A Familiar Recipe for Disaster

I recently came across an August 2013 report by Lindsey M. Burke from The Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice titled: The Education Debit Card – What Arizona Parents Purchase with Education Savings Accounts. The report makes many claims begging to be refuted. In the executive summary, the author credits Arizona with creating “a model that should be every state policymaker’s goal when considering how to improve education: funding students instead of physical school buildings and allowing that funding to follow children to any education provider of choice.” The model referred to here are Empowerment Scholarship Accounts (ESAs).

In September 2011, Arizona’s ESA program started with a modest enrollment of 153 students with special needs. In 2012, enrollment had grown to include more than 300 children with special needs.   Expansion continued that year with eligibility granted to more than 220,000 Arizona students, including 125,000 children with special needs, 87,000 children in underperforming public schools (rated D or F), 11,500 children of active- duty military families, and any additional foster children.Currently, according to AZ Ed News, more than 250K students are eligible to apply.

Although I totally “get” a parent wanting the very best for their own child, I am also brought back to a quote by John Dewey’s (possibly the most significant educational thinker of the 20th century): “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.”

The real truth is, the majority of children (for a multitude of reasons) will simply not be able to avail themselves of the ESA opportunity. So, I find myself asking what are the real reasons Arizona legislators and other leaders are pushing vouchers as the solution for educating our children? Color me cynical, but let me offer some thoughts:

1. A voucher by any other name. The ESA bills are model American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) legislation. As reported by education activist and blogger David Safier: “The Goldwater Institute came up with the idea for ESAs as a second workaround (the first is our tuition tax credit law) to make vouchers legal in a state where the constitution prohibits the use of public money for religious instruction. (Did you know over 70% of Arizona’s private schools are religious?) The term of art for this kind of legislation is “backdoor vouchers.” The conservative’s ultimate goal is vouchers for all.”

2. What can parents afford with an ESA? AZ Senator Al Melvin (who is running for Governor this year) likes to tout vouchers for every child at $9,000 per child is either ignorant or disingenuous. First of all, if every child in Arizona were given that much funding, it would cost as much as entire budget of the state of Arizona ($9.054B vs. a budget of 9.18 billion.) Secondly, the ESA base rate this year is only $5,400 per child, not $9,000. So, what private school can parents send their children to for $5,400? The website Private School Review shows the average tuition at Arizona’s private elementary schools as $5,465. Please note, this is not the total cost. Private schools do not typically offer free transportation to/from school or like public schools do, nor is a free/reduced fee lunch program offered. Additionally, parents are often expected to donate time, or in the case of at least one school, get charged $10 per hour when they don’t donate the requisite amount. Finally, please note the $5,465 cost is just tuition. What else is not included in this cost – books, athletics, extracurricular activities?

3. Despite claims to the contrary, competition is not the answer for everything. Whereas public school districts should be collaborating with each other to ensure the most effective use of taxpayer dollars, open enrollment and school choice encourages just the opposite. Marketing campaigns and intra-district bussing is now the norm to boost enrollment numbers. Additionally, where engaged, caring parents would once get involved as part of the solution in their community public schools, now they vote with their feet and take their talents to private options versus applying them to the common good.

4. There is little accountability or transparency in the use of the ESA funding. A recent Arizona Capitol Times article reported parents with ESAs have saved up roughly $2.5 million of taxpayer dollars over the past three years causing many to question the program’s accountability. After all, these unspent funds equal 21 percent of the almost $12 million handed out since 2012 and represent 68 parents holding onto amounts from $10,000 to over $61,000. A representative for the Arizona Department of Education (AZ DOE) said they have no authority over how much of the quarterly disbursements must be spent, only that the receipts for the expenses reflect allowed expenditures. The AZ DOE administrator of the program said the department is aware of the growing accounts, but has no authority over how much of the quarterly disbursements must be spent. Obviously though, money held onto is not money spent on a child’s education. As a vivid case in point, one “tight-fisted parent has hung onto $61,047 while spending only $825.” How can this be in the child’s best interest?

5. But wait, weren’t ESAs supposed to save the state money? ESAs were supposed to save the state money, but now they will cost Arizona more than educating children in the public school system. Despite the legislature’s unwillingness to change the law to allow it, John Huppenthal, the AZ Superintendent of Public Instruction has unilaterally moved to provide all ESA students funding at 90 percent of the charter school funding level, which is currently higher than the district school level. This translates to all students on ESAs getting the charter school amount, an additional $1,684 to $1,963 over what was given for students transferring from traditional schools. Additionally, according to the AZ Joint Legislative Budget Committee, the newly expanded availability to kindergarteners that might have attended private schools anyway at parental expense drives up the cost as well.

6. Superintendent of Public Instruction, not public schools! Superintendent Huppenthal recently shilled for The Alliance for School Choice recording a robo-call that went out to 48,000 qualifying families and referred families to a Goldwater Institute website for more information. His$250,000 marketing campaign evidently produced results with applications for the 2014-15 school year doubling from 2,479 from 1,100 the previous year. When questioned about his actions, he said “he is the Superintendent of Public Instruction, not public schools.

Given the facts surrounding the push to expand ESAs, one must ask why? I suspect politics is largely responsible. “Arthur Camins, a teacher and director, center for innovation in Engineering and Science Education, Stevens Institute of Technology” posits the corporate reformers believe (or want us to believe) that “Improving all schools is hopeless. Poverty will always be with us.” That’s why he says, they believe they need to offer privately governed schools to serve the “best among the unfortunate.” They know not all children will be successful, they just need a system for sorting through those who can be. “This is the cold hard truth. Only we (the best and smartest) have the guts to act on it.”

Camins goes on to write that, “in-school tracking and magnet schools have long served to mediate dealing the hard truth that poverty undermines children’s readiness and ability to engage in and sustain learning.” Now though, the new well-funded partnerships trying to provide a systemic alternative to public schools is more “explicitly elitist and anti-democratic” than ever before. “As long as the only seeming rational choice is self-preservation, people who can, will choose it.” What is new now is “the scale of the effort and resulting damage, the ever-widening disparity in income and differential life chance opportunities and the erosion of the very idea of social responsibility for the common good.”

Dr. Tim Ogle, Executive Director of the Arizona School Board Association writes that “allowing some selected children to “opt out” of public education to go to schools with unknown aims and objectives removes incentives to develop new creative solutions to education’s toughest challenges. Let’s call these accounts what they are: government subsidies for private enterprise using children as the currency.”

Voucher programs aren’t about offering parents a choice, they aren’t about ensuring special needs children have every opportunity, and they aren’t about improving the educational outcomes for our students. What they are about is making money…lots of it. Big money, lack of transparency and accountability, and legislators collaborating with big business…sound like a familiar recipe for disaster to anyone else?

Five Biggest Lies by School Choice Advocates

Linda Retire Crop#5.  School choice saves the taxpayers money.  First of all, did you know that in the state of Arizona, charter schools get $1,000 more per pupil in state funding than traditional district schools?  Secondly, all the funding workarounds concocted (often by the American Legislative Exchange Council or ALEC) and implemented by our legislators, only serve to obfuscate the reality and prevent blame being laid where it belongs.  Tax credit donations, empowerment scholarship accounts, and school tuition organization donations serve to redistribute state revenue and hide the truth that Arizona led the nation in per public spending cuts between 2008 and 2012 ($3 billion).  Tax credits reduce funding into the state coffers and in the case of district schools, give the taxpayers the impression they are doing their part to support education when the reality is the funding doesn’t go into the classrooms, but only for extracurricular, fee-based activities.  In the case of private schools, it is even worse since tax revenue is diverted directly into private education.  Although proponents say school choice saves the state money, this is true only if students who started out in public schools, end up in private schools.  Unfortunately, many tuition scholarships funded by the tax credits have gone to students who would have attended private schools anyway, representing a financial loss for the state.

#4.  School choice puts parents in control.  Au contraire.  Local control puts parents in control.  School choice promotes competition versus collaboration amongst district schools, and encourages charter school development.  Although non-profit charter schools are technically classified as public schools, they are often owned or run (behind the scenes) by for-profit companies who don’t follow the same rules of transparency as district schools and, aren’t accountable to taxpayers.  Charter schools are also legally required to accept all, but they are very adept at cherry picking their students and therefore have less than their “fair” share of special education and English language learning students.  Despite this, charter schools do not by and large perform better than district schools.  Parents are often aware of this and just assume charters perform better.  Some do, but many don’t.

#3.  School choice is the rising tide that will lift all.  Arizona State Senator Al Melvin, now a gubernatorial candidate, says that giving $9,000 vouchers to parents for each child will allow them to send their children to the school of their choice.  This, he says, will cause the bad schools to close and improve the quality of the rest.  First of all, there isn’t enough money in the entire Arizona state budget for all 1.6 million school children in the state.  Secondly, those who have access to make the choice will go, leaving those who don’t “stuck” with less funding in the public schools and much less opportunity for improvement.  As Diane Ravitch writes in her latest book, Reign of Error, “in a democracy, important social goals required social collaboration.”  Schools are not businesses that can reject “inferior” raw product.  They must take all and teach all.  Yes, they should operate efficiently but that should never be their primary concern.

As profiled by Malcom Gladwell in The New Yorker, economist Albert Hirschman, in his best know book Exit, Voice, and Loyalty, said there are two strategies people have for dealing with badly performing organizations and institutions.  Hirschman said the “exit” option “failed to send a useful message to underperformers.”  When engaged parents “exit” the system, versus using their “voice” to improve it, they remove agitation that could have improved the school for all.

#2.  School choice is about the children.  To put it plainly, baloney!  School choice is about business…big business.  Those on the right are up in arms about “government shoving Common Core standards down the states’ throats.”  The real drivers behind the standards though, are huge corporations and their foundations such as Microsoft, Wal-Mart, and Koch Industries just to name a few.  The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation alone gave at least $150 million for the development and implementation of the standards.  The National Governor’s Association Center for Best Practices and the Council of Chief State Schools Officers were big recipients and key to the adoption of the standards.  The education industry in the United States is a big pie (worth over $600 billion dollars) and everyone wants a piece of it.  This effort has been building for a long time, but Diane Ravitch says the current administration’s Race to the Top initiative and push for Common Core Standards is the “first time in history that the U.S. Department of Education designed programs with the intent of stimulating private sector investors to create for-profit ventures in American education.”

#1.  School choice is the civil rights issue of our time.  School Choice advocates say school choice ensures disadvantaged children the same opportunities as those more fortunate.  Not hardly.  By and large, disadvantaged children don’t have the access to make the choice.  Their parents either can’t drive them to the charter or private school, or their language skills don’t allow them to complete the complicated application, or they can’t donate time to help out at the school as often required.  School choice is not the civil rights issue of our time, poverty is.  Segregation, largely by socio-economic status (which often translates into race), is the highest it has been since 1964.  This has happened quietly and by design and the result is that those with less have a very good chance of always having less.  The American Dream is really now just a dream for many people.

Ultimately, parents shouldn’t have to make a choice.  Every district school should provide an equally high quality education.  The original intent of charters was not to compete with traditional district schools; rather, it was to meet unique needs.  In many cases, that original intent has now devolved into just another business opportunity and way to milk the taxpayer.  A strong public education system helped provide a sense of community and make our nation the greatest on earth.  The current trend of privatization will do nothing to help promote the public good and keep America strong.  School choice isn’t the solution, it is the easy way out and won’t work in the long run.  Blogger Steve Hinnefeld, in his blog School Matters, wrote “the contempt that school choice advocates commonly express for public schools is, at its root, contempt for democracy itself.”  I tend to agree since the democratic process requires education, engagement and is rarely easy or efficient.  It is much easier to cut and run.

Fantasy Island

Senator Melvin was on the Buckmaster[i] show recently where he once again implied the state funds public education at $9K per pupil. This despite AZ Fact Check[ii] proving it false during his 2012 campaign and the Joint Legislative Budget Committee’s report that state-only funding per student has been less than $5K every year since FY04.[iii]  In fact, Arizona leads the nation in cuts to per pupil funding since 2008 – almost 22%.[iv]

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These facts are important because one of Melvin’s key issues is “universal school choice where every child in the state has $9K, which is roughly what we are spending now…”[v]  Forget that a state appeals court ruled vouchers for private schools unconstitutional in 2009.[vi] With over $1 million students in the state, the total bill is over $9 billion, more than the state’s entire budget for 2013. This isn’t a bold new idea, it is fantasy.