A Cautionary Tale

Cross-posted from RestoreReason.com.

Arizona may be at, or near, the bottom in many education related statistics, but when it comes to a school choice friendly environment, we are #1. That’s why, when executive committee members of their state school boards associations got together last year in Oakland for the Pacific Region National School Boards Association meeting, the Arizona team shared their story of eroding legislative support (funding and supportive legislation) for our district schools as a cautionary tale.

It all began in Arizona with the Legislature’s authorization for charter schools in 1994 and of course, open enrollment so parents could choose to enroll their children in any public school in the state, not just in their district. This mattered because 1) it told parents they were free to look for greener grass elsewhere, versus watering the grass they had, and 2) all that mattered was their child’s education, the hell with the rest.

Arizona’s first charter school opened in 1995. Now 180,000 students attend about 550 charter schools in Arizona equating to 16% of the students and 30% of the public schools. In 2010 in fact, Arizona had the highest number of charter schools per capita in the nation. The competition created with district schools wasn’t all bad. Many district schools offer fuller curriculums with more specialty programs than they once did. But, for corporate reformers, that wasn’t enough.

The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) ranks our state as #1 with regard to school choice policy. This should not surprise anyone, since ALEC has been aggressive in working with corporations and state lawmakers all over the country to create legislation favorable to school choice and the privatization of education. Likewise, the American Federation for Children (previously led by our new SecED, Betsy DeVos) has been very active in pushing school choice around the nation through both significant campaign contributions and strong arming of legislators.

These organizations and others with the same agenda, have enjoyed much success. When vouchers for private and parochial schools were first introduced in Arizona in 2009, the AZ Supreme Court deemed them unconstitutional since the state constitution (as most do) requires that “No public money or property shall be appropriated for or applied to any religious worship, exercise, or instruction, or the support of any religious establishment.” The Court stipulated though, “[t]here may well be ways of providing aid to these student populations without violating the constitution. School choice proponents such as the Center for Arizona Policy (CAP) jumped on that and according to their website, ”CAP and its attorneys were heavily involved in the drafting and development of this [Empowerment Scholarship Accounts or ESAs] program.” Then in 2013, the AZ Supreme Court, in Niehaus v. Huppenthal approved ESAs, (vouchers or Educational Subsidies for the Affluent as AZ’s 2016 Teacher of the Year calls them), saying that the fact the funding goes to the parent and the parent decides what to do with it, makes the program constitutional.

Initially, only students with disabilities were eligible for vouchers but the Arizona Legislature managed to expand ESAs each year to eight different categories including students living on tribal lands, wards of the state, military dependents, students from D or F rated district schools and more. Then, on April 6, 2017, the Legislature passed and the Governor signed, a law making all Arizona children eligible for vouchers. For now, there is both an annual cap of 5,500 and an overall cap of 30,000 by 2022. In addition, there is a by-grade implementation that staggers eligibility over several years.

With Arizona’s conservative and libertarian public-policy think tank, the Goldwater Institute, already promising donors they would eliminate the cap before the Governor even signed it into law, these speed bumps undoubtedly won’t be in place long. That’s because the end game for the corporate reformers and the lawmakers they’ve purchased is to commercialize our public schools. It doesn’t matter what innocuous name you give a voucher, it is still about siphoning taxpayer dollars away from our district schools, to private and parochial schools. And, vouchers aren’t the only way these tax dollars are siphoned away.

Remember I wrote that ALEC thinks Arizona is #1 in school choice policy? Well, that’s because we not only have open enrollment, charter schools, and Empowerment Scholarship Accounts, but also individual tax credits, School Tuition Organizations and the corporate tax credits that feed them. And yes, we even have legislators that have ownership of, or vested interests in, all of the above. But that discussion is for another day.

As for school tax credits, Arizona allows five separate types. There are three individual; one for public schools and two for private schools. The private school tax credit, begun in 1997, is now worth five times as much as the amount that can be claimed for public schools. Maybe that’s part of the reason why the program the legislative budget staff estimated would cost $4.5 million a year 20 years ago, topped $140 million in 2015 without including the $50 million in tax credits taken for public schools.

Tax credits were originally sold as a way to help special-needs and low-income students, but it hasn’t largely worked out that way. According to the AZ Republic, “Only about 3 percent of the money is designated specifically for special-needs students.“ As for the ”low-income” families, only 32% of the money went to them. Aside from the fact they don’t serve the most needy, tax credits divert funding away from the state coffers and in the case of district schools, give the taxpayers the impression they are doing their part to support public education when the reality is the funding isn’t really allowed for classroom expenses, but for extracurricular, fee-based activities. In the case of private schools, the tax revenue is diverted away from the general fund directly into private education.

Corporate tax credits are made to School Tuition Organizations (STOs) which are 501(c)(3) tax exempt organizations that must allocate at least 90% of their annual revenue to tuition awards for students to attend private and parochial schools. The two types of corporate tax credits allowed are one for corporate contributions for low income students and another for displaced/disadvantaged students. The definition of “low income” though, is misleading. For these scholarships, a family of four with an annual income of $82,996, qualifies leading many to claim that the scholarships are going to families that could afford the private schools without the taxpayer welfare. Critics also say it is fairly impossible for the poor to benefit because even if they get a scholarship, they still have to come up with the rest of the tuition. Regardless of who else is benefiting from the tax credits, the general fund and therefore district schools and other critical programs and services are not. 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 state’s general fund. In fact, the “low income corporate tax credit alone is expected by 2025 to grow to more than $250 million a year.”

In the end, one thing has been abundantly clear here in Arizona. The corporate reformers are dead set on commercializing our district schools. That’s why every legislative session, we public education advocates gear up for battle and “look for incoming.” And that’s why, one of our favorite phrases is “sine die” which literally means “without assigning a day for a further meeting or hearing”, but in layman’s terms, signifies the end of the legislative session. It is a very sad state of affairs that rather than counting on our Governor and GOP-led Legislature to do good for our one-plus million district school students, the best we can usually hope for is for them to do no harm. This year, with the full expansion of vouchers, they did tremendous harm that will be hard to recover from. A word to the wise…if you give them (corporate reformers) an inch, they will take a mile and stretch it out to 10. Stay focused and vigilant, this really is a war and the stakes couldn’t be higher.

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14 thoughts on “A Cautionary Tale”

  1. My grandson goes to one of those “commercialized” charter schools. He is in the 4th grade, gets about an hour of homework a night, is learning Mandarin and his school is one of the top rated ones in the country. That’s right, one of the top in the country in spite of getting funded at the number 49th level.

    Parental choice is the moral thing to do and the competition it creates will help most schools.

    • The moral thing? Laughable. The moral thing is fund public school properly. Stop being slaves to DeVos’s out of State money train. Berliner and Ravitz have shown with real data, not ideological pablum, that parents want the right money for the improvement of PUBLIC schools, not government subsidies for religious schools, no matter how you launder the money it’s public money. Schools are not donuts or kumquats subject to the laws of the so-called market. Public schools can teach strategic languages, just make sure you give the money the Supreme Court said you should, not make up reasons to hold back money. If your one party dictatorship has any courage you would put vouchers on the ballot with simple clear language you are always demanding of local bond issues, “Should taxpayer money be used, directly or indirectly, to subsidize religious schools,” and Do you support a separate dedicated tax increase to fund these subsidies?”

      • If parents only want public schools, who is sending all those kids to religious and private schools and why worry about ESAs, because nobody will use them.

        • I wonder if all the cutting of school funding you’ve been doing has anything to do with it? I wonder if you creating an environment where teachers leave and Arizona has a nationwide reputation for having an underperforming school system has anything to do with it?

          This is the right wing game plan, defund/destroy something government is doing well, then tell people “look, governments not working”, then privatize it and give my tax money to your corporate donors.

          You already knew the answer, but because you’re a smug little man you couldn’t resist trying to post something cute.

          • You are saying that parents are perceiving a lower quality of district schools in Arizona while other high funding states are doing better.

            You are not telling the truth and you know it.

            Take just two. Mesa and Chandler. Their internal, highly rigorous measurement show them improving to 64% and 75% “A” rating. Up from 44% and 38% respectively in the late 90’s. (WestGroup polling, annual reports).

            The nation has plunged from 36% A to 24% A in just the last five years (Gallup).

            From 2011 to 2015, Arizona led the nation in combined math and reading gains from 4th grade to 8th grade – the only grade segment for which these gains can be calculated.

            Competition has improved Arizona schools, more competition will make them even better.

          • Here’s the deal, Master du le Puppet d’Sock, until you show proof of the crimes you’ve accused literally thousands of people of doing, you don’t get to speak.

            Put up or shut up.

        • Is that the philosophy our government officials should take? Is that the message we want to teach the next generation? Cut & Run? Take what you can, and damn the rest? FYGM?

          I think there’s a lot of room for experimentation and working to improve district schools. In fact, I’m going to the next local school board meeting to call out a certain board member who hasn’t been serving the best interest of the district or its students. Let me not be accused of saying that the Board has taken a lot of wise actions. But I feel a responsibility to stand up and do something about it, not just to sit back, move to a different state, and let it be someone else’s problem. Corruption is in the legislature and in every level down to the local school boards. But throwing your hands up in the air, whining that government doesn’t work, and giving carte blanche to private businesses who don’t care about anything except the bottom line, isn’t the direction that I want to take.

          As bad as the government can be, private businesses can be just as bad. I cite United Airlines as the most recent big-name example, but certainly not the only one.

  2. lunch shaming children is not the answer to your problems. the average white voters see you as protecting your turf and hated the clintons. (double whammy. the latino vote will eventually save us but it will take awhile.

    • In three separate studies based on 1990’s data, RAND, perhaps the nations preeminent think tank, not only rated California schools dead last, but in each study, the gap between California and the 49th state was the largest gap between any two states in the nation.

      Now, using a statistical method almost identical to that of RAND, the Urban Institute ranks California 47th based on 2015 NAEP data (the same data set used by RAND). Not much of an improvement, but headed in the right direction.

      California provides capital for construction of charter schools. Big mistake. And, they are funding the chains heavily, very heavily. Another big mistake. This favoritism is central planning at its worst.

      The biggest source of school choice in Arizona since 1993, open enrollment between district public schools almost doesn’t exist in California. In Arizona, more than 35% of all students don’t attend their neighborhood school. More of that school choice is between district schools than to a charter school.

      So, California schools aren’t really as advanced in a free market mindset as their 10% charter school number would indicate. The big benefits are yet to come.

      All the screaming in your article doesn’t even bring up critical numbers. Are charter schools less expensive than district schools?
      In Arizona, charters cost the taxpayer more than $1,200 less per student than district schools.

      I get the impression that California charters are just as expensive as district schools and were designed that way.

      Your “study” is a whole lot of “pointing with alarm.” Not much else.

      20% of charters discriminate? 100% of districts discriminate.
      Some small percentage of charters are run by people who broke the rules? Take a look at superintendent salaries, benefits and audit results. A much larger percentage of districts are run by crooks

      • Again you accuse people of crimes yet you provide no evidence.

        That is a common tactic you fake conservatives use. Trump does it, Fox News and the AM radio hate-talk folks do it, every single Republican does it.

        Liars and con men. Peddlers of conspiracy theories and misinformation.

        Either start showing the proof that a large percentage of districts are run by crooks or STFU.

        What a great example you all are setting for your kids.

        • Oh my aren’t we touchy all of a sudden. This is obviously a part of education culture to which you are completely unaware. The degree to which mismanagement and outright theft in school districts requires them to get special legislation to repair the damage which is too large to be sustainable.

          Every single year at least one school district needs legislation. That’s just for damage or theft that is unsustainable.

          Want to run a regression line of administrative salaries against academic gains, number of schools and number of students to see how much legal theft is going on? Auditor General does a rough estimate and presents the results – go out to their website and read a few.

          To be sure, we have unbelievably great districts which are led by self sacrificing administrators who are among the best, if not the best, in the country.

          Bottom line? Charter schools are less expensive than district schools and there are hundreds of them which produce academic gains larger that statewide averages. All the rest of your “study” is just chest pounding.

          I haven’t even begun to look a juvenile crime data for California. Want to wager on what it shows?

          • What I want is for you to show your work. You are accusing people of crimes, something you do constantly, yet you provide no evidence supporting your claims.

            You are a liar, Master of SockPuppets.

            Bottom line, charter schools are scams, I gave you proof, and I can show you dozens of other studies saying the same.

            Put up or shut up, crybaby.

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