The Arizona Legislature will make the Tough Choices

It is no consolation that virtually every other state in the nation is facing heap big budget deficits, nor is it that California is in worse shape than we are. It is the fact that, unlike California, there is hope for Arizona.

Both California and Arizona are in dire budgetary straits as a result of Democrat wild overspending. Hold it! I know what you’re thinking, “but the Republicans have controlled the state house for over forty years, how is it the fault of the Democrats?” Well, it is true that the Republicans have held a majority for decades, but that is not the same as control. During the Administration of Governor Napolitano, the Democrats were able to lure a number of squishy Republicans in to their camp, creating a virtual Democrat majority. Here’s an AZcentral.com blurb from from 2008 that includes Steve Gallardo’s famous quotation:

“I like being in the majority.” – House Minority Whip Steve Gallardo, D-Phoenix.
For the second year in a row, a budget backed by the minority Democrats and Democratic Gov. Janet Napolitano passed, with the help of a handful of Republicans.

So here we are.

What has changed in the Arizona legislature since the last election cycle is the nature of the Republicans. The squishes are pretty much gone. The Republicans are in firm control of both houses. Republicans now in the legislature will not be seduced, cajoled, or intimidated by the Democrats, the Arizona Republic, or the Arizona Daily Star from cutting spending back to levels commensurate with revenues. The sweeping of funds, accounting tricks, property sales, even Governor Brewer’s sales tax increase were not enough to close the huge deficit gap.

Be prepared for much hysteria, name calling, and condemnations from the affected parties. Every agency will claim that any cuts will result in apocalyptic future disasters from short sighted cutting of “investment”.

University of Arizona president Robert N. Shelton is an example. In his recent State of the University address, he used phrases like “When malevolent people talk about wanting to dismantle and destroy great universities,” and “When you listen to those guys, it’s like “Groundhog Day” meets “A Nightmare on Elm Street”! – Bill Murray meets Freddie Krueger. (And please understand, I’m playing the Bill Murray character – I keep repeating myself, and they keep slashing people with knives!)”. Bear in mind that this is the language of a fancy pants $550,000 a year university president at an official function.

Shelton’s miffed because his state general fund appropriation has been cut by about $100 million over the last few years. He adds, “yet we have key legislators who have stated publicly – with straight faces, I might add – that we have been untouched and spared any significant cuts…”

I suspect that you may be wondering how the “untouched and spared any significant cuts” can be made? Or maybe you just think that Shelton is right and the legislators are lying morons. Well, we can always check the facts. The Fiscal Year Reports from the Arizona Legislature web site show the state general fund cuts in appropriations to the University of Arizona as Shelton stated, but the more relevant figures are those showing total revenue; FY 2007 – $1.211 billion, FY 2008 – $1.266 billion, FY 2009 $1.305 billion, FY 2010 – $1.333 billion. Yes, it’s true, though the state appropriations make up a smaller percentage of total revenues, the total revenues of the University of Arizona have increased annually over the last few years. You might even say that it has been “untouched and spared significant cuts”.

So, if you are a legislator, and you can cut an appropriation to an agency without reducing its total revenue, might that agency be a good candidate such cuts?

The real beauty here is that the legislators stated the facts, did the right thing, and are not intimidated by deceitful university presidents or anyone else. This is what Arizona needs if we are to fix the budget, recover and prosper.

And what of California? Well, the people of the Golden State elected the same people who precipitated its financial crisis. The Democrats still have a lock on the legislature, and with the election, yet again, of Governor Jerry Brown, there appears to be no adults in authority.

So be grateful that there is hope and change in Arizona, and pray for California.

The War for Education

These are some pretty heady times for primary education. The Obama administration rolled out its “Race to the Top” program to improve primary education, while, along with Congress, he virtually terminated a promising voucher program in Washington D.C. The citizens of Arizona voted to keep the “First Things First” program. The state legislature has outlawed the controversial “Ethnic Studies” program in the Tucson Unified School District, to which some teachers have responded with a lawsuit.

As I look at the battles, I am saddened to see that many of the participants do not simply disagree on policy, they seem to live in different worlds. In one world, “Ethnic Studies” promotes inclusion of Latino students while increasing their academic success, while in the other, Latino students are cut out of the rest of the students and taught separatism, and anti-Americanism. In one world, “First Things First” as a valuable preparation for kindergarten and beyond, while in the other it is a way to warehouse children of middle-class mom’s who prefer to go to Yoga class at the expense of the economically disadvantaged.

No progress toward some kind of resolution can be made without some common ground.

I decided, therefore, to avoid the fracas and try to gather some inside information from someone in the field. In these days of networking, I decided to check my address book and found a Democrat friend of near thirty years who runs an “Excelling” charter school in Tucson. His name is Gurumeet Khalsa and he is a director of the Khalsa Montessori Charter School. I’d like to reiterate that I’m presenting one educator’s ideas, not arguing for or against charter schools here.

Mr. Khalsa describes himself as an “education radical”, much of his thinking is indeed outside the traditional box.

The Montessori method itself, as he described it to me, is a departure from the traditional methods which “came out of the industrial age of the 1800’s when it was convenient to do that for political reasons and for reasons of scale”, referring to everybody doing the sme thing at the same time. The Montessori method focuses on the individual child who progresses at his own rate, with his own study plan. The teaching “follows the child.”

Mr. Kalsa is not a big fan of standardized testing, including AIMS. “Good test results doesn’t mean that they are getting educated. It means that they are able to regurgitate facts and take the silly little bubble tests.” He also mentioned that, “US News called University High School the best high school in the world, and the state of Arizona said it was a failing school – all in the same year.” He added, “They don’t judge character, they don’t judge artistic values, they don’t judge critical thinking, it’s quite a poor test they give the kids.”

I asked if there could be any valid measurement devices for kids or schools. He said that parents really must be involved with the school. He put the issue in perspective this way, “Everybody wants insurance in our society, everybody wants Social Security, everybody wants insurance, everybody wants to be taken care of, nobody wants to have any faults, and that’s what we’re stuck with. No risk.” He added that touring professionals would be helpful in rating schools, “but they would have their own biases about what they think a school should look like.” He said that parental participation is very high in his school, and the school encourages it. Some parents actually withdraw their children from the school because they ask them to participate too much.

Mr. Kalsa is big on school choice. “We have hundreds of millions of people in our country and I don’t think that they are all going to go in one direction. I think sometimes that the people who really squawk about it perhaps have a monetary stake in it, they don’t want to see parents have a choice. I think it’s important that families have a choice in what they want to do.”

Now, I disagree with my friend on many of his points, on some I agree. I was a bit surprised at some of common ground we shared, and that some of his perspectives were new to me.

We really should openly discuss ideas more before we draw the battle lines in the war for education.

At one point I asked Gurumeet, “So how’s your football program coming?” We both had a laugh.

By the numbers: the case for school vouchers in Arizona

This was originally published in the Tucson Weekly
It’s budget time up at our state Capitol, and the local dailies are trotting out the old stories about how Arizona is 57th in per-pupil spending compared to other states. O.K., they only claim 49th out of 51 (including Washington, D.C.)–but so did the states of Florida, Illinois, Tennessee, Idaho, Louisiana, Pennsylvania and Utah, along with Arizona, in 2004. Perhaps we are closer to 57th than we think.

A lowball figure of a little more than $6,000 is given for Arizona per pupil spending, though surveys that included such miscellaneous items as capital purchases and new construction put the figure at around $8,500–alarmingly close to the national average.

What? You had no idea that the state was spending $8,500 per student per year? Well, you are not alone. According to a survey conducted by Hart and Teeter of Educational Testing Service, 72 percent of Americans do not have an accurate idea of the spending rate, and about half think that it is less than $5,000 per student.

Interestingly, the average tuition charged by private schools in Arizona is around $3,700. Why, if the state would just issue vouchers to parents in the amount of $4,000, they would end up educating twice as many students and still have a bunch of money left over for administrator junkets.

Yikes! I said the “V–word.” The National Education Association will not like that! They certainly would not want the parents of the students to screw things up after they spent all that time and money lobbying at the Arizona Legislature.

Speaking of the National Education Association, their Svengali sway over the mainstream media explains not only the fear-mongering over spending (including the use of fudged numbers), but it also explains the fixation with spending rates for government schools. It’s a twofer: It encourages the spending of more money that could potentially be spent on the members; and by making money the only factor that determines quality, it takes the focus away from member performance and accountability. Nice!

Unfortunately for the NEA, in spite of all the mainstream media hand-wringing over expenditures, the general public isn’t buying it. According to the same ETS survey, 51 percent of us do not believe that the problems facing American government schools are about money; rather, we believe that a combination of factors including lack of parental involvement, lack of discipline, ineffective teachers and administrations, etc., are of greater concern. Only 30 percent believe that the greatest problems are money-related. If that does not set the government-school bureaucrats to squirming in their seats, consider this: Only 6 percent of the people believe that there is no waste in education spending.

Unlike the professionals, we the people understand that it is how well the students are learning, not how much we are paying for the system, which is of the utmost importance. Few people outside the government education establishment would argue that government schools do anywhere near as good a job as private schools–and private schools do it for half the money. If resources were directed to schools that succeed–private or government–and denied to schools that fail, we would end up with lots of successful schools.

The NEA is a labor union; as such, its interests are in the success of its member-workers. The interests of the parents are in the success of their children–the students. If parents (who, by the way, generate the revenue in the first place) had a say in directing revenue, the interests of the students would be protected.

It’s time for an education voucher program in Arizona. Then parents could once again parent their children, and the NEA could go back to negotiating contracts and working conditions for its members.