Prop 123 deal was hard-fought

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

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

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

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

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

 

“Someone to Shine Our Shoes”

In a recent article titled “Chartered Cruise” on knpr.org, the author Hugh Jackson wrote: “Today’s charter industry, much like Nevada’s voucher plan, reflects a chronic civic defeatism. Echoing the perverse social Darwinism of more than a century ago, faith in free-market education is surrender to pessimism. Society really isn’t incapable of providing a fair educational opportunity to every citizen. Some people are doomed to fail, that’s just the way it is, so best to segregate those with promise, the achievers, in separate schools. As for everyone else, well, too bad for them.” Of course, this attitude isn’t confined to only Nevada; I have a real life example of it right here in Arizona. Three or so years ago, an acquaintance of mine asked an Arizona Senator whether or not he supported public education. He replied, “of course I do, we need someone to shine our shoes.”

It’s bad enough the Senator thought this, let alone that he said it out loud to a public education advocate. That says as much about the voter contempt some of our lawmakers hold (especially when the voter is from a different party) as it does what they think of public education. As the primary water carrier for the American Legislative Exchange Council’s (ALEC), the Arizona Legislature has led the nation in efforts to offer school choice options. Proponents tout school choice as the way to help disadvantaged children, but truth is, they’ve already written these children off. Instead, school choice is really about resegregation (the highest we’ve seen since the mid 1960s) and profiteering.

The school choice and education privatization movement gives me great pause because:

  1. The vast majority of our students (85%) are attending significantly underfunded district schools;
  2. Taxpayer dollars are increasingly being siphoned off to profiteers with very little (if any) accountability and transparency;
  3. The claim of school choice proponents that school choice provides much better results, either isn’t backed up by facts, or is an oranges and pineapple comparison;
  4. Voucher and charter schools actually provide parents less choice than district schools.

Allow me to explain. By now, most Arizonans probably know our state is 48th in per pupil funding. Even if the $3.5 billion infusion from Prop 123 is approved by voters this month, it won’t move us from 48th place in overall per pupil funding. To move up just one notch (above Oklahoma), we’d have to give out districts twice that much. That’s how far behind Arizona is.

As for the lack of accountability and transparency in Arizona’s school choice programs, for-profit companies dominate the charter school movement.  These companies do not have school boards, let alone locally elected boards and are not required to disclose the details of their business operations. As for private schools that take Empowerment Scholarship Account (voucher) or Student Tuition Organization tax credit dollars, there is no way for taxpayers to determine funding efficacy. Private school students are not required to take state assessments nor provide any academic results. Neither are private schools required to disclose any information regarding their business operations.

Then, there’s the apple and oranges comparison. Irrespective of the law requiring charter schools to accept all students, it is a well documented fact that most manage to steer clear of special needs and English language learning students and that they manage to attrit (at incredibly high rates) students of color or those on the lower end of the socio-economic scale. Of course, when these students return to the district schools, it is often after the 100th day of the school year, when the average daily attendance has been calculated and the charter school has cemented the funding for the year for that student. The district school is forced to absorb that same student for the rest of the year with no compensation.

Finally, district schools are run by locally elected governing boards that are accountable to the community. School district residents have the right to be present at board meetings and have their voice heard. They also have a right to know how their tax money is spent. Charters and private schools are run by executive boards not accountable and often not responsive to parents. If you aren’t happy with the way they are being run, your only recourse is to withdraw your child.

The myth perpetuated by those bent on destroying pubic district education is that district schools are failing and that privatization in various forms is the answer. The reality says that school choice will never be the answer for the vast majority. The evidence also shows despite charters and private schools being much more selective of their students, most charters and almost all cyber charters do worse than their district schools. We don’t really know how private schools do since they aren’t required to provide any information about results.

The movement to privatize public education is straight from the GOP playbook on reducing government. As President Reagan said in his first inaugural address: “Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” That might have been a good sound bite for the right, but I believe concentrated, unchecked power is the problem. Our system works best when we have a balance of power that ensures all sides are heard and produces compromises to come up with the best possible solution. It also works best when government provides for the public good and checks and balances are put in place to ensure efficiencies and effectiveness of both the public and private sectors where taxpayer dollars are involved. Those checks and balances are lacking in school choice options and taxpayers are paying the price. Examples abound of virtual (on-line) school scams, greedy charter school operators, and even illegal purchases with voucher dollars. No, district schools are not entirely immune from fraud, but at least they have locally elected school boards responsible to the taxpayer for oversight and the state conducts annual audits. Neither of these happens when taxpayer dollars fund school choice options.

The original intent of charter schools was to provide teachers greater flexibility to experiment with new ways to educate students. Charters were not meant to compete with or replace district schools, but rather complement them. Now, charters and vouchers have become a way for state legislatures to deflect their responsibility to provide a quality public education for all. When funding follows the child, it becomes the parent’s responsibility to ensure a quality education. School choice also allows our lawmakers to obfuscate the real problem, poverty and all the challenges it brings to our district schools.  Of course, the focus on school choice creates demand which causes funding loss in districts, making it harder for them to excel and reinforces the message that they are failing. The truth is, that despite significant funding shortfalls, severe teacher shortages and crumbling infrastructure, our district schools continue to do well. It makes one wonder what miracles could be achieved if they received the funding and support currently being siphoned off to charters and private schools.

The one thing I know for sure is that until we elect new pro-public education candidates, nothing is going to change. We will continue to see efforts to take the brakes off vouchers, create laws more favorable to charter schools, and attempts to de-professionalize the teaching profession. We have the power to create change; the only question that remains is do we have the will? Prop 123 has raised the level of attention to the challenges of our district schools. Many have been vocal on both sides of the issue. Let’s come together on May 19th at 4 pm for a Pro-Public Education Rally to tell our Legislature that enough is enough, we are done with them short-changing our kids and our state’s future! #ItStartsNow #YouPlusOne #RememberInNovember

#YouPlusOne

It appears the Arizona Legislature finally has a budget for the coming year . The $9.58B package includes Governor Ducey’s $8 million tax cut for businesses (due to double to $16 million in FY 2018), but does not restore the KidsCare health care program for 30,000 low-income children. Arizona is the only state in the nation that does not provide this program for its poorer children, even though it would cost the state and its taxpayers…wait for it…NOTHING! The deal also doesn’t restore the $116 million in cuts made last year to K-12 funding and it doesn’t delay the move to current year funding for our Districts, originally slated to cost them $31 million. What it does, is provide funding to mitigate the cuts: 1) associated with the move to current year funding; 2) approved last year to district-sponsored charter schools (saving these schools $1.1 million); and 3) to smaller charter schools (that would have cost them about $6.5 million.) Finally, it eliminates a change that determines how certain schools qualify for new construction (which would have cost them funding.)

The Arizona Republic reported that “lawmakers heaped praise on House Appropriations Committee Chairman Justin Olson, R-Mesa, for brokering and agreement” that reversed cuts to public schools. Don’t know about you, but I see a recurring theme here and don’t think it is worth any praise. Our Republican-controlled Legislature makes a bunch of cuts to programs important to the majority of Arizonans so they can provide tax breaks to their corporate buddies. When the people get wind of it and complain, they restore some of the cuts and claim they are heroes for their hard work to restore the funding. Here’s an idea…how’s about you just don’t cut these programs in the first place? How’s about you realize the investment in education is the way forward to a brighter future for Arizona? How’s about you show you care more about children than corporations?

Unfortunately, we don’t get the government we need; we get the government we elect. Doug Ducey promised tax cuts every year, he was subsequently elected and is now doing what he promised. That’s the thing with elected officials, they generally do that which what keeps them in office. That’s why unless the voters of Arizona wake up and elect new representatives, we’ll see all these same cuts and more come back next legislative session. This despite the fact that Arizona is:

A 2008 report titled “Preparing for an Arizona of 10 Million People” prepared by ASU’s W.P. Carey School of Business, recognized how critical an investment education is:

“Yet, the acquisition of knowledge and skills is one of the most important factors for attaining economic prosperity in a knowledge-based economy. Without a quality education infrastructure in Arizona, the standard of living of Arizona residents may lag behind. Enrollments rising slightly faster than population growth, pressures resulting in increasing costs such as higher salaries for quality teachers, and catching up from the state’s low rate of investment will add to future costs.”

This report was written eight years ago and is even more salient today. Arizona’s GOP lawmakers act as if public education is a hungry beast that must be killed rather than a real investment in the future of our people and our state. It is abundantly clear that the only counter to this very wrong thinking is the power of the people with the votes they cast. If we want different results, we must take different actions. We can wail and gnash our teeth all we want, but until we elect candidates that are committed to the future of all our people and our state, we will continue to lead in all the wrong areas. How’s about this? In addition to ensuring you vote in November, promise to get one other new voter to cast their ballot for a better Arizona. Then do it. #YouPlusOne

Toto, we ARE in Kansas!

Open revolt in the Kansas GOP is now plaguing Governor Sam Brownback in his attempt to slash personal income taxes. His reasoning for the cuts was that it would encourage business expansion and hiring (sound familiar Arizonans?) But five years in, his plan hasn’t produced the promised results but rather, has the state budget in a crisis so deep that many of the Republicans that originally backed the plan are now jumping ship.

Brownback and the Kansas Legislature’s (where three-fourths of the seats are held by Republicans) plan was to cut top personal income tax (surprise, surprise) by 29 percent and exempt more than 330,000 farmers and business owners from income taxes. The predicted business expansion didn’t happen, and now the state is in trouble. Kansas Senate President Susan Wagle said the Legislature still  supports low income taxes, but they’d “prefer to see some real solutions coming from the Governor’s office.” What a concept!

What’s the chances Governor Ducey and Senator Biggs are paying attention to what’s happening in Kansas and…learning the right lesson from it? Uh yeah, that’s what I thought. It is obvious though that they are working from the same playbook in making cuts. Brownback’s most recent cuts have been to universities and public education (sound familiar?) And yes, just like in Arizona, Kansas has siphoned off big money from highway projects (over $750 million in just two years.)

Thus far, Brownback isn’t backing down and blames a slow global economy for his state’s troubles (guess the buck doesn’t stop on his desk.) An economist for the conservative Tax Foundation however, says those benefitting are pocketing the tax savings rather than using it to expand and create jobs. One former ally of Brownback who is now a critic said the continuing budget turmoil has been “just amateurish.”

I don’t know that I would characterize Arizona’s budget issues as amateurish, maybe self-serving instead. I’ve written before about the fallacy of trickle-down economics, there are plenty of examples that show it is a very flawed theory. Why do GOP lawmakers continue to go down that rabbit hole? Could it be that they are considering donors deep pockets more than the big picture for our state and all its citizens?

I’m currently reading the book “The Political Brain” in which author Drew Westen makes the point that the Democrats don’t have, and haven’t had, “a plan.” Think I prefer that to the Republican plan which seems to be to do the same thing over and over and expect different results. At least there’s a chance the Dems will get it right every now and then. The GOP’s plan is just literally the definition of insanity.

Open letter to those opposed to Prop. 123

Cross-posted by Christine Marsh, Arizona’s 2016 Teacher of the Year:

To all of the folks who are voting “No” on Prop. 123,

In case people don’t read to the end (but read to the end), if you are voting against Prop. 123, contact your legislators and the governor and tell them why. If Prop. 123 fails, the false narrative from our legislators and the governor will likely be something along the lines of this: “SEE?! We knew that the public didn’t care about public education. And this proves it.”

As a teacher in the trenches, I have to wonder where the public has been for the past six years. Education—students, teachers, parents, support staff—has been left to languish in the bottom of the nation for many years. We have the worst funding in the entire nation, and we’re over $3000 per student per year below the national average (we’re about $15,000 below the states that fund their public education the best/highest).

We also have the lowest administrative costs in the nation, the highest class sizes in the nation, and we’re in the bottom four states for what we pay teachers.

We already have a teacher shortage, and with roughly 30% of our state’s teachers retiring in the next five year, we’re reaching crisis proportions. In many districts, it’s already a crisis.

As a teacher, I feel abandoned by the public. You can say, “I didn’t cause this. I’ve voted for education-friendly people.” But that doesn’t change the fact that the majority of the voting public has continued to elect legislators and other politicians who simply do not care about public education.

Now, when we have a bit of light (meaning—yes—money) coming our way, the public that has essentially abandoned us for the past many years wants to extinguish it by killing Prop. 123.

You do realize that we’re in this mess because of the way Arizonans voted (or apathetically skipped voting) in 2014, right?

You also realize that the plaintiffs (representing the schools) have been fighting for this money since 2010, right? Where were you then? Why didn’t you vocalize your support?

You hopefully also realize that as much as we want to, we can’t force the legislature to pay. And, apparently, we can’t throw them in jail for their refusal to pay, either (although, I wish we could). It’s ironic that we can throw “deadbeat dads” in jail, but not deadbeat legislators and that Ducey is going after deadbeat dads.

If you vote this down, what’s your plan? The fact is that we have a legislative majority that doesn’t value public education, so the chances of them paying are slim to none. You can’t claim that they “should” pay and that the money exists without raiding the trust land, because what “should” happen doesn’t matter. The facts matter, and the fact is that they won’t pay. They’ve already proven that they won’t. So if Prop. 123 doesn’t pass, we won’t see the money for many years, if ever. (Remember “Flores Vs. Arizona”? It took over 20 years to settle that case).

So if you vote this down, do you have a plan?

Are you going to as aggressively fight to elect new legislators as you are fighting to defeat Prop. 123?

Or are you going to kill this one chance at light and abandon public schools again? Again??

Please, have a plan if you kill this.

Because with this particular legislature, we won’t be seeing any other funds any time soon.

Mad as Hell and You’re Not Going to Take it Anymore!

Okay fellow liberal southern Arizonans, I get it. You are mad as hell and you aren’t going to take anymore. Prop 123 is a bridge too far, a river too wide and the proverbial final straw breaking the camel’s back.

I join you in being pissed off. I’m pissed at the Legislature who has failed to follow the people’s mandate since 2009 and ignored the Superior Court judge’s order to follow that same mandate. I’m pissed that Governor Ducey is dead set against raising the appropriate revenue to ensure our districts get the funding they are due. I’m also pissed at the current and previous state treasurers who have come out against Prop 123 since I wonder where they’ve been as the Legislature has steadily eroded our districts’ budgets.

I’m especially pissed though, at the voters who continue to elect anti-public education candidates, whether they voted for them, or just didn’t vote at all. After all, we know that 89 percent of Arizona voters prioritize K-12 public education funding at the top and that two-thirds are willing to pay more taxes to make that happen. We also know that in 2014, only 36 percent of eligible voters actually voted. Polls tell us what voters want, but they aren’t voting in a way to ensure they’ll actually get it.

I just wonder how many of you (who have decided this is the time and the place to plant the flag of “I’m not going to take it anymore”) are in the classroom, administering a school district, serving on a school board, or even have children currently in K-12 district schools. I ask this because I’m fairly sure all of these people are pissed too and they’d like to plant their own flags. But, they know that if Prop 123 doesn’t pass, it will be their students/children that suffer. It will be the 5th graders who have never been in a fully funded classroom. It will be those numerous students in Arizona who now have long-term uncertified and/or substitute teachers because of the severe shortage* of teachers in our state. It will be those students in class sizes higher than the national average because that is the only way districts could make ends meet. It will also be those students who are in facilities that haven’t been properly maintained because districts only received 2 percent of required funding to do so.

We now have Prop 123 because parents, teachers, school board members and others kept the pressure on to settle the school inflation-funding lawsuit. Years and years of cuts have made Arizona #1 in cuts to public education funding and Prop 123 won’t make much of a dent in that, but it is a start. Let me be clear…this is ONLY a start. It ONLY settles the inflation-funding lawsuit. The next step is up to all of us. We simply must elect different legislators if we expect different results. To do otherwise begins to meet the definition of insanity. We totally have the power to do this, we need only exercise it.

Please start now by taking the Prop 123GO Pledge.** Also as a reminder, the last day to register to vote in this special election is April 18th and early voting begins on April 20th. Our kids are counting on you to put them first, to end the wait, to up the fight. I will be there for them, will you?

Notes:

*To be clear, we probably have enough certified teachers in Arizona, they just can’t support their families on a teacher’s salary and have decided to work in other fields. In 2014, Arizona was 45th in the Nation for teacher salaries.

**If you are a school district employee or board member, please remember that district resources (including email) cannot be used to produce or circulate pro/con election materials.

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.

 

Living in La-La Land?

Not one to give up on any ALEC-concocted or promoted government shrinking effort, AZ Senator Debbie Lesko, R-Peoria, managed to gain traction this week on her latest version of this year’s voucher expansion. The zombie voucher expansion effort was resurrected when it became apparent the House couldn’t pass its original version to make every AZ student eligible.  HB 2482 stalled due to public outcry over lawmakers trying to settle the inflation funding lawsuit with a reduced payment via Prop. 123, while siphoning even more away from public schools with the proposed total expansion of vouchers.

“To the rescue”, rides Senator Lesko, the Arizona ALEC Chair, with her bill, SB-1279. Introduced as a “strike-everything” bill, it was fast-tracked for consideration and met the Appropriations versus the Education Committee to no doubt provide some cover for the contentious bill. Instead of full expansion, Lesko’s bill settles for expansion to free- or reduced lunch program eligibility which for a family of four translates to an annual income of no more than $44,863. The bill passed on an 8-5 vote.

In that the voucher is only worth $5,400 and the average cost of private school tuition is Arizona is about $10,000, it is highly unlikely that those lower on the socio-economic scale will be lining up anytime soon to ditch their district schools. Rather, Lesko’s bill serves to again chip away at the foundation of our public school system and yes, the very core of our democracy.

To my point, Representative Rick Gray, R-Sun City, was quoted by Howard Fischer as saying that it is wrong to look at how the legislation will affect public schools. ” it really comes down to that child, and what’s best for that child” he said. What a crock of BS! Gray is saying that state legislation shouldn’t be concerned with how it affects the largest portion of the state budget and the 900,000 district school students it provides for? That’s like a U.S. Congressman saying that federal legislation regarding the military shouldn’t be concerned with its affect on national defense, but rather on the individual soldier. The soldier might appreciate the consideration, but the misplaced focus would no doubt weaken our ability to defend our Nation.

These efforts aren’t about the individual child, or even children in general. What they are about is shrinking the government and reducing the ability of the people to participate in their democracy. Our Tea-publican Legislature won’t be happy until they have total control over every aspect of an extremely limited government which is all about keeping them in power and making their wealthy supporters even more wealthy. That’s the real bottom line and anyone who believes otherwise is living in La-La Land.

 

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.

 

 

 

 

Screw you, I’ve got mine

Now that it looks like the AZ Legislature will be successful in finally opening the floodgates on vouchers (empowerment scholarship accounts) for K-12 education, I’ve got some other ideas they should consider. After all, the Legislature has made it clear that taxpayers are the ones best equipped to decide where their tax dollars go and that transparency and accountability don’t matter. Other than quarterly reports on spending, there is virtually no accountability in the voucher program; students aren’t even required to test and private schools don’t need to report any kind of results so there is no way for taxpayers to determine if their tax dollars were well spent.

Since I don’t have any children or grandchildren, I’ve been thinking about how I can take advantage of the Legislature’s privatization fixation. My first idea is one of safety and security. We don’t live in an incorporated township, so we rely on the county sheriff’s department to ensure our safety and security. The service provided is adequate, but I really think I can do better by looking to a private security firm to meet my needs. After all, surely a private security firm can do a better job right? That Blackwater firm was just an anomaly, right? So, I’m not sure what percentage of my tax dollars support the county sheriff’s office, but I want the state to give that back to me and I’ll hire my own guys. I’ll probably have to pay extra for the private solution, but it will be worth it.

While I’m at it, think I’ll look at the taxes I pay for maintenance of roads. After all, what do I care about roads in other parts of the state? I want the roads I drive each and every day to be in pristine condition. Maybe the state should just turn every road into a toll road and then I would only pay for those roads on which I drive. What? There would be many cases where there isn’t enough traffic to support maintenance of roads in remote areas? Too bad, so sad, not my problem.

Oh, and I live within a half mile of a fire department so I don’t think I should have to pay as much in taxes as those who live further away. After all, if there is a fire at my house, the department will save money in fuel and travel time to deal with it.

Obviously, I provide the above to make a point. When did we descend into this “screw you, I’ve got mine” mentality? No matter what proponents claim, vouchers are NOT the solution for the vast majority of Arizona’s children. What they are, is a way to: 1) redistribute our tax dollars from the greater good to those who LEAST need the help; 2) bolster the private education industry and; 3) relieve the state Legislature of the responsibility for ensuring and providing for education. The two major jobs of the state are to provide for public safety and public education. Once these voucher bills pass, legislators will no doubt feel they can wash their hands of the responsibility to “provide for the establishment and maintenance of a general and uniform public school system.” Truth is, they will have just done the very thing that drives a stake in the heart of their ability to ensure a “uniform” system.

Make no mistake; this is NOT about providing parents a choice. What it is about, and has always been about, is the corporate “reform” of public education or in other words, taking the “public” out of public education. Vouchers are also not ensuring the best for ALL our students. With every student exits their district school on a voucher, the fixed costs of running that district must be born by a smaller budget, which means the students left in are increasingly short-changed. The nature of the beast is that these students will invariably be those with the most challenges such as English Language Learners, special needs students, or just those lowest on the socio-economic ladder. Unlike district and charter schools, private schools can choose whom they wish to admit. They also don’t provide transportation and their tuition commonly exceeds the $5,200 parents receive with the voucher. It is not hard to see why many of Arizona’s parents will continue to choose to send their children to their community district schools and yet, these schools will increasingly be abandoned in terms of state support.

I’ve made it known that I am for the approval of Prop. 123 to get more funding into our schools now! Is it the way I would want to do it? NO!! I want to Arizona to stop giving corporate handouts and if necessary, to raise taxes to fund the type of schools our students needs for the future we all want. After all, Arizonans largely support this. If this opening of the floodgates on vouchers passes though, I may have to rethink my position. It is bad enough that the Legislature has thumbed it’s nose at the will of the voters, the decisions of the court and has finally agreed to pay our schools only 70 percent of what they owe with money that is already technically theirs. I can’t stomach the thought of this money getting siphoned off by those who could largely afford to go to private schools without the voucher money.

If you agree, you can’t just sit silently by and let this happen. If you want things to be different, you MUST ACT. Call your legislator, send them an email and make comments in the Legislature’s “Request to Speak” program. If you aren’t signed up for the program, please email me and I’ll personally go to the Capitol and sign you up (you must be signed up through the kiosk at the Capitol to be able to actually comment on bills.) Then you can, from the comfort of your home, tell the Legislature just what you think about the bills they are considering and, your comments will become part of the permanent record.

Ultimately though, the only long-term solution is to elect pro-public education legislators to replace those who aren’t acting in our students’ or our state’s best interest. Please ACT NOW. Our kids are counting on you and they can’t wait any longer for us to come to their rescue.