Settling for scraps

desk & chairEveryone’s in a flutter over Governor Ducey’s plan to increase education funding without raising taxes. How marvelous that the Governor, after working tirelessly to defund schools and defeat ballot initiatives for additional funding, now sees the need to pull Arizona schools up from the very bottom of the funding pile.

What a coincidence (wink, wink) that this news comes on the heels of a Census Bureau report that claims Arizona is #1…in lowest per pupil funding for K-12 schools and #1 in lowest per pupil teacher pay.

But hey, not to worry, we get lots of money from the federal government. In fact, because our economy is so bad and because we have some of the highest rates of childhood poverty in the nation, the federal government gives Arizona more money to help its students than almost any other state.

So much for taking care of our own. Our legislators should be thanking the feds because they seem to be the only ones that care about Arizona’s kids.

But wait, the Governor is going to take care of this. He’s going to ask the legislature – the ones who have slashed funding for schools and families – to put a measure on the ballot that will increase funding a whooping $300 per pupil. But only if they can resist the temptation to make the ballot measure about education and education only. And only if voters approve it. And only for 10 years.

So if everything goes juuuust right, we’ll be closer to #47 than #50.

Wow. Way to raise expectations, Governor.

At what point will our leaders – both legislative and business leaders – have the courage (and smarts) to realize that if all you do is take from your most precious resource, they won’t have anything to give in return? At what point will they focus on long-term strategies to strengthen our state instead of focusing on band-aid approaches to the crises that have been years in the making?

I’m not giving the Governor or his supporters a hand for one more sad attempt at snowing voters into believing they’re serious about putting Arizona kids first. If they truly care about Arizona’s kids… let me say that again… ARIZONA’S KIDS… then they’ll do more than throw a few scraps their way.

At the very least, our kids are deserving of average. That means we’ll need to prioritize education over additional tax cuts. It might even mean we roll back some of our tax cuts. (Gasp!)

We’re almost a third below the nation’s average for education funding. More than $3,000 behind. We can’t afford to mess around with these little small-brained, low-bar gimmicks that are nothing more than feel-good measures. Our kids deserve better. Our state deserves better.

I challenge our leaders to explain why they think Arizona deserves less.

Wolves in sheep’s clothing

CrossRemember those WWJD – What Would Jesus Do — bracelets from the 90’s? They were a popular way for young adults to wear their beliefs on their sleeve (or wrist), and remember that one’s choices should reflect the teachings of Jesus.

Our Republican legislators and Governor Ducey are quick to wear their religion on their lips, but do they wear it in their hearts? Do the bills they’ve passed and the budget they crammed through in the middle of the night follow the WWJD motto?


I generally don’t quote the Bible when explaining my political philosophies, but for those that do, they should be called out when their talk doesn’t match their walk.

Growing up in a very strict Catholic household, I spent a huge portion of my life in church listening to sermons and taking religious education classes. I don’t ever recall hearing Jesus described as a champion of the rich who sought to drive out those lazy, poor slobs mooching off the government. Instead, what stuck with me was Jesus’ devotion to the poor, the outcasts and the children.

“It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” – Matthew 19:24

Tell me, Arizona legislators, would Jesus approve of cutting funding for the working poor, funding that affords them “luxuries” like toilet paper and toothpaste all so you can pass yet another corporate tax cut?

Tell me, Governor Ducey, would Jesus be in favor of limiting access for basic healthcare needs for the most vulnerable among us? Would He be in favor of giving wealthy kids a free education at private schools while continuing to underfund and neglect the schools that serve the rest of our students?

Of course we know that Jesus would definitely be in favor of those gun rights bills. As Rep. Barton said, carrying a concealed weapon is a “God-given right.” It ranks right up there with “thou shall not steal.” Unless, of course, you’re stealing from the poor. Or students.

As I watch Republicans congratulate themselves for balancing the budget on the backs of children and the poor, of choosing prisons over education, of representing the “moral majority” at the Capitol and doing more of what got us into our fiscal crisis in the first place – namely, decades of tax cuts for corporations and wealthy individuals – I can’t help but remember the Biblical teaching of the wolf in sheep’s clothing.

One doesn’t need to look far for the false prophets among us. They can be found in abundance at 1700 West Washington.

#ClassroomsFirst is #TotalBS

I’d love to have a frank discussion with Arizona voters about education funding. I’d like to know if they really believe more of the same is going to change things or if they just don’t care that we’re in a battle for last place with states like Mississippi.

For decades, Republicans have told us that school choice, not school funding, is the only way out of our race to the bottom. We need more choice, end of story. And every year, we expand choice with more vouchers for private schools, more tuition tax credits, and more charter schools.

The result of all this school choice? Nada.

We have the friendliest school choice policies in the country, but that hasn’t moved the needle. Not even a little. Our test scores, when compared nationally over the course of the last three decades, are stagnant. Our achievement gap is still painfully, pathetically wide.

And yet, here we are in another legislative session debating… more school choice. Seriously folks, doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results is the definition of insanity. Is it too much to ask to try something new?

I’m not advocating anything radical. I’m not suggesting we dismantle choice programs. All I’m asking is that instead of focusing on choice, why not try funding our schools at a rate close to the national average?

I know some conservatives will be quick to point out that spending doesn’t equal academic achievement. And they’re right, to some extent. Some students aren’t as expensive to educate as others because they have been blessed with richer educational environments. They do not have learning or attention disabilities, have access to quality preschool programs and have economic and parental stability.

Unfortunately, that’s not the typical Arizona child.

It bears repeating that we have some of the highest childhood poverty rates in the country, which is why we NEED extra funding if we wish to compete nationally. To say that we can educate our kids, many of whom start out with the deck stacked against them, at a lower rate than kids in say, Iowa, is pretty incredulous. We can’t. Let’s stop pretending otherwise.

Let’s also let go of the other oft-repeated myth about Arizona’s bloated administration costs. Governor Ducey is playing into that fable with claims that we must put “Classrooms First” by siphoning money away from administration. While that may sound like a smart plan, it’s really just a cutesy slogan used to disguise more cuts to Arizona schools.

Our schools have some of the lowest administration costs in the nation, especially our district schools, which spend significantly less on admin than charter schools. But you won’t hear about that little tidbit from Governor Ducey or his friends pushing for more cuts. Instead, they want schools to settle the lawsuit with the legislature by giving up on the hundreds of millions of dollars owed to them from a voter-approved initiative to fund inflationary costs.

I find all of this curious considering the Governor sends his own children to a private school that spends considerably more on education than what the state pays for kids at district schools. Surely the Governor’s kids, who have a world of advantages, aren’t more expensive to educate than those facing household insecurity. Is it fair to say he believes his kids are worth the extra cost but ours are not?

Too many of Arizona’s politicians have been quick to ask others to sacrifice, content in knowing their own will be just fine. They don’t worry about “other people’s kids.” This is politics at its worst, and it’s what’s ruling the roost down at the Capitol.

It appears our district superintendents have had just about all they can handle of budget cuts and disingenuous sound bites. They’re asking parents and teachers to protest Ducey’s budget, and they’re taking a beating from Ducey’s big-money supporters (read more about that story here).

I hope Arizonans will show their support for our superintendents and our schools, realizing that “those kids” are “our future.”

The secret behind those ‘Highly Performing’ charter schools

school crossing signLet me start by making a confession. My oldest son attends a BASIS school. BASIS schools are some of those “highly performing charters” that reformers love to use an example of everything that’s right with charter schools, while traditional school advocates use as an example of everything that’s wrong. I suspect the majority of folks who pan or extol the virtues of BASIS schools have never had a child attend one, so let me give you an insider’s look.

I pulled my oldest son from a traditional public school and enrolled him in BASIS when he was in sixth grade. His former school wasn’t a bad school. I liked his teachers. I spent a lot of time getting to know the administration.

But my son wasn’t thriving at his school. He received A’s in his honors classes but C’s and D’s in his regular classes. He was distracted in class and became increasingly disruptive (which is how I came to know the school’s administration).

He needed a change. He needed to be challenged.

I went to Parent Night at BASIS and was blown away by what I heard. An Arizona school ranked as one of the top high schools in the nation? In Arizona?? Teachers with degrees from Harvard and Yale and Stanford, with PhD’s and real-world experience. A curriculum that entails AP coursework as early as 7th grade, and the ability to finish high school with every AP class completed by 11th grade. Wow. What’s not to love?

My oldest son wasn’t happy with my decision to move him. He promised me he’d never, ever, ever like the school. But within a couple months, he was back to his old self, thriving both academically and socially.

It was the right decision, and I don’t regret it. But, like all good stories, there’s more to this than meets the eye.

Governor Ducey wants to “fund the wait lists” at schools such as BASIS. He’s fond of using the school as the poster child for reform. But those wait lists are a mirage.

It’s true that hundreds of students are turned away from BASIS and other top-rated charter schools in 5th and 6th grade. But it’s also true that the turnover rate at these charter schools is astronomical, with hundreds of students opting out of the schools after a short period of time, and schools graduating as few as 20-30 students.

Many of the critics will say it’s because BASIS filters out undesirable students, such as those with learning or attention differences, while keeping the “cream of the crop.” And they’re correct.

The curriculum at BASIS isn’t advanced. It’s highly advanced, as in 2 or 3 years ahead of most schools, similar to the curriculum for highly gifted students. Remember when I said AP classes start in 7th grade? That’s not normal. And it’s not something that just any student can handle.

Starting in 6th grade, students take midterms and finals, and the final is a significant portion of the student’s overall class grade. It’s high-stakes testing at its highest. If a student fails even one class (with a small exception for some math classes), that student must retake the entire grade.

The vast majority of students, when faced with retaking an entire grade or moving on to a different school, will move on. So will the vast majority of students who struggle with such an advanced load and who find themselves spending 4-5 hours on homework every night. And the same with many students who are involved in extracurricular activities such as club sports, which requires time for evening practices and weekend tournaments.

This is why BASIS schools start out with hundreds of students and long waiting lists in 5th and 6th grade but end up graduating only a handful of students. And when a school graduates 25 students who have made it through every advanced, AP course available, one would hope these students would have sky-high test scores.

It’s easy to understand why BASIS makes the list as one of the top high schools in the nation. But to compare a class of 25 students to one with hundreds of students from every background and with every learning challenge imaginable at a school in an economically challenged neighborhood doesn’t really seem like a fair comparison, does it?

Of course not. And yet that is what our politicians routinely do.

A better comparison would be comparing the students at BASIS with the top performers at a school such as Chaparral in Scottsdale. Students at Chaparral have a similar profile to students at BASIS – higher income families with highly educated parents. When you make this type of apples to apples comparison, you find little difference, and the “magic” of charters doesn’t seem so magical after all.

The teachers at BASIS, while highly educated, can’t really be described as the secret sauce, either. Some are phenomenal and can relate their knowledge back to their students, but others struggle when faced with a class that has an unruly student or two. Even Ivy League educated teachers need classroom management skills, and this skill is often overlooked.

One other myth I’d like to debunk is the idea that charters such as BASIS and Great Hearts are somehow doing better with less money. We honestly have no idea if this is true.

Because Arizona requires little financial transparency from its charters, taxpayers do not have an accurate idea of how much money charters take in each year. For instance, at most charter schools (particularly the high performing charters in affluent neighborhoods) parents donate thousands of dollars per student each year. At BASIS, it’s an annual fundraising drive they advertise as a way to reward exceptional teachers, and it brings in hundreds of thousands of dollars that district schools do not have access to.

Charters will tell you they need this money because they cannot collect bond money like district schools, though lawmakers acknowledged that fact by giving charters more per pupil dollars than district schools. And in reality, my child’s charter school SHOULD be able to educate my child with less money than a child in say, the Roosevelt district. Why?

Stability. A student with economic stability doesn’t have to worry about when he is getting his next meal or if he will have to move, again. A student with emotional stability in the home doesn’t need to worry about whether mom will get back-handed by her new boyfriend or if CPS will be making another visit.

The first-generation college student is paving a new path and has to rely on the support – sometimes available, sometimes not – of guidance counselors or administrators to help her figure out the how to afford and apply for colleges that seem well beyond her grasp, while students with college educated parents are choosing not if they will attend, but where to attend.

The vast, vast majority of students at high performing charters have far fewer hurdles than most, especially here in Arizona where almost 1 in 4 children live below the poverty level. That’s an incredible hurdle not just for the kids but for their schools, as well.

These students need more than just a supportive and caring teacher. They need the type of wraparound services that support learning outside of the classroom, which is where a huge portion of learning happens. Services such as free and reduced lunches and breakfasts, after school programs and one-on-one tutoring are crucial to a student’s long-term success. Often, these services are the most important factor, and yet, are the first to be scaled back when a school suffers massive funding cuts or is mandated to move more dollars into the classroom.

BASIS schools and many of the other highly performing charters across the state are good choices, and I’m certainly not advocating we take these choices away. But let’s be real here. These are elite prep schools, and their model is successful because the students they serve have more advantages than the vast majority of Arizona students. Their secret to success isn’t much of a secret at all, and they are not the cure for what ails our schools.

If we really want to give EVERY child a chance to succeed, then we need to get serious about how we address the children most in need of our help. And yes, Arizona, that means money. Money that’s earmarked to help failing schools, not punish them for lack-luster test scores. Money that’s targeted for “extras” that are, in fact, necessities for many.

I’m baaack!

It’s been a long time since I’ve updated my blog, though my absence wasn’t because of a lack of political interest. I spent more than a year working full-time on David Garcia’s campaign for Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction.

Working on a statewide campaign gave me a whole new insight into the political process and sadly, I can’t say it was pretty.

You all know what happened in the state superintendent’s race… David, who was arguably the most qualified person to ever run for state superintendent, was defeated by a woman who quite literally went into hiding during the general election.

Voter turnout was historically, pathetically low with the majority of twentysomethings, minorities and single women abandoning their voice and their power in the political process.

And that, my friends, was the saddest part of the 2014 election. The very people who have the most to lose are the ones who have tuned out and given up.

I understand their frustration. I relate to the idea that politicians seem untrustworthy and the whole process is just, well, icky.

But it’s time to connect the dots, folks. Your elected officials make decisions that determine if your child will end up in a small classroom of 20 students or an overstuffed and difficult-to-mange class of 40, if working-class moms will have access to quality childcare or if they’ll be forced to choose between their child’s safety or a job, if you’ll be able to afford college or be left with tens of thousands of dollars in debt and few job prospects.

When you live in a democracy that is quickly turning into a plutocracy, things won’t change for the working class – the great majority of Americans – until they start electing people to represent them.

And don’t give me the excuse that no one represents you because I spent a great deal of time with our candidates. They may not be perfect, but many of them were intelligent, caring and open-minded individuals who were willing to put their lives on hold for a year or longer to try and win your vote.

It’s true that the campaigns for Arizona’s state legislature aren’t nearly as exciting as the race for President of the United States. But when it comes to who has more influence over your everyday life, I’d argue the state legislature wins every time.

So good luck to our Millennials and even our Gen X’ers. You (and me) will need every ounce of it to get through the next four years.