The House Always Wins

I’m not a gambler, but I do know that Sin City isn’t prospering because those who visit its casinos win more than they lose. Rather, the casinos of Las Vegas and those all around the world, prosper because in the end, the house always wins.

That truism comes to mind when I think about our Arizona Legislature and their non-stop assault on the state’s public education system. Yes, it is sad that on the day Save Our Schools Arizona turned in over 111,000 petition signatures for a voucher expansion veto referendum to our Secretary of State, I’m thinking about how the battle has just begun. Not only that, but I’m worrying the battle is likely to not end in the people’s favor because just like the casinos, the game is rigged against us.

Senator Debbie Lesko, the sponsor of SB 1431, (full expansion of vouchers) is no doubt already planning repeal of the law should the referendum actually qualify for the ballot. Why would she do that? Well, for one, because when Arizonans are given the opportunity to vote on public education, they usually support it. For another, if the repeal of the voucher expansion actually gets on the ballot in November 2018, she and her GOP colleagues know that the issue will bring public education supporting voters out to the polls. We know which party the majority of those voters are likely to come from, right?

Of course, there is no guarantee the referendum will qualify for the ballot in the first place. First, there is the hurdle of actually having 75,321 valid signatures and even what a valid signature is. That’s because in the last legislative session, Arizona lawmakers passed a bill to enforce “strict compliance” for voter initiatives. The AZ GOP Chairman, back in April 2017, admitted that the purpose of the new law was to make it possible for the GOP-controlled Legislature to throw out ballot initiatives for “minor errors regarding language and paperwork.” Just to be clear, those minor errors could be something as trivial as a signer’s “g” or “y” in their name dipping below the line of the box on the petition they are signing. Lawmakers know it is hard enough to collect the required number of signatures; and yet they set out to make it impossible. Organizers believe this law doesn’t yet apply, but others fully expect lawmakers to deny that claim and if so, a court of law will no doubt be the place the issue is resolved.

It is heartbreaking to know all the tremendous effort that went into this effort may be all for naught because our lawmakers are determined to thwart the will of the people. It is also sobering to realize that they will continue to get away with it, until we gain more parity between parties in the Legislature to force solutions that work for all of us. The only thing that will really make a difference is for us to elect more pro-public education candidates to our Legislature. Then, when “the house” wins, our students and their teachers win.

No matter what happens in the end, this petition signature gathering effort is an example of what Margaret Mead was referring to when she said, “Never doubt a small group of concerned citizens can change the world. It is the only thing that ever has.” Started by a few Moms, it blossomed into a statewide effort of grassroots organizing that at the very least, sent a clear message that Arizonans value our public education.

Even though I started out by saying “the house always wins”, I also believe in karma. You know, that concept that in the end, everyone gets what they deserve. I believe pro-public education advocates are on the good side of history and we will win in the long run. Let’s just hope we can recover from the damage done.

123: Show Me The Money!

Since the passage of Proposition 123, I’ve heard people ask where the money went. Did it really go to raise the salaries of Arizona’s teachers?

An August 2016 survey on Prop. 123 funding conducted by the Arizona School Boards Association and the Arizona Association of School Business Officials had 83 school districts (representing over half of Arizona’s students) respond. The survey largely reinforced the narrative that adequate compensation to attract and retain teachers towers as the top priority statewide. Most of the districts concentrated their Prop. 123 funding in teacher and staff bonuses for FY2016, and a full 74% of districts budgeted the additional FY2017 funds for the same.

Survey responses from across the state (21% urban, 24% suburban, 53% rural and 2% remote) affirmed the varied needs of our district schools and for locally elected governance. In some cases, the funding priorities were supplies, textbooks, technology and school building maintenance and repair, all of which support the learning environment.

The need to buy essential supplies and services with the funds should surprise no one. After all, the Arizona Legislature has cut more than $2 billion in district funding since FY2009. In addition to impacting the ability to fund the needs listed above, the cuts eliminated state funding for full-day kindergarten and ninth grade career and technical education students. Let’s not forget Prop. 123 provided no new funding to help offset these cuts. Rather, only 70% of what the voters had already mandated and the courts adjudicated. It was better than nothing, but after years of hollowing out district resources, the funding was rapidly absorbed by the many pressing needs districts had long deferred.

One clear example of those pressing needs is the severe teacher shortage facing Arizona. A recent survey of 130 school districts and charter schools conducted by the Arizona School Personnel Administrators Association found almost 8,200 teacher openings for the 2016-2017 school year. By August 28, 2016, 47% of these remained vacant or were filled by individuals not meeting standard teacher requirements.

With fewer college students pursuing a teaching career and a wave of teachers soon eligible for retirement, this problem is only going to get worse and is proof positive that Prop. 123 was not the solution, just a step in the right direction. Almost three-fourths of Arizona’s registered voters agree, stating in a recent Arizona Republic/Morrison Institute/Cronkite News poll they believe the state is spending “too little” on K-12 education.

Yes, Prop. 123 was a critical infusion of funding allowing districts some ability to more appropriately compensate our teachers and support other critical needs. Let’s be real, though. It didn’t even move Arizona out of our 48th place for per pupil funding which would have required double the funding from Prop. 123. That’s why Support Our Schools AZ and the Arizona Parent Network support funding for our district schools that ensures equity (regardless of ZIP code) and stability (critical to continuity of staffing and programming, which enables more effective operations.) State-provided funding and other support should respect that choice.

Our district educators have done more and more with less and less for many years, and ultimately, our students are the ones who suffer the lack of certified teachers in their classroom, higher class sizes, narrowed curricula, outdated technology and rundown facilities. It is incumbent upon each of us to remember those students when we vote today. The bottom line is if we want different results, we need to elect different candidates — pro-public (district) education candidates!