AZ again at bottom in “50 States Report”

The Network for Public Education (NPE), a public education advocacy group headed by the Nation’s preeminent public education expert and advocate, Diane Ravitch, released their “A 50 State Report Card” today. As the name indicates, the report card grades the 50 states and the District of Columbia on six criteria: No High Stakes Testing, Professionalization of Teaching, Resistance to Privatization, School Finance, Spend Taxpayer Resources Wisely, and Chance for Success. Letter grades from “A” to “F” were then averaged to create the overall GPA and letter grade for each state.

I was proud to note the study was conducted with the help of Francesca Lopez, Ph.D. and her student research team at the University of Arizona. They assisted in the identification of 29 measurable factors that guided the ratings of the six criteria and created a 0-4 scale for ratings and then evaluated each state on the 29 factors. The graders were tough, with only 5 states earning an “A” grade and no state’s overall grade exceeding a “C.”

Not surprising to anyone who keeps up with Arizona public education, the state ranked 48th, but I assume only because Arizona begins with an “A.”   Arizona’s grade of 0.67 earned it an overall “F”, numerically tying it with Idaho and Texas (in 49th and 50th place), just above Mississippi.

The first criterion evaluated was “High Stakes Testing” which according to NPE has caused “the narrowing of the curriculum and excessive classroom time devoted to preparing for tests.” The organization also points to peer-reviewed studies highlighting “the potentially negative impacts of this practice, including the dismissal of quality teachers and the undermining of morale.” Five states received an “A” grade for their rejection of the use of exit exams to determine high school graduation, the use of test results to determine student promotion, and educator evaluation systems that include test results. Arizona received a grade of “C” in this area.

The second criterion evaluated was “Professionalization of Teaching”, because “many of the current popular American reforms give lip service to the professionalization of teaching while displaying an appalling lack of understanding of what professionalization truly means.” NPE points to research that “shows that experience matters and leads to better student outcomes, including increased learning, better attendance and fewer disciplinary referrals.” High grades were given to states that exhibited a commitment to teaching as a profession. Unfortunately, no states were awarded an “A” in this area and only two states, Iowa and New York received a “B.” Arizona received a grade of “F” which goes a long way towards explaining our state’s critical shortage of teachers.

In the area of “Resistance to Privatization”, seven states received an “A” grade. The evaluation of this criterion was centered on school choice policies that “move control of schools from democratic, local control to private control.” Market-based approaches (vouchers, charters and parent trigger laws) reports NPE, “take the governance of schools out of the hands of democratically elected officials and the local communities they serve, and place it in the hands of a few individuals – often elites or corporations with no connections to the community.” Such policies drain resources from neighborhood schools and don’t overall, produce better results in general. NPE writes “they also serve to undermine the public’s willingness to invest in the education of all children while creating wider inequities across the system as a whole.” Since NPE believes in strengthening community schools, they evaluated states on whether they have laws, policies and practices that support and protect their neighborhood schools. As an early leader in school choice, Arizona more than earned the “F” grade it was awarded.

Since the level of poverty in a school is the single best predictor of average student performance, “School Finance” was another criterion evaluated. NPE looked at whether states adequately and fairly funded their schools noting that “resources like smaller class sizes and more support staff lead to significantly higher achievement and graduation rates – especially for poor and minority students.” Only one state, New Jersey, received an “A” grade in this area. This is not surprising since in the past decade, the gap in spending between rich and poor districts has grown by 44%. NPE calls for states to sufficiently fund public education and implement progressive financial polices that “provide the most funds to districts that demonstrate the greatest need.” The factors used to determine a state’s grade were: per-pupil expenditure adjusted for poverty, wages and district size/density; resources spent on education in relation to the state’s ability to pay based on gross product; and increased proportion of aid given to high-poverty districts than to low-poverty. Once again, Arizona received an “F” grade in this area.

In evaluating the criterion of “Spend Taxpayer Resources Wisely”, NPE looked at how states’ education dollars are spent. As research shows the significant benefit of early childhood education, high quality pre-school and all-day Kindergarten were a significant factor in the evaluation as were lower class sizes and the rejection of virtual schools.   In this area, Arizona received a “D” grade, with no states receiving an “A” and only Montana receiving a “B” grade.

“Chance for Success” was the final criterion evaluated. It looked at state policies directly affecting the income, living conditions and support received by students and their parents/guardians. NPE says that residential segregation is largely responsible for school segregation. However, the organization says, “state policies that promote school choice typically exacerbate segregation and charters often isolate students by race and class.” The states that had fewer students living in or near poverty, and have the most integrated schools received the highest grades. No states received an “A” grade, but 10 received a grade of “B.” In this final area, Arizona received a grade of “D.”

It can be no coincidence that Arizona continues to finish last, or close to last, in the vast majority of every report on state public education performance. In fact, the only report I’ve found it to be rated better than at the bottom is from the American Legislative Exchange Council’s (ALEC) Report Card on American Education. Not surprising from this highly conservative “bill mill” for the Koch Brothers and the GOP, which works to develop model legislation favorable to its corporate members and provide it to legislators for implementation in their states. It speaks volumes about ALEC’s focus when even though Arizona ranked 47th on the 2013 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), they gave the state an overall B- on education policy. That’s because ALEC values states’ support of charter schools, embrace of home schools and private school choice programs, teacher quality (as defined by the National Council on Teacher Quality) and digital learning. For the most part, the positions ALEC takes on education policy are the exact opposite of NPE’s positions. ALEC pushes school choice and the privatization of public education and in Arizona, the Goldwater Institute does it’s part to support ALEC in it’s efforts to kill public education. What’s in it for ALEC, the Goldwater Institute, their legislators, donors and corporate members? As is often the case, it’s all about money in the form of campaign donations for legislators, profits for those in the for-profit charter and private school business, increased tax breaks for donors and welfare for corporate members. You might ask how privatizing education can lead to increased corporate welfare when such privatization will undoubtedly lead to increased costs? (Think privatization of prisons.) Easy, when the state’s cost for “public” education is passed on to those taking advantage of the privatized option via vouchers and charters. It is well known that both often cost more than the state provided funding covers and parents must pick up the tab.

I attended the first NPE Conference held in 2013 in Austin, Texas where I was privileged to meet and hear Diane and numerous other leaders in the effort to save public education. I, like them, believe (as Diane writes in the NPE report) “educating all children is a civil responsibility, not a consumer good.” And although the phrase “civil rights issue of our time” is way overused, I deeply believe it rings true when, (as Diane writes) it refers to “sustaining our system of free, equitable and democratically-controlled public schools that serve all children.”  I’ve quoted him before, but John Dewey’s words bear repeating until we, as a nation “get it”: “What the best and wisest parent wants for his child, that must we want for all the children of the community. Anything less is unlovely, and left unchecked, destroys our democracy.” Yes, we should act on public education as our very democracy is at stake, because it is!

The needs of the many…

Spoiler Alert: I am really glad I didn’t drive to Phoenix today for the House Ways and Means Committee meeting during which they considered HB 2842, Empowerment Scholarship Accounts (ESAs); Expansion; Phase-In. I’m glad I stayed home because I’m sure my presence would have made no difference. Instead, I watched live streaming of the meeting and gleaned from the testimony that ESAs are lacking in accountability and transparency and serve the few at the expense of the majority.

The first “against” speaker I viewed was Ms. Stacey Morley from the Arizona Education Association. She talked about how when the full cap is reached, 5,500 students could have accepted ESAs at a cost of $13M to the state. Tory Anderson, from the Secular Coalition of Arizona expressed her organization’s opposition to any use of taxpayer dollars to fund religious schools. An AZ Department of Education representative said DOE is neutral on the bill, but wants to ensure they get their full 5% portion of the ESA funds for ensuring accountability. These funds are prescribed by law, but haven’t always been fully included in the budget. He talked about the importance of adequate oversight and referred to the 700 to 1 ratio currently in place for program liaisons that work with families to provide that oversight. As high as that number is, he wanted to ensure further budget cuts don’t make the challenge even tougher.

Mike Barnes, from the Arizona Superintendent’s Association talked about how ESAs make it very difficult for districts to determine their potential enrollment and therefore the impact on their budget. He said he doesn’t see how under this structure, the state doesn’t end paying for students that were going to attend private school anyway. He mentioned that the funds given in an ESA equal about $5,200 which is $600 more than is given to a district, but $600 less than what a charter costs. Representative Bruce Wheeler asked him if we knew how many of those students who take ESA have parents that make in excess of $100K. He said he did not.

The next speaker was Julie Horwin, a grandparent of two children who attend private schools. I assumed she was going to advocate for ESAs but that was not the case. She opened by saying that ESAs mean we are paying with two separate school systems with public funds. She then relayed a story of a private school principal who is paid $40K per year and found out that his board members each get paid $150K per year with public monies. She finished by saying that this bill will not help the greater majority of our students.

Janice Palmer from the Arizona School Boards Association (ASBA) said school choice is robust and noted that ASBA was the first school boards association to participate in National School Choice Week. She said the bill is disconcerting because in a competitive environment, it is important to be fair. Parents she said, definitely need to have the largest voice in their children’s education but when public dollars are involved, taxpayers also need to be part of the equation. Finally, she noted that this is not a zero sum game. If we choose to press ahead with the expansion of ESAs, but refuse to increase taxes, other programs will suffer to cover the additional expenses to the state budget.

The “for” speakers were three parents or grandparents of special needs children and Michael Hunter from the Goldwater Institute. Those who spoke regarding the value of ESAs for their special needs students were eloquent and convincing. There could be no doubt that the ESA program has provided them options they might not have otherwise had. But, the option for special needs students already exists in the law the expansion of HB 2842 is well beyond just them, but ultimately for all students in Arizona. Michael Hunter of the Goldwater Institute pointed out that changes like this are always met with resistance. First, there was open enrollment and then charter schools, both which were touted by opponents as being detrimental to district schools. He said that instead of looking at the impact on district schools, we should look at each family’s situation. Representative Reginald Bolding went back and forth with him a couple of times trying to pin him down (with little avail) about the difference in accountability and transparency, especially with regard to academic standards, but in the end Bolding was left to make his points on his own.

When the committee members voted, only Representative Bruce Wheeler and Reginald Bolding explained their votes. Wheeler called it subsidization of the rich and voted no and Bolling said he just wanted to ensure we have good schools for all our students and he was worried that individuals who might benefit from the program wouldn’t know about it. In the end, the vote was not surprisingly, along party lines and the measure passed (5-3-1.) The vote was predictable, but still depressing. I am convinced it will do nothing to improve education in Arizona and will do very little to help those who most need it. The Senate Education Committee meets this Thursday, February 4th at 9:00 am in Senate Hearing Room 1 and will be considering SB 1279, also about ESA expansion. If you are registered in the Request to Speak system, please make a request to speak on this bill and if not, please email or call your legislators to let them know you do not support it. Anyway you look at it, ESAs are vouchers and, they are siphoning valuable taxpayer dollars to private (to include religious) schools. Register your concerns and let your voice be heard. In this case, the needs of the many, must take precedence over the needs of the few.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Accountability in Arizona…not so much

Two headlines in the AZ Star caught my attention this morning: “Plan adds state cash for private education” and “Veto-proof majority backs repeal of JTED cuts.” The first one is about Representative Justin Olson’s bill to remove any limits on Empowerment Scholarship Accounts (ESAs.)  The second is about the Legislature’s plan to reinstate the $30 million in JTED cuts they made last year. Evidently the Legislature is now saying “my bad” about the 7.5% cut (about $400 per student) to charters and districts with students enrolled in JTED. According to Diane McCarthy at West-MEC, legislators weren’t really aware of what they were doing. “After the fact, some legislators said they didn’t understand what the impact of that (cut) was,” McCarthy said. “There’s a lot of talk about how do we fix it.”

I’m really glad the Legislature has come to its senses and intends to restore the funding, since 96% of Arizona students enrolled in CTE graduate from high school, 21% above those who don’t. Most CTE graduates also go on to post-secondary education and jobs and they score higher on standardized tests. CTE really is a win-win-win as the recent letter to the AZ Legislature signed by 32 business and education entities made clear. What really caught my eye about the JTED article was a quote from Senator Don Shooter who introduced the legislation to repeal the cuts. In response to Senate President Andy Bigg’s accusation that the program has insufficient oversight, Shooter said one key is “transparency.” Thanks for the segue Don.

Don Shooter is correct that transparency leads to more accountability, but evidently he and his fellow GOP legislators don’t understand that concept when it comes to ESAs (basically vouchers by another name.) As of mid-April 2014, approximately $17 million had been handed out through ESAs. That is a lot of money to be handed out without any way to ascertain return on investment. Unlike district school students, ESA recipients are exempted from all state assessments so there is no way to know whether the money was well spent.  Although there is a quarterly spending report required from ESA recipients, parents must only provide proof of spending 25% of the funding they receive each year. The money they don’t spend can be saved from year to year and can even be used for college. If the money isn’t spent, does it mean the parent was efficient with their child’s education or does it mean they skimped? Also, the vast majority of ESA funding goes to private schools (92% in 2012) and at least in Arizona, 70% of private schools are religious. I know this has been deemed constitutional because the money is given to parents who then give it to the schools, but sorry if it looks like a rose and smells like a rose…

The ESA program has been expanded little by little, (students: with disabilities, wards of the court or those that were, students of active duty military members or those killed while serving on active duty, those who had attended a D or F school the prior year, siblings of students currently in the program, and students who reside within the boundaries of an Indian reservation) but it has always been the intention of the GOP-led Legislature to open up the program to all. So far, pro-public legislators and those who believe in good stewardship of government dollars have been able to keep the wolves at bay. Make no mistake however; this legislation is much more about privatizing public education than it is about opportunities for disadvantaged children. Proponents say we need to transition from financing schools to funding students. Problem is, when students accept an ESA and leave the district school, they take all the funding with them, but none of the costs of running the school. A certain amount of overhead costs are fairly independent of student count and schools are incapable of rapidly adjusting their operating expenses with each student lost.

School choice is alive and well in Arizona and still a full 85% of Arizona’s students choose district schools.   The Legislature can pretend they care about these kids, but the truth is that they have a stranglehold on the necks of our district schools and as they continue to restrict the flow of resources to these schools, our kids are the losers. The more they encourage parents to look for greener grass outside our district schools, the more likely it is that resources will be pulled away from these schools making it harder for them to continue to educate the majority of students who remain.

If the Legislature really cares about Arizona students, why not just support our district schools why not just support what we know works: great teachers, small class sizes, infrastructure that supports learning and curriculum that is rich and challenging. We also know that schools can’t do it on their own. Many of our children face obstacles outside of school that affect their ability to learn inside school.

I am incredibly tired of our children being used as a political football. It is time for all good people to say enough is enough. We must stand up and speak for those who have no voice and no power to save themselves. It will be hard to make Arizona public education the envy of the Nation. But, it is possible and that possibility gives me hope.

$82,996 is low income…REALLY?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

Ducey on Education…What’s he really saying?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Bottom Five List – Discouraged but Hopeful

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What about MY choice?

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Its Not About Sense, but Cents (and Dollars)

The Arizona House voted to expand Empowerment Scholarship Accounts (vouchers) again yesterday and just about every Representative felt compelled to explain their vote.  Wait, could there have been a television reporter in the house?  Why yes, there was.  The votes were along party lines, and predictably, the Democrats spoke to the damage the voucher movement will continue to do to our public schools, where 84 percent of Arizona’s student still attend.  Representative Hale, representing parts of the Navajo nation, spoke passionately about the unique challenges in educating children on the reservation and how taking educational funding away from them to give to areas where there are plenty of options is just wrong.  On the Republican side, it was all about parental choice and that parents know best, but no discussion about increased transparency and accountability.  Once again in fact, Representative Meyer’s amendment to HB2139 (a “strike everything bill”), was defeated although it merely would have ensured accountability for results when taxpayer dollars are diverted to private schools via the ESAs.  

I was up at the AZ Capitol yesterday with a group of pro-public education supporters who rode the Bus4Ed sponsored by the Holt for AZ Senate Campaign.  Several of the participants were dismayed at the arguments made by Republicans in support of the vouchers.  One, a teacher in an accommodation school, couldn’t believe the non-sensical, hypocritical justifications made in favor of the vouchers.  

Of course, the actions of the GOP in the AZ Legislature with regard to education don’t make sense only if you believe they are working to improve public education.  If you are more realistic and understand the ALEC and corporate reformer driven privatization agenda for public education.  One of the arguments for vouchers presented by a GOP representative was that “only 752 Arizona children were on ESAs at this time so what’s the big deal?”  Well, the big deal is that we know from experience and from what is currently on the table that the end game for the AZ GOP it to make every child eligible for the vouchers.  First, the expansion was for those students attending a school or district assigned a D or F grade, then all children who are eligible to attend kindergarten, then a child of a parent in the armed forces, a child who is a ward of the juvenile court, then a child who is the sibling of a current or previous voucher recipient.  Then, there was the attempt to expand to all first responder’s children which eventually turned into include all those who are eligible for free or reduced lunch programs and finally, to all students in a Title 1 school.  In Arizona, that number equals about 73% of our students, or about 900,000. 

Vouchers are not about school choice, that’s just the smokescreen. They are about the redistribution of our taxpayer dollars to transparent, accountable, locally-led community public schools to private schools that are not accountable to anyone. It is a zero-sum game. The vast majority of private schools cost more than what the vouchers will provide and only those with means will be able to take advantage of them. Yes, that’s right. Those who don’t need the help will get it and those who are desperate for the help will just get more desperate, stuck in public schools starved for resources.

Time to Act Against Arizona’s Axis of Evil

Nope, not referring to North Korea or Iran, but the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), The Goldwater Institute and The Center for Arizona Policy led by Cathi Herrod. All of Arizona’s GOP legislators are or have recently been members of ALEC.  Led by Representative Debbie Lesko, ALEC’s Arizona Chair, they have introduced no less than 20 ALEC model bills including those that:

  • Criminalize undocumented workers, stripping native-born Americans of their citizenship rights and requiring that all materials disseminated by state agencies be written in English only;
  • Encourage the privatization of state prisons to the benefit of the private prison industry;
  • Disenfranchise tens of thousands of Arizonans via voter suppression bills
  • Attack workers by undermining unions and collective bargaining and eliminating public employment through outsourcing and privatizing of government functions;
  • Attack public education through private school voucher programs;
  • Attempt to prevent implementation of healthcare reform, and
  • Attack federal environmental regulation by attempting to deny the federal government the ability to supersede weak state environmental legislation.

SB1062, the so-called religious freedom (but really about state-sanctioned discrimination against gays and others) bill that Governor Brewer vetoed last week, was being pushed by Cathi Herrod and her Center for Arizona Policy.  The veto was a fairly significant setback for Herrod, but don’t worry, she has plenty of other tricks up her sleeve.  On next week’s House Education Committee agenda, is SB1237, which passed the Senate on a party line vote.  This bill expands the amount of this private school voucher to include the charter school additional assistance weight as well as 90% of the base support level funding the student would have otherwise received if they had attend a school district. This is a significant dollar increase as the additional assistance amount is $1,684 for K-8 and $1,962 for high school.

This bill is totally about increasing the diversion of public school funding to unaccountable private schools.  Not only is our GOP-led legislature taking orders from Cathi Herrod, but our State Superintendent of Public Instruction recently robocalled public school families to entice them to take state (taxpayer) funding to attend private schools.  When questioned about this, Huppenthal retorted that he is “the Superintendent of Public Instruction, not of Public Schools.”

Vouchers, by any other name, is model ALEC legislation.  “Wherever you see states expanding vouchers, charters, and other forms of privatization, wherever you see states lowering standards for entry into the teaching profession, wherever you see states opening up new opportunities for profit-making entities, wherever you see the expansion of for-profit online charter schools, you are likely to find legislation that echoes the ALEC model.”

It is important for people to understand that one can’t be pro community public schools while also being pro vouchers and school choice.  Despite what the privatization advocates are touting, school choice, and the various methods for providing options (empowerment scholarship accounts [vouchers], student tuition organizations, etc.), do not generally produce better results, especially when comparing similar populations.  In addition, this is a zero sum game.  When money is taken from public schools and diverted to for-profit charters, private and parochial schools, it begins a downward spiral that is very difficult for public schools to recover from.  In addition, open enrollment promotes competition over collaboration not just between schools, but also on the part of parents who act in the interest of their child without concern for all children.

The bottom line is that community public schools perform a huge public good.  In many cases, they are the thread that binds communities together.  They helped put America on the path to greatness and they are still where 85 percent of Arizona students are educated.  We don’t talk about how fire and police departments should be run by like a business or compete with one another for their raw product.  Public community schools should be treated no differently.  They are entrusted with an awesome responsibility, staffed by dedicated professionals, take all children who come through their doors and work against all odds to achieve their mission.  They need you on-board advocating for their success.  Please contact the members of the House Education Committee prior to Monday, March 10th and tell them to fail SB1237.  It is not in the best interest of our students or our state and will only serve to enrich those who would make profit on our public education dollars.

A rose by any other name…is just as thorny!

ImageIt is no surprise Arizona Legislators continue to seek expansion of Empowerment Scholarship Accounts AKA, vouchers.  The concept is model legislation for the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and has been introduced in numerous states around the country.  ALEC is the organization corporations pay big bucks to belong to so they can work together to develop model legislation to hand state legislators for introduction in their respective states.  ALEC claims it is non-partisan, but in 2012 it had only Democrat of 104 legislators in leadership positions.  In fact, every Republican legislator in Arizona is currently, or was recently, a member of ALEC.  The pipeline for the ALEC agenda in Arizona is the Goldwater Institute and Jonathan Butcher; Education Director from the Goldwater Institute is the “Private Chair” of ALEC’s Education Task Force.  Mr. Butcher has been collaborating with Rep Debbie Lesko, R-Peoria, ALEC’s Arizona State Chairman to expand Education Savings Accounts in Arizona.   Even the Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction, John Huppenthal, has actively promoted this private voucher program with a robocall directing parents to a Goldwater Institute website to pull their kids out of public school and send them to private school on the taxpayer’s dime, with no accountability.

Empowerment Scholarship Accounts were first introduced in Arizona in 2011 as a workaround to the state’s Supreme Court decision in 2009 that state school-voucher programs were unconstitutional because they violate a ban against appropriating public money for private or religious schools.  In Niehaus V. Huppenthal the Arizona Supreme Court determined ESAs were not the same as vouchers because the specified object of the ESA is the beneficiary families, not private or sectarian schools.  This decision is under appeal by the Arizona School Board Association and others.

ESA funds can be used for curriculum, testing, private school tuition, tutors, special needs services or therapies, or even seed money for college.  The program however, requires parents to waive their child’s right to a public education…a right that is guaranteed under the state constitution, in order to receive the benefits.

The original ESA bill, SB 1553, was signed into law April 12, 2011 and at that time, qualified students were only those eligible to received disability related services from a school district, or had been identified as disabled either by the school district or under federal guidelines.  Since then, we’ve seen expansions or at least attempted expansions, every year.  In 2012, the legislature attempted to expand the law with HB 2626, to include those attending a school or district that had been assigned a letter grade of D or F, previous recipient of a scholarship, child of a parent or guardian who is a member of the Armed Forces, child who is a ward of the court, or who has been identified as a gifted pupil.  Governor Brewer vetoed this bill on April 4, 2012.  In 2013, SB1363 was introduced to expand to all those categories above, and increased funding provided to 90% of the sum of the base support level and Additional Assistance if the student were attending a charter school.  Governor Brewer signed this bill into law on June 20, 2013.

Now, in its 51st Legislative Session, the Arizona Legislature is working fast and furious to further expand the state’s voucher program.  Here’s a list of what’s on the docket per the Arizona Legislature website:

Bill Purpose Status
HB 2291 & SB1236 Expands students eligible to those whose parents are police, fire, or EMT, as well as any child who has a sibling who is already receiving an ESA. Also extends eligibility to any student on free or reduced-price lunch programs and increases the household income threshold eligibility by 15% each year thereafter.  Would make a potential 881,000 students, or 73 percent of the total public-school population, qualified for the ESA program. The program is currently capped at 5,500 students until 2019 (per Legislative Report 2/26 AZ Capitol Reports.) House bill up for House vote 3/6/14.  Senate bill waiting to get on Senate Rules Cmte agenda.
HB2150 Allows children whose parents are an active-duty member of the armed forces to immediately enroll in a private school using vouchers and retain 25% of each voucher amount per student Ready for a floor vote
HB 2139 Expands eligibility to a sibling of a current or previous ESA recipient and those eligible to enroll in a program for preschool children with disabilities. Passed by House Approp Cmte
SB1237 Expands funding for ESAs to include the charter school additional assistance weight as well as 90% of the base support level funding the student would have otherwise received if they had attended a public school. Significant dollar increase, as the additional assistance amount is $1,684 for K-8 and $1,962 for high school. Passed the Senate along party lines
HB2036 Failed after Representative Eric Meyer added an amendment to the bill to require any student who uses the voucher to take the same assessment as public school students. Representatives Allen and Boyer specifically mentioned they were voting against the bill because the testing language was added to it. (per AEA) Defeated in House Education Committee

Pro-voucher folks argue that such programs level the playing field—low-income students can have the same educational options as their wealthier counterparts. In fact, they like to infer, if not outright state, that it is all about ensuring those low-income students are not stuck in bad schools. Really?  Only 362 students in Arizona had ESAs in 2012, but 92 percent of ESA funds went to private schools, in many cases for children whose parents could afford the schools without the assistance. For students without special needs, the program provides from $3,000 to $3,500 a year. As this is not nearly sufficient to cover the cost of tuition to a private school (which can be as much as $10,000), the program is unlikely to benefit students from low-income families.  Additionally, according to William J. Mathis, managing director at the National Education Policy Center, the best private schools often aren’t interested in participating in voucher programs, so voucher programs end up supporting lower quality alternatives. On top of all this, opponents of vouchers argue that the policy doesn’t improve educational outcomes or performance.

ESAs are really just another way for Arizona legislators to make the education of YOUR child, YOUR problem.  After all, under the Arizona constitution, “The legislature shall enact such laws as shall provide for the establishment and maintenance of a general and uniform public school system.” This is one of the primary responsibilities of the state of Arizona.  When state funding for educating is passed on to parents however, so will be the responsibility for that education.  After all, when you make a choice where to send their children, it won’t be your legislator’s fault you made the wrong choice.  Of course, ESAs are also good for those desiring to profit from the privatization of public education.  For-profit companies now run most charter schools and the lack of transparency and public oversight of charters and private schools will ensure profits can be maximized without repercussion.

Make no mistake about it; this push for vouchers is not in the best interest of the majority of Arizonans.  Over 85 percent of Arizona’s school children still attend public community schools.  Each time a student leaves with a voucher, schools lose the funding they would otherwise have received. Yet their overhead costs—for things like salaries and infrastructure—don’t go decrease just because a handful of kids left.  Jeremy Calles, the Kyrene School District chief financial officer, said “the state continues to use tax dollars and tax credits to make private school more affordable for the approximately 5 percent of the Arizona student population that makes the choice to attend those schools, while causing significant damage to the education of the 95 percent of students who are choosing to attend public schools.” Representative Eric Meyer added that supporting public education should be a priority of anyone at the Legislature who is interested in investing in the economic security of the state. “Legislation that undermines the public school system in our state is incredibly detrimental to our economic future,” Meyer said. “These vouchers use tax dollars to subsidize schools that are not subject to state testing standards. We need our kids in schools that can be held accountable for preparing them for the workforce. By starving public schools of resources, we are affecting the very foundation of our economy.”