They can have their own opinions, but not their own facts

The first session of the 53rd Legislature began yesterday and as we public education advocates “batten down the hatches” and plan our “assaults”, I thought it a good time to provide what I believe are some of the most salient facts about the state of education in Arizona today.

  1. Educational Achievement. The Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Kids Count 2016 report ranks us 44th in the nation, Education Week’s Quality Counts 2016 ranks us 45th, and WalletHub 48th. Might there be a nexus to our other rankings provided below?
  2. Per Pupil Funding. Our K–12 state formula spending (inflation-adjusted), was cut 14.9% from 2008 to 2016 leaving us 48th in the nation.
  3. Propositions. The $3.5 billion Prop. 123 provides over 10 years (only 70% of what voters approved and the courts adjudicated) disappears in 2026. Prop. 301, which includes a 0.6% state sales tax, raises about $600 million per year for schools and self-destructs in 2021. There is now talk of increasing the tax to a full cent which would bring in around $400 million more per year or, adding an additional penny which would up it $1 billion.
  4. Teacher Shortage. We have a critical shortage of teachers willing to work in the classroom with 53% of teacher positions either vacant or filled by an individual who does not meet standard state teacher certification requirements. With 25% of the state’s teachers eligible for retirement by 2020, this problem is only going to get worse. Pay is just one of the reasons teachers are opting out, but with Arizona ranking 45th in terms of teacher salaries against the national average, it is real. In fact, “Arizona’s teachers earn just 62.8% of the salary that other college degree-holders do in the state – the lowest ratio nationwide. WalletHub scored the state the third-worst for teachers in terms of ”job opportunity and competition“ and ”academic & work environment.” Providing them a $10,000 raise (more in line with national averages) would cost the state an additional $600 million.
  5. Voter Support. In a December 2016 poll of Arizona voters, 77% said the state should spend more on education and 61% said they’d be willing to pay higher taxes to do so.
  6. Double-Down Ducey. Our Governor has promised not to raise taxes but to propose a tax cut every year he is in office. This, on top of two decades of tax cuts that equal a cumulative impact on the 2016 general fund of $4 billion in lost revenue. In fact, more than 90% of the decline in revenue since 1992 has resulted from tax cuts versus economic downturn–our troubles ARE NOT a result of the great recession. And, Arizona ranks in the bottom third of states in terms of tax rates.
  7. Good Ideas With No Way to Implement Is Called Philosophy. In her 2017 AZ Kids Can’t Wait plan, Superintendent of Public Instruction Diane Douglas has recommended an additional $680 million in common-sense, no frills funding for public schools but points out it is not her job to appropriate funds and the Governor’s Classrooms First Council spent over a year studying how to modernize the school funding formula only to determine that just rearranging the deck chairs won’t be enough…more money must be provided.
  8. They Owe, They Owe, So Off To Court We Go. Over 20 years ago, the AZ Supreme Court voided the system under which districts were responsible for capital costs because of the “gross inequities” created. The Legislature agreed to have the state assume responsibility for building and maintaining schools but that vanished under Governor Brewer’s time as a budget-saving maneuver leaving us back where we started. In fact from 2008 to 2012, districts only received about 2% of the funding they needed for renovations and repair of school facilities and the problem continues. A new lawsuit is in the works.
  9. It’s For The Poor Kids…NOT! Arizona’s educational tax credit (individual and corporate) and the Student Tuition Organizations (STOs) that funnel the monies to private and parochial schools will deny the AZ General Fund of almost $67 million in revenue in 2016/17 (the maximum allowed.) Due to a 20% allowable increase each year, the cap for corporate tax credits will be $662 million by 2030. By way of comparison, the total corporate income tax revenue for FY 2015 was only $663 million. And yet, even in 2011, As many as two-thirds of Arizona corporations paid almost no state income tax partially as a result of the program which predominantly serves students whose parents could afford the private schools without taxpayer assistance. Just for the original individual tax credit for example, 8 STOs awarded over half of their scholarship funding in 2014 to students whose families had incomes above $80,601. By the same token, Arizona’s voucher program (Empowerment Scholarship Accounts) is billed as the way for disadvantaged students in failing schools to have more opportunity. Truth is, in the 2015/16 school year ESAs drained $20.6 million from  district schools rated “A” or “B”are and only $6.3 million from schools rated C or D. Besides, the mere existence of school choice in whatever form it takes does not in itself provide access and opportunity. As Charles Tack, spokesman for AZ Department of Education said, “The economic situation of a family will always factor in.”
  10. Want A Voice? Stick With Where You Have a Vote! Parental and taxpayer oversight and voice is vastly greater in district schools with locally-elected governing boards, annual state-run audits, annual Auditor General reports on school efficiencies, AzMERIT test score results, and other required reporting. Commercial schools (charters and privates) do not have the same requirements for certified teachers and transparency and accountability; nor are they required to provide taxpayers any information regarding return on investment.
  11. Apples and Oranges. Commercial schools do not – across the board – perform better than do our district schools. Yes, there are pockets of excellence, but those exist in district schools as well. Comparisons are difficult to make because the playing field is not level, with commercial schools often managing to pick the cream of the crop while district schools take all comers. A key point to note though, is that charter schools spend double the amount on administration than districts.
  12. A Great Start Is Critical For All Kids. Full-day kindergarten is essential to ensure every child (especially those who are disadvantaged) has a more equal footing on which to start their education. In today’s fast paced, global economy, preschool is also critical and has been proven to provide as much return on investment as $7 for every $1 spent. Restoring all-day kindergarten statewide would cost an additional $240 million. We’ve had it before incidentally. In 2006, Napolitano made a deal with legislative leadership for all-day kindergarten in exchange for a 10% cut in individual income tax. Four years later, the Legislature cut full-day kindergarten but the reduction in taxes still exists.
  13. District Schools and School Choice Cannot Co-Exist. When students trickle out to commercial schools, almost 1/5 of the expense associated with educating them remains despite the district’s total loss of the revenue. And while private school enrollment dropped two percent from 2000 to 2012, tax credits claimed for the students has increased by 287%. This, while public school enrollment increased 24.1% during that same time but state appropriations (from General Fund, State Land Funprivate-public-school-fundingds, and Prop. 301 monies) decreased by 10%.

It is clear there are several current and looming crises in Arizona K–12 education. And yet, Senator Debbie Lesko (R), has been quoted as saying, “Balancing the budget is always the most important work of the state legislature.” Really? That’s why the people of Arizona elect our state lawmakers? I don’t think so. Rather, I think we want them to ensure our children receive a quality education, that our roads are safe to drive and our water is safe to drink, and that our police and other first responders protect us from danger. In short, we want the Legislature to ensure appropriate capability to provide for the common good and we send them to Phoenix to figure out how to do that. Yes, they are mandated to balance the budget but, I would argue, that isn’t their raison d’être.

Arizona voters have made it clear they are willing to pay higher taxes to provide more funding to our public schools unfortunately, not enough have made the connection between a lack of funding for public education and the legislators they elect that are causing that problem. Yes, the prohibition to raising the required revenue is pain self-inflicted by our Governor and GOP-led Legislature. And, we need only look to Kansas to see that cutting taxes to attract companies to our state is a race to the bottom. I guarantee over the long haul, quality companies prefer a well-educated workforce and good quality of life for their employees over tax cuts.

In his State of the State address yesterday, Governor Ducey said, “I have a commitment our educators can take to the bank: starting with the budget I release Friday, I will call for an increased investment in our public schools – above and beyond inflation – every single year I am governor.” What is notable about this statement is his reference to “public schools” and, the fact that he followed it up with the statement that “we won’t raise taxes.” Promising support for public schools isn’t the same thing as promising it for district schools. In fact, some lawmakers now equate the term “public schools” to mean any school that accepts taxpayer dollars.

Let me be clear. I believe any promise to provide significant additional monies to public education without a willingness to raise additional revenue, is total bullshit. The pie is only so big and there are only four basic ways to significantly increase its size. Either corporate tax cuts are curtailed, additional taxes are levied, funding meant for other purposes is siphoned off or, important programs are cut. Senator Steve Smith (LD11-R) who sits on the Senate’s education committee, suggested funding could be found by moving money away from state programs “that may not be working so well.” Perhaps he was thinking of Child Protective Services which has continued to flounder and endanger children (primarily because sufficient resources have not been provided) even after Governor Ducey promised fixes when he first took office in 2015?

Arizona simply cannot move the educational needle without a significant additional investment in our district schools. These schools are where close to 85% of Arizona’s students are receiving their education, doesn’t it make sense that this is where we should dedicate the majority of our funding and efforts?

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Remember in November

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) just released a new report on states’ investments in their public schools. “Public investment in K-12 schools – crucial for communities to thrive and the U.S. economy to offer broad opportunity – has declined dramatically in a number of states over the last decade” reports the CBPP. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Arizona ranks 15th in the nation for the number of students enrolled in public K-12 schools, but 48th in per pupil spending, with state funding per pupil down 36.6%. In state dollars alone (per pupil), Arizona only provided 56.5% of the national average according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s Public Education Finances: 2014 report released this year.

Greatly exacerbating the situation (especially moving forward) is the fact that Arizona is one of the five states having “enacted income tax rate cuts costing tens or hundreds of millions of dollars each year rather than restore education funding.” Nationwide, states made up 45% of their budget shortfalls between 2008 and 2012 with spending cuts and only 16% with taxes and fees. Governor Ducey has promised to cut income tax every year he is in office, continuing two decades of tax cuts that that will cost the state’s 2016 general fund $4 billion in revenue. He and the Arizona Legislature may blame the recession on Arizona’s budget woes, but “more than 90% of the decline in revenue resulted from tax reductions…the remainder is due to the recession. Adding to the problem is that the Federal education aid programs shrunk at the same time. Those cuts are critical given that one in four of Arizona’s children live in poverty and Federal assistance for high-poverty schools is down 8.3% since 2010. Federal spending for the education of disabled students is also down by 6.4%.

It should be no surprise, that Arizona has a huge teacher shortage and in fact, is ranked the third worst state in the nation to be a teacher. Arizona’s district schools started the school year with 2,041 teacher vacancies and four weeks into the school year 25 percent of those remained vacant and 22 percent more were filled by individuals not meeting standard teacher requirements. The CBPP reports, “While the number of public K-12 teachers and other school workers [across the nation] has fallen by 221,000 since 2008, the number of students has risen by 1,120,000. This translates to a national average for student-to-teacher ratio of 16:1 while Arizona’s is almost 23:1. In 2014, Arizona ranked fifth in the nation in annual population increase while fewer students were enrolling in teacher preparation programs and 23% of Arizona’s teachers will be eligible to retire by 2019. We are facing a crisis largely created by state lawmakers where districts are forced to make up for major state funding cuts by deleting positions; underpaying teachers; cutting back on professional development; combining classrooms; and using long-term, less-qualified substitutes. Research shows teacher quality is the most important school-based determinant of student success. For real achievement gains, recruiting and retaining high-quality teachers must be at the forefront of education policy, along with the funding that supports it.

Quality preschool and full-day kindergarten have been shown critical to improved outcomes throughout a child’s school years and life beyond, especially for those lower on the socio-economic scale. Arizona however, funds only half-day kindergarten and provides no support for preschool. One study of 15,000 children born between 1955 and 1985 showed that poor children whose schools received a 10% increase in per-pupil spending before they started school and maintained that increase over the 12 years of the students’ schooling, were 10% more likely to graduate from high school. They also were shown to have 10% in higher earnings and were 6% less likely to be poor as adults.

Proposition 123 provided $173 million per year through FY 2025, but the state is still the fifth highest in cuts (down 12.8%) in state-provided per pupil funding through 2017. Keep in mind please that Proposition 123 monies were largely provided by raiding the state trust lands fund, which exists to support stable financial resources for schools. It wasn’t new money, but funding already mandated by the people and adjudicated by the courts and then, it was only 70% of what was actually owed. Even so, it did provide a boost to district funding which is critical given that Arizona is one of roughly half of the states providing less per pupil than in 2008 and one of the only seven where the cuts are 10 percent or more. In fact, even with the Proposition 123 infusion, the CBPP reports that Arizona had a -.08% change in state formula funding per pupil. So, while one hand giveth (kind of), the other hand taketh away.

Of course, per-pupil funding isn’t the only kind of funding cut from our district budgets. Capital spending, that which is used to build new schools, renovate and expand facilities, and equip schools with more modern technologies, is also way down. Spending for capital requirements was down 37% across the nation between 2008 and 2014. In Arizona, the FY 2016 budget included cuts of $113,457,200 in district additional assistance (DAA) dollars (about $135 per student), when added to the prior year DAA cuts, equates to a total reduction of these funds by 83%. DAA monies are used for a combination of soft capital costs (classroom materials and supplies) and capital funding. As just one example, the State Facilities Board provided only two cents of every dollar (2%) of the statewide need for renovations and repairs between 2008 and 2012.

The good news is that almost three-fourths of Arizona voters say the state is spending too little on our K-12 public school students. Hopefully, you are one of them and you’ve already voted for pro-district education candidates, not those in favor of diverting taxpayer dollars to fund commercial schools. I say this not as a school choice “hater” (I do believe school choice has its place, it just shouldn’t be first place), but as a pure practical matter. Over 80% of Arizona’s students attend district schools and they deserve to have the vast majority of our resources and attention dedicated to ensure they succeed. We all need them to succeed not just because it is the right thing to do, but also because whether they are well educated or not, they are the future of our communities, our state and our nation. For all of us and those who come after us, I wish for a very bright future.

 

We need leaders, not politicians

AZ Senate President Andy Biggs claims more funding doesn’t produce better educational outcomes and points to Washington D.C. as proof. Wow, way to deflect Andy. The truth is, places with high poverty, crime and unemployment often require high per pupil funding to try to deal with these various intersecting complications. We have those places in Arizona too. But, I’m not sure how a subpar return on investment in D.C. education excuses Arizona’s ranking for the lowest per pupil funding in the nation. I also don’t buy that more funding doesn’t make a difference.

Bruce D. Baker, a professor in the Department of Educational Theory, Policy, and Administration in the Graduate School of Education at Rutgers University, says we know the strategies that help close achievement gaps: lower class sizes, a broad curriculum, and the attraction and retention of highly qualified teachers. But, he says, “we can’t get there without stable, adequate, and equitable funding” and claims that approach to closing achievement gaps is “one we’ve never really tried.”[i] Too often, he says, promising efforts are abandoned after the next election cycle. Great sounding campaign promises after all, are much easier to make than real results are to deliver.

Governor Ducey and other Arizona GOP leadership claim they have solutions to provide additional education funding. But, tax increases are definitely not among them. Governor Ducey wants to take money from the sell of state trust lands to generate about $300 more per child. His plan, if approved by voters in 2016, would begin to help in 2017, but only for ten years and some fear it will draw down the trust land monies available for future use. Biggs and House Speaker David Gowan propose asking voters to shift funds from early childhood education programs to K-12 education. They claim that could generate an additional $500 per student on top of the $4,300 the state now provides.[ii]

I am open to learning more about Governor Ducey’s idea, but on the surface it seems like a quick fix that we’ll have to pay for over the long term. Tucson education blogger David Safier points out that Ducey’s roadmap for additional education funding has numerous winding roads with plenty of roadblocks built in.[iii] Let’s just say I don’t plan to hold my breath waiting for this idea to come to fruition. But, you have to admit; it does kind of make the Governor look like he really cares about helping Arizona’s K-12 school children.

As for shifting money from early childhood education programs to K-12, that is a dead on arrival idea for me. Arizona has already cut kindergarten funding in half requiring school districts to fund the other half “out of hide” if they want to provide full-day programs. The state provides zero funding for preschool, despite all the evident that shows it is absolutely critical to improving educational outcomes and success in life. Preschool has been shown results in adults with better jobs, less drug abuse and fewer arrests.[iv] In fact, children who attend preschool, are almost 50 percent less likely to end up in jail or prison by age 40. One researcher at the University of Minnesota said the average cost per child for 18 months of preschool in 2011 was $9,000, but his cost-benefit analysis suggested that led to at least $90,000 in benefits per child in terms of increased earnings, tax revenue, less criminal behavior, reduced mental health costs and other measures.[v] Or, put another way, when it comes to funding preschool, you can pay me now, or pay me later. And believe me, the interest is pretty steep.

As for the idea of going back to the voters to approve either of these plans, let’s just review recent history. The Arizona Legislature referred Proposition to the voters in 2001. The voters approved the proposition and the inflation funding that went with it. The Legislature indicated they understood the voter mandate when they initially appropriated the required funding, but when the recession hit in 2008, they decided to opt out of that pesky little part of the law. Now, the courts have told the Legislature that may not opt out and yet…wait for it….the Legislature still refuses to comply. This, despite a voter mandate, despite court orders, and despite surplus revenue.

Mr. Biggs claims that increased funding is not the answer, and asks “how much is enough?” To answer his question, I say I’m not sure, “but I’ll know it when I see it.” Well, I don’t see it in a per pupil funding of $7,208 (from all sources) against a national average of $10,700. I don’t see it in our having made the highest cuts to per pupil funding since 2008. I don’t see it in our critical teacher shortage, and I don’t see it in facility maintenance and renewal fund that provided school districts only two percent of what were due from 2008 to 2013.[vi]

Finally, to Bigg’s claim that “some schools are excelling, doing an incredibly great job, even with current funding”, yes, our dedicated administrators and educators are doing all they can to do more with less. The situation reminds me of our military troops who would do whatever it took, with whatever they had, to accomplish the mission. Make no mistake, there is eventually a price to be paid. Just like a car can run for a long time without an oil change, problems will develop over time and eventually, the engine will seize up. In our Arizona public school districts, that price is now presenting itself in the form of a critical teacher shortage. With a counselor to student ratio of four times that recommended, it could also come in the form of more serious student behavioral incidents. These are just two examples, there are many more.

Governor Ducey and his GOP led Legislature continue to kick the can down the road while Arizona’s students (through the 6th grade) have never been in a fully funded classroom. Every year the funding is denied is one more year our students are not fully equipped to succeed. And if they aren’t fully equipped to succeed, neither is our state. Whether today’s K-12 students are ready or not, they will be leading tomorrow’s Arizona. Well, unless they had to move out of state to get a decent job because quality companies were too smart to relocate to a state that prioritizes private prisons over preschool. None of this is rocket science, we know what to do. The question is, do our elected leaders have the will to do the right thing and will we hold them to it? Maybe we should all remember this quote by James Freeman Clarke: “A politician thinks of the next election; a leader, the next generation.”

[i] http://educationvotes.nea.org/2015/08/25/5-unavoidable-truths-about-school-funding/?utm_source=EdVotes&utm_medium=email&utm_content=SchoolFunding&utm_campaign=082915EdVotesEmail

[ii] http://tucson.com/news/local/education/coalition-urges-arizona-to-use-budget-surplus-for-education/article_07e0b3d2-98b9-53b3-8221-99f9434c66c9.html

[iii] http://www.tucsonweekly.com/TheRange/archives/2015/09/03/ducey-i-choose-the-school-funding-plan-behind-door-number-two

[iv] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/06/10/preschool-better-jobs-arrests_n_875036.html

[v] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/06/10/preschool-better-jobs-arrests_n_875036.html

[vi] http://www.azcentral.com/news/articles/arizona-schools-funding-debated.html

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.

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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