Mark Finchem, the master of condescension

As one of LD11 ‘s Representative Mark Finchem’s constituents, I’m thinking he largely penned today’s shared op-ed in the AZ Daily Star titled “Bills see to improve oversight of education vouchers”, and asked Senator Sylvia Allen (AZ Senate Ed Cmte Chair) to give it some credibility by lending her name to it. His attack on the Save Our Schools Arizona folks as “lobbyists” is soooooo “him”. Give me a break. They are grassroots advocates led by a group of moms who were sick and tired of being ignored by school privatization zealots like Finchem. Their movement caught fire over the last couple of years because it was obvious they actually were/are “in this to help our children”.

Contrary to what Finchem would have you believe, they and other public education advocates don’t argue for a lack of choices for parents. In fact, public education advocates and education professionals work hard to ensure our district schools offer an increasingly wide variety of programming to appeal to our diverse student population. This has been one of the good impacts of open enrollment and charter schools which have been providing choice since 1994.

Finchem’s claim that “100 percent of current [Empowerment Scholarship Accounts, or vouchers] ESA students have unique challenges” is purposefully misleading. Education professionals understand that every child has unique challenges and the ideal way to educate them would be to ensure an education program individualized to meet each of their specific needs. Unfortunately, Arizona’s public school funding doesn’t allow that sort of personalized attention as it is still $600 million short of even 2008 levels. Compounding the problem are the 1,693 teacher vacancies and 3,908 individuals not meeting standard teacher requirements as of December 12, 2018. This adds up to a total of 75% of teacher positions vacant or filled by less than fully qualified people, contributing to the highest class sizes in the nation and likely helped push 913 to abandon or resign their positions within the first half of the school year. When quality teachers have proven to be the #1 factor to in-school success, this is not a winning strategy to improving outcomes.

Those requiring the most personal attention, our special needs students, have had access to vouchers since the ESA began in 2011 and made up 58 percent of students on vouchers in 2017. Yet, our district schools still educate the vast majority of these students even though the state’s formula funding for such was $79 million less than what it cost in 2017 to provide the services required under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. This shortfall requires districts to fund the special ed programs (mandated by state and federal law), from non-special education programs (i.e. mainstream students). And while special education enrollment remains steady at 11.5 percent, the severity of disabilities (more expensive to administer to), have been increasing.

Of course, Finchem is “all about” those students “who have been bullied or assaulted and need ESAs to find a healthier environment in which to learn”. Again, open enrollment and charter schools already provide that option. And maybe, just maybe, if Finchem really wants to help students who have been bullied, he should focus on decreasing class sizes, providing more music and art education, and working to increase the number of counselors at Arizona’s schools? After all, there is nowhere to go but up in this area given our 903:1 ratio which puts us in “first” (worst) place for the number of students per counselor. (The national average was 482:1 in 2018 and the industry recommended ratio 250:1.)

As for his HB2022 providing increased transparency and accountability because it turns over financial administration of ESAs to a private firm, I call total BS. Just look at private schools and private prisons and the amount of transparency they afford the public. The best way to ensure transparency and accountability is to keep public services in the public domain and hold elected officials responsible for ensuring such.

Wait a minute. Maybe I’m on to something. After all, when ESAs were first implemented, Arizona lawmakers were told that the auditing requirements were so weak they were “almost a sham”, but the warnings went unheeded. Not only did the Legislature expand the program almost every year, but “resources to scrutinize the expenditures – made using state-provided debit cards – never kept pace. Yes, some improvements have been made, but an AZ Auditor General audit released in October 2018 found that ”Arizona parents have made fraudulent purchases and misspent more than $700,000 in public money allocated by the state’s school-voucher style program, and state officials have recouped almost none of that money.” Could it be that these lawmakers just don’t want to be held accountable?

Far be it from me to point out that Finchem was first elected in 2014 and is now serving his third term in the Legislature. Why is he only now taking an interest in making the ESA program transparent and accountable? I’d hate to think it has anything to do with the fact that our new Superintendent of Public Instruction is a Democrat who is committed to finally tackling the problem. Upon taking office after all, Superintendent Hoffman immediately launched an audit of the Department of Ed and has now established a bi-partisan task force to look at ESA accountability.

If Finchem really wanted to show our kids how to work together,” he should be working to properly fund ADE’s oversight of the ESA program. Even the former Superintendent of Public Instruction, Diane Douglas (Republican), said “the misspending of the voucher money is the result of decisions by the Republican-controlled Legislature to deny her department money needed to properly administer the program.” Douglas claimed lawmakers resisted properly funding oversight because they wanted a private entity to oversee it.

“If you’re not willing to put the resources into the oversight, then it doesn’t happen appropriately,” Douglas told the Arizona Republic.

Likewise, Republican Senator Bob Worsley said,

“My guess is just that the (Republican) caucus – my caucus – has been, probably, overly enthusiastic about ESAs, and vouchers in general, and therefore anything that would…make it more difficult, it would not be a high priority for them.” He went on to say that it is “neither fiscally sound nor ethical for lawmakers to inadequately fund oversight of the program.”

But, this is exactly what they’ve done. “Under the law, 4 percent of the program’s funding is supposed to go to the department to administer and oversee the program.” In 2018, the Arizona Department of Education (ADE) only received about 2 percent or $1.2 million. Douglas said the full 4 percent was needed to properly oversee the program, but the Legislature had not authorized the department to spend $5.7 million sitting in a fund allocated for program oversight. Let that sink in. Finchem is up in arms about the need to introduce more transparency and accountability into the ESA program, but is part of the GOP-led legislature that hasn’t allowed oversight funds to be spent.

Most galling to me of any of his positions in the op-ed though is Finchem’s admonishment that,

“it’s time for adults to start acting like adults and show our kids how to work together, even if it means working with people with which you may not always agree.”

This also is “him being him” as condescension is a tool Finchem has mastered. I guess when he showed total disdain for teachers (to their faces), during the #RedforEd walkout (and at every opportunity since), he was/is demonstrating how to work with others? I’m not buying it and neither should you. He is a blight on southern Arizona and I hope all those who care about public education, (regardless of where you live), work very, very hard to deny his reelection in 2020.

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.

So Much for the “Education Governor”

A couple of nights ago, I was talking with a news editor who asked me about the effect of the voucher expansion on homeschoolers. He said when he homeschooled his child, he saw it as his responsibility to bear those costs. He wondered with the new expansion, if homeschoolers would now get taxpayer dollars to teach their child at home. I told him homeschoolers were always eligible for Empowerment Scholarship Accounts (ESAs), or vouchers (I prefer to call them what they really are), but their child needed to be in one of the eligible categories such as: having a disability, from a D or F rated school, living on tribal land, dependents of military, wards of the state, etc. With the latest expansion of eligibility though, all categories of children are eligible for the vouchers. He surmised it wouldn’t take long to reach that cap, given there are some 20,000 homeschooled children in Arizona.

It is difficult to find clear data about the number of homeschoolers but a general estimate is from three to four percent of the school-age population. Given that, we are looking at 30,000 to 40,0000 students in Arizona. Another source I found from 2011 quoted the number at 22,500, so in the interest of being conservative, let’s go with 25,000. To the news editor’s point, if all 25,000 estimated homeschoolers took vouchers, that would deplete Arizona’s general fund by $110 million in taxpayer dollars which are then not available for district education or other critical programs and services. And this new outlay would not be offset by any reduced costs on the part of the state since previously, parents were footing this bill. At three to four percent though, homeschoolers are just a fraction of those who could take the vouchers and run.

Fortunately, there are currently a couple of speed bumps to slow the depletion. The first one is the cap of 5,500 ESAs that may be awarded each per year. Of course, before the Governor even signed the latest expansion bill, Goldwater Institute leadership had already notified their major donors they would get the cap lifted.

The second speed bump is the by-grade phase-in of eligibility. For 2017–2018, the only additional children eligible are those who attend or are eligible to attend public schools in kindergarten (at least four but under seven years of age) or grades one, six, and nine. The following year, the law adds grades two, seven and ten to the mix. The year after than, grades three, eight, and eleven are added. Then in the 2020–2021 school year, all children who currently attend or are eligible to attend a public school in K–12 are eligible to receive a voucher.

If the Goldwater Institute is successful in removing the cap next legislative session though, (or maybe still this session in a “strike everything” bill), the floodgates will be wide open for the grades specified to be added each year. There is after all, a tremendous amount of support for that end as evidenced by Betsy DeVos’ tweet to Governor Ducey congratulating him on the eve of his signing the bill. She wrote, “A big win for students & parents in Arizona tonight with the passage of ed savings accts. I applaud Gov. @DougDucey for putting kids first.” Keep in mind that this is the same Betsy DeVos, that as the head of the American Federation for Children, oversaw an investment of over $750,000 since 2011 into Arizona legislative races for pro-school choice and voucher candidates.

We in Arizona though, know that our Governor hasn’t really put over 80 percent of our kids first. Instead, the self-acclaimed “education governor” has time and again shortchanged our kids. Like with his 2018 spending plan that would provide a 2% pay raise over five years for teachers giving them only about $182 (0.4%) more in the first year. Like with his no-details “plan” to streamline teacher certification requirements to help with the critical teacher shortage, as if less qualified teachers will help our students. Like with his plan to provide $10 million for full-day kindergarten funding at public schools where more than 90% of students are eligible for free or reduced lunch. Unfortunately, for district schools, the entire district must meet the 90% threshold, but for charters, only a single school. In Southern Arizona, only two districts – Nogales Unified and Santa Cruz Valley Unified – qualify. Even Sunnyside Unified School District, at 86 percent of its students on free/reduced lunch, doesn’t qualify. And, like when he negotiated a deal to pay the schools 70% of what they were owed with money that was already theirs and promised that would just be the beginning. As David Safier points out in the Tucson Weekly, the $325 million per year Prop. 123 is bringing in (again, money the schools were already owed, not a plus up), could easily be wiped out by “his latest attack on public education which could drain $150-$300 million” via vouchers.

The most important moral of this story is that elections do have consequences and one of those consequences is now the systemic dismantling of our system of public (district) education. You know, the system that takes all comers, the only system with locally elected governing boards who must operate in a transparent manner and are totally accountable to parents and taxpayers, and, the system which after adjusting for student poverty levels, produces better results.

The only real solution to save our district schools and the one million plus students they provide for, is to elect different lawmakers. To do that, each of us must take personal responsibility to do our part and then some. No longer can any of us leave the work to someone else. Not if we want better for our kids, our communities, and our country. As the Jewish religious leader Hillel originally said sometime around 50 BCE, “If not now, when? If not me, who?”

Something Borrowed, Something Blue

Let me be clear from the onset that I am “borrowing” this article. In fact unless the words are in bold italics, they are hers, not mine. I’m hoping the author, Athens Banner-Herald columnist Myra Blackmon, a resident of Washington, Ga., sees my “borrowing” as the “sincerest form of flattery. I chose to use her piece titled “School vouchers raise too many questions,” because I found it both very well written and remarkable in that I needed only change the state name and some of the numbers to make it apply to Arizona.

With the confirmation of Betsy DeVos as U.S. secretary of education, we can expect to see a flurry of new “initiatives” designed to address the so-called education problem in our country. For the moment, let’s set aside the relationship of poverty and poor academic achievement. Ignore for a moment the fact that our schools are actually performing pretty well.

We will likely see a renewed push for voucher programs, where parents can supposedly take the tax money allocated for their children and use it to enroll them in private, religious or charter schools, many of which are combinations of those categories.

If I believed vouchers would improve educational outcomes for Arizona’s poorest children, I would be the first to jump on that bandwagon. The reality is that even vouchers aren’t likely to improve the lives of the 421,000 Arizona children who live in poor or low-income families, despite efforts of reformers to convince us otherwise.

First, the average worth of  $5,600 for mainstream students that vouchers provide just isn’t enough to fully fund private school tuition. I chose not to spend an hour looking at websites (as Myra did) of private schools in all parts of the state to determine the range of tuition, but did find a school in Phoenix that charges $24,000 a year, and the average school tuition is almost $6,000 for elementary, and $18,000 for high school. Does this even seem possible for a disadvantaged child, even if a scholarship is available?

Second, not all non-public schools are open to all children. The majority of private schools in Arizona are religious schools, many of which set very strict standards for admission that have little or nothing to do with academic potential. They would exclude children from families of same-sex couples, or families whose moral standards are, in the judgment of the school, not consistent with the school’s values. That might exclude children whose parents are not married, or who were behavioral problems at their previous school.

Third, few private schools provide special education. Of those that do, many limit that special education to mild learning disabilities, or limit them to mild ADHD or other learning differences. Many private special education schoolsdon’t address severe or complex disabilities. Only public schools are required to meet all those needs. In fact, when Arizona parents pull their children out of district schools to educate them with a voucher, they must waive their rights under federal special education  law.”

Fourth, even if a voucher covered tuition at a private school, it would be almost impossible to include allowances for additional fees that would allow the poorest children to attend. Lab fees, textbooks, materials fees and technology fees add up. I found more than one school where those items quickly totaled more than $1,000 a year. And that didn’t include trips – sometimes mission trips in religious schools – or athletic fees, which also ran into the thousands of dollars. What about these costs?

Fifth, about 10 percent of Arizona’s schools are rural schools…with some children on buses more than 60 minutes each way every day. And those are the public schools. Private schools can be even more distant. For public schools, transportation is provided. Bus fees for private schools could run several hundred dollars a year. Who covers this?

And what about homeless students? According to New Leaf, a mesa non-profit human services organization, about 3 percent of Arizona students – nearly 30,000 children – were homeless in 2016. In fact, the National Center on Family Homelessness ranks Arizona as worst for risk of child homelessness. Do you really see these children as able to take advantage of vouchers?

Seventh, I found listings for many private religious schools that enroll fewer than 100 students and have only two or three teachers. Would a voucher to such a school improve a student’s chances over even the most poorly resourced public school? I doubt it.

The bottom line is that vouchers help middle-class families who can almost-but-not-quite afford private school tuition. Those are also the children who score best on standardized tests.

Vouchers help segregate those families from the poor and different in their communities. They isolate students from daily contact with needy families or children from unusual families. Some charge their students for “mission” work, which is a completely different dynamic in relationships with people different from us.

I simply do not see how vouchers for private schools, unregulated and not accountable to any elected officials, can do anything but set up our public schools as the place for the poorest, neediest and most severely disabled students.

That is wrong. I know it. You know it. Yes we do Myra, and that’s what the “something blue” in the title of this post refers to. This kind of misery shouldn’t have any kind of company. 

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!

Open Letter to Senators Flake and McCain

Dear Senators Flake and McCain,

First of all, let me thank you for your service to our state and our country. I realize your job is not an easy one, but hope you understand this is also not an easy time to be an engaged patriot. Millions of us are incredibly anxious about the future of our country and our world. At this time, more than almost anytime in my adult life, we need real leadership.

As a school board member, I am really worried about President Trump’s and his SecED nominee’s intentions with K–12 education. He thinks our nation’s current education system is “flush with cash” and that our children are “deprived of all knowledge.” For Arizona at least, both of these statements are ridiculous. Our per pupil funding is 48th in the nation and our teachers the 47th lowest paid. Even so, our student’s National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) scores continue to rise and we led the nation in growth on the science test from 2009 to 2015.

If however, Betsy DeVos is confirmed, she will no doubt try to do for the nation what she did for Michigan. There she pushed for vouchers (even though she could never “sell” them in her home state) and for-profit publicly funded charters with as little accountability and transparency as possible. The results speak for themselves, with Michigan’s 4th grader scores on the NAEP from 2003 to 2015 declining from 28th to 41st in reading and from 27th to 42nd in math. This is not a formula for success.

I understand the pressure you are under to toe the party line, but the people of Arizona and our nation need you to look deep inside yourselves and determine what is really best for our country? Truly public education, that which is governed by locally elected boards, is the bedrock of our democracy and built the greatest middle class in the history of the world. It also taught us yes, we are all different, but there is strength in those differences. It can continue to support the American Dream, or, we can just give up on that dream and sell out to the highest bidder. We are at a tipping point and you have the ability to pull us back from the edge or propel us over the cliff. Please cast your vote in favor of our democracy and say NO to DeVos and her privatization agenda. We (the people) are counting on you!

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

 

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?

Partisan? You bet! My party is Public Education.

I am a big believer in the two-party system. Our system of government works best when all sides are heard and considered. That is most likely to happen when the power is balanced, forcing legislators to negotiate and compromise. Our founding fathers purposefully designed many checks and balances into our system and I believe our two-party system helps in that regard.

In Arizona, the Democrats must gain only two additional seats in the State Senate to reach parity with the Republicans and in my opinion that would be a very good thing. Then, our senators from both parties would be forced to work together in finding good compromises to solve the problems facing our state.

One of the biggest problems facing our state is the inadequate resources provided our district schools. Arizona is one of the nation’s leaders in promoting school choice and although 80-plus percent of our students choose district schools, resources continue to be siphoned away from these schools in favor of other options. Many of our legislators, largely the Democrats, get this. Several Republicans are also on board.

Friends of ASBA, a sister organization of the Arizona School Boards Association, publishes an annual voting record of our legislators. This “Friends of ASBA Educating Arizona” report shows how every Arizona legislator voted on high priority K-12 education bills in 2016. The bills are grouped into three focus areas: funding, vouchers and local control, and the voting record is based on whether the legislators voted with, or against the ASBA position.

I encourage you to click here for the report to get the entire story. As you go through the report, you’ll note 56 legislators received “extra credit” for their behind the scenes efforts on behalf of public education. This credit is noted by + signs and the maximum extra credit points awarded were +++. Below, I show the Republican legislators who voted with ASBA’s position more than two-thirds of the time. I’d like the percentages to be even higher, but 33 Republican legislators didn’t even have a score higher than 50%. I should note that four Democratic legislators, Rep Sally Ann Gonzales (57%), Rep Jennifer Benally (43%), Rep Albert Hale (57%), and Rep Juan Mendez (57%) did not meet my “two-thirds of the time voting with ASBA” threshold.

LD Senator % Representative % Representative %
1 Steve Pierce++ 67 Karen Fann+ 71 Noel Campbell 71
2 Christopher Ackerley++ 71
8 TJ Shope+ 71
15 Heather Carter++ 71
16 Doug Coleman++ 100
18 Jeff Dial++ 67 Jill Norgaard 63 Bob Robson++ 71
20 Paul Boyer++ 63
21 Rick Gray+ 63
28 Adam Driggs++ 89 Kate Brophy McGee++ 71

The legislators in the chart above have at times taken brave stances on behalf of our district school students. Those I’ve actually met with seemed sincerely intent on doing the right thing for our students. They have earned my respect.

It is never a good idea to be closed to the opinions and ideas of others, nor is it smart to vote straight party line without regard to the issues and how candidates lean on those issues. For incumbents, the voting record tells us where they stand on public education. For candidates who haven’t ever been elected, it is our duty to read and listen to what they say about where they stand. And oh by the way, it is not good enough for a candidate to say he/she is “for education.” If you want to be sure they support the efforts of the schools educating over 80 percent of our students, they must say they are “for public education.” Of course, this leaves the door open for them to be staunchly pro-charter, but at least there is a modicum of transparency and accountability for the taxpayer dollars provided charter schools unlike with private options.

No matter what problems you most want solved, there can be no doubt that the more our students are prepared to deal with them, the better off we will all be. In my opinion, locally elected, governing board-led, public school districts offer the best chance we have to ensure every student has every opportunity to succeed. That’s why I am passionately pro-public education and why that’s the “party” that most matters to me.