Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Arizona Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is: Education and the State Budget

White Hat Research & Policy Group was launched with the goal of bringing high-quality research to policy debates around a set of intersecting issues that are important to the future of Arizona, including Civic Engagement, Criminal Justice, Economic Development, Human Services, Technology and Innovation, and Education. But as we have talked to people and organizations in the community, we couldn’t help but notice how education is at the top of everyone’s mind. While all of our core issues are important to Arizona’s future, many see education as the most critical and as essential solving any of the other major problems that face our state in the coming decades.
It was for this reason that our first white paper examined the history and impact of the ESA voucher programs at the center of last November’s contentious Prop 305 vote. And of course, it was just a little over a year ago that tens of thousands of teachers descended on the capital and launched the #RedForEd movement.

So, with the 2019 legislative session wrapping up at the end of May, where does Arizona stand in its commitment to public education?

Fighting Market-Based Education Reforms

The good news is that advocates for public education have become adept at playing defense and stopping the worst of the state legislature’s efforts to relentlessly privatize education and turn it into a commodity. This is significant. As detailed by Sharon Kirsch and Katrina Hanna in our white paper, Arizona has for two decades been ground zero for radical market-based education reforms pushed by a well-funded national network that wants to destroy public education and turn it into a commodity that a small group can profit from. But the activism of the past two years, led by Save Our Schools Arizona and #RedForEd, seems to have turned that tide.
This was most clearly seen in bills related to the ESA voucher program that was at the center of Proposition 305. Despite the resounding defeat of Prop 305 last November, Republicans, led by Koch brothers flunkie Shawnna Bolick, introduced several bills to further expand the program, though in more modest ways that Prop 305 would have. As detailed in the white paper, this incremental increase in the program, which takes money out of public school funding and puts it on debit cards to be spent by parents for private education, is part of a long-term plan to deprive public schools of funding.

All of the bills expanding ESAs were defeated, as were bills which would have moved oversight of the program away from the Superintendent of Public Instruction after that seat was won by public school advocate Kathy Hoffman in November. Even a last-second end-around, which used attempted to exploit confusion over a handful of students on the Navajo reservation and expand the use of ESAs for out-of-state private schools, was defeated by pressure from Save Our Schools AZ and intervention from Superintendent Hoffman.
People in Arizona are starting to see the big picture around school privatization and market-based education reforms that we outlined in our white paper. This is an important change as we move ahead with improving our education system.

What About Charter Schools?

It also seems like public consensus has started to change around charter schools. After a series of investigations by Craig Harris at The Arizona Republic and blatant corruption by the likes of State Senator/charter school owner Eddie Farnsworth, Arizona voters are demanding greater accountability for charter schools.

This session, the Republican majority tried to pay lip service to this concern with a charter school “reform” bill introduced by Senator Kate Brophy-McGee. But the bill was clearly a smokescreen with no real reforms to speak of and House Speaker Rusty Bowers refused to even allow it for a vote. There will be even more pressure next year, as all 90 state legislative seats are up for reelection, to do something meaningful on charter schools.

But what would that look like? Conservative interests like the Goldwater Institute are clearly invested in maintaining the status quo and will put forward only the most meaningless of changes to charters, like Brophy McGee’s bill. So that is why WHRPG is starting work on a new project examining what meaningful charter school reform would actually look like. It will examine how Arizona could put in place an accountability system that encourages real student learning and prevents the corruption and self-dealing we have seen among Farnsworth and other charter school operators.

As the people of Arizona have woken up to the problem of education in our state, and soundly rejected the market-based education reforms being pushed by out-of-state special interests, it is time to stop just playing defense and go on the offense with new ideas for what education in our state should look like for the next decade and beyond. And that is what we are working on here at WHRPG.

Tuesday, July 9, 2019

"Origins" - By Damián Preciado, Executive Director

It was a rude awakening. The results of November 9th, 2016 were not something most of us were expecting. It didn't help that I got a frantic call in the middle of the night from my then employer asking us all to come in early due to the election results. I had for the past 6 months been actively engaged for the first time in politics. I didn't like the direction things were going and wanted to do my part. I was still learning the ropes, getting to know how the process worked within the parties and becoming active with my legislative district.

It was a whirlwind of information that shattered many of my previous assumptions about how politics worked. One of my first realizations was that everyone was a volunteer and that the little paid staff there was worked for the County and State boards. My second realization was that being a registered Democrat and voting wasn’t the end of it; it was just the beginning of our political engagement. I learned that the parties were made up of members known as precinct committee people or PCs. That they are either elected or appointed and have varying roles within the party structure. As someone who understands systems and people, I started noticing why there were so many gaps and why it was so difficult to fill them. So I took the next step and became a precinct committeeman which gave me a vote in party affairs. Still new to it all, I did my best not to be critical and follow the lead set by more tenured individuals.

That November 9th it all changed. I was angry and afraid that we couldn't keep a man like Trump out of office. I had been contemplating this worst-case scenario and I had a plan. My plan was to strengthen the Democratic Party by recruiting and training as many PCs as possible. My logic being that there is power in numbers and of the ten thousand or more positions available, less than 20% were filled. We were out numbered 3 to 1 against the opposition.

At that time there was a flurry of activity by many people who felt they wanted to do more and their energy manifested itself in many ways. I chose to focus on PC recruitment by forming a grassroots group called White Hat Democrats. I and a handful of others streamlined the process for application to become a PC and held training and information sessions. Over the next couple of years, we recruited hundreds of PCs and did our small part to lend a voice to people who needed that guidance.

While we were proud of our work, over those two years we also grew to understand more and more of the complexities of the political ecosystem. In particular, we learned how conservative organizations like the American Legislative Exchange Council and Goldwater Institute among others were using intellectual capital to poison the state legislatures with their agendas. How they chipped away piece by piece at our democratic institutions, masquerading as “freedom” when in reality it was just about lining their pockets.

We looked around and found that Arizona was missing a progressive policy group and at that point, we made the decision to take the fight to them. We formalized our nonprofit status and began to operate as the White Hat Research & Policy Group. It was a tremendous transition and we are glad to have made it. We have since then worked as Arizona’s progressive think tank. The antithesis of organizations like ALEC and Goldwater. We’ve made much progress, with more to come. Our first paper is complete. We’re building new partnerships. And we’ve established a fellowship program to help us craft our papers and train others on this important work. I am very proud of the talented individuals who dedicate their time and resources to this new mission and vision. We’re ready to keep fighting for our shared values with more purpose than ever before.

Wednesday, July 3, 2019

Mission and Values -By Michael Christensen,Board Member

Today’s political climate is highly charged and very divided. Even within parties there are differences that can be difficult to reconcile. In part, this is the human condition. We have always had bar room and dinner table conversations that are charged with more emotional responses and the occasional overstep that leads to apologies or long-term fractures in the relationship. But today we have a lot more voices that get a chance to be heard.

A strong opinion can now start from a Tweet building momentum from an ever greater majority that retweets and comments until opposing ideas are pushed into a back corner. Legal and moral judgments come in a 280 character declaration providing a new mantra for those in agreement. If not for a judicial system, we might see public hangings and witch trials easily resume. It also threatens our societal fabric.

Our social mores and democratic system are both exposed to the whims of technologies that can create digital riots with few or no boundaries. The benefits of changing long-held discriminations can also be leveraged to promote those same discriminations. The relative anonymity of the Internet gives vehement voice to good and bad ideas but are consistently exaggerated (or not) to get more likes and retweets with the hope that it goes viral. These extremes are now a defacto methodology of gaining media prominence.

WHRPG intends to drive meaningful dialogue through data-driven research, policy, and advocacy through meaningful research. We will create datasets that will produce insight that can change mindsets - even our own - and help Arizonans be informed about their community and the challenges it faces.

For example, in our first white paper, “Arizona’s ESA Vouchers,” we started with this question: “With Arizona public schools chronically underfunded, why is the legislature diverting funds to private schools through the ESA voucher program?” We answered that question by not just looking at the 2017 ESA voucher expansion which caused so much controversy and led to the Proposition 305 vote in November of 2018. We expanded our view to look at the history of the ESA voucher program and other school privatization programs in Arizona and across the country. This research clearly demonstrated that the ESA voucher program was not designed to address specific problems in Arizona’s school system, but to advance an ideological agenda that was hostile to public education.

Each white paper that WHRPG creates will generate actions to take with citizens, legislators and affected groups. It will also require careful review of new information to help improve the understanding of the issue beyond a point in time report. At the core of the WHRPG charter is the concept of being open to this new research and changing conditions to create better understanding, collaboration and opportunity to improve our state and the lives of every Arizonan.

Arizona Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is: Education and the State Budget

W hite Hat Research & Policy Group was launched with the goal of bringing high-quality research to policy debates around a set of int...