Crocodile Tears of Unfathomable Sadness

January 22, 2018

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

While some of us continue to CeleNAEP good times, Arizona’s spending lobby continues to inexplicably lament because Arizona spent more money during the housing bubble. One might, as Cartman, even refer to it as unfathomable sadness. Dana Naimark of the Children’s Action Alliance provides an illustrative example of the genre:

Ducey likes to brag about moving government at the speed of business. He says economic growth will take care of our public schools.

But for three years, he has put his foot on the brake for public school funding while directing more of our state’s precious resources to cut taxes for corporations, grow tax credits with no accountability, and support private and religious schools with tax credits and vouchers. 

The vast majority of parents who choose public schools have already waited a decade for funding to be restored. Arizona can’t afford to wait another five years without a clear financial plan. We expect reinvestments we can count on, with funding that is permanent and equitable and not built on gimmicks.

Governor, it’s time to answer that call.

I could provide links showing AZ spending per pupil spending increasing over the last three years (could someone please put their foot on my personal finances like this?) but that is just too easy. The genre features either an explicit or implicit assumption that spending is tightly tied to academic outcomes. The folly of this assumption is easily demonstrated. The National Center for Education Statistics for instance pegged current (not total) spending per pupil in Arizona at $7,562 in 2013-14 and New York at $20,440. Delightfully however Arizona students closed the academic gap with New York students.

Just in case you suspect some sort of Math fluke:

If you are a New Yorker, your sadness is entirely fathomable. Data like those in the above charts ought to have people rioting in the streets of Albany demanding to know just what is being done with their tax dollars?

If you live in Arizona, sadness looks unfathomable indeed. If you can’t be happy leading the nation in academic gains then you either have very odd K-12 priorities or else just lack the necessary talent for living happily ever after. Neither problem here!





Arizona Charter Schools Score Like a New England State on 2015 NAEP

October 29, 2015

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Previously I had shown that if you compare general education low-income students, that Arizona charter schools made very large academic gains on the 2015 NAEP. This morning I woke up and thought: what if we compared Arizona charter school students to other statewide averages as a whole? Arizona has the highest percentage of students attending charter schools of any state. There are more students attending Arizona charter schools than Wyoming public schools after all, so why not?

I ran the numbers for 8th grade reading. Here are the results:

AZ Charter Schools 8th grade reading NAEP

Well how about that? Now before you start babbling conspiracy theories about student demographics let me remind you of a few things. First of all, those states up at the top are all very pale complected, host Ivy League universities and have average family incomes in the six figures. Arizona meanwhile is a relatively poor state with a plurality of Hispanic students and a law which requires random assignment lotteries to charter schools. I don’t have statistics for the percentage of Hispanic students in Arizona charter schools but having visited many of them I can assure you that it will beat the living daylights out of the same figure for New Hampshire. In other words if you want to wildly speculate about student demographics you can lick the strings of Angus’ electric guitar while he has it plugged in to his portable nuclear generator necessary to burst your ear drums and make you love it.

Did I forget to mention that Massachusetts probably spends more than twice the amount per pupil when compared to Arizona charter schools? No? Ok well that too.

Well, maybe the 8th grade reading sample just happened to over-sample the highest performing charters in 2015. Could be-so let’s check the 4th grade reading numbers:

2015 4th grade reading NAEP AZ Charters

So it’s not much of a mystery to see why tens of thousands of Arizona parents sit unhappily on charter school waiting lists- the gap in scores between AZ charter schools and the AZ average is considerable. This is not to say that every Arizona charter school is fantastic (they aren’t) or that every AZ district school is low performing (this is not the case). Moreover Arizona district schools have been improving while dealing while a great deal of adversity since 2007 and in the end this is absolutely crucial. Key to that progress however is a growing little New England scoring school system out here in our delightful patch of cactus.

Arizona Governor Doug Ducey campaigned on funding the wait list- getting more resources out to district and charter schools with long wait lists to get more of them in the door and off the list. I hope the above charts indicate just what a profoundly wonderful idea that would be, so…

Get your #Shadowfaction coffee mugs here!

February 19, 2015


(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

So we’ve had a little drama out here in the cactus patch.

Arizona has a State Board of Education appointed by the Governor and a Superintendent of Public Instruction elected by the voters. Per the Arizona Constitution, the Superintendent is a member of the Board. The previous Governor appointed all of the current members of the board. The board has a small staff, and we are five or so weeks into the terms of the new Governor (Ducey) and Superintendent (Douglas).  Some of the current members of the Board participated in the decision for Arizona to join Common Core. Governor Ducey campaigned on replacing Common Core while keeping high standards. Opposition to the Common Core served as the animating issue of the Douglas campaign.

A few days ago one of Douglas’ subordinates appeared before the two top staffers of the State Board of Education, announced that they were fired, and had an officer escort them out of the Department of Education building (the Arizona Board’s meeting room and staff inhabits the Department of Education building). The Board chair immediately stated that the Superintendent lacked the legal authority to take this action.

Governor Ducey’s team studied the matter over night and in the morning sided with the Board. As it happens, there is a directly on point advisory opinion from the Arizona Attorney General on the subject from 1985. The underlying statutes are clearly murky. Officials routinely follow Attorney General opinions in preference to having office holders sue each other- a sort of intergovernmental arbitration but formally lacking the force of law or a court decision. It would likely take an incredibly erroneous advisory opinion to have a court reach a different conclusion quite frankly because courts are busy with real cases and aren’t likely to want to jump into the quagmire of endless minor disputes. Advisory opinions are the fast solution to this with strong incentives for officeholders to abide by them.

This AG opinion examined the relevant statutes and clearly sides with the Board on the question of who has the authority to hire and fire board staff.

So why are you reading this tedious story? For the fun part, the epic press release from the Superintendent. Her reading of the relevant statutes is very different than the advisory opinion. The press release accuses Governor Ducey of seeking to short change schools “to give his corporate cronies tax cuts.” This is a reference to an ongoing lawsuit by public schools against the state, but that lawsuit is currently in settlement talks, the state is broke, and only modest tax changes have been placed on the agenda this year.

A little further down she states that “Clearly he has established a shadow faction of charter school operators and former state Superintendents who support Common Core and moving funds from traditional public schools to charter schools.” This is an overt reference to my Ducey transition K-12 co-chairs (one works for a prominent charter school outfit and the other is a former Superintendent of Public Instruction who supports Commn Core) and well, anyone who wants to know what any of us think about K-12 policy can either ask us, or gather intelligence through “google.” I mean I guess there is some way to be more transparent on the subject than writing columns, studies, blog posts, books and giving public talks, but I just don’t know what it is yet.

No, no, NO! #shadowFACTION! Not you!

Common Core as a plot to drive more students to charter schools is an innovative theory, but one that fails to withstand a moment of scrutiny. Charter schools are subject to exactly the same testing requirements as district schools. Unless the charter school folks have somehow stolen the answer key this seems fanciful. Did I mention that Governor Ducey does not support Common Core? Yes, that again.

Anyhoo, later down the press release makes a rather strident complaint about the need for lay-persons and African Americans on the board. This is odd in that Governor Ducey has yet to make any appointments to the Board and has been in office for all of five weeks and has pressing matters like a very large budget deficit and other issues with which to contend.

Just to be clear I personally am comfortable with the position Governor Ducey articulated in the campaign on state standards-high but not common.  Arizona has had them in the past but lacked the fortitude to keep them. The state will have academic standards for district and charter schools for the foreseeable future, and Arizona’s old system jumped the shark many years ago. Having said that, the state is scheduled to give a test in a little over two months and has yet to do little things like set the cut scores, a task for (you guessed it) the Board, who could use, well, a staff.

40% of Arizona 4th graders can’t read and less than 19% of the graduating AZ public school Class of 2006 received a BA degree in six years. Listen closely and you just might hear the soft melodies of a violin rising above the crackle of the flames. I’ll be over here in the corner drinking coffee if anyone feels like moving on to a serious conversation on AZ K-12.










King of the Road

November 21, 2014

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

I’m on the plane back to Arizona having spent the entire week in Austin and then at the Excel in Ed National Summit.  I had the opportunity to provide invited testimony to the Texas Senate Education committee, chaired for the last time by Senator/Lt. Governor-elect Dan Patrick.

The focus on the hearing was on the crushing enrollment growth in Texas. Texas adds a Wyoming public school system sized number of students per year. The percentage of total spending going to capital outlay and debt service has doubled since the turn of the century up to 20%, and there is no end in sight.

For instance, the Austin Independent School District passed an almost $500m bond issue in 2013. The district has approximately 76,000 students, 20,000 of whom spend at least part of the day in a portable building. The district estimated that passage of the bond would reduce portable building use by 16%– at least for a while.

I may or may not have used the technical term “boogeyman story” to describe the fearful narrative that removing charter school caps, creating voucher, tax-credit or ESA programs would leave the Texas public school system in ruins. The truth of the matter is that they don’t have spaces or teachers for the kids they already have, and far more arrive every year than would ever wind up going into any combination of private choice programs.

You can’t stop Texas enrollment growth, you can only hope to contain it.

You can’t stop Texas enrollment growth, you can only hope to contain it.

Next on the agenda was a stop over in DC to present at the Excel in Ed National Summit on ESA programs. The conference had 900+ attendees and some outstanding presentations, all of which will be available on the interwebs soon. It is always energizing to get to spend time with my colleagues and with K-12 reformers from across the country and the world. I always come away from these meetings exhausted and energized (yes it is odd) but the energy is still there after some sleep dispels the exhaustion.

Finally, I was honored this week to join Arizona Governor-elect Doug Ducey’s transition team along with reform champion Lisa Graham Keegan and Great Hearts Vice President Erik Twist. We will be looking for outstanding candidates to fill critical K-12 policy roles.


Forster-Mathews over/under challenge- place your 2015 bets now

November 6, 2014

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Election coverage inevitably drifts to beltway drama, but I’m at more than a bit of a loss to understand why. It’s kind of like the nation’s bizarre fascination with 32 football teams running the same offense and defense when a far more interesting and gloriously chaotic brand of football rumbles along in the colleges. My memory gets fuzzy trying to remember the last positive and interesting thing to happen in DC. The action in America is out in the states.

Longtime Jayblog readers will doubtlessly recall the world-famous bet between our own Greg and WaPo columnist Jay Mathews regarding whether parental choice programs were just too politically difficult. They eventually decided to put the over/under for new school choice programs or expansions in 2011 at 7, with the loser picking up dinner.

I can’t remember whether the total got to 21 that year or not. If not, it was close. The school choice movement easily cleared the bar again in 2012. Then in 2013, it was time for a three-peat!  Finally in 2014, the pace slowed a bit nationally in an election year and the Forster-Mathews bar proved too high.

And now?

Only time will ultimately tell, but the elections of 2014 must look pretty bleak if you are burdened in life with reactionary K-12 preferences. Scott Walker for instance not only just won his third statewide election in four years, he’s talking about expanding school vouchers into new districts and providing choice to children with disabilities. Arizona Governor-elect Doug Ducey stated in his victory speech “Schools and choices open to some parents should be open to all parents.”

Out in Florida, Republican Governor Rick Scott defeated Republican, Independent Democrat Charlie Crist in an epic battle. It did not escape the notice of some that the tight margin could have been swayed by the parents of the parents of the near 100,000 children participating in Florida’s private choice programs this year.

In Indiana, Republicans added to their already large legislative majorities and the same thing basically happened in Ohio. A few years ago, an observer of Nevada politics told me that the map of Nevada House were drawn such that a Democratic majority would live at least as long as the current map. Well lo and behold, Gov. Sandoval gets reelected with 70% of the vote and the Republicans capture both chambers.

The WaPo produced this handy map:

This same article notes that Republicans hold unified control over both chambers and the chief executive in 24 states compared to 6 for the Democrats.

Don’t ignore Blue states however. Out in New York, easily reelected Gov. Andrew Cuomo expressed public support for tuition tax credits. From the linked story:

Mr. Cuomo echoed the assemblyman’s call for the passage of the Education Investment Tax Credit, which would help parents pay for religious schools–which the governor compared to his expansion of the state’s Tuition Assistance Program to cover yeshivas and his public funding of busing for students of Orthodox Jewish schools. Mr. Cuomo claimed such funding is simply equitable and right.

“It’s not charity, it’s not a favor. It’s justice. TAP. Public transportation and the school buses, that was justice. Education tax credit–this is a matter of justice,” he said as the crowd broke into applause. “I want you to understand that’s the way I see it. On a personal level, this is a very important relationship that I honor. And as governor, I have sworn to do justice. And there have been a number of great injustices that your community has endured for a long, long time. And it is my profound wish that we should work together and we should resolve them and bring justice to the community that we deserve.”

This is welcome news, as the private choice movement has made very limited progress overall in the mega-states of California, Texas, Florida, New York and Illinois aka where a whole bunch of the kids are located. Charter schools however are rolling along in all of those states, and they seem poised to crush private schools at a much higher rate than low-performing district schools. Even Florida’s nearing 100,000 private choice children in private choice programs seems small when viewed in this fashion. The Illinois $500 personal use tax credit comes across as a bit of a cruel joke when put into this context: the state will lavish many thousands of (increasingly hard to come by) dollars on you if you choose to attend a district or charter school, but will give you a $500 tax break if you choose to bear the financial burden of sending your child to a private school if you have a sufficient tax liability.

The Illinois credit may only be a small step in reducing double payment penalty, but it is more than California, New York or Texas has done to date while charters continue to surge. In the end, private schools ought not to be preserved by nostalgic state lawmakers, but rather (if it is going to happen) by the free choice of parents operating on something approaching a level financial playing field. We need both broader and better designed account-based programs.

Finally choice proponents need to be aware that even seemingly shiny legislative majorities spring on you like a bear trap if you mistake them for an actual consensus. Proponents must never forget the need to persuade a broader universe of opinion leaders and the public regarding the justice of their cause.

Okay so with all that said, I will take the over in 2015. What about you?


The Friedman Foundation has a handy-dandy guide to the governors and how they stand on parental choice.


WaPo on the teacher unions spending $60m on races and mostly getting crushed. Money quotes:

“We knew this was going to be an uphill battle,” said Lily Eskelsen García, president of the National Education Association, the country’s largest labor union. “But I don’t think anybody on our side, and we’ve got some very savvy people, anticipated going over the falls like this. Tectonic plates have shifted. And we’re going to have to come back with a new way of organizing for these kinds of races.”


“The surprising thing is you now have Democrats who are willing to buck the union,” said Howard Wolfson, an adviser to former New York mayor Michael R. Bloomberg (I), who contributed to Democratic and Republican candidates around the country who want to introduce more choice and competition in public education, and greater accountability for teachers. “You can take reform positions and be successful not only in general elections, but in primaries. It’s a major sea change in the Democratic party that you can now oppose the union and be successful.”



The Brown Shirt Left

September 29, 2014


(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

I attended a debate last night between gubernatorial candidates Doug Ducey (R) and Fred Duval (D) on K-12 policy. Unfortunately what would have otherwise been a civil exchange of ideas between two candidates who pass the “would like to have a beer with” test was marred by protesters in the audience who attempted to hijack the event by screaming invective on entirely unrelated matters from the audience.

It seems almost unnecessary to say that the protesters were uniformly on the far left. I’m 47 years old, have seen this happen several times, and have yet to see a right of center group behave in such an anti-democratic fashion. I’m not saying it has never happened, just that I have never once seen it happen.

The person who should be most upset by this is Fred Duval. Duval is obviously a decent guy and I would put the odds that he had anything to do with this squarely at zero. Nevertheless, when a group of people shouting random hostility at his opponent act like a group of brown-shirt fascists, it’s nothing but bad. This was Duval’s best chance to make his points with the public on the subject that he has emphasized more than any other, and that chance was essentially lost. Ducey handled the situation well, receiving a thunderous round of applause in elegantly rebuking the protestors. Game, set match Ducey.

Attempting to shout down opponents is contemptible and against the most basic tenets of democracy. I would say exactly the same thing if a group of conservatives disrupted a debate by attempting to shout down the Mr. Duval.  Notice the muted reaction of the Arizona Republic. If a group of Russell Pearce supporters had shown up in force to scream at Fred Duval I hate to say that I strongly suspect that it would have been a top of the fold front page story rather than a buried note in page three. Seeing this unfold made me wonder if the era of public debates might not be drawing to a close. It is much easier to keep things under control in a studio. The only other alternative is to hire a ton of security, which raises the cost of public events considerably. Either way, we will have fewer civil and public exchanges so long as a vocal minority of Americans lack a basic commitment to civility.

If so, illiberal forces will have stolen something from us. I took my sons aged 14 and almost 13 to the debate last night, and I wonder how many more such events they will have the opportunity to attend. The soft bigotry of low expectations seems very much at work here. We’ve grown to expect some left-wing groups to behave like fascists. We should have much higher expectations.

The misguided people engaging in brown-shirt tactics should remember an old slogan of the left- the whole world is watching. You may have deluded yourself with some complex rationalization justifying attempting to shout down opponents, but don’t expect decent people of either the left or right to believe it.

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