The Festering Wound

First, let me be absolutely clear. I will applaud any modicum of success Donald Trump realizes as POTUS. It’s currently hard to envision, but if it does happen, I will give credit where credit is due. My bottom line is that I want our country to succeed and flourish.

Second, although I didn’t vote for him, I don’t believe President Trump is the worst threat to our democracy. He is just the most visible symptom…the metaphorical “pus” that oozes from the infected wound. Yes, part of reason he was elected is that middle America is tired of being ignored and wants change. I get that. I wish our system had offered them better choices. But, he was also propelled to victory because of the “bacteria” of racism and hatred, fed by the “talking heads” and Internet content of questionable veracity. Over time, this bacteria infected the wound, generating the “pus” which indicated a problem.

What was the original wound? Well, it depends on how far back you want to go. In my lifetime, I think it would have to be the denial of civil rights that led to the civil rights movement that led to resentments (that I believe were unjustified) that so significantly wounded our national psyche. Please don’t get me wrong. President Lyndon Johnson was absolutely right to sign the Civil Rights Act in 1964. It helped right many of the wrongs that had permeated for too long against way too many. Unfortunately, the change in law was, in some ways, just a band-aid that masked the wound. It helped the healing begin, but did not deliver the antibiotics to cure the sickness. No doubt, the antibiotics (eradicate poverty, fix the criminal justice system, win the war on drugs) were huge pills that we weren’t willing to swallow. As a result, the wound never properly healed.

The more optimistic part of me says, “at least now the hatred and resentment is out in the open. At least now we can see the extent of the sickness and begin to deal with it.” Problem is, it will now take even more powerful and costly antibiotics to heal the wound, assuming we could even agree what the wound is.

A couple of days ago, I was listening to NPR’s “On Point.” The discussion was about President Obama’s legacy and a caller said he was really glad Obama was gone because of “the hate he sowed.” The show’s host was obviously incredulous and asked the caller why he thought this. The caller said, “when Trayvon Martin was killed, Obama immediately came out with a statement about how ‘it could have been my son.’” The host said he didn’t think there wasn’t anything racist in that statement, rather, President Obama was trying to empathize with Trayvon’s family. The caller though seemed undeterred. I don’t think he was trying to be inflammatory, but sincerely believed Obama was stoking racism. Try as I might, I can’t begin to understand how he came to that conclusion and it makes me really sad for our country and our democracy. Day after day, especially since Trump’s election, I encounter viewpoints from neighbors and acquaintances that are 180 degrees different from mine on a myriad of issues. How did we get to this place and more importantly, what are we going to do about it?

Obviously there were a combination of factors that brought us here. First, the choice of “news” sources we now enjoy ensures there is much less homogeny in our perspectives than when Walter Cronkite told all of us “that’s the way it is” at the end of each day. Not only that, but algorithmed social media continually feeds us “news” that only serves to ingrain the beliefs we already hold. This is compounded by the “echo chambers” “that allow us to promote our favorite narratives, form polarized groups and resist information that doesn’t conform to our beliefs.”

Second, some of us have lost the true meaning of patriotism. I contend patriotism is not about symbolism such as wearing a flag pin or flying the flag. In fact, George Washington implored Americans to “Guard against the impostures of pretended patriotism.” Rather, as John F. Kennedy said, patriotism is about asking “what we can do for our country” versus what “our country can do for us.” Patriotism is also, as Republican President Theodore Roosevelt said, “to stand by the country. It does not mean to stand by the president or any other public official, save exactly to the degree in which he himself stands by the country. It is patriotic to support him insofar as he efficiently serves the country. It is unpatriotic not to oppose him to the exact extent that by inefficiency or otherwise he fails in his duty to stand by the country. In either event, it is unpatriotic not to tell the truth, whether about the president or anyone else.”  Our nations’ newest President would do well to heed the words of his 26th predecessor who was after all, immortalized on Mt. Rushmore for being one of the most popular and important of our Presidents.

Third, is our “me-first” attitude at the expense of any concern for the common good. Government is evil and should be reduced in size “where we can drown it in the bathtub” said Grover Norquist. And yet, government is us. It is our collective voice. It is the entity that we elect to ensure the safety and security of our citizens and the education of our children. In fact, our lack of national committment to a well-rounded, well-resourced, and truly public, educational system is a great example of the “me-first” attitude. The school choice movement, pushed by corporate profiteers, is cleverly devised to take advantage of this. It is not about ensuring ALL children have every opportunity to succeed, just “my” kid. It IS about resegregating our society by socio-economic status thereby over the long-term, ensuring wealth inequity is only exacerbated. It is also about reducing the people’s voice in our democracy and funneling as much of the $700 billion education market to the private sector as possible. It should be no surprise this is the goal of the rich and powerful. After all, as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., said, “The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically.” The less we all think it seems, the more our leaders can…well…“stink”, without us calling them on it.

Last, is our collective laziness surrounding the exercise of our civic duties. “Somebody” we say, should vote, should call, should march, should write letters, should run for office. Truth is, all of us should do most of those things. Charles de Montesquieu, a French philosopher who lived in the 17th and 18th century, said, “The tryanny of a prince in an oligarchy is not so dangerous to the public welfare as the apathy of a citizen in a democracy.” A democracy simply must have an engaged citizenry to be successful. I believe one of the important ways to be engaged is for each of us to pay our fair share of taxes. Author Alain de Botton eloquently said, “Paying tax should be framed as a glorious civic duty worthy of gratitude – not a punishment for making money.” Performing jury service or signing up for the draft are two other ways we fulfill our civic duties. The important point is that each of us realizes that the freedoms we enjoy don’t come free.

As for what we can do to turn things around, well therein lies the rub, right? I’m pretty sure that it starts with listening to each other again. As the saying goes, “that’s why God gave us two ears and one mouth.” It’s not just enough to listen though, we must actually hear and respond with compassion because even though it doesn’t seem like it now, we really are all in this together. If we could just find some common ground, we could start to rebuild. This rebuilding would initially look like tolerance of each other but hopefully would work its way up to acceptance. It would require respect for one another’s right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness; and that each of us strive to develop a “more perfect union.” Of course, to truly be a “more perfect union” we must understand that there are blue states and red states, white people and people of color, Christians and Muslims, men and women, etc. We must understand that our diversity doesn’t “ruin” America, it is what makes us great. It is what has always made us great. United we stand, divided we fall. Words to live by, now more than ever.

Advertisements

Just rearranging the deck chairs ain’t gonna cut it

Representing the AZSchools Now Coalition, Arizona’s 2016 Teacher of the Year Christine Marsh and I recently attended and spoke at a Classrooms First Initiative Council meeting in Phoenix. The Coalition consists of the Arizona Associations of: Education, Business and Education, School Boards, Superintendents, and Parent and Teachers. Also part of the coalition are the Children’s Action Alliance, Valley Interfaith Project, and Support Our Schools AZ. It was formed post-Prop 123 to provide focus to reinvesting in public schools as a way to boost student achievement.

The Classrooms First Initiative Council was established by Governor Ducey in January 2015 and charged with modernizing the school finance formula to ensure adequate funding is available for teachers and classroom instruction. The first of the two main events of this latest meeting was a presentation by Expect More Arizona on the Education Progress Meter. This meter has been accepted by virtually every education group, numerous community and municipality organizations, and 26 major business entities. It measures Arizona’s progress in eight areas to include teacher pay, preschool enrollment, 3rd grade reading, 8th grade math, high school graduation, opportunity youth, college going, and post-secondary attainment.

The other main discussion was about the proposals submitted by education groups for the Council’s consideration. In speaking for the AZSchools Now proposal, I advocated for additional resources to attract and retain high quality teachers in light of the both the current shortage as well as the some 26,000 eligible for retirement starting in 2018. Not only is the shortage critical, but teacher turnover is disruptive and expensive, costing as much as $50,000 to find and contract a new one. ADE reports we have almost 93,000 certified teachers in Arizona, but only 67,000 of them are working in the profession. Many of those who left would love to still be teaching, but were forced to seek employment that would better support their families. (According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median Arizona elementary school teacher salary is $40,590 while the national median is $54,120. Starting salaries are much lower, often in the $30,000-per-year range.) Even so, one of the changes under consideration by the Council is to eliminate the Teacher Experience Index. As you might guess, this index helps keep experienced teachers in our AZ classrooms and the Coalition believes eliminating it will only exacerbate the problem. If we want to ensure high-quality education, we must have high-quality teachers and that can’t be done on the cheap. With fewer teachers entering the pipeline and over 26,000 eligible to retire by 2018, merely “rearranging the deck chairs on Titanic” I said, won’t do anything to keep this “boat from sinking.”

I also spoke about the Coalition’s recommendation to consider adding a B-weight for poverty to the school finance formula. This is critical because statewide, 58 percent of our K-12 students are eligible for free and reduced meals and many deal with a multitude of poverty related challenges at home, greatly affecting their preparedness to learn at school. That’s why the Coalition believes it is one of the most significant steps needed to make the school finance formula more equitable and fair. We know these students typically face barriers relating to transportation, housing, and levels of support in their communities and families for which additional resources are needed to help them achieve success.

Christine also made a case for additional funding, but her impassioned plea was focused on ensuring reasonable classroom sizes so that no students fall between the cracks. She told of average student loads for AZ high school teachers of 170 students and said that makes it tough for teachers to give each student the individualized attention they deserve. (The National Center for Education Statistics’ reports Arizona has 1.1 million K-12 students, and just 48,358 full-time teachers making our student-teacher ratio almost 23:1 compared to the national average of 16:1. According to WalletHub, only California and Utah are worse.)

She also pointed out that a future President of the United States is in a K-12 classroom somewhere, and current events highlight the importance of our getting this right. Stating that yes, salary is an important factor to encourage teachers to stay in their profession, Christine said it is also important that teachers feel they have what they need to really make a difference. And although she wanted to focus on the needs of students, not teachers, she noted the reality of workloads on the ability to do the job. Even if, she said, she only assigns three writing assignments per week to her 160 students, and each of those papers only takes five minutes to grade, that can amount to over 40 hours of grading time per week, and that takes place outside of the classroom. As if illustrating this point, after she spoke to the Council Christine resumed grading the stack of student papers she had brought with her.

Chris Thomas, Lead Council for the Arizona School Bards Association, said Arizona has one of the most equitable funding formulas in the nation, but is not adequately funding the formula. He highlighted the need for reinstating the cost analysis for special education funding as a way to ensure costs to provide service to these students are adequately funded while not pulling funding away from other programs. Chris also made the point that in considering a new funding formula, transparency should be ensured for the use of all public funds. Sarah Ellis, a Flagstaff Governing Board member, spoke during public comments, reiterating the need for locally controlled funding and the continuation of desegregation funding. For the Flagstaff Unified School District she said, the desegregation funds exceed that received from Prop. 123.

I was encouraged by the questions asked by members of the Council as well as the number of attendees in the audience. There was standing room only and attendees had come from all over the state to participate. I was pleased to hear some Council members voice their concerns that viable solutions to the finance formula would not be possible without additional resources, including the Chair, Jim Swanson. One member did note the reality of convincing the state legislature of this reality, but Swanson indicated he is ready to take on those who may not agree with the Council’s eventual recommendations.

Overall, I was encouraged by the meeting. Although I would have liked the membership of the Council to be more representative of the K-12 population in our state (majority Hispanic), I found them to be actively listening and serious about finding the best solutions. I am also very encouraged about the AZSchools Now coalition. One of the Coalition members, Support Our Schools AZ and its subsidiary the Arizona Parents Network, is an example of the grassroots efforts that has blossomed during and since the post-Prop 123 battle. What is especially important about this development is that it involves mostly parents who are naturally fierce advocates for their children.

One such fierce parent is Alana Brussin, whose My Turn” op-ed titled Tying school success to vouchers is a sham was recently published by the Arizona Republic. Her piece highlights the reasons community district schools are the overwhelming choice of Arizona families, in spite of the best efforts of state leaders and other school privatization advocates.

Just as Mothers Against Drunk Driving turned the tide on the public’s acceptance of drinking and driving, I’m confident our fierce parents can turn the tide on the assault on community district schools and ultimately the students they serve. Every child deserves every opportunity to succeed and when that happens, we all succeed. It really is that simple.

Prop 123 deal was hard-fought

In a recent AZ Daily Star op-ed, former educator and school board member Jim Christ compared the Old Testament story of Esau trading his inheritance for a bowl of lentil soup as an example of a “beyond foolish” bargain, to Prop. 123. If Esau was starving and did not know where his next meal would come from, it might not have been such a foolish bargain.

Arizona ranks 50th in the nation on adjusted per pupil expenditure ($4,047 less than, or 31 percent below, the national average.) Even if Prop 123 passes, it won’t move us out of our current place in education funding, that’s how far behind we are. Our state also ranks 49th for median teacher’s salaries, so it should be no surprise that 49 percent of our teachers report frozen salaries as the top reason for leaving. We have a huge teacher shortage not because we don’t have enough certified teachers in the state, but because they can’t feed their families on a teacher’s salary.

Christ also said the Arizona Education Association (AEA) and the Arizona School Boards Association (ASBA)“caved in” to coercion by Gov. Ducey and Senate President Andy Biggs. That is an incredibly simplistic view of both a lengthy court battle and complicated negotiations. The truth is, had the AEA and ASBA and other plaintiffs not held the lawsuit defendants “feet to the fire”, they likely would never have agreed to pay anything. After all, even though the inflation funding mandate was found in 2013 to be voter protected by the Arizona Supreme Court, and Superior Court Judge Cooper ordered a reset of the base level, no court has ordered a payment of the back pay. The plaintiffs negotiated hard to get 70 percent of the total amount owed. They also drove 1) inflation funding preserved in perpetuity, 2) no strings attached to the use of the money and 3) the ability for districts to carryover the funds to FY 2016/2017 (important since the monies will reach districts as soon as June 2016), all of which are significant to districts’ successes.

Yes, there are contingencies that have been put in place to account for a severe downturn in the state economy, but the base level funding reset is protected regardless. As for the increased withdrawals from the state land trust, it is hardly the “plundering” Christ describes. Even after 10 years of increased withdrawals, the trust will still be worth a minimum of $6.1 billion, or $1.1 billion more than it is today. Would it have been worth more without the increase? Yes, but to what end? The money is for education and enough will be there in the future. Today’s 8th graders though, who have never been in fully funded classrooms, will have been shortchanged during their entire K-12 experience. This, because if Prop 123 fails, estimates are the lawsuit will continue at least 3-5 more years, without any guarantees of outcome. It is also noteworthy, that only 55-60 percent of the funding comes from the state land trust, the rest will be drawn from the state general fund.

We can wish the world was different, but the plain truth is GOP controls Arizona’s government and they have proven to not be supportive of locally controlled, community based, public education. They’ve also proven they are not inclined to either follow the rule of law, or the people’s wishes. In such an environment, I believe the inflation funding lawsuit plaintiffs (David to the state’s Goliath) did the best they could to aim their “rock” so it would produce the best result. If we want the world to be different, we must do more than wish for it to be so. We must ALL vote to elect pro-public education candidates who realize education is an investment, not an expense and that the best way to provide all students equity in opportunity is to ensure a well-funded, locally-controlled, fully accountable and transparent, truly “public” system of education.

 

A Tale of Two States

As a kid, one of my favorite authors was Charles Dickens. In his 1859 novel, A Tale of Two Cities, he “depicts the plight of the French peasantry demoralized by the French aristocracy in the years leading up to the revolution.” Hmm, peasantry demoralized by the aristocracy…that reminds me of something…wait, I’ll think of it. Maybe, it is the fact that the 62 richest people in the world now own more than the poorest half? In fact, their wealth has increased 44% since 2010 while the bottom half’s has dropped by 41%. And in the U.S., the wealth inequity is now worse than at any time since the Great Depression. The Walton family alone owns more wealth than 42% of American families combined and CEO-to-worker pay-ratio is 354-to-1. Americans haven’t taken to the streets with pitchforks (the “Occupy” movement aside) to demand “off with their heads” yet because for the most part, they still believe in the American Dream. That is if one works hard enough, they can move up the economic ladder. The truth is more like comedian George Carlin joked: “the reason they call it the American Dream is because you have to be asleep to believe it.”

Although reference to the concept of the American Dream was made as early as the 1600s by those who came to America from England for the chance of a better life, it was most likely “codified” in the Declaration of Independence, which proclaims that “all men are created equal” with the right to “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Part of this right and critical to achieving the dream are the opportunities to receive a good education and work that provides at least a living wage. But, the game is now stacked. Stacked in favor of the wealthy, stacked in favor of corporations, stacked against the middle class who is increasingly squeezed, and stacked against children who don’t come from a family of means.

Of course, everyone has a different idea about how to “unstack” the deck. In fact, as I mentioned earlier, some don’t even see the deck as unfairly stacked. I am firmly in the “”deck is stacked” camp and believe if we don’t start to make progress at turning the tide, pitchforks may be in our future. In Arizona, Governor Ducey thinks the way to move our economy forward is vouchers and charter schools, no individual state income tax and very little tax on the corporate side, and oh yeah, the “sharing economy.” Really, a “sharing economy”? Could it be that Ducey and I agree on something? I mean, I think it would be great if we would all share equally in our economy. After all, when Arizona’s top 1% pays only 4.6% of their income in state and local taxes while the bottom 20% pays 12.5%, we could really use some sharing. What you say? He was referring to “sharing” type businesses like Über and Lyft where the services are cheap and convenient, but the workers have no rights or benefits? Oh, okay, that sounds more like current Arizona leadership.

Just for kicks, let’s look at another state’s version of the way forward. Interestingly, Massachusetts has almost exactly the same population as Arizona, 6.8 million. Both states also have the Tea Party in common although with Massachusetts, it is mostly in their past (as in Boston in 1772) and in Arizona it is very much in the present.

Politically, Arizona is GOP led with no statewide Democratic leaders and both the state senate and house under GOP control. Massachusetts conversely, is almost entirely led by Democrats with the exception of their governor who is a Republican. Given the political parties’ priorities, it should be no surprise then that MAZ vs MAassachusetts ranks much better in education and child well being than Arizona. What may surprise some though, is that while Arizona’s economy ranks 25th in the Nation, Massachusetts’ comes in at #6.  

Why might you ask? Well, I have a few theories and as you can imagine, the state’s prioritization of public education is at the top of my list. Take Career Technical Education (CTE) for example. It produces significantly higher graduation rates than traditional district high school programs, often provides living wage jobs to graduates, and helps provide skilled workers for the employers who so badly need them. It is, by all accounts, a win-win-win. Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker obviously gets this as indicated by his recent proposal to add an additional $83.5M for vocational education.   Included in this is a $75 million five-year capital program to finance grants for school equipment and expansion an additional $8.5 million for grants for “school-to-career connecting activities.

At the same time, we have Governor Ducey objecting to restoring the $29 million in cuts to CTE made in last year’s budget. Instead of embracing the AZ Legislature’s veto-proof coalition to restore the funding, Ducey wants to only restore one-third of the funding for only three years and, attach a variety of strings to the money including a requirement for business matching of the funds. This despite a plea for repeal of the cuts signed by 32 business and education leaders as to the importance of CTE.

Maybe Governor Baker just had better advice than Governor Ducey. Tim Murray, a regional chamber of commerce president who toured 64 votech and agriculture education programs when he was the Lieutenant Governor of Massachusetts, said “the single biggest need” of the business community “regardless of the size of the company, regardless of the sector” is a “pipeline” of available workers. Surveys of 352 employers and 475 parents recently conducted by The Dukakis Center in Massachusetts revealed that 90% of employers see a need to increase CTE graduates, while 96% of parents had a favorable opinion of the CTE programs they children attend.K-12 az ma

But wait, there’s more. I believe one of the best determinants of the value someone or an entity places on something is what they are willing to pay for it. Massachusetts obviously values education. I know there are those of you ready to say: “there are plenty of examples of more money not producing better results.” Yes, that is true. But in almost every case, I’d be willing to bet where money doesn’t help, there are significant social issues outside of the schools that keep students from learning and achieving. It is obvious, by Massachusetts’ #1 ranking in education achievement, that their money is well spent.

Of course, as mentioned earlier, we know there are factors outside of the school that determine how children do in school. Massachusetts has lower unemployment, their residents earn higher salaries and they are less likely due to lose their homes to foreclosure. Their residents are also better educated, safer, and healthier. They also have fewer disabilities, likely from the better health care they experience. It should be no surprise that Arizona also has four times the adults in state prison as does Massachusetts, spending hundreds of millions more in this area. Yet, Arizonans are no safer with over double the murder rate.

Some claim that Massachusetts is more successful in some areas because society is more homogenous with 74.3% of its residents being white as opposed to only 56.2% in Arizona. There may be some truth to that since unfortunately in the U.S. today, socioeconomic status often has to do with the color of one’s skin. But, Arizona is doing little to address this issue even though our state’s share of white K-12 students dropped below 50% in 2004 and Latin@s K-12 students are on the cusp of breaking 50%. One example of this blind eye toward the problem is new HB 2401 sponsored by Vince Leach-R SaddleBrooke. The bill, titled “Schools; Desegregation Funding; Phase-Down” phases out funding for desegregation expenses, a cut of about $211 million dollars. These funds will hit some of our most vulnerable children, about 22,500 English Language Learners (ELL) and leave high performing magnet schools, such as Phoenix Union’s Metro Tech High School, without their primary source of funding. It is in two words, extremely shortsighted. Learning English is critical to these student’s future success and by extension, that of our state. They will either be contributing members of our society or drains on it. This is a clear example of “you can pay me now, or you can pay me later.”

So let’s recap. Massachusetts performs better than Arizona in education, child welfare, health and safety, the economy and many other areas. Yes, taxes are a little higher ($1,706 per person in 2013), but look what you get for your money! I’m well aware of course that this line of reasoning will fall on many a deaf ear that think the only good government is a starved one. It can’t be said enough though that taxes are not bad or good, they are the price of living in a well-functioning society with a decent quality of life. There are many things such as education for all and safety that are best provided by the government. It our duty (the voters) to determine our priorities for our hard earned tax dollars and then elect candidates that will ensure those priorities are provided for and secured. That is how we keep ourselves free.

 

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.”

 

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.

Invest Early to Shape Our Destiny

The New York Times recently reported that the problem with education performance in America today is one of inequity of opportunity more than a failure of our educational institutions.

Image

The problem though, begins much earlier than college. It starts even before a child attends their first day of school. Children start kindergarten at different levels of preparedness. Children from wealthier families have numerous advantages in their environment that poorer children never experience. That’s one of the reasons preschool is important. It helps ensure all children are more ready to excel in kindergarten and beyond.

According to the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Kids Count Data Book, “two out of three children don’t attend preschool, 27 percent live in poverty and three-quarters of fourth-graders aren’t proficient in reading. In fact, Arizona ranks 47th overall in the annual survey, moving down a notch from last year. Bruce Liggett, executive director of the Arizona Child Care Association and a former state child-care program administrator said: “People think about day care as just someplace where a child goes. They don’t understand that a child is learning every waking moment and that the quality of those experiences affects their development.”

 

Although 39 other states do, Arizona no longer funds any kind of early-childhood education and four years ago, lawmakers imposed a waiting list for the state’s child-care subsidy program. Since that time, an estimated 33,000 eligible children have been denied subsidies and in 2010, legislators eliminated a $20 million early-childhood block grant in order to balance the state budget. The following year, they eliminated funding for a subsidy program for low-income working parents.[i]

This is important because it’s not just the children who sometimes need help catching up. Arizona’s First Things First program is one of those programs designed to serve not only the child, but the entire family, and their communities as well. Passed by a landslide in November 2006, and funded through a tobacco tax, Proposition 203 was a citizen’s initiative designed to fund quality early childhood development and health. It provided $10 million in matching funds so Arizona could continue to get federal child care dollars which provided a head start seat for 40% of those eligible. First Things First ensued and has been a critical partner in creating a family-centered, comprehensive, collaborative and high-quality early childhood system that supports the development, health and early education of all Arizona’s children birth through age five. Unfortunately, the recent sequester cut $9.5 million from Arizona child-care and preschools.[ii]

Investment in early education for disadvantaged children from birth to age 5 is especially helpful in reducing the achievement gap, the need for special education, increases the likelihood of healthier lifestyles, lowers the crime rate, and reduces overall social costs. In fact, every dollar invested in high-quality early childhood education produces a 7 to 10 percent per annum return on investment. Policies that provide early childhood educational resources to the most disadvantaged children produce greater social and economic equity. We can create a more level and playing field by smart investments in effective education. “Historically, broad educational gains have been the biggest driver of American economic success; hence the economist’s rule of thumb that an increase of one year in a country’s average schooling level corresponds to an increase of 3 to 4 percent in long-term economic growth.”[iii]

It all boils down to this – we can pay now or we can pay later. We can invest early to prevent achievement gaps, or we can fix disparities later when it is harder to do and costs us more. It’s not just about cost though. Investing early lets us be proactive to shape our destiny. Investing later makes us react to missed opportunities. I know I’d rather be “in control” than “be controlled”.

[i] AZ Child Welfare Still Lags, AZCentral.com, June 24, 2013

[iii] NY Times June 16, 2013 The Great Divide