Is It Really School’s Choice?

Representative Vince Leach, R-SaddleBrooke, recently replied to a constituent’s concern about SB1279, Empowerment Scholarships; expansion; phase-in, with:

“You are correct in assuming I am in favor of this bill.  Rather than a long, rambling explanation of my position, I simply refer you to the linked research paper: http://www.edchoice.org/research/2015-schooling-in-america-survey/. Please refer to page 27.  It reveals what I believe most people have missed in the school choice discussion.  And that is, while about ~85% of student attend public schools, given the choice, only ~36% would choose to attend public schools.  SB1279 is narrowly defined, it specifies that qualified student includes a child who meets the family income eligibility requirements for free or reduced price lunches under the National School Lunch and Child Nutrition Acts, rather than the specified educational scholarship. IT is for these reasons and many more that I support this bill.”

Obviously when quoting statistics, one must pay attention to the source of the information. The research paper Leach refers to is from the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice. The Foundation was named after Milton Friedman and his wife Rose who extolled the virtues of a free market economic system with minimal intervention. An eventual advisor to President Ronald Reagan, Friedman was the first to float the idea of school vouchers which many, particularly in the South, viewed as a way to fight desegregation. He wrote in 1955 that he would choose forced nonsegregation over forced segregation and that “under [private schools] there can develop exclusively white schools, exclusively colored schools, and mixed schools.”

Inspired by Friedman, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) made a nationwide push (sending a model voucher bill to 16,000 state and federal officials) toward private school vouchers in 1981. Education historian Diane Ravitch writes that the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) touted the voucher model legislation “to introduce normal market forces” and to “dismantle the control and power of teachers’ unions.” At a 2006 ALEC meeting, Friedman asked, “How do we get from where we are to where we want to be?” The ideal way he said “would be to abolish the public school system.” He recognized “you’re not gonna do that”, but that introducing a universal voucher system would be a more palatable way to achieve the same end result. Friedman went on to say that you have to change the way tax dollars are directed, instead of financing schools and buildings, the funding should follow the child.

ALEC has unfortunately enjoyed much success in pushing model voucher legislation to state lawmakers. It should be no surprise then that our schools are more segregated than at anytime since the mid 1960s. The Southern Education Foundation shows that private schools are whiter than the overall school-age population in the South and the West and that Black, Latino and Naïve American students are underrepresented. In fact, private schools are more likely to be virtually all white (90 percent or more) with 43 percent of the nation’s private school students attending these “white” schools versus 27 percent of public school students. These statistics, argues the Southern Education Foundation, show that more needs to be done to ensure equitable access to any schools that receive taxpayer monies. Basically, private schools should be required to admit anyone who applies, just as public schools do. If they don’t, they shouldn’t receive public funding.

The Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice however, maintains:

“School choice levels the playing field by helping those with lower incomes have access to the choices that others now have and even take for granted. It is not a scandal that those who are able to access better schools choose to do so; it is a scandal that because of the government school monopoly, only some are able to access better schools.”

The Southern Education Foundation counters that line of reasoning with:

 “The number of black, Latino and Native American students enrolled in private schools is far lower than the number of minority families that could afford it. The fact is that, over the years, African American families and non-white families have come to understand that these private schools are not schools that are open to them, especially in light of their traditional role and history related to desegregation of public schools.”

The Friedman Foundation does not see a problem with this of course (of course) and said:

“Just as parents should have the right to say to schools, ‘You’re not the right fit for my child, I’m going to find another school,’ schools should also have the right to say to parents, ‘We’re not the right fit for your child.’”

So, let me get this straight. Representative Leach supports the idea that private schools taking taxpayer dollars should be able to exclude children they don’t believe are a “right fit” for their school. Evidently, his definition of school choice is that schools should have the choice, not the students or their parents. This isn’t school choice; it is state endorsed discrimination.

 

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The color of accountability

I wasn’t surprised by The Republic’s recent findings that during the 2015-16 school year, the vast majority of funding ($20.6 million) for vouchers was taken from public schools rated A or B, but only $6.3 million was taken from schools rated C or D. I’d previously seen a statistic that in 2012, about 92 percent of students taking advantage of the voucher (Empowerment Scholarship Account) program would have attended private schools anyway regardless of voucher availability. Let’s face it; this was never about helping the poor, disadvantaged minority child. The reality is that vouchers were never for poorer Arizonans who can’t cover the average private-school tuition costs of $10,421 when a voucher provides only $5,200.

And yet, the AZ Legislature is pushing two bills to fully open the floodgates on voucher availability, making every student in Arizona eligible for vouchers for homeschooling, tutoring, private school, or to save for college. This, despite the fact that there is little accountability in the program. Yes, recipients must provide quarterly reports of their spending, but DOE staffing for oversight is reportedly insufficient and the schooling options that vouchers pay for have no responsibility for reporting any kind of results. The taxpayer then, has no way to determine return on investment.

Here’s where I start to get confused. The GOP nay, Teapublican-led Arizona Legislature, loves to tout the need for accountability of taxpayer dollars. They are great however, at picking and choosing their targets for applying this accountability. [Please read on, this post isn’t really about vouchers.]

In 2015 for example, Representative Mark Finchem, R-LD11, basically accused both the Phoenix Union High School (PUHSD) and Tucson Unified (TUSD) school districts of using desegregation (deseg) funding for purposes other than what they were intended for. TUSD Superintendent H.T. Sanchez said he was not aware of any misuse, citing the fact that there is a strict review process for every deseg dollar spent. In fact, oversight of this funding is provided by the plaintiffs in a deseg suit against the district, the DOJ, a federal judge and the special master, a deseg expert overseeing the district’s efforts all get to weight in on how deseg funds can be used. Finchem though was undeterred and demanded forensic audits that the schools would have to pay for because “these are taxpayer dollars and we want to make sure those dollars are being spent wisely, that they’re not being misappropriated. And I think that’s an obligation this body has to see to it that those dollars are spent that way.”

Fortunately, SB 1120 failed. Senator Steve Farley, D-LD9, who had a child in TUSD, said, “Finchem represents no part of the Tucson Unified School District.” Finchem never took the time to discuss the issue first with Sanchez, meet with district officials or review audits already done according to Farley.

So, why don’t AZ Legislators care about accountability when it comes to vouchers, but are all over it when it comes to desegregation funds? Could it just have something to do with the socio-economic status and color of most voucher (private school) students versus those who are beneficiaries of deseg funds? Just sayin’…

I must admit I hadn’t really taken the time to learn the details about deseg funding (my district doesn’t get any) until a recent email exchange with Representative Vince Leach, R-LD11. In his email, he intimated that “districts continue to violate civil rights after billions of dollars have been spent to fix the problem” and asked, “Where is the accountability in that?” Again, that whole accountability thing. Yet, when I asked him to please vote no on the voucher expansion, citing in part the lack of accountability, he said “I think you know I am going to vote for them.”

So yes, I took the time to learn more about desegregation funding. The issue dates back to at least 1974 when two families filed separate lawsuits against TUSD and the court found TUSD “had acted with segregative intent” and failed to fix the problem. In 1979, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) launched an investigation against PUHSD and a lawsuit was filed in 1982 for allegedly engaging in segregation practices. Problems were also found in the Tempe Elementary School District to include deliberately segregating minority and non-English speaking students, assigning minority teachers to the district’s poorest schools and placing a disproportionate number of English language learners in special education classrooms. Schools in wealthier parts of the District also had full-day kindergarten, nurses and librarians, but the others did not.

In 1985, Arizona enacted legislation to allow districts under federal court orders or OCR agreements to bring racial and ethnic balance to their schools and provide equal access to high quality education, to levy property taxes above their revenue control limit. As a result, those districts were able to levy a limited amount of higher local property taxes without voter approval. Although there were some problems along the way, in 2005, PUHSD gained “unitary status” followed by TUSD in 2009. This status meant that these districts had formally fulfilled their desegregation court order. Plaintiffs in the TUSD suit disagreed the problem was fixed, filed an appeal of the District’s unitary status designation and in 2011; the Appeals Court reversed the decision and appointed a highly paid special master (in Massachusetts) to help TUSD develop a new “road map.” This road map outlines required activities including student assignment, transportation, faculty and staff assignment, quality of education, discipline, family engagement, access to facilities and technology and transparency and accountability.

There are now 19 school districts with almost 250,000 students (about 23% of the total) around Arizona that receive $211 million for racial and ethnic discrimination remediation (unchanged since 2009.) Since 1986, the total comes to $4.3 billion, with 97 percent going to Phoenix and Tucson Schools. Only PUHSD and TUSD actually receive “desegregation funding”, the other 16 districts have administrative agreements with OCR. Two bills in the AZ Legislature, seek to reduce and eventually eliminate all this funding (within 5 years for those with OCR agreements and 10 years for those in unitary status.) SB 1125 (a follow-on to last session’s unsuccessful 1371), sponsored by AZ Senator Debbie Lesko, R-LD21, passed by the Senate Finance committee on 2/11/16 and claims state property tax rate caps require the general fund to make up some $23 million in 2015 in desegregation funding garnered at the local level. HB 2401 sponsored by Representatives Vince Leach and Mark Finchem is a companion bill which has been retained on the calendar as of 2/23/16.

Of her bill, Lesko said “That’s money from all over the state that shouldn’t just go to a couple districts.” She thinks that rather then relying on deseg funding, districts should ask voters to approve budget overrides. According to the Senate Fact Sheet for SB1125 however, although the state funded this “cap gap” through FY 2015, the Legislature has now capped the state’s cost of the 1 percent cap program to $1 million per county, i.e., the state passed on a portion of the cost for the gap to the counties (who must then pass these costs on to the taxpayer.) Irrespective of the caps however, affected districts contend they would be violating a federal agreement and a lawsuit will ensue if the funding is discontinued. Additionally, according to a recent analysis by The Republic, districts receiving desegregation funding did not spend more per pupil than all others in 2014. This is because there are many different funding sources for schools including varying amounts of federal dollars, bonds and overrides.

For PUHSD, the largest in the state with over 27,000 students, the loss of deseg funding would translate to about $53 million and would require closing four high schools with a loss of 702 teaching and staff jobs (estimates put the state-wide loss of jobs at about 2,500.) The superintendent, Dr. Chad Gestson, says, “The proposed elimination of desegregation funding is simply a huge tax cut on the backs of our poorest students.” He goes on to say that the ramifications go beyond public education and will affect property values, crime rates, reduced tax base, more burden on the city, county and state and a lower quality of life. Superintendent Robbie Koerperich of Holbrook Unified School District says “we all deserve it…we [shouldn’t] bring Holbrook [down] to the same level as similar school districts, but we should fund the other districts to bring them up.”

Proponents of the funding however say the results speak for themselves with the graduation rate at PUHSD at 80 percent up from 55 percent 15 years ago. Same thing with dropout rates that went from 15 percent over 20 years ago to 3.4 percent today. The Districts grads are also earning more scholarships for college than only six years ago, $50 million now, versus $13 million then.

The $211 million currently spent in deseg funding works out to an average of $844 per student. The question we should be asking isn’t “is it unfair for the 19 districts under deseg orders or with OCR agreements to receive this funding”, but what is the appropriate level of funding for all our students. Arizona k-12 education saw the highest cuts in per pupil funding in the Nation from 2008 to 2014 and to move up to even 45th place, we would need to spend $1 billion more, or almost $950 per pupil. Of course, other than the badly needed Prop 123 monies, our Legislature isn’t talking about education plus-ups, only cuts. (Sorry, but the recent restoration of all but $2 million of JTED funding doesn’t count, that was just about rectifying the bad decision made in last year’s budget.)

To the Arizona Legislature I say, the voters are waking up to your pretension that you give a damn about All Arizona’s children. To the voters, I say NOTHING speaks louder than your vote.

 

 

 

 

The Real Super Bowl

Capitol Media Services reported this morning that a “New deal could restore $28M, keep JTEDs alive.” Even though Governor Ducey has said he won’t support any bill that doesn’t keep the budget balanced, a Legislative veto-proof majority organized by Senator Don Shooter might save the day. That is of course, unless Senate President Andy Biggs refuses to have the bill considered. Biggs has said that although JTED started out as a good idea, it “has become a way for schools to get extra tax dollars for programs that really do not qualify for as CTE.” Shooter’s bill however, includes a requirement for audits and will include a new grading system, and Bigg’s has indicated these changes will help.

I predict the bill will pass given wide support by both the education and business communities and the fact that for the most part, the Legislature knows they made a dumb mistake in cutting the program in the first place. Or, I could give them credit for being really smart and cutting the program last year without the cuts taking affect until next year so they could be big heroes in restoring it this year if the voters put up a fuss. Nah…let’s stick with the first scenario. The bigger issue to me though, is the duplicity with which our state leaders are dealing with education. After all, they have no problem with exponentially expanding the amount of taxpayer dollars that go to private schools (92% of which are religious), but absolutely can’t stomach districts schools trying to improve their programs and ensure sustainability.

I’ve written before how CTE is a win-win-win, so I won’t belabor that point again. If the Legislature wants to place more rules on uses for JTED funds, that’s one thing. But it is entirely hypocritical for them to have cut the funds in the first place when the districts are just following the established rules. That reminds me of how districts followed the rules to create their own charter schools and then the legislature changed the law to prevent them from doing so.

It’s like this. Imagine the Super Bowl this Sunday isn’t between the Panthers and Broncos but between the Districts (underfunded district schools) and the Privates (well supported private schools.) Both sides have been training as hard as they can with the resources available to them. Unfortunately, the Privates have several advantages not afforded the Districts. First, the Privates were able to have all their first picks in the draft before the Districts could weigh in. Second, the Privates aren’t required to divulge any information about their team or their strategy whereas the Districts must divulge all, to include their playbook. Third, the Privates have unlimited potential for funding which allows them to hire and hold on to good coaches and trainers while the Districts struggle to recruit and retain sufficient numbers of each. Fourth, the Privates are flown to the game in first class style aboard their private jet. The Districts however, can’t afford a jet and they make the day long trip via bus to the game location. Fifth, the night before the game, the Privates are treated to a steak dinner at Ruth’s Chris Steak house while the Districts have a meal at McDonalds. Finally, the morning of the game, the Privates prepare in a luxurious locker room with all the amenities, while the Districts crowd into one of the stadium restrooms. Finally, to cinch the deal, the Privates have lobbied for government subsidies designed to lure players from the Districts. Of course, the costs for the Districts to maintain their team infrastructure remains fairly constant despite the attrition of players, so the funding they have left makes it even tougher for them to compete.

Who do you think would win the game? Not hard to figure it out is it? And yet, the Districts do more than their fair share of winning. As I have said before, I am not anti-choice. I just believe that the choice should be made with all the cards on the table. Corporate reformers have managed to sell the narrative that public schools aren’t working and the only way to save American education is to turn it over to the private sector. Truth is though, it is easy for the privatized schools to claim they work when they make the choice about who they admit, what rules they follow and what results, if any, they divulge. As many have said, it seems like school choice is more about choice for the schools than choice for the students or their parents.

I say let parents make the choice, but let’s demand both teams play by the same rules, particularly when it comes to return on taxpayer investment. More importantly, let’s all of us ensure that our overall system of education is producing the results needed for our students, our state and our Nation. To achieve the right result, we must focus on the right goal, that which made our country great. A free public education for all provided the fuel that allowed our economy to thrive and inspired the American Dream. It is too bad that keeping that dream alive isn’t the real Super Bowl that captures our attention.  The path we are on now will only serve to exacerbate income inequality and the death of that dream. It is about choice…a choice that is ours to make. It is our duty to make it wisely.

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.