Oh No She Didn’t!

AZ Capitol Times reported today that in response to a Save Our Schools suggestion that voucher expansion should be “sidelined” while the battle for public education funding continues, Kim Martinez, a spokeswoman for the American Federation For Children, said she was “unimpressed”. Martinez also said that, “It is unfortunate that Save Our Schools continues to take a stance against children who need ESAs, a program that helps disadvantaged students who are slipping through the cracks at their neighborhood schools. It is short-sighted to put funding concerns above children whose learning requirements have to be met today.”

Bravo Ms. Martinez, I couldn’t have said it better myself, at least not your words about the urgency of meeting children’s learning requirements. It totally IS short-sighted to put funding concerns above children whose learning requirements have to be met today. It IS totally unacceptable that public school students entering high school next year, have yet to be in an adequately funded classroom. It IS totally unacceptable that the Arizona Legislature continues to favor corporate welfare over ensuring our public schools are adequately funded.

As for your swipe at Save Our Schools for their “stance against…disadvantaged students who are slipping through the cracks at their neighborhood schools”, give me a break! We know that Save Our Schools is fighting for exactly these children and all one million Arizona public school students. We also know that you are fighting for Betsy DeVos and her privatization movement. Neither Save Our Schools, nor our public schools at large, are responsible for “disadvantaged students who are slipping through the cracks. The enemies of these students are 1) poverty and 2) our failure to deal with it.

Our children cannot continue to wait for the adults to understand that education is not an expense, it is an investment. They cannot wait for us to realize that every child matters and deserves the opportunity to succeed. Every day that passes without this as our driving force, is another day of lost opportunity for us all.

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Partisan? You bet! My party is Public Education.

I am a big believer in the two-party system. Our system of government works best when all sides are heard and considered. That is most likely to happen when the power is balanced, forcing legislators to negotiate and compromise. Our founding fathers purposefully designed many checks and balances into our system and I believe our two-party system helps in that regard.

In Arizona, the Democrats must gain only two additional seats in the State Senate to reach parity with the Republicans and in my opinion that would be a very good thing. Then, our senators from both parties would be forced to work together in finding good compromises to solve the problems facing our state.

One of the biggest problems facing our state is the inadequate resources provided our district schools. Arizona is one of the nation’s leaders in promoting school choice and although 80-plus percent of our students choose district schools, resources continue to be siphoned away from these schools in favor of other options. Many of our legislators, largely the Democrats, get this. Several Republicans are also on board.

Friends of ASBA, a sister organization of the Arizona School Boards Association, publishes an annual voting record of our legislators. This “Friends of ASBA Educating Arizona” report shows how every Arizona legislator voted on high priority K-12 education bills in 2016. The bills are grouped into three focus areas: funding, vouchers and local control, and the voting record is based on whether the legislators voted with, or against the ASBA position.

I encourage you to click here for the report to get the entire story. As you go through the report, you’ll note 56 legislators received “extra credit” for their behind the scenes efforts on behalf of public education. This credit is noted by + signs and the maximum extra credit points awarded were +++. Below, I show the Republican legislators who voted with ASBA’s position more than two-thirds of the time. I’d like the percentages to be even higher, but 33 Republican legislators didn’t even have a score higher than 50%. I should note that four Democratic legislators, Rep Sally Ann Gonzales (57%), Rep Jennifer Benally (43%), Rep Albert Hale (57%), and Rep Juan Mendez (57%) did not meet my “two-thirds of the time voting with ASBA” threshold.

LD Senator % Representative % Representative %
1 Steve Pierce++ 67 Karen Fann+ 71 Noel Campbell 71
2 Christopher Ackerley++ 71
8 TJ Shope+ 71
15 Heather Carter++ 71
16 Doug Coleman++ 100
18 Jeff Dial++ 67 Jill Norgaard 63 Bob Robson++ 71
20 Paul Boyer++ 63
21 Rick Gray+ 63
28 Adam Driggs++ 89 Kate Brophy McGee++ 71

The legislators in the chart above have at times taken brave stances on behalf of our district school students. Those I’ve actually met with seemed sincerely intent on doing the right thing for our students. They have earned my respect.

It is never a good idea to be closed to the opinions and ideas of others, nor is it smart to vote straight party line without regard to the issues and how candidates lean on those issues. For incumbents, the voting record tells us where they stand on public education. For candidates who haven’t ever been elected, it is our duty to read and listen to what they say about where they stand. And oh by the way, it is not good enough for a candidate to say he/she is “for education.” If you want to be sure they support the efforts of the schools educating over 80 percent of our students, they must say they are “for public education.” Of course, this leaves the door open for them to be staunchly pro-charter, but at least there is a modicum of transparency and accountability for the taxpayer dollars provided charter schools unlike with private options.

No matter what problems you most want solved, there can be no doubt that the more our students are prepared to deal with them, the better off we will all be. In my opinion, locally elected, governing board-led, public school districts offer the best chance we have to ensure every student has every opportunity to succeed. That’s why I am passionately pro-public education and why that’s the “party” that most matters to me.

When is a charter school a bad idea?

Hint: the answer is not,  “never.” It is a bad idea, according to education blogger Peter Green, “when charters disrupt and displace [district] public schools.” I would add that often, these district schools are the hubs of their communities so charters contribute to disrupting these communities as well.

Case in point is a new charter school (Legacy Traditional School) being built in Glendale, Arizona. Scheduled to open in time for the 2016/17 school year, the new campus will serve 1,200 K-8 students at the northeast corner of 67th Avenue and Thunderbird Road. Sounds good, right? Problem is, this school is being built within the boundaries of the Peoria Unified School District, within two miles of 10 of their “A” or “B” rated elementary schools (50 percent of PUSD’s schools are rated “A”, another 25 percent are rated “B.)  When PUSD has the capacity to serve the 1,200 students Legacy hopes to eventually attract, why is this school necessary, or even in the best interest of this community?When the charter school concept was first embraced back in 1988, it was as “a new kind of public school where teachers could experiment with fresh and innovative ways of reaching students.” In Cologne, Germany, Albert Shanker visited a public school where teachers made the critical decisions about what and how to teach and the school had students with a broad mix of abilities, family incomes, and ethnicity. He said charter schools could “reinvigorate the twin promises of American public education: to promote social mobility for working-class children and social cohesion among America’s increasingly diverse populations.” Shanker also believed charter schools should be unionized because of the critical role he believed unions played in democratic societies.

Unfortunately, today’s charter schools are an entirely different animal than Shanker envisioned. They are more autocratic (empowering management versus teachers) and more segregated (by race and income) than ever and only about 12 percent of charters provide their teachers union representation. No wonder an “astounding 24 percent of charter school teachers leave their school each year, double the rate of turnover in traditional public schools.”

They are now seen as “a vehicle for infusing competition and market forces into public education.” Whether intentionally or not, charters have served to re-segregate education to a level not seen since the 1960s. A side benefit for the corporate reformers was also no doubt, the weakening of teacher unions and therefore less democracy in our schools and communities. All this eventually brought us to where we are today. Instead of charter schools augmenting and serving as “laboratory partners to public schools”, they are now in direct competition for students and the dollars they bring. Make no mistake, today’s charters – whether they are for-profit or non-profit – are as much about making a profit, as they are about educating children.

What suffers from this “competition” mindset is the collaboration between schools, overall efficient and effective use of available education funding, the richness of the educational experience that truly diverse schools can bring, and the strong school climate vibrant teacher voices can bring. This diversity isn’t just valuable for our students of color, but for their white counterparts as well. Those students who’ve experienced more diversity will be more successful in the ever-increasingly global economy.

So, here we are. A brand new charter school is under construction, right in the middle of 10 excellent district schools with plenty of capacity. As Legacy Traditional School is a non-profit entity, I suspect the school is funded with a bond issued by the Phoenix Industrial Development Authority (quasi-private so the taxpayer is not on the hook.) Nonetheless, the Legacy charter will compete directly with PUSD for what are already too few maintenance and operation dollars. As for other for-profit charters, they’ll likely turn to SB 1531 signed into law during this year’s legislative session which, provides $100 million to provide collateral for lower interest rates on charter school project loans. When those charters default, Arizona taxpayers will get the bill. (Don’t even get me started on how the $100 million could have helped our district schools.) In either case, said Tracey Benson, of the Arizona School Boards Association, charter schools added will “build corporate assets – those held by privately operated charter schools – versus community assets – our local district public schools that add value to our cities and neighborhoods.”

I’m not a charter “hater”, I’ve seen some that serve a special niche and provide a valuable alternative. What I do hate is the narrative that charters are superior to district public education, that they ensure disadvantaged students have access to a “high-quality choice”, and that they save the state money…because that narrative is largely false. At the end of the day, over 80 percent of Arizona’s students attend district public schools and that should be our first priority for funding and support.

 

 

 

 

 

Part 2 – Why Ducey’s Promise to Lower Taxes is a Lie

In my previous post, I showed why Governor Ducey’s focus on tax reduction is a disastrous recipe for our state. Now let’s look at how those tax reductions we’ve been seeing aren’t really helping the average Arizonan. Instead, we continue to see the tax burden transferred from those who have, to those who can least afford.

Governor Ducey is intent on eliminating income tax in Arizona. Why might you ask? Because, for this Governor and others like him, it is ALL about business. And although corporate tax breaks are good for large business, 97% of the employers in Arizona are small businesses like S-corporations, LLCs and partnerships. These businesses amount to over 40% of the private workforce and are currently taxed by the state via income tax. I’m not sure whether ASU’s Center for the Study of Economic Liberty 2015 policy report by Stephen Slivinski is the “policy roadmap to elimination of the Arizona income tax” as it claims, or, if it was written to support Governor Ducey’s tax reduction plan. At any rate, Slivinski concludes in the report that: “The best hope Arizona policymakers have to eliminate the income tax is to phase it out over a number of years while maintaining budget balance.” He also makes the point that now that the state is on “surer fiscal footing”; it is time for Arizona policymakers “to look at important and necessary reforms over the next couple of years.” Waiting longer he claims, “may result in losing a golden opportunity.” Sounds like a Ducey talking point commercial to me.

Arizona already has though, the 13th-lowest individual income tax and the 10th-lowest combined state and local income tax in the Nation. Additionally, according to an article in Business Insider in August 2014, Arizona’s economy was ranked the 4th fastest growing in the US after Colorado, California and Texas. Of course, we also have the 4th highest poverty rate in the US with one in five Arizonans living in poverty. Obviously, there are winners and losers in Arizona’s current economy and Governor Ducey’s insistence on eliminating the state income tax and shifting state revenue collection to increased sales tax will do nothing to help those who most need it. Although sales tax is said to be a less volatile form of revenue than income tax, it also is the most regressive, hitting the poorest the hardest.

Of course, income and sales taxes are just two ways a state can tax its residents, there are a multitude of others. Here’s just a few examples of how we continue to be “taxed” all the while Governor Ducey claims he is reducing our tax burden.

 1.  The highest per-pupil cuts in K-12 education funding in the Nation from 2008 to 2012 caused Arizona school districts to seek more locally controlled funding as a way to survive. The number of districts asking their communities for funding through bonds and overrides in 2015 was up 150 percent since 2008. The good news for districts is that the voters recognized the need for the funding and the approval rate for these measures was also high. The bad news is that this was no reduction in taxes, but just a shifting from the state to the local level. Unfortunately, often the communities with districts most in need have the least amount of capacity to help.

2.  Another solution many districts were forced to try in order to make ends meet was to reduce their school week from five days to four. As of May 2015, 43 districts (most in rural communities) in Arizona have already gone this route with many others considering following suit.  Arizona districts make up one-third of all four-day week districts in the Nation. There is debate over whether this move really produces the touted savings in the long run, but parents certainly don’t come out on top.  Rather, a four-day school week often requires parents to find childcare or, reduce the hours they work in order to care for their children when they are not in school. It also results in decreased wages for cafeteria workers and bus drivers. These people (especially in rural areas) may not have any real options to make up the difference.

3.  The state’s push of school choice via charters and Empowerment Scholarship Accounts (essentially vouchers) has been another way to transfer education costs to the local level. Charters usually require parents to transport their children to the school, do not offer any free and reduced lunch programs, and often require donations of parents. Schools in the Great Hearts Academy schools for example, “recommend parents contribute at least $1,200 to $1,500 per year per child to the school. There are also a variety of fees that are either not charged at all in district schools, or are much lower than what the charters charge.

4.  Even before Governor Ducey and the Legislature cut $99 million from our state universities and $19 million from our community colleges, Arizona had the deepest cuts in the Nation to higher-education spending. Those cuts drove the significant fee hikes and steepest tuition hikes as well, rising 83.6% since 2008.

5.  The Highway User Revenue Fund (HURF) which includes several taxes and fees such as the gasoline and vehicle license tax, was established to maintain roads, bridges and other transportation needs in the state. The Legislature swept about $860 million from this fund from 2000 to 2014 for other priorities. This forced local government to try to keep up with a more than $455 million in backlogs (with only 70% of cities reporting) for construction, repair, and maintenance of municipal streets. This isn’t just a double tax on Arizona residents (pay taxes to maintain the roads, then pay for car repairs after unmaintained roads cause damage), but also translates into a significant loss of jobs that could employ Arizonans to repair infrastructure and ensures that if and when the repairs occur, they will cost significantly more than if we had just maintained the infrastructure to begin with.

6.  In 2015, the state shifted 25% of the cost (about $12 million) for housing juvenile offenders to the counties, based on total population of the county. The counties are now required to raise the funds for this bill either through increased taxes or reduced services.

7.  Also in 2015, the cost to pay the Arizona Department of Revenue to collect and distribute sales taxes was passed down from the state to cities and counties. The change is expected to cost cities and counties about $17 million. This change applied even in counties that don’t charge a sales tax (such as Pima whose share of this new bill is $1.6 million.)

8.  In the past, the state picked up most of the cost of presidential primary elections. In 2016 however, the cost for these elections will be pushed down to the counties who will pay more than $3 million extra to cover those costs.

There are countless examples of this shifting of real costs, and even more in lost opportunity costs. Local governments say the state merely balanced its budget on their backs and saddled them with a huge financial burden that will continue to result in layoffs, tax increases and crumbling roads. Governor Ducey’s office responded that it is up to local government leaders to make responsible decisions. Really? How can local government leaders make responsible decisions when budget expenses they had no part in approving, are forced upon them without any vote in the process? Leave it to Ducey and Company to not only make a really bad brown matter sandwich for local governments to eat, but then also blame them for complaining how it tastes.

In this, as with any debate, it is possible to find a source to support any point of view. For me it is really this simple…does it make sense that you would tax the poor more to provide tax relief for the rich? Does it make sense that corporations are lured to locate in a state so they can pay even less than the under one percent they generally pay in corporate taxes? Or, does it make more sense that corporations are savvy and look at a variety of indicators to determine where to locate such as the quality of local schools, availability of a quality workforce, or a solid infrastructure? One doesn’t need to be a genius to understand basic economic concepts, all it really takes is a little common sense. A strong middle class is the best path to prosperity for our communities and our nation and economic policies that support its growth are the solution. Our tax policies should incentivize the behavior we need for the health of our communities, states and nation, not for the enrichment of a few. Finally, business definitely has a critical role to play, but so does government. It should ensure we are provided the basic essentials of safety, security, infrastructure and education and our tax policies should ensure sufficient revenue to do that properly. And, it should do that at the right level so as to ensure proper oversight and economies of scale.

No one party has the right answer here and there is no one right solution. It takes a smart application of available tools, wise employment of lessons learned and yes, a whole lot of common sense. Alas, as Voltaire is credited with saying in the early 1700’s: “Common sense is not so common.”

 

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

This is war!

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Make no mistake about it, there is a full-blown war underway for public education funding.

Corporate reformers (who bill themselves as “education reformers”) are totally focused on their mission to access the over $600 Billion spent each year on educating America’s K-12 students.  Forget about wanting improved outcomes for our students.  The only improved outcomes corporate reformers are after is that of their profits and portfolios.

What public education advocates must realize is that this truly is a full-blown battle for the hearts and minds of parents and taxpayers.  The corporate reformers have been clever.  How else to describe their ability to sell “school choice” as something parents should want.  Forget about expecting our state legislators to do their primary job of ensuring a quality public education for all.  Forget about transparency, local control and concern for the common good.  It’s survival of the fittest, dog eat dog, and every student for themselves.  After all, as long as MY kid is taken care of, what does it matter?

Problem is, none of us lives in a bubble.  We must rely on each other for a well-functioning, civil society.  The purpose of education can’t be just to make a child college and career ready.  Thomas Jefferson said:  “Educate and inform the whole mass of the people… They are the only sure reliance for the preservation of our liberty.”

So ultimately, this is more than a war to save public education.  It is really a battle to save our Nation.  No, I am not overstating this.  If we really want to continue to be self-governing, where each of us has say as well as a shot at the American Dream, we must win this war.

The Corporate Reformers are right…this is the civil rights issue of our time.  But, their definition of the “this” is tied to school choice and that is absolutely the wrong focus.  The real civil rights issue of our time is whether or not we believe EVERY child has the right to equal opportunity to succeed or, if we are going to only focus on those with the resources to buy the opportunity to succeed.

A commitment to public education is what made America the greatest nation on earth.  Yes, we must win the hearts and minds and we must win this war.

Parents shouldn’t have to choose, kids shouldn’t have to lose

The education reform movement loves to tout that parent’s right to choose is the “civil rights issue of our time.”  They point to how charter and private schools, and the vouchers to fund them will allow disadvantaged children to leave the public schools they are at and move to better performing schools which will better serve them.  This will eventually cause the bad public schools to close and raise the tide for all.  There are several reasons why this line of reasoning just doesn’t meet the smell test.

First of all, choice doesn’t always equal opportunity.  Not every parent can complete the complex applications sometimes required, or transport their children to the charter or private school, or put in the requisite number of volunteer hours sometimes required.  Secondly, there is no evidence that charter schools on the whole perform better than public schools.  In fact, despite the fact that charter schools are supposed to be open to  all, they still often cherry pick their students, accepting less than their share of special education or English language learning students.  Lastly, as I just mentioned, there just won’t be a wholesale departure from public education to charter and private schools.  Arizona is a leader in the charter school movement and yet almost 90 percent of our school children still attend district schools.  What will happen is the better students with more advantages, will potentially try other alternatives.  Those that can’t take advantage of opportunity however, will remain and segregation, the highest now since 1964, will just continue to increase.

The real truth however, is that parents should not have to make a choice.  Every public school in America should provide a quality education with a full curriculum including music, art and physical education.  Unfortunately, now in the Oracle School District, we no longer offer music or art and because of our recently failed override continuation (by 98 votes), we’ll most likely be forced to cut physical education.  And so the death spiral continues.  Funding is cut, forcing schools to cut the program or take it “out of hide”.  Of course, our education professionals work hard to find a way to still do it all.  That in itself contributes to the death spiral because then the taxpayer can claim “see, you didn’t need that funding after all.”  Cutting programs is just as bad, because it can cause students to leave the district for another that still provides the desired program.  This then reduces the District’s budget and means they can provide even less.  This is a formula for failure, not success.

In the meantime, we owe our all our children the opportunity to succeed, regardless of zip code or skin color.  Our future as a nation depends on it because we never know from where our best and brightest will emerge.  Charter schools have a place in our education system.  There are needs they best serve.  But…they were never intended to replace public community schools and in Arizona, they cost the taxpayers $1,000 more in state-provided funding per pupil than district schools.

America is a great nation.  Public education for all contributed greatly to our success.  The full-on assault currently being waged on public education threatens our success.  Contrary to what the education reformists would have you believe, our public schools are performing well.  Our graduation rate is higher than ever, our dropout rate is lower than ever, and our students’ performance on international tests is on par with just about any other nation when we factor out the affects of poverty.  Poverty is the issue that threatens our education system, and our schools can’t solve this problem.  It will take all of us working together to address it.