean really?  Because parents decide where the money goes, my tax dollars can be used to pay for private or parochial schools?  What happened to separation of church and state?  Why even the Arizona constitution states it is illegal to use tax dollars for religious worship or instruction.  In his ruling, appellate Judge Jon Thompson said nothing in the program amounts to the state providing funds for religious worship or instruction. He wrote: “The ESA students are pursuing a basic secondary education consistent with state standards, they are not pursuing a course of religious study.”  Wow!  That’s an amazing leap of faith (no pun intended) since lawmakers have continually fought any attempt to attach any kind of accountability to the ESAs and private and parochial schools already aren’t held to the same kind of accountability and transparency requirements as public schools.  That’s like the US Supreme Court’s statement about Citizens United that they had no reason to believe declaring corporations people would adversely affect elections.

This latest court ruling now clears the way for legislation currently working its way through the full House that would boost eligibility to 800,000 students in Arizona.  This, despite the fact that the Joint Legislative Budget Committee (JLBC) said this plan would cost more than the current budget ($12.5 million by 2019) for education because vouchers would be available to kindergartners who might otherwise have attended private schools anyway at parental expense.  

I am livid!  Why does a parent’s right to choose override my right to ensure my tax dollars are well spent and produce the right results?  As a school board member, I am directly engaged in governance at the local level.  Our Board meetings are open to the public and their comment is encouraged.  Together, in a spirit of transparency and cooperation, we work to ensure our student’s best interests are paramount.  When a child attends a private or parochial school on my taxpayer dime, I won’t know what he or she is being taught, how well he or she learned it, or what percentage of my money actually went directly to their education.  In that the funding can also be used for curriculum, testing, tutors (without any certification), special needs services or therapies, or even seed money for college, there is zero accountability for ensuring the public’s interests are represented in ensuring a well-educated electorate.  That is why the Arizona School Boards Association has strongly opposed vouchers and fought this court battle.

This is a bad decision which will produce bad results.  It will most certainly do what proponents are intending for it to do – accelerate the death of our public schools, at the very least, accentuating a two-tiered system of haves and have-nots.  And that, I believe, will lead to the eventual liquidation of our democracy.  Don’t believe me?  Just sit back, do nothing and watch the destruction. 

 

 

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.