Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Queen of Voucher Vultures, Debbie Lesko, campaigns for CD8 House seat

Ups and downs
Education figures: Go figure!

On January 13, 2017, Linda Lyon cross-posted in this blog a litany of problems facing public education in Arizona, problems that were sure to be worse after the legislative session. About one particular problem she said:

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%.

And then she concluded:

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’ĂȘtre.

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.

Fast forward to April, 2018, The Republic’s editorial board concurs. Public education in Arizona still needs a big infusion of cash to offset years of cuts. Our View: Arizona schools need a lot more money now. You listening, lawmakers? Editorial: Extending Proposition 301, Arizona’s education tax, was a great start, but our schools are starving. They need significant new cash, not more tax cuts.

Arizona has long been cutting taxes as part of a supply-side promise that doing so will increase economic development and – ultimately – increase revenue.

ROBERTS: Yet another tax cut coming? Really?

But the state does not have the time to wait for that promised growth to be sufficient to help our schools. Education funding has fallen too far behind.

Significant new revenue is needed now. One option is to expand the six-tenths sales tax to a full penny or more.

Some business leaders and education advocates have supported this approach.

Well, the thing is that waiting for the tooth fairy (aka the supply-side promise) never worked without the intervention of Mom-and-Dad (the state legislature). Unfortunately, our Mom-and-Dad are busy working to further undermine our revenue stream by handing Gov. Doozy more tax cuts. We just don’t learn.

To make matters worse, far worse, the 2017 AZ legislature passed a bill extending Arizona’s “school choice” (aka voucher) program to virtually all students. Former State Senator Debbie Lesko was responsible and was lauded by ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council) and now Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. I say “former” because Lesko quit her state Senate seat to run for the US House in CD8.

Is Washington Ready for Another Betsy DeVos? Republican Debbie Lesko is Arizona’s crusader for conservative “school choice”—and, unless Democrats can stop her in April’s special election, she’s about to go national. (Graham Vyse, New Republic, March 28, 2018)

First, consider the likelihood that Dems will be able to stop Lesko’s bid for the CD8 seat in the US House. In the CD8 primaries (with 24% overall voting), 63,358 Republicans voted compared to 36,404 Democrats. That in itself is likely to be predictive of the outcome of the special election on April 24th. See this report from the Peoria Times: Lesko, Tipirneni have different goals for CD8.

Second, Lesko, Queen of the Voucher Vultures, appears to be a darling of the destroy-public-education crowd - and vice versa.

Betsy DeVos may have no bigger fan in all of America than Debbie Lesko. The former Arizona state senator was the only other person on stage last July when President Donald Trump’s billionaire education secretary addressed the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC)—the powerful Koch brothers–funded “corporate bill mill” that advances right-wing legislation in the states. In her speech, DeVos praised Lesko—a Republican who sits on ALEC’s board of directors—as a champion of conservative “school choice.” She specifically lauded the pathbreaking law Lesko sponsored last year to expand the state’s Empowerment Scholarship Accounts (ESA)—a voucher-like program that hands families debit cards loaded with taxpayer dollars to use for private- and religious-school tuition or other educational costs. “What a huge accomplishment,” DeVos said of this drain on the state’s already cash-strapped public-school system.

Lesko, who didn’t respond to requests for comment on this story, says she isn’t beholden to her deep-pocketed donors. But she openly embraced the Kochs in a debate with Tipirneni this past Friday on Arizona’s 12 News. “You know, it’s interesting that people keep bringing up the Koch brothers,” she said. “I’ve never met the Koch brothers. I’m interested in meeting them someday. But they share the same values that I have.”

Those values also put her squarely behind Trump, whom she describes as “doing a good job” as president. Lesko proudly touts her endorsement from the National Rifle Association, opposes a woman’s right to choose, and couldn’t be more enthusiastic about “The Wall.” On education, though, she’s more than just a Trump foot solider; she’s a policy entrepreneur. And some of America’s most influential conservative power brokers see her ESA expansion as a model for the nation.

[The ALEC/Koch/Lesko] “vision of a totally new world” isn’t yet cemented: Public-education advocates led by the grassroots group Save Our Schools Arizona have managed to force a referendum vote on the ESA expansion for this November, putting the law on hold in the meantime. “As much of a red state as Arizona is, there was huge public opposition to this,” Dawn Penich-Thacker, a spokeswoman for Save Our Schools Arizona, said. “It’s a means of separating out the haves and the have-nots.”

… Total enrollment, for example, will be capped at 30,000 students in 2022. But the downsides of the policy are glaringly apparent: It siphons funds from existing public schools without ensuring that the money is then invested in promising alternatives. And that’s to say nothing of the program’s management. As The Arizona Republic reported in June: “The warnings of lax oversight and little accountability proved prescient. Money was misspent but the state recovered almost none of it.”

Remember the structure of ESAs: A–>B, B–>C. The state (A) gives public money to parents (B) who then may (or may not) give the money to a private school (C). As mentioned above, the parents may use the money for noneducational purposes. At least some of the participants in the program treat the state money as an unrestricted gift, a gift paid for by you and me.

For example, some parents transferred all of their scholarship money into a 529 college-savings account and then left the program—preventing the state from recouping the funds.

Others pocketed the money and sent their kids to public schools.

Some purchased books or other materials using their state-issued debit cards and then immediately returned them. The refunded money was put on gift cards, allowing parents to spend it with no scrutiny.

“You can’t even make some of this stuff up,” said Carol Burris, the executive director of the national Network for Public Education. “It’s just a really crazy scheme that’s draining the money out of public schools.” Which is why Tipirneni [Lesko’s opponent in the CD8 race] rejects the idea that reforming education requires privatizing it. “If you’re going to invest in new innovative teaching methods and creative approaches to curriculum, I say put that in the public schools,” she said. “That’s where the majority of our kids are going. We should be encouraging that growth, because honestly our public schools are at the center of our communities.”

At the time of this writing, April 3rd, 2018, Proposition 305 (which refers Lesko’s ESA expansion to the voters) is set to appear on the November ballot. Save Our Schools Arizona has the necessary verified signatures and the legal challenges appear to be at a dead end due to the recent court ruling.

However, reported in the New Republic article:

Arizona legislators could … undermine the referendum. Veteran state politics reporter Howard Fischer notes that “any change in the 2017 law—even as small as a change in punctuation—would effectively invalidate all the referendum petitions and the more than 110,000 signatures that foes of expansion turned in to force the issue to the ballot.” Some Republican lawmakers want to go that route. But Save Our Schools Arizona says it’s ready for that scenario—and prepared to collect enough signatures to trigger another ballot measure.

Oh, the hypocrisy.

I’ll wind up with quotes from this piece from the AP that appeared in this morning’s Daily Star: Teacher protests put Republicans on the spot in red states.

Some Republicans are expressing support for the teacher rebellion. Three weeks before a closely watched special election for an open congressional seat in Arizona, Republican hopeful Debbie Lesko is running a TV ad that shows her reading a book to children as she vows to “fix our schools and give our teachers the raise they deserve.”

“You can’t even make some of this stuff up.” Maybe not, but Lesko seems to be doing just that. What absolute bullshit. This is the head vulture who supports syphoning public funds into private schools.

As he runs for a second term, Republican Gov. Doug Ducey in Arizona epitomizes the dilemma for GOP candidates in 2018. He refuses to raise taxes and finds himself on the defensive amid growing frustration with education funding in a state where the budget was decimated during the recession and where he and other leaders have dramatically expanded voucher programs. Teachers have been filling the Capitol to protest a Ducey plan to provide a 2 percent raise for teachers, and they have been joined by the two Democrats trying to unseat him.

“2 percent”? It would take 20% to make a difference. Remember in November. And remember that Ducey has chosen vouchers over raises.

A short bibliography of ESA (aka GOP’s vouchers for all)

In just a few months in 2017, the GOPlins in the AZ lege delivered a crushing blow to public education in Arizona. Below is a set of links to blog posts published here and elwewhere.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017 They can have their own opinions, but not their own facts Cross-posted from RestoreReason.com.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017 Ooops, there it is! Cross-posted from RestoreReason.com

Saturday, February 11, 2017 Unconstitutional vouchers for all bill clears Senate education committee.

Saturday, February 27, 2016 Empowerment Scholarships for All? Arizona taxpayers would empower the rich to get richer.

Thursday, April 13, 2017 Vouchers for all: Ducey’s two-step is a betrayal of K–12 teachers.

September 6, 2017 Proposition 305: Save Our Schools Arizona referendum of school ‘vouchers on steroids’ qualifies for the 2018 ballot.

Wednesday March 21, 2018 Voters can decide whether to keep school-voucher expansion, Arizona Supreme Court rules.

And from the other side …

Wednesday, April 12, 2017 Arizona Leaps into Innovative Educational Future with Universal ESAs. “This past Thursday, Arizona leapt ahead into the future of American education by passing a universal expansion of its Empowerment Scholarship Accounts program … The expansion was shepherded in the Arizona Senate by ALEC-FreedomWorks legislator of the week, Senator Debbie Lesko.

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