Vouchers: Some Common Sense Questions

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last few years, you know corporate reformers are anxious to implement vouchers as a way to expand school choice. The secret sauce they say, is that the dollars follow the student because parents know best about what is best for their child’s education.

Just for a few moments though, I’d like to ask you to please forget whether or not you believe school choice and vouchers are the answer to “Make American Education Great Again.” Forget all the hype and promises, just ask yourself which of these scenarios makes more sense?

  1. Which is more accountable and transparent to parents, the taxpayers and voters and therefore less likely to experience less fraud, waste and abuse? #1 Hint to the answer. #2 Hint to the answer. #3 Hint to the answer.
    a. District schools that must report every purchase, competitively bid out purchases over a certain amount, have all purchases scrutinized by a locally elected governing board, undergo an extensive state-run audit each year, and are publicly reported on for performance efficiency and student achievement by the AZ Auditor General’s office each year?
    b. A voucher system which puts the onus on recipient parents to submit proof of expenditures to an understaffed AZ Department of Education office responsible for monitoring the $37 million ($99.7 million since 2011) in voucher expenditures for 4,102 different students?
  2. Which is more likely to be held accountable for student achievement and thereby taxpayer return on investment? Hint to the answer.
    a. A district school where students are given a standardized state test with scores rolled up to the state and made public, where data is reported (following federal guidelines for data protection) by subgroups to determine achievement gaps, and where high school graduation and college attendance rates are reported?
    b. A private school that does not provide any public visibility to test results and where the state (per law) has no authority to request or require academic progress from voucher recipients or the school?
  3. Which is more likely regarding the portability (with no impact) of per student funding when students leave their district schools?
    a. When a student leaves a district school with their education funding in their backpack, they take all associated expenses with them?
    b. That there are fixed costs left behind (approx. 19%) that the school is required to still fund such as teachers and other staff that cannot be eliminated just because a couple of students left a classroom, or a bus route that can’t be done away with just because one student is no longer taking that bus, or a building air conditioner that can’t be turned off because the occupancy in the classrooms is down by three students. That what the “drain” causes instead, is larger class sizes, less support services, less variety in the curricula, etc.?
  4. Which is more likely to serve disadvantaged students — the ones most in need of our help? Hint to the answer.
    a. A district school, where the vast majority of educational expenses are covered by the taxpayer, where students are transported from their home to school, where free and reduced lunches are provided and which must accept all comers?
    b. A $5,200 voucher to a private or parochial school which has total control over which students they accept, does not provide transportation and according to PrivateSchoolReview.com costs an average of $6,000 for elementary schools and $18,000 for high schools in 2016-17?

I hope you came to the same conclusions I did some time ago, that when it comes to transparency, accountability and equity, district schools outperform private schools. I’d also like to make the unequivocal claim that district schools also (across the board) produce more achievement than private schools, but as you can see, they don’t report their results so I don’t know that for sure.

And yet, the Arizona Legislature continues to push expansion of vouchers in our state. A push for full expansion last year by Debbie Lesko (Peoria-R) was killed, largely due to its potentially negative impact on the passage of Proposition 123, but she has revived the effort this year in the form of SB 1431. This bill, which would fully expand vouchers to ALL 1.1 million Arizona students by the 2020-2021 school year has been assigned to the Senate Education and Rules Committees and is scheduled to be heard by the Senate Ed Cmte on 2/9/17. Senator Steve Smith (Maricopa-R) has sponsored an associated bill, SB 1281, that requires the AZ DOE to contract with an outside firm (I’m sure that’s much better…just like private prisons) to help administer the ESA program, and makes various changes to the program. The bill stipulates that AZ DOE may request (not MUST request) confirmation toward graduation from high school or completion of a GED. This is obviously an attempt to defuse the argument there is insufficient accountability in the AZ voucher programAZEDNEWS also reports that Lesko supports adding a requirement to her bill to track achievement of ESA students, but that requirement would be only to report test results to parents, not the AZ DOE.

No matter how much sugar the commercializers try to coat vouchers with, they are still just a vehicle for siphoning tax dollars away from our district community schools to private and parochial (religious) schools with no accountability or transparency. For every person who says “parents have the right to use their child’s education tax dollars as they see fit”, I say, “and taxpayers have the right to know the return on investment for their tax dollars.” The former right in no way “trumps” the latter.

We must stop this terrible legislation. If you are signed up for the Legislature’s Request to Speak system, please click here to log in today and leave a comment for the Senate Education Committee about why you oppose SB 1431 and SB 1281. If you aren’t signed up, please leave me a comment to this post and I will get you signed up and ensure you are trained to use it. The system allows you to comment on pending legislation from your home computer or mobile device, you don’t have to go to the Legislature and speak in person unless you want to.

If you don’t want to use RTS, please call or email the members of the Senate Education Committee (listed below) and your district legislators (click here to find out who they are) to let them know how you feel. There is strength in numbers and the people do have the power, we just have to exercise it!

Senate Education Committee Members

Sylvia Allen, Chairman – 602.926.5409

David Bradley – 602.926.5262

Kate Brophy McGee – 602.926.4486

Catherine Miranda – 602.926.4893

Steve Montenegro, Vice-Chairman – 602.926.5955

Steve Smith – 602.926.5685

Kimberly Yee – 602.926.3024

 

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School Choice: Get informed, then join the fight!

This week is National School Choice Week and not surprisingly, there is a fair amount of confusion about just what school choice is. Maybe because even in Arizona, (the state the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) rates as #1 for its school choice policies), over 80% of Arizona students actually “choose” their community district schools and therefore don’t pay much attention to the school choice debate. But, that percentage may be at risk since corporate profiteers are well-funded and persistent and continue to purchase influence with lawmakers who chip away at district resources and ease the way for the commercialization of our community schools.

This commercialization has been fed by a lucrative $700 billion education market and the Conservative mantra that all human endeavors placed in the hands of private enterprise succeed, whereas those run by the government do poorly. President Reagan famously quipped after all, “Government is not the solution to our problems; government is the problem.”

I believe though, there are some services that government is best suited for. These include those that provide for our security, safety such as our military, fire and police services, and  yes, those whose mission is to ensure the education of ALL children. Can private entities provide these services? Yes, but from my 22 year experience in the military, they are likely to cost more (contract creep), less likely to serve all equitably, and more likely to be concerned about making a profit than focused on meeting the needs of those they are hired to served.

One thing the private sector does very well though, is spin and marketing and when it comes to privatizing education, they have spin in spades. But facts still matter, and the facts are that: 1) charter schools produce no better results (across the board) than district schools, 2) we don’t know how private schools are performing because they don’t have to tell us (even when they accept taxpayer dollars), and 3) high-quality district schools and widespread, aggressive school choice cannot co-exist; the pie is only so big.

That latter point means that those of us who believe district schools are critical to ensuring every student has equal opportunity, must understand what we are up against. In my advocacy work, I often see we have much work to do in that regard. So, I provide the list of definitions below to further the conversation. If we are to successfully battle the powerful forces attacking our district schools, we must first ensure we are equipped with the right intelligence to strategically bring our limited resources to bear.

  1. Accountability. Conservatives love to talk about accountability for taxpayer dollars until it seems, we are talking about commercial schools (charters and privates.) Arizona statute requires district schools to be fully accountable for the tax dollars that fund them and the academic results they achieve. Those same requirements do not apply to any other type of school in the state and in some cases, state law prohibits such accountability.
  2. Achievement Gap. There are real differences in student’s ability to achieve that have very little to do with the district schools they attend. This term usually refers to disparities in achievement levels of student groups based on race, ethnicity or family income. We already know that poverty and the education attainment of one’s parents are the greatest predictors of a student’s success. We also know that the more challenges a student experiences outside the classroom, the more challenging it is to educate them in the classroom. Commercial schools also know this and that’s why they generally accept fewer of these “at-risk” students.
  3. Administrative Expenses. This term makes some people think about highly paid superintendents and principals. The expenses involved though, include administrative staff and support services (such as school nurse, librarian, speech therapists, etc.); superintendent’s office and governing board; and the business office and central support services. Governor Ducey has focused much attention on the need to decrease district administrative expenses thereby increasing dollars in the classroom even though Arizona has among the lowest administrative expense percentages in the nation, at one-third less than the national average. Additionally, although some see district schools as beaurocratic, charter schools in Arizona actually have double the administrative expenses of district schools.
  4. At-Risk Students. Students or groups that have a higher likelihood of academic failure—broad categories often include those who are: not fluent in English; experience high poverty, homeless, etc.
  5. Average Daily Membership (ADM). The average number of students registered or enrolled (as opposed to in attendance) in a school during the time it is in session. This number is especially important on the 100th day of public schools because it determines the amount of funding the schools receive from the state. Sometimes, charters wait until after this date to attrit students who then return to the district schools. When this happens, the charter keeps the funding associated with that student and the district must educate him/her for the rest of the year without any associated funding.
  6. Blended Learning Programs. These combine online classes and classes taught in a school building. All types of schools (including districts) are using these types of programs along with the “flipped classroom” concept where students watch on-line instruction at home and then do hands-on work at school.
  7. Certification. Process by which a state or approved board authorizes a person to teach in public schools; also called licensure. Important because the state does not require (as they do with districts) for commercial schools to hire certified teachers.
  8. Charter Penetration. The higher the charter penetration, the higher the adverse impact on district finances, as districts are confronted with plummeting student enrollment and with a rising population of students in need of special education services.
  9. Charter Schools. Privately managed, taxpayer-funded “public” schools that contract with the state to provide tuition free educational services and are exempted from some rules applicable to district schools (such as the requirement to hire certified teachers.) They were initially designed to serve as incubators of teacher innovation for exportation to all public schools. Over time, they have become more autocratic, (empowering management versus teachers) and more segregated (by race and income.)
  10. Commercial Schools. A term I use to refer to for-profit charter and private schools in response to the corporate reformers insistence on referring to district schools as “government schools” and, to accurately characterize (in most cases) their profit motive.
  11. Community Schools. District schools located in the communities their students live. Previously referred to as “traditional schools,” these schools are increasingly innovative while continuing to serve as the hubs of their communities.
  12. Corporate Reformers. A term used to describe those who are more seemingly more interested in the profit to be made off the nation’s $700 billion K–12 education market than they are with actually improving the academic and “whole-child” achievement of all our students.
  13. District Schools. These schools were originally known as “public schools” until charters came along, then “traditional public schools.” They are the only schools to be governed by locally elected boards responsive to voters and constituents. They are also the only schools that are fully accountable and transparent to taxpayers for the public funding they receive. They were created as the instrument through which the legislature carries out its constitutional mandate to provide for a system of K–12 public education.
  14. District Charter Schools. For a time, some districts opened charters. In 2015, however, the Arizona Legislature attached a provision to the 2015 state budget prohibiting school districts from sponsoring charters and dissolving those created after June 30, 2013.
  15. Education Management Organizations (EMOs). Usually for-profit firms that provide “whole-school operation” services to public school agencies. EMOs contract with school districts and charter-granting bodies to use tax money and venture capital to operate public schools. The growth and prevalence of EMOs is controversial as they are seen as substantially contributing to the privatization of public education and the associated profiteering from tax dollars supporting that public education.
  16. English Language Learners (ELL). Also known as Limited English Proficient (LEP) students, this term refers to students who are reasonably fluent in another language but who have not yet achieved comparable mastery in reading, writing, understanding, or speaking English. Arizona statute defines “English learner” or “limited English proficient student” as “a child who does not speak English or whose native language is not English, and who is not currently able to perform ordinary classroom work in English.” Per statute, “children who are English learners shall be educated through sheltered English immersion during a temporary transition period not normally intended to exceed one year.”
  17. Empowerment Scholarship Accounts (ESAs). The Arizona Legislature’s answer to vouchers. Currently there are some eight general categories of students that qualify for vouchers ranging from those with disabilities to those living on tribal lands; and as of fall 2016, 0.28% of Arizona’s students were attending private or parochial schools via a voucher. For the second year in a row, legislation is underway (pushed by ALEC’s Arizona Chair Sen. Debbie Lesko) to fully expand eligibility for the vouchers, worth a basic value is $5,200 (special needs students get more), to ALL students in Arizona. The legislation was killed last year to prevent it from impacting Prop. 123’s passage, but it may get legs this year. If passed, it will enable the accellerated drainage of district resources.
  18. Fixed Costs. These are expenses that a district has regardless of the number of students in a classroom. They include administrative and teacher salaries, utilities, facility maintenance, and technology and transportation costs. When students leave district schools to attend charter schools or attend private schools via a voucher, they leave behind approx. 19% of the costs associated with their attendance at that district school. That is important because the corporate profiters would have you believe that the funding should be completely portable because there is no negative impact on district schools.
  19. Free and Reduced Lunch. This term describes the program by which students are provided discounted or free meals while at school based upon their families meeting federal guidelines for poverty. In 2016, 58% of Arizona district school children qualified for free and reduced lunch which is at least 12% more than charter schools. It is generally seen as a more accurate way to describe the poverty challenges present in schools than referring to the Census poverty rate. For example, in my school district, we have a free and reduced lunch percentage of 62%, but because of the active adult communities that surround the district, the Census poverty rate is 14%.
  20. For-Profit Charters. There are both non-profit and for-profit charter schools but in practice, there isn’t much difference. Unlike what many may believe, a non-profit designation does not mean that entity may not make a profit. Rather, it means it uses its surplus revenues to further achieve its purpose or mission, rather than distributing its surplus income to the organization’s shareholders (or equivalents) as profit or dividends.
  21. Government Schools. A perjorative term used by corporate reformers and some school choice advocates to refer to district schools. (In the vein of “government is the problem.”)
  22. Homeschooling. The education of children within the home versus in a school. Although it is difficult to find information on how many children are being homeschooled in Arizona, one source showed it as 22,000 in 2011, or approximately 2% of total students. There are no formal requirements for how students are homeschooled, to do so, all parents must do is send a letter of such intent to their county schools superintendent. Arizona statute does not require homeschooled students to be tested unless that is, they wish to enroll in a district school. Then, they are required to be tested to determine in which grade they should be placed.
  23. Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). A federal funding statute requiring schools that receive monies under this law to provide a free, appropriate public education to all eligible children with disabilities. A specially designed plan for student services called an I.E.P. (Individual Education Plan) must be developed to meet the needs of each eligible student. As can be imagined, students with disabilities cost more to educate and rarely are all the required dollars provided. Commercial schools, as a result, manage to enroll a much smaller percentage of these students.
  24. On-Line Schools. Also known as “virtual” schools, these schools have proliferated with the privatization movement. Online schools provide virtual classes a student takes from home. These schools are notorious for low achievement results, high dropouts and fraudulent operations.
  25. Parochial Schools. A private primary or secondary school affiliated with a religious organization, whose curriculum includes general religious education in addition to secular subjects, such as science, mathematics and language arts. In Arizona, taxpayer dollars are siphoned to these schools through both vouchers and tax credits.
  26. Private Schools. A school supported by a private organization or private individuals rather than by the government. The Merriam-Webster dictionary says a private school is “a school that does not get money from the government and that is run by a group of private individuals.” The Cambridge English Dictionary says a private school is: “a school that does not receive financial support from the government.” I cite these definitions to point out that both of them say private schools are schools that “do not get funding from the government.” In Arizona, taxpayer dollars are siphoned to these schools through both vouchers and tax credits.
  27. Privatization. Giving everything public over to market “forces,” i.e., market rule.
  28. Right to Work. A term that describes the law that prohibits union security agreements, or agreements between employers and labor unions, that govern the extent to which an established union can require employees’ membership, payment of union dues, or fees as a condition of employment, either before or after hiring. I included this term because unlike what people think, Arizona is a right to work state and does not collective bargaining in place for teachers.
  29. School Choice. Billed as the right of parents to select the right school for their child. In reality, when it comes to charter and private schools the choice actually belongs to the schools. Charters, although mandated by law to accept all, manage to be selective of who they accept or, weed out those who aren’t exccelling. Private schools have total control over who they accept.
  30. School Tax Credits. Arizona allows five separate types of tax credits taxpayers may take. There are three individual, one for public schools and two for private schools. It should be noted that the amount that an individual can claim for private schools is five (5) times that which can be claimed for public schools. There are also two types of corporate tax credits that may be taken through school tuition organizations (that award funding to private and parochial schools.) The first one is for corporate contributions for low income students and the other one is for displaced/disadvantaged students.
  31. School Tuition Organization. A School Tuition Organization (STO) is one that is tax exempt under Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code and allocates at least 90% of its annual revenue to tuition awards, and makes its tuition awards available to students from more than one qualified private or parochial school. In 2008, three-fourths of Arizona companies paid only the minimum $50 in corporate taxes and with a 20% increase in cap allowed every year, the program is causing significant impact to the general fund.
  32. Teacher Shortage. You may have heard about Arizona’s severe teacher shortage. A recent survey of Arizona school districts revealed that a full 53% of teacher positions are either vacant or filled by uncertified teachers. It isn’t so much that we don’t have enough certified, qualified teachers in Arizona, but just that they’ve turned to other types of employment to enable them to support their families.
  33. Transparency. A term related to accountability that describes how open a school is to the scrutiny of parents, taxpayers and voters. Only district schools, governed by locally-elected boards, are fully transparent.

Hopefully these definitions have clarified for you, some of the issues surrounding school choice. If you don’t agree with any of my definitions or, you have additional ones I should add to the list, I’d love to hear from you. If you care about truly public (district) education, the time to show it is now, more than ever. Now, before what Betsy DeVos espouses for educations shifts the Overton Window, (a term coined by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a conservative think tank she supports), on what is acceptable to the public. Now, before the bedrock of our democracy, that which once built the greatest middle class in the world, is auctioned off brick by brick and student by student. Now, before it is too late.

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!

Just rearranging the deck chairs ain’t gonna cut it

Representing the AZSchools Now Coalition, Arizona’s 2016 Teacher of the Year Christine Marsh and I recently attended and spoke at a Classrooms First Initiative Council meeting in Phoenix. The Coalition consists of the Arizona Associations of: Education, Business and Education, School Boards, Superintendents, and Parent and Teachers. Also part of the coalition are the Children’s Action Alliance, Valley Interfaith Project, and Support Our Schools AZ. It was formed post-Prop 123 to provide focus to reinvesting in public schools as a way to boost student achievement.

The Classrooms First Initiative Council was established by Governor Ducey in January 2015 and charged with modernizing the school finance formula to ensure adequate funding is available for teachers and classroom instruction. The first of the two main events of this latest meeting was a presentation by Expect More Arizona on the Education Progress Meter. This meter has been accepted by virtually every education group, numerous community and municipality organizations, and 26 major business entities. It measures Arizona’s progress in eight areas to include teacher pay, preschool enrollment, 3rd grade reading, 8th grade math, high school graduation, opportunity youth, college going, and post-secondary attainment.

The other main discussion was about the proposals submitted by education groups for the Council’s consideration. In speaking for the AZSchools Now proposal, I advocated for additional resources to attract and retain high quality teachers in light of the both the current shortage as well as the some 26,000 eligible for retirement starting in 2018. Not only is the shortage critical, but teacher turnover is disruptive and expensive, costing as much as $50,000 to find and contract a new one. ADE reports we have almost 93,000 certified teachers in Arizona, but only 67,000 of them are working in the profession. Many of those who left would love to still be teaching, but were forced to seek employment that would better support their families. (According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median Arizona elementary school teacher salary is $40,590 while the national median is $54,120. Starting salaries are much lower, often in the $30,000-per-year range.) Even so, one of the changes under consideration by the Council is to eliminate the Teacher Experience Index. As you might guess, this index helps keep experienced teachers in our AZ classrooms and the Coalition believes eliminating it will only exacerbate the problem. If we want to ensure high-quality education, we must have high-quality teachers and that can’t be done on the cheap. With fewer teachers entering the pipeline and over 26,000 eligible to retire by 2018, merely “rearranging the deck chairs on Titanic” I said, won’t do anything to keep this “boat from sinking.”

I also spoke about the Coalition’s recommendation to consider adding a B-weight for poverty to the school finance formula. This is critical because statewide, 58 percent of our K-12 students are eligible for free and reduced meals and many deal with a multitude of poverty related challenges at home, greatly affecting their preparedness to learn at school. That’s why the Coalition believes it is one of the most significant steps needed to make the school finance formula more equitable and fair. We know these students typically face barriers relating to transportation, housing, and levels of support in their communities and families for which additional resources are needed to help them achieve success.

Christine also made a case for additional funding, but her impassioned plea was focused on ensuring reasonable classroom sizes so that no students fall between the cracks. She told of average student loads for AZ high school teachers of 170 students and said that makes it tough for teachers to give each student the individualized attention they deserve. (The National Center for Education Statistics’ reports Arizona has 1.1 million K-12 students, and just 48,358 full-time teachers making our student-teacher ratio almost 23:1 compared to the national average of 16:1. According to WalletHub, only California and Utah are worse.)

She also pointed out that a future President of the United States is in a K-12 classroom somewhere, and current events highlight the importance of our getting this right. Stating that yes, salary is an important factor to encourage teachers to stay in their profession, Christine said it is also important that teachers feel they have what they need to really make a difference. And although she wanted to focus on the needs of students, not teachers, she noted the reality of workloads on the ability to do the job. Even if, she said, she only assigns three writing assignments per week to her 160 students, and each of those papers only takes five minutes to grade, that can amount to over 40 hours of grading time per week, and that takes place outside of the classroom. As if illustrating this point, after she spoke to the Council Christine resumed grading the stack of student papers she had brought with her.

Chris Thomas, Lead Council for the Arizona School Bards Association, said Arizona has one of the most equitable funding formulas in the nation, but is not adequately funding the formula. He highlighted the need for reinstating the cost analysis for special education funding as a way to ensure costs to provide service to these students are adequately funded while not pulling funding away from other programs. Chris also made the point that in considering a new funding formula, transparency should be ensured for the use of all public funds. Sarah Ellis, a Flagstaff Governing Board member, spoke during public comments, reiterating the need for locally controlled funding and the continuation of desegregation funding. For the Flagstaff Unified School District she said, the desegregation funds exceed that received from Prop. 123.

I was encouraged by the questions asked by members of the Council as well as the number of attendees in the audience. There was standing room only and attendees had come from all over the state to participate. I was pleased to hear some Council members voice their concerns that viable solutions to the finance formula would not be possible without additional resources, including the Chair, Jim Swanson. One member did note the reality of convincing the state legislature of this reality, but Swanson indicated he is ready to take on those who may not agree with the Council’s eventual recommendations.

Overall, I was encouraged by the meeting. Although I would have liked the membership of the Council to be more representative of the K-12 population in our state (majority Hispanic), I found them to be actively listening and serious about finding the best solutions. I am also very encouraged about the AZSchools Now coalition. One of the Coalition members, Support Our Schools AZ and its subsidiary the Arizona Parents Network, is an example of the grassroots efforts that has blossomed during and since the post-Prop 123 battle. What is especially important about this development is that it involves mostly parents who are naturally fierce advocates for their children.

One such fierce parent is Alana Brussin, whose My Turn” op-ed titled Tying school success to vouchers is a sham was recently published by the Arizona Republic. Her piece highlights the reasons community district schools are the overwhelming choice of Arizona families, in spite of the best efforts of state leaders and other school privatization advocates.

Just as Mothers Against Drunk Driving turned the tide on the public’s acceptance of drinking and driving, I’m confident our fierce parents can turn the tide on the assault on community district schools and ultimately the students they serve. Every child deserves every opportunity to succeed and when that happens, we all succeed. It really is that simple.

Educated Workforce = State Prosperity

Okay. Let me get this right. Daniel Scarpinato, Press Aide to Governor Doug Ducey says Arizona schools are the 4th worst in the nation because school choice siphons taxpayer dollars out of community (district) schools into private and parochial schools, leaving those community schools underresourced. Okay, those weren’t his exact words, but that is what he intimated. His intent was of course, to invalidate the WalletHub study because it only looked at our public schools and not private schools. So, he thinks the study is invalid because it ONLY pertains to 96 percent of Arizona’s K-12 students?

WalletHub looked at 17 key metrics and found that Arizona is: 49th for pupil to teacher ratio; near the bottom in average ACT score; and below average for low-income student high school graduation rate. Even though these types of rankings are nothing new for Arizona and, he doesn’t dispute the numbers, Scarpinato called the study “baloney.” Rather, he went on to deflect the blame by citing Arizona’s rapidly increasing population as part of the problem for low per-pupil funding and sidestepped whether this meant funding should be increased to keep up with that growth. He also dismissed the idea of halting corporate tax cuts. His justification – Arizona needs to remain competitive with other states in its efforts to cut corporate taxes. The Economic Policy Institute (EPI) says “cutting taxes to capture private investment from other states is a race-to-the-bottom state economic development strategy that undermines the ability to invest in education.” We need only look at Kansas to see how this strategy works.

EPI research shows “income is higher in states where the workforce is well-educated and thus more productive.” There is, the Institute says, “a clear and strong correlation between the educational attainment of a state’s workforce and median wages in the state.” Those workers then pay more taxes to boost state budgets. The best companies know they need to go where they can get the kind of educated workforce they need, where their current employees will find good communities with high quality schools, and where the infrastructure can support their business model. That’s why states like Massachusetts (ranked #1) see education as an investment, not an expense.

Unfortunately, the AZ Legislature seems hell-bent on pushing the privatization of our community school system and will continue down this path until the voters boot them out of office. We need lawmakers who understand there can be no significant progress for our state over the long haul unless we ensure all our children are given the tools to grow and prosper. Community schools remain the schools of choice for the vast majority of our students and must be our first priority for state resources. Yes, school choice has its place in our overall educational system, but it shouldn’t be first place.

It’s Complicated

To my post on Blog for Arizona yesterday, former AZ Superintendent of Public Instruction, John Huppenthal posted the following comment:

“The 170,000 charter school students save taxpayers over 290 million dollars per year. The Peoria school district is projected to grow substantially over the next decade. With charter schools, they will not grow as much. They have enormous advantages, both financially and organizationally, over charter schools and if they can keep improving, they will actually be able [to] suck these students back into their school system from charter schools. I actually see this effect in the Chandler Unified school system. As Chandler has improved from 38% excellent rating to 75% excellent rating you can see certain charter school[s] dying on the vine. Meanwhile, public schools nationally have dropped from 36% excellent rating to 24%. Wrong direction. Competition and great leadership were both necessary for Chandler to get to where it is. We will see if Peoria is also the racehorse that responds to the challenge.”

As far as Huppenthal’s blog comments go, this is one of the more coherent ones and the statistics he cites made me want to dig in. Let’s look at a few: 

1.  170,000 charter school students – True. There are 170K or so charter school students in AZ – 170,700 at 556 schools during the 20015-16 school year to be exact.

2.  Charters save taxpayers over 290 million dollars per year – Misleading. According to the Joint Legislative Budget Committee in an overview prepared 6/22/2015, charter schools cost the state $1,232 per pupil more in Basic State Aid funding than district schools in FY 2014. Of course, that’s where it really starts to get interesting because district and charter schools each receive funding the other doesn’t. For example, districts can seek overrides and bonds and School Facilities Board funding for construction, emergency deficiency corrections and building renewal (of which there have been zero dollars for over the last three years.) Charter schools on the other hand, get “additional assistance” monies from the state general fund to compensate, and have much more flexibility in spending these monies. Charters can also get AZ Charter School Incentive Program funds to start new locations and charter land and buildings become capital assets of the charter holder regardless of whether taxpayer dollars were used to acquire said land or buildings. New this year, Governor Ducey included $100 million in the 2017 budget for the creation of an Arizona Public School Achievement District (PSAD) that will use taxpayer dollars to reduce bond borrowing costs for charter expansion or new builds. Unlike the funding provided through private investors (such as the Phoenix Industrial Development Authority enables), taxpayers are on the hook for PSAD monies if the charter holder defaults and I suspect (as with any charter bonds) the loan is ultimately repaid with taxpayer dollars.

For the actual numbers, I went to the 2014-15 AZ Superintendent’s Report, which shows that total revenues for districts exceeded those for charters by $1,278 per pupil. Given the students enrolled in each at that time, that amounts to a total amount of almost $206 million less spent on charters, not $290 million. But, only 86.57% of the total revenues for districts came from various in-state sources whereas 91.18% of charter’s revenues did. This means that in strictly “state” dollars, the district schools only cost the state $776 more per pupil for a total “savings” by charters of $125 million last year. Of course, I didn’t yet mention the $800 more per student in “small school funding” charters can get through legal, but creative accounting of their multiple locations. Oh by the way, it is also important to note that one reason district schools get more federal dollars than charters is because they educate significantly more special needs students, which are more expensive to educate and for which, districts almost never receive sufficient funds (from any source) to cover the costs.  (If I got all of this wrong, someone please correct me! I find it hard to believe charters save any substantial money over districts, maybe there’s funding I’m not counting.

Rather than focusing on who spends more though, shouldn’t we really be focusing on who uses the money more effectively? A report written this year by the Grand Canyon Institute, shows charters spend twice the amount ($1,403 vice $628 per pupil in 2014/15) on purely administrative costs than their district counterparts resulting in less money getting into the classroom. In fact, if the seven largest charter holders spent the same on administrative costs as districts, the state would save $54 million per year. BASIS Inc. alone, with 8,730 students, spent 30 times more on general administration than the six largest districts combined (225,000 students.)

3.  They have enormous advantages, both financially and organizationally – False.  If anything, charters have the advantage. From the beginning, Arizona’s charter laws were designed to free charter schools from most regulations and reporting requirements. They aren’t required for example, to follow the same procurement procedures as districts, which allows them to avoid getting competitive bids on major purchases. This lack of accountability/transparency has raised concerns about charter holders “double-dipping” for profit by procuring goods and services with their own companies. In addition, charter teachers aren’t required to be certified, nor are charters required to meet the minimum facilities standards set by the School Facilities Board (SFB) nor the requirement to provide transportation to school for their students. They also don’t have the same requirements for accountability and transparency with no locally elected governing boards and no requirement to be included in the annual AZ Auditor General’s (AG) School District Spending reports. The fact the AG does not compile, analyze spending, or make their review available to the public contributes to the overall lack of accountability we see with Arizona charter schools.

As for the improvement in Chandler “excellent” ratings or the national “excellent” ratings, I looked at the Arizona’s A-F accountability system and AIMS scores, the AzMerit scores, and the NAEP assessment, but was unable to verify the data. With regard to Huppenthal’s assertion that  “competition” was necessary for Chandler to improve, I don’t buy it. After all, Arizona has had “competition” between district schools since 1994 when “open enrollment” was first approved.  And, I find it offensive that he refers to Peoria as a racehorse that needs to “rise to the challenge.” As an “A” district they are one of the top 45 districts and charters in the state. I think they have more than already “risen to the challenge.” Besides, the education of Arizona’s children isn’t some sort of sports competition. It is important work critical to the successes of our communities, our state and our nation. The professional educators in our district schools get that, while some of the state’s charter holders laugh all the way to the bank.

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.