State Sponsored Discrimination

Some parents don’t know best. There. I said it. Let’s face it, some parents aren’t present, some are abusive, and some are drug addicts. Then there are those who are trying their damnedest to provide for their children but their minimum wage jobs (without benefits) just don’t pay enough to make ends meet. Bottom line is, not all parents know how, or care enough to provide, the best they can for their children. Where that is the case, or, when hard working parents need a little help, it is up to all of us in a civil society, to ensure all children are safe and that their basic needs are met. As education reformer John Dewey said over a century ago, “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.”

Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos evidently doesn’t agree. In recent testimony to Congress, no matter what question she was asked about how far states would be allowed to go in discriminating against certain types of students, she kept deflecting to “states rights” and “parental rights,” failing to say at any point in the testimony that she would ensure states receiving federal dollars would not discriminate. From watching her testimony, if she had been the Secretary of Education with Donald Trump as President back in the early 1960s, the Alabama National Guard would undoubtedly never have been called up to integrate the schools.

This should surprise no one. After all, the entire school reform agenda is really about promoting survival of the fittest. Those who “have” and already do well, will be set up for even more success while those dealing with the challenges poverty presents, will continue to suffer. As far as Betsy DeVos is concerned, the U.S. Department of Education has no responsibility to protect students from discrimination based on race, ethnicity, religion, sexual preference, gender identity. The hell with Brown vs. Board of Education, she will not step in to ensure states do the right thing for their students. As Jack Covey wrote recently to Diane Ravitch, to Betsy, “choice” is everything and parents should be able to send their children to a black-free, LGBT-free, or Muslim-free school on the taxpayer’s dime if they want to.

Does that EVEN sound remotely like America to you? How can it be okay for our tax dollars to promote blatant discrimination? This is essentially state-sponsored discrimination. Yes, discrimination has always occurred via self-funded choice. The wealthy have always been able to keep their children away from the rest of us but, it was on their own dime. As it has always been with parents who stretched budgets to live in neighborhoods with the “best” school district as a way to ensure their child had the best chance.

And despite some attempts to even out the inequity inherent in the system, it persists. Texas superintendent and public school advocate John Kuhn recently wrote about “a phenomenon called ‘inequitable equilibrium’ wherein states are forced by judges to adjust school spending to make it more fair but then, over time, without fail, the state legislatures pass new laws and find workarounds to return to socially acceptable maximum level of school funding inequity.” John goes on to write that, “Voters in centers of power and influence are able to ignore something as esoteric as inequity so long as it only affects relatively voiceless populations in inner cities, border towns, and fading farm towns.”

Now though, we are saying that taxpayers must pay for the right for parents to segregate their children from those they consider less desirable. Today’s narrative is “the hell with ensuring all kids have equal opportunity, you only have to care about your kid and the taxpayer will help you.” Kuhn writes about “voting majorities in Texas primaries [who] nominate candidates who are religious but not moral, who play-act as righteous representatives of the people’s hearts and values but who, in the crucible of leadership, more and more of the time reveal themselves to be really pretty bad people who are effectively incapable of moral leadership.” John may be talking about Texan candidates and lawmakers, but I’ve seen plenty of the same at the Arizona Capitol. And when he writes that Texan voters “keep electing carnival show barkers who are better at sound bites than sane decisions,” you have to admit you can recognize how that applies to Arizona voters as well. I also find myself identifying with his statement that “Governance has devolved into something like pro wrestling, but it’s school children in underfunded schools who are getting hit with folding chairs.” Of course here in Arizona, I would add that “teachers are getting hit with those folded chairs too.”

Then, as Kuhn points out, legislators require schools be graded with “uniform criteria while refusing to fund schools uniformly.” This system then ensure schools in poorer communities are branded as bad schools, driving down property values, making it harder to raise local funds for schools or attract new businesses or jobs. “Test-based school accountability combined with inequitable school funding” John says, “is state-sponsored sabotage of cities.”

It is a sign of the times I am afraid, that it is acceptable to “pick on the little guy” and to “kick a guy when he is down.” It is acceptable for those in power to decide who “wins” and who “loses” and for our nation therefore to be moving toward a caste system where many will never ever have a shot at the American Dream no matter how hard they study and work.

I’ve been streaming “The Handmaid’s Tale” and find it very disturbing. If you haven’t watched it, you should. It is a clear commentary on how accepting the previously unacceptable, no matter how small and seemingly insignificant, can eventually result in horrific consequences no one would have ever believed could come to pass. Prior to the past year, it would never have crossed my mind that something like “The Handmaid’s Tale” could happen in America. Now, I’m not so sure.

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Happy Valentines Day…NOT!

On this Valentine’s Day, I thought I’d ask, when it comes to our public schools students in Arizona, “who loves you baby?”  Yesterday, I was listening in on the AZ House Education Committee meeting. There were many bills on the agenda, but I was primarily interested in HB 2394; empowerment scholarship accounts [ESAs]; expansion; phase-in. I wasn’t hopeful the bill would die, as its companion bill SB 1431, had already been given a due-pass by the Senate Education Committee. As expected, HB 2394 followed suit on a 6–5 vote as did HB 2465, which will allow all students eligible for an ESA account to remain on the program until age 22 and for up to $2,000 a year to be put into a 529 savings account.

The passage of these bills, along with the companion ones in the Senate, demonstrate the disdain many GOP legislators have for our district schools and, for the underpaid educators who toil within. This, because ESAs divert more general fund revenue per student to private schools than district schools receive. As reported by the Arizona School Boards Association, an ESA student, on average, costs the state general fund $1,083 more in grades K–8, and $1,286 more in grades 9–12 than a district student. This is in part because there are many school districts that enjoy a fair amount of locally controlled support in the way of overrides and bonds. The state therefore, is relieved of providing equalization funding to them, but when students leave to go to private schools, all the funding must come from the state general fund. ESA students also receive charter additional assistance funding of roughly $1,200 per student, which district schools do not receive. Turns out that the claim of voucher proponents that they save the state money, is not just “alternative facts” but totally untrue. And, although voucher proponents love to claim there is no harm to district schools when students take their funding and leave, the truth is that about 19 percent of a districts costs are fixed (teacher salaries, transportation, facility repair and maintenance, utilities) and can’t be reduced with each student’s departure.

I am slightly encouraged though by the two Republican members on the House Education Committee who had the courage to stand up and do the right thing. Huge kudos to Representatives Doug Coleman and Michelle Udall who voted against the voucher expansion! I encourage each of you to email them and let them know how much you appreciate their show of support for the one million public school students in Arizona’s district schools. What also gives me hope, is the 400 plus people and their almost seven pages of 10-font, single spaced comments made against the bill in the Arizona Legislature’s Request to Speak System. Here’s a word cloud of the comments:

esa-wordcloud

This is compared to the 30 people who signed in to Request to Speak in favor of the bill. The vast majority of whom represent organizations in favor of commercialization of district schools such as The Goldwater Institute, Americans for Prosperity, Center for Arizona Policy, AZ Catholic Conference, AZ Chamber of Commerce and the American Federation for Children.

So, why these organizations? Well, let’s see. According to its website, the Goldwater Institute is a “national leader for constitutionally limited government.” Corporate reformers love to paint district schools as “government” schools, making them just another one of the targets to shrink the government, or as Grover Norquist said, “get it down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub.” The Goldwater Institute also works closely with the corporate bill mill, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) to promote conservative corporate agendas (such as commercialization of district schools) in Arizona.

Cathi Herrod and her Center for Arizona Policy (CAP) have long pushed school choice. CAP’s website states the belief that, “Religious freedom is affirmed and protected, free from government interference.” Of course, they are for vouchers. They would love for every student in Arizona to attend religious schools on the taxpayer’s dime.

Americans for Prosperity is a conservative political advocacy group funded by the Koch brothers. On their website they write, “at the very top of AFP-Arizona’s 2017 legislative agenda is the expansion of our state’s program of parental choice Empowerment Scholarship Accounts (ESAs).” They also encourage their supporters to thank Senators Flake and McCain for voting to confirm Betsy DeVos.

It should be no surprise to anyone that the AZ Catholic Conference is also interested in fully expanding voucher eligibility. Around the nation, Catholic schools have been closing at rapid rate, from 13,000 schools enrolling 12 percent of U.S. school children in the mid–1960s, to about 7,000 schools enrolling five percent in 2012. In 2015 alone, 88 Catholic schools closed. But, a tax credit program highly favorable to private and parochial schools has helped stem previous losses in Arizona but charters are still causing them much competition for students. There are now 73 Roman Catholic private schools in Arizona and six of them are among the most expensive private schools in the Phoenix area charging from $13,300 to $17,712 per year in tuition. A $5,200 voucher obviously won’t help poor students get into these schools, but it will be a nice offset for those wealthy enough to afford the schools irrespective of the help. The average cost for private schools in Arizona by the way is about $6,000 at the elementary level and $18,000 at the high school level.

As for the Arizona Chamber of Commerce, let’s not forget how their President and CEO, Glenn Hamer, recently characterized teachers as “crybabies” for wanting adequate pay. This, when our teachers are the lowest paid in the nation and 53 percent of Arizona’s teaching positions were vacant or filled by uncertified personnel at the beginning of this year. Study after study shows a high-quality teacher is critical to student success. What does that say about the commitment of Hamer and his chamber to our students in Arizona?

Finally, let’s not forget that until she was confirmed as Secretary of Education, Betsy Devos was the Chairwoman of the American Federation for Children (AFC). AFC is a huge proponent of school choice and vouchers and has invested millions in purchasing legislators favorable to their causes. Since 2010 in fact, it has contributed some $750,000 to pro school choice legislative candidates in Arizona.

Looking at the list and knowing the resources at their disposal (just think of the Koch brothers and DeVos alone), it is easy to assume most of them have invested heavily in legislative outcomes in Arizona and around the country. Does anyone really believe these organizations have Arizona’s district school students, 56 percent of whom qualify for free and reduced lunch (an indication of their low socio-economic status) children at heart?

We all know when we read something, especially these days, we must consider the source. Well, when looking at the support for voucher expansion in Arizona, I highly encourage you to do the same. This fight against the full expansion of vouchers is far from over. Those pushing for it are no doubt emboldened by pro-voucher stance of the new POTUS and his SecED. But, the people of Arizona understand district COMMUNITY schools are the key to not only achievement for all our students, but also to the health of our communities, and the preservation of our Democracy. We must not sit on the sidelines and watch these bills get signed into law. Much too much is at stake. Want to know more about how to plug-in? Comment on this post and I’ll be in touch. Please don’t let it be said we let our students get sold out!

Ooops, there it is!

We knew it was coming and awaited it with dread. And, drumroll please…crash goes the cymbal! Yes, here it is, this year’s attempt to exponentially expand Arzona’s voucher (Empowerment Scholarship Accounts, or ESA) program. Of course, the American Legislative Exchange Council’s (ALEC) chief water carrier for Arizona, Senator Debbie Lesko, R-Peoria, is the one proposing the expansion. Lesko claims the expansion of ESAs will “not lead to a mass exodus of children from public schools.” I, for the most part, agree with that statement since Arizona parents have made it clear district schools are their choice with 80% of students attending district schools and another almost 15% in charter schools.

But, to infer a massive voucher expansion will have no negative impact on district schools is disingenuous at best. No matter how slowly students may attrit from district schools, each student’s departure leaves behind a 19% budget shortfall. That’s because there are numerous fixed costs (teacher salaries, facility maintenance, utilities, buses, etc.) that cannot be reduced student by student. The siphoning of dollars from our district schools has been steadily increasing and just exacerbates an already inadequately resourced system.

This isn’t the first year the Legislature has attempted to expand the voucher program. In fact, they’ve been successful in expansions every year since the ESA program was launched in 2011. This isn’t even the first time a full expansion has been attempted, with a very similar proposal going down in flames last year due to public outcry and a perceived conflict with securing voter approval of Prop. 123. This year though, Lesko has sweetened the deal by requiring the testing of students attending private schools on vouchers. She says she “doesn’t personally think this requirement is necessary,” but obviously is trying to defuse the argument from voucher opponents that there is no accountability or return on investment for vouchered students.

She is right about one thing, district education advocates want more accountability and transparency where taxpayer dollars are spent on the myriad of school choice options. As the only schools governed by locally elected school boards and with annual efficiency reports published by the Office of the AZ Attorney General, district schools are the only schools fully accountable and transparent to the taxpayers. Pro-choice advocates tout that parents should have the right to choose where they send their child to school at government expense. As a taxpayer, I maintain I have the right to know the return on investment of my tax dollars. Their right should not trump mine.

Senator Lesko also infers that vouchers will save money because the average voucher amount for students without special needs is $5,200, yet it costs $9,529 to educate Arizona’s average student in public schools. This is misleading because she is comparing apples and oranges and she knows it. The $9,529 figure she quotes is a total of all funding sources, federal, state and local (bonds and overrides) while the $5,200 is only state funding. So, if a student transfers from a district where state funding is offset by locally supported funding (due to the equalization formula), that student’s voucher will actually cost the state general fund more than if that student had remained in their district school. Lesko also notes that vouchers and school choice are a national trend as evidenced by President Trump’s nomination of Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education.

Oh no, she did NOT go there! Trying to sell vouchers as mainstream by pointing to Trump’s nomination of DeVos is akin to denying global warming by citing colder temperatures in parts of the country. After all, DeVos’ success with promoting school choice in Michigan has been dismal. In the two-plus decades she has championed this crusade (those knowledgeable about DeVos will understand my choice of that word), she has purchased legislative influence to expand charters and greatly reduce accountability. She has also worked hard to introduce vouchers in the state, but thus far, the voters have prevailed to keep those “wolves” at bay. And the improvements she has promised haven’t materialized with scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) for 4th graders declining from 28th in reading and 27th in math in 2003, to 41st in reading and 42nd in math in 2015.

According to the Arizona Capitol Times, the American Federation for Children (AFC) is pushing vouchers nationwide. I’m only going to give you three guesses as to who the chair of AFC is, and the first two don’t count. Yep, none other than Betsy DeVos. In addition to pushing for school choice and vouchers around the country, AFC has spent big bucks on rewarding those legislators working to expand privatization and punishing those who try to stand up for the 90% of students attending our nation’s districts schools. As reported by Richard Gilman on his website BringingUpArizona.com, AFC is a 501(c)4 free to pour dark money into political campaigns. And pour they have. Gilman writes, “Since its inception in 2010, the organization has poured nearly three-quarters of a million dollars into Arizona elections in a largely successful effort to sway the makeup of the Legislature.” The state’s “demonstrated appetite for school choice” is what AFC cites for its focus on Arizona. Of course, common causes make “strong” bedfellows and Gilman tracks AFC’s interest in Arizona back to Clint Bolick (once Vice President of Litigation at the Goldwater Institute and now AZ Supreme Court Justice.) Bolick served as the first president and general counsel for the Alliance for School Choice (AFC’s predecessor.)

But, I digress. The point is that no matter what snake oil the corporate reformers try to sell us, there is an incredibly well-funded, high-powered effort to have two school systems in Arizona. One is the commercial system of charters, private, parochial, virtual and homeschools that serve the whiter and wealthier students, and the other is the district schools, starved for resources, that will have the poorer, browner, and more challenged students to educate. According to recent polls, this is not what the vast majority of Arizonan voters want. But, until Arizonans clearly draw the nexus between voting for Legislators who don’t support our public district schools (most of them with an “R” after their name), and the fact that our district schools are way under resourced, nothing will change. If we want something different, we have to do something different. To continue doing the same thing and expecting different results, is as you know…the definition of insanity.

Graham Keegan is “Very Pleased” With DeVos…What a Shock!

I started reading Thomas Friedman’s latest book this morning, “Thank You for Being Late, An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations.” I’m only in the second chapter, but in it he credits Craig Mundy, former Chief of Strategy and Research at Microsoft, with using the terms “disruption” and “dislocation” when speaking about the effect of acceleration. Mundy defines “disruption” as, “what happens when someone does something clever that makes you or your company look obsolete. “Dislocation” is the next step — “when the rate of change exceeds the ability to adapt.

I argue the education reform movement has been working hard for some time now to disrupt truly public education; to find “something clever” that makes district education look obsolete. Unfortunately for them, the results haven’t quite matched up to the rhetoric. While school choice advocates like to promote the “magic of the marketplace thinking,” they just don’t have a good track record of improving overall student achievement. And yet, Lisa Graham Keegan, Executive Director of A for Arizona & Glenn Hamer, President & CEO of the Arizona Chamber of Commerce & Industry fall all over themselves in an exuberant support piece for Trump’s Secretary of Education (SecED) nominee, Betsy DeVos. They are “very pleased with her nomination” writing that it, “signals a shift in the conversation around education policy in exactly the right way.” Let’s be real. What they are really hoping is that if confirmed, Betsy DeVos will propel the commercialization of district community schools at a “rate of change” that “exceeds the ability to adapt”, i.e., that it will cause “dislocation.”

Tulane University’s Douglas Harris argues though that, “The DeVos nomination is a triumph of ideology over evidence that should worry anyone who wants to improve results for children.” That’s because the evidence from DeVos’ backyard is far from pro-commercialization. Michigan has become a Mecca for school choice over the past 23 years and its charters are among the most-plentiful and least-regulated in the nation. Approximately 80% of Michigan’s 300 publicly funded charters are operated by for-profit companies, more than any other state. Yet, a 2015 federal review of Michigan’s charters found an ‘unreasonably high’ percentage that were underperforming. In response, DeVos and friends successfully defeated state legislation “that would have prevented failing charter schools from expanding or replicating.” By doing so, they enabled the doubling of charter schools on the list of lowest performing and the competition she’s driven has district and charter schools fighting over students, ensuring no one thrives. Randi Weingarten, President of the American Federation of Teachers,  writes that DeVos has long been, “working in Michigan to undermine public schools and to divide communities. And now—she’s poised to swing her Michigan wrecking ball all across America.”

DeVos’ “wrecking ball” isn’t just about using charters to do the “disrupting and dislocating”, but virtual schools and vouchers as well. In fact, Rachel Tabachnick, a researcher, writer and speaker on the impact of the Religious Right on policy and politics, calls her “the four star general of the voucher movement.” Tabachnick, no doubt like many others, is concerned that DeVos will gleefully work to make good on Trump’s promise of $20 billion for school choice, by siphoning off Title I funds designed to help the most vulnerable kids to the benefit of wealthy families for private and religious schools. There are real doubts among many though, that even if the money were available, Trump’s voucher idea (had typed “plan”, but I don’t think Trump is big on those) just won’t work. Current SecED John King said, “Vouchers, I don’t think, are a scalable solution to the challenges that we face in public education, and I think (they) have the potential to distract us from focusing on how we strengthen public education.” Teacher and writer Retired Professor and writer, Joseph Natoli writes, “Unless we deconstruct the narrative that privatized schools somehow have uncovered the secret to how humans learn and have a monopoly on the most effective ways to implement that knowledge, we are allowing false assertions to stand.” Natoli also writes, “Weakening public education to the point that privatization looks like rescue is accomplished by funding that is decreased when tax funds are siphoned off to for-profit charter [or private] schools.”

Most of us also understand, as Steven M Singer, blogger at gadflyonthewallblog writes, that school choice “privileges the choice of some and limits the choices of others.” This is bad he posits, because district schools “pool all the funding for a given community in one place. By doing so, they can reduce the cost and maximize the services provided.” Adding parallel systems increases the costs thereby providing less for the same money. “Public [district] schools are designed to educate. Corporate schools are designed to profit” Singer notes, and eloquently writes, “Instead of fixing the leak in our public school system, advocates prescribe running for the lifeboats. We could all be sailing on a strong central cruise-liner able to meet the demands of a sometimes harsh and uncaring ocean together. Instead we’re told to get into often leaky escape craft that even under the best of circumstances aren’t as strong as the system we’re abandoning.”

Mitchell Robinson at ecletablog.com, believes DeVos’ “ultimate goal, appears to be a two-tiered educational system.” One, a system of well-funded elite private and religious schools with highly qualified teachers and a rich curriculum for wealthy whites and another of “fly by night” virtual and for-profit charters with little to no regulation or oversight, and a bare bones, “back to basics” curriculum delivered by unqualified and uncertified “teachers”.

Back in Arizona though, Graham Keegan and Hamer write that DeVos is not a “gradual improvement” kind of leader, but a “true reformer who believes in immediate transformation of lives through quality education because she sees it happening. (One might ask where, since it ain’t in her home state of Michigan.) Of course, they follow that up with ”we’re optimistic that under Mrs. DeVos’ leadership we can take a national break from seeking to impose improvement from on high…” Her soon to be boss though, doesn’t seem to want to give up the bully pulpit to affect change saying, “There’s no failed policy more in need of urgent change than our government-run education monopoly. ”It is time to break up that monopoly.” His words are of course, hyperbolic and untrue, as government is not the sole provider of K-12 education, nor is competition prohibited by law.

What is not hyperbole, is that DeVos and other elites understand that truly public education helps make the American Dream possible. That’s why they are fighting so hard to dismantle it. “Educator Stan Karp argued that what is ultimately at stake in school reform debates is ”whether the right to a free public education for all children is going to survive as a fundamental democratic promise in our society, and whether the schools and districts needed to provide it are going to survive as public institutions, collectively owned and democratically managed – however imperfectly by all of us as citizens. Or will they be privatized and commercialized by the corporate interests that increasingly dominate all aspects of our society?”

This fight is not just about what kind of schools America’s children attend and who pays for it. It is also about weakening the power of our Democracy and its people. Will we continue to be a nation “of the people, by the people, for the people” or will the oligarchy turn us into a caste or feudal system where only a few have a say and the rest of us serve? If you want to continue to have a say in our Democracy, exercise it today by clicking here to contact your U.S. Senators today and tell them to vote “NO” on the confirmation of Betsy DeVos as America’s next SecEd. Then stand at the ready, because the cause is just and the fight is far from over.

NOTE: For those of you who may know me as a member of the Oracle School District Governing Board, I want to make it clear that these views are my own and do not represent the views of the Governing Board of the Oracle School District.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Rest of the Story…

The editor of the Scottsdale Independent, Terrance Thornton, recently wrote, “the idea of choice has created a competitive public school marketplace.” I agree with his premise that school choice created competition, but add that competition is, by definition, a zero-sum game. For a charter school to “win” a student a district school has to “lose” both a student and the funding associated with that student.

Counter to what those who advocate for backpack funding would have you believe, the loss of a student is not without consequences for a district. This, since fixed costs (utilities, food, and transportation), consume almost 19 percent of per pupil funding in Arizona. In fact, Moody’s, the bond rating agency, just issued a report stating that “charter school expansion poses the risk that schools will not be able to adjust to the loss of revenue, since even if the student population drops at a district school, schools still must pay for costs like transportation and infrastructure.” And, oh by the way, don’t even get me started on the whole concept of “the funding belongs to the student.” I disagree vehemently and quote fellow blogger Peter Greene who writes, “the funding belongs to the taxpayer.” Amen brother!

In this competitive environment, district schools are forced to doing everything they can to well…compete, despite a funding level per-pupil that makes Arizona 48th in the Nation. That includes ensuring the public knows about their achievements. Even with the availability of social media, this takes money, which of course; district leaders would prefer to spend in the classroom. Unfortunately, marketing is one of the necessary “evils” of the competition forced on districts.

Thornton alleges that school board members “know very little about how the system works.” Not true. As a school board member, I am very aware of “how the system works” and I am continually impressed with fellow board members I meet from around the state. We take our elected but unpaid “jobs” very seriously and regularly attend training to keep up-to-date and learn more. The vast majority of board members are reelected to multiple terms by their constituents because they believe in the leadership they are providing.

I must say that some of the words Thornton chose seem to have a bias against district schools. For example, he wrote “established spending thresholds…allow a district to allocate funds…free from public scrutiny.” There is no expenditure of taxpayer dollars a district can legally make that is free from public scrutiny. Although at times the public must make official requests to see the information, transparency and accountability of taxpayer dollars is just one of the attributes that sets district schools apart from the commercial schools. In the case he described, the law was written to provide some procurement efficiencies (like a business would use) to ensure only those purchases above a certain level go through a public bidding process. He seems to imply that the use of commercial vendors to provide services to districts is a problem. That is though, exactly how a business would operate since usually, outsourcing a service that is not your core product is less expensive and more efficient than maintaining all those capabilities in-house.

Interestingly, commercial schools are often touted as being much less bureaucratic than district schools. It should of course, be easy to be less bureaucratic when there are very few, if any requirements to be transparent and accountable to the taxpayers. But, at least in the case of Arizona’s charter schools, their administrative expenses are double that of district schools. You read that right…charter schools in our state spend twice as much on administrative costs as district schools. How’s that for less bureaucracy?

As for the “hundreds of thousands of dollars” both Scottsdale and Paradise Valley Unified School Districts “allocate to [their] communications department[s]”, I offer two questions. First, what is the average marketing expense for a business with an operating budget equal to that of these districts? Second, how much of this funding for these districts’ “communications departments” is actually for advertisement of teacher job openings, or to fund the maintenance of the district website (primarily for the use of district parents), or for the safety of students in the form of emergency notification services (as Thornton points out in his article?) And, while we are on the subject of funding allotted to “communications departments”, it might be worth noting the amount per student of that funding. At Paradise Valley Unified (PVUSD), the “communications” costs work out to be about $5.50 per student, while Scottsdale BASIS spent about $37 per student on marketing expenses, almost seven times as much as PVUSD. This despite the BASIS.ED CEO’s contention that “effective social media campaigns have gone a long way in promoting” their schools and that “the key is word of mouth.”

Finally, yes, BASIS enjoys a fair amount of academic success but so do many district schools around the state. In fact, in the 2016 U.S. News and World Report, half were charter schools (three of them BASIS) and half were district schools. As a news professional, I am sure Thornton is well aware there is always much more to any story. Too bad he didn’t feel the need to share all sides in this one.

 

 

 

Our Kids Have Given Enough!

God, I’m tired of the whole district versus commercial (private and charter) school debate.  But, I feel strongly that district schools should be our Nation’s first choice to educate the majority of our children. I will therefore, continue to fight for not only their survival, but also success.

Usually, that means I’m at odds with school choice proponents. Today though, I read a blog post by Robin J. Lake and found myself agreeing with much of what she wrote. Ms. Lake is the Director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington. In her piece titled “Will the New Administration Love School Choice to Death?” she writes “Our study of Detroit’s current choice environment, now at 50 percent charter schools, offers an important caution: choice alone is no panacea. In fact, ”School choice“, she writes, ”presented as a panacea is dangerous, both rhetorically and as policy.” She points out that in Detroit, charter schools slightly outperform district schools [I found dissenting stories about this], but their students are still some of the lowest-performing in the nation. Detroit school management is dysfunctional to say the least. There are a dozen different government agencies sponsoring schools without any coordination. This results in a parental nightmare with no one managing transportation, no one taking responsibility for closing low-performing schools, and no one making sure special needs students are well served.

Providing the complete package is one of the things district schools generally do well. They transport your child to and from school and they feed him or her breakfast, lunch and maybe even during the summer if need be. They provide both special need and advanced placement education, usually some sort of tutor support where required, and have a full range of programs such as sports, band, art, and much, much, more. And, most importantly, they take all comers, regardless of their socio-economic status, special needs, ethnicity, etc.

The real truth I have come to believe, is that no matter what school option (including district schools) one looks at, it takes sufficient funding, quality administrators and teachers, engaged parents and high expectations to produce real, positive results. It also takes an environment where if the child starts at a disadvantage in school and life, he or she can get help (especially if there is none at home) to rise above it. I once heard a presentation making the point how just one caring adult can make a huge difference in a child’s life. It struck me as incredibly sad to think that some children don’t even have that. That’s right…some children don’t even have one adult that cares about them.

When adults do care, good things usually happen. But, the more focused attention to a problem, the more likely the solution will be successful. Ms. Lake writes, “Choice is a powerful force, but it must be accompanied by thoughtful government oversight and supports for quality. There must be mechanisms to ensure that schools of choice serve the most challenging students. And there must be coordinated efforts across localities to empower parents with information, transportation, and other support systems. Without these efforts, families most often end up with a lot of choice and very little in the way of better options.” If there’s one clear lesson she has gleaned from the last 25 years of charter school implementation, she writes, it’s that “choice and competition are necessary but by no means sufficient to dramatically improve outcomes for students.”

I couldn’t agree more with Ms. Lake that, “To avoid choice becoming permanently polarized…scholars and advocates need to fight new programs that don’t promote quality and accountability.” They must advocate for policies that promote collaboration among school providers, ALL school providers, both district and commercial. They also must address equitable access for students with disabilities and other special needs and, maximize the effectiveness and accountability of any private voucher/scholarship and education savings account proposals.

And to her statement that “The new Department of Education should invest in strategies to prevent harm to students in districts facing major enrollment losses”, I say AMEN! Instead of fighting each other over who has the best answer, just imagine what we could do if we recognized there is good in all options and worked together for the best overall solution. Unfortunately, the pie is only so big and with the GOP fixation on tax cuts, it is getting smaller all the time. As long as the various school choice options are pitted against each other for resources, it is hard to see how we can work together for a better outcome. Something though, has to give and it damn well shouldn’t be our district school kids and their teachers. They’ve given enough.