The Farley Report from Phoenix #241: 2-24-16

Well, we didn’t have long to savor last week’s education victory on JTEDs — the battle is now joined to stop the destruction of the entire K-12 public education system at the hands of a bill to universally expand private school vouchers to all Arizona students. The stakes couldn’t be higher. 

More after this brief Farley Report pledge break…

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—> There are two identical bills - SB1279 and HB2482 - currently active in the Senate and House that will expand to all students what is currently a small voucher program originally designed for special needs students that has expanded incrementally over the past few years to include various other populations. The implications are disastrous for public education in Arizona and by extension the future of our workforce, our economy, and particularly people in poverty. 

Within three years, the current cap on the program enrollment of one half of one percent will disappear just as this proposal would fully phase in, meaning that the parents of any student in Arizona who has attended a public school for at least 100 days (including in Kindergarten) would be eligible to take 90% of their individual taxpayer-paid funding away from their public school (an average of $5,300 per student, but much higher for special needs students) and spend it as they please on a private school, a religious school, an online school, or home schooling, with virtually no public accountability.

Already we have seen parents prosecuted for fraudulent use of these funds, including beauty appointments, vacations, and in one case even an abortion. The Department of Education has told me they do not have the personnel or budget to oversee the use of most of these funds except with spot checks, and they don’t have the authority to assure that the private, online, or home school meets adequate curricular standards.

As the money is taken from our public schools, those schools will decay even further than they have during the last eight years of worst-in-the-nation budget cuts. Schools have fixed costs that do not shrink with enrollment, and because private schools don’t have to take all comers, the children remaining in public schools will be predominately lower achievers and special needs kids or those who do not have parents who are willing or able to advocate for them. 

Budgets for books, computers, and teachers will be cut, and we will enter a new phase in the ghettoization of public education in Arizona because families in poverty do not have the additional money to pay for the $5,000-$10,000 above the voucher amount it costs to pay for private school tuition, even for those kids who are accepted there. 

In fact, there are signs that this is already happening in the current program. The Arizona Republic today published an excellent investigative report demonstrating that these taxpayer-funded vouchers are being used predominately to help rich kids go to private schools on the public dime.

And Republic columnist Ed Montini makes a strong argument that these bills are returning us to a new age of segregated schools. 

When SB1279 came to the floor for Third Read on Monday, I held forth on the dangers these vouchers pose to our state. I won’t go into the details — you can read about them in Howie Fischer’s coverage here. Sadly, my arguments did not carry the day, and the bill passed 17-13 with only retiring Republican Adam Driggs joining all Democrats in voting no.

The good news is that I hear that the House may be able to kill both bills, although I am sure the anti-public education lobby is working hard to change that outcome. I certainly hope that Governor Ducey understands that a massive voucher expansion is an abomination that will threaten the success of his Proposition 123 if one of the bills gets to his desk and he decides to sign it. 

—> Tomorrow morning early the Joint Legislative Budget Committee on which I sit will meet. One budget item is a report - due quarterly - on the status of the replacement of the Department of Child Safety’s ancient and rotting CHILDS database, originally built in the 1990s, and currently so shaky it puts children in danger through lost files and other risky glitches.

I hope Director McKay will show up to explain himself again since the written report he delivered in advance is incomplete, misleading, lacking any detail, and doesn’t answer any of the basic questions the committee has had ever since we appropriated the money for the system replacement two years ago. These are questions like: When will you issue the RFP for the job? What is the plan for the new system? When will it be complete? Where is the detailed breakdown of the costs and work plan? 

This is important stuff, but it is being mismanaged like nearly every other mission-critical element of DCS. Director McKay seems not to have any idea how to run this department — a department where children’s lives are literally at stake. I hope he took the time to read some excellent reporting last Sunday, including a package in the Republic by Mary Jo Pitzl detailing four fixes for our broken child welfare system, and in the Star by Patty Machelor interviewing key external child advocates about the importance of investment in prevention programs to keep kids safe. 

The problems with DCS are not unsolvable. Proven strategies exist for how we can reduce the rate of children taken from their homes while ensuring their safety. I’ll say it again — Director Greg McKay must be replaced with a child welfare expert with years of broad and deep experience in the field and in managing an agency. And it must happen soon.

—> This morning in Finance we witnessed a fight between large landowners and small art businesses over the future of the Roosevelt Arts District in Phoenix. 

For more than an hour and a half, conservative political figures told us “the power to tax is the power to destroy” (to which I suggested that the interstate highway system, the Central Arizona Project, land grant universities, and free universal public education seemed more creative than destructive to me).

A land owner/speculator actually said “artists are parasites that think everything is free” and the property owners who did not want to pay a small amount of additional taxes to support a business improvement district “are the individuals that have truly built this neighborhood,” ignoring the 15 years of work by pioneering art businesses who have transformed a former strip of urban decay (owned by speculators who were content to let their parcels rot) into a model of a booming local economy.

The bill sought to retroactively disband the already-approved taxing district and make them start over again with a higher bar to clear. Three out of the five committee members were poised to eliminate the retroactivity clause in a committee amendment, thus saving the district, but the member that wanted to move the amendment forgot to file it before the deadline, and the two other members refused to allow the amendment to be introduced late — a motion that requires unanimity. The bill passed 3-2 and now heads to the floor, where it may be hard to stop. 

This was a clear reminder that we legislators are fallible people and sometimes our small mistakes have big consequences. This is a human institution above all. Sometimes that’s good, and sometimes that’s bad, but that’s the way life is. 

Thanks for your continuing faith in me as your Senator. 

Steve

Steve Farley

Senator, District 9, Tucson

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