Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Who Wins When People Trash TUSD?

Posted By on Tue, Jul 30, 2019 at 3:01 PM

Let's put aside arguments about who is most responsible for Tucson Unified School District's declining enrollment and poor test scores. By my lights, the district does a far better job with its students than it is given credit for, but I know others see it as a failing district which has brought its problems on itself.

Instead of arguing about the strengths and weaknesses of the district, let's consider a different question: Who benefits when TUSD is trashed incessantly? Who wins when TUSD loses?

The short answer is, the winners are the enemies of public education. They have spent decades building a multi-billion dollar campaign to make terms like "failing schools" and "government schools" part of our vocabulary. They portray our public schools as a national disgrace, then figure out ways to move as many students as they can into charter and private schools. It began as a conservative, Republican-based effort, but an increasing number of progressives, and even people who consider themselves further to the left than garden variety progressives, have joined in.

It's not surprising to hear people on the political right singing in the anti-TUSD chorus. It's built into their anti-"Big Government,” anti-regulation DNA. If you want to shrink government to the size where it can be drowned in a bathtub as Grover Norquist, a man who never saw a tax or a government program he didn't hate, famously said, getting rid of all those nasty "government schools" makes perfect sense.

But when people on the political left join the chorus and sing, "TUSD is awful, let me count the ways," most of them don't realize that they're being played, that they’re singing a tune out of the conservative playbook. I can almost see the players on the right high-fiving each other every time someone on the left lends the anti-public school cause a helping hand.

Unfortunately, this phenomenon isn’t limited to Tucson. The anti-public school movement has been alarmingly successful at working its way into the national consciousness.

Let me go into more detail about the people who win when people trash our systems of public education.

The Demonizers, Privatizers and Profitizers

Demonize. Privatize. Profitize. Those are the three pillars of the “education reform” movement.

It begins with demonizing our system of public education. Before you can persuade parents of public school students to move their children to charter and private schools, you have to convince them their schools are so bad that anything would be better.

There's nothing new about people criticizing the ways we educate our children or suggesting ways we can improve the educational process. It's been going on as long as we have been a country. Way back in 1819, Washington Irving wrote the classic tale, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, which featured a pompous, undereducated, incompetent schoolmaster named Ichabod Crane. The story lampoons him and the meager education provided in the one room schoolhouses of the day. Many of our greatest writers have continued Irving's tradition of depicting schools and teachers in less-than-flattering, and sometimes damning, lights. Journalists and educators regularly publish articles and essays describing the problems plaguing our schools and suggesting ways to improve them.

All with good reason. The process of educating young people will always be a flawed enterprise. Criticism and constructive suggestions for change are part of the continuing process of figuring out ways our schools can better serve our children.

But today’s “A pox on all your public schools” style of blanket demonization is a recent phenomenon. Its purpose is not to improve the schools. It is to weaken and eventually dismantle them.

If we’re looking for a moment when the demonization movement began in earnest, it would be the Reagan administration's 1983 publication, A Nation at Risk, which argues that the way we educate our children is so deficient, it threatens our nation’s survival. The pamphlet’s thesis is summed up in its most famous passage, which compares the failures of our schools to an attack by a foreign power.
“If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war. As it stands, we have allowed this to happen to ourselves. . . . We have, in effect, been committing an act of unthinking, unilateral educational disarmament.”
A Nation at Risk took the country by storm. It had people asking, is public education really so bad it poses a risk to our national security?

Yes, replied the demonizers. It really is that bad.

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Wednesday, July 24, 2019

How much is Arizona spending to bail out private schools?

Posted By on Wed, Jul 24, 2019 at 9:07 AM


Tucson's Green Fields private school is closing. According to an article in the Star, the school's enrollment has fallen from 246 students in 2001 to as few as 105 in 2015. Green Fields is a K-12 school, so the 2015 enrollment numbers work out to an average of eight students per grade. No school can remain financially viable with so few students.

Understandably, students who were planning to attend this coming school year and their families are mourning the school's closing. Actually, though, closures like Green Fields' would be a far more regular occurrence in Arizona, except for one thing. You and I and all the state's taxpayers are helping the schools stay afloat by chipping in to pay students' tuition. Not all students, of course, but a substantial number. I'm not just talking about students from low income homes whose parents couldn't otherwise send their children to private school. High income families are using our money to help pay tuition costs as well.

How much are we chipping in? Last year, nearly $200 million which otherwise would have been in the state's coffers, money which could have been used to boost our shamefully low education budget, is paying for children to go to private schools.

$200 million a year is a whole lot of money. Far too much for my taste. I don't like the idea of using taxpayer money to prop up privately funded schools which can't cut it in the private sector. People on the right like to say, governments shouldn't be picking winners and losers in the marketplace by giving some of them subsidies, but somehow they're fine with using $200 million to help private schools survive.

OK, I'll admit, I don't like private school vouchers, period, and I especially don't like them when they run into hundreds of millions of dollars a year. But I want to try and be fair. If that $200 million means a lot more students are attending private schools, that might not be such a bad deal for taxpayers. After all, if those kids weren't in private schools, we would have to pay for their public educations.

So let's take a look at the kind of bang we're getting for our voucher bucks.

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Friday, July 12, 2019

A Title IX Pep Assembly

Posted By on Fri, Jul 12, 2019 at 3:41 PM

It was a typical Friday pep assembly sometime in the late 1970s, early 1980s at Clackamas High School outside of Portland, Oregon, where I taught English.

Students and staff filled the bleachers in the gym on either side of the basketball court. We knew pretty much what to expect. The pep band would play. Some students might perform a skit, present some awards or give us a little pep talk. The girl's drill team might dance. For certain, we'd hear a coach or two tell us about that night's boys basketball game.

What we didn't know until the coach walked out in the middle of the court and announced it was that we would be watching a 10 minute scrimmage by the girls basketball team.

I knew we had a girls basketball team. Title IX mandated it. But that was all I and most of the rest of the crowd in the bleachers knew. Few people other than family and friends had gone to any of their games. We had no idea what to expect.

As I waited for the team to come out onto the court, I turned my eyes toward the gym ceiling and said a silent teacher's prayer. "Please let the young women do a competent job out there on the court. Please don't let them make fools of themselves. And if they don't play well, please, students, please don't laugh and make things even worse."

The team, divided into two squads, ran onto the court and began their pregame warmups. They looked . . . not bad. It was a promising beginning.

A few moments later, out came a half dozen of the school's jockiest boy athletes decked out in full cheerleader regalia — short skirts, sweaters with padded bras underneath, pompoms. They skipped and whooped and waved their pompoms in the air, then assumed their cheerleading positions in front of the crowd. Because, the boys decided, if the girls were going to invade their turf on the court, the boys would take the cheerleaders' places on the sidelines. Fun!

I was still in full teacher prayer mode when the scrimmage began. A minute into the game, I realized the girls didn't need any divine, or teacherly, intervention. They were moving the ball up and down the court, dribbling and passing effectively. They knew how to shoot.

They were good!

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Tuesday, July 9, 2019

Congratulations, U.S. Women's Soccer Team. Thank You, Title IX

Posted By on Tue, Jul 9, 2019 at 2:44 PM

  • Alex Morgan, Lindsey Horan, Megan Rapinoe. Courtesy of Flickr

The U.S. Women's Soccer Team, new World Cup champions, deserve every bit of praise and glory bestowed upon them by their fans and the media. But somewhere in the midst of the speechifying, it would be great to hear one of them say, "I want to thank the U.S. Congress, without which this victory would not have been possible probable."

That's the 1972 Congress I'm talking about, the one that voted Title IX into existence. We can thank that piece of legislation for the dominance of U.S. women athletes on the world stage.

Title IX changed everything for women's athletic programs in our schools, though not a word of it refers to sports. It reads,
"No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance."
The crafters of Title IX knew how revolutionary those 36 words were, and they were crafty enough to keep that to themselves until it worked its way through Congress and was signed into law by President Nixon. Most legislators thought Title IX had something to do with equal pay at universities, if they thought about it at all.

But Title IX changed the playing field, literally. It meant women's sports were supposed to receive equal funding to men's sports. Women and girls had the same right to participate in school sports as men and boys, in colleges and K-12 schools.

Take Jackie Joyner-Kersee, the three time gold medalist in Olympic track and field. As a young girl, she was a cheerleader, because that's what girls did if they wanted to be part of a school sports program. Thanks to Title IX, she became a member of her high school track team, and the rest is herstory. Joyner-Kersee was one of countless women who found their athletic calling — or simply had a chance to participate in sports at the schools they attended — because of Title IX.

It's a wonderful story, but as often happens when a group of people are granted rights they hadn't previously enjoyed, it wasn't as simple as that. The implementation of Title IX followed a bumpy road.

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Friday, July 5, 2019

Why the Common Wisdom About TUSD's Declining Enrollment Is Wrong

Posted By on Fri, Jul 5, 2019 at 1:34 PM


Two men I admire, Jim Nintzel, the editor here at the Weekly, and talk show host John C. Scott, have frustrated the hell out of me recently. Both men know more about Tucson and Arizona than I would if I lived another lifetime. Both are intelligent, perceptive analysts of the political scene. Neither accepts the “common wisdom” just because it’s what other people think.

Well, they don’t accept the common wisdom in most cases, anyway. When it comes to TUSD, though, Scott and Nintzel seem to go along with the prevailing notion that the school district is doing a terrible job and has brought its problems, specifically its loss of students, on itself.

Common wisdom always has a kernel of logic to it. If TUSD has lost an average of 900 students a year for the past 18 years, it’s only logical, it's something they’ve done. Isn't it? How can it not be the district's fault?

The problem is, the common wisdom about TUSD is wrong.

This all came up because of one of my recent posts, A Multi-Factored Look At TUSD's Enrollment Decline. My main point was that the district’s precipitous enrollment decline over the past 18 years has more to do with outside factors than with the district itself. Two of the factors were created by the state legislature when it green-lighted charter schools and open enrollment in 1994, creating two new forms of competition for students. The third factor is the city’s population, which essentially stopped growing around 2000, meaning TUSD hasn’t had an influx of new students to replace the ones who left.

When I talked about this on John C. Scott’s show, he came back with a litany of sins TUSD has committed which have led to parents pulling their children out of the district — problems with student discipline, poor administration, poor money management and so on.

Most of what Scott said about TUSD is true, but not his contention that the problems he listed are the primary reasons students have left the district.

Nintzel agreed with me about the mechanism for TUSD’s enrollment decline, but said I haven’t paid enough attention to parents' dissatisfaction with the district which led them to send their children elsewhere.

Nintzel is right that dissatisfaction with TUSD leads many parents to seek other options for their children, but often, their dissatisfaction has more to do with the changing ethnic and economic makeup of Tucson than anything the district has done.

The arguments made by Scott and Nintzel aren’t wrong factually. They’re wrong in emphasis, putting too much blame on the district and too little on national demographic shifts and Arizona’s Republican politicians’ continuing efforts to dismantle our district-based, publicly run school system by encouraging school privatization. Compound those factors with Tuscon’s glacial population growth over the past few decades, and you have a recipe for plummeting enrollment.

Unfortunately, their views mirror the local “common wisdom” about TUSD. Attacking TUSD has turned into a blood sport, and that’s bad news for the district and the city. When people magnify TUSD’s problems, it encourages even more people to leave the district. And the notion that TUSD is responsible for the problems it faces gives the impression that the district should be able to turn this thing around if it can just get its act together. What the district actually needs is thoughtful, incremental improvements to help it better serve the needs of the community.

Let me lay out what I believe to be true about the changing nature of TUSD and many similar urban districts across the country. Admittedly, this is a subjective view, but it’s based on extensive study of urban education in the U.S.

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Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Did I Underestimate the Impact Of Open Enrollment In My Last Post?

Posted By on Wed, Jun 26, 2019 at 2:33 PM

  • Courtesy of BigStock

Last week I wrote that Arizona's open enrollment policy is one of the three major factors leading to the decline in TUSD enrollment since 2000, the others being charters schools and a slowdown in Tucson's population growth. I estimated somewhere between 1,500 and 3,000 students living inside district boundaries attend schools in other districts.

It looks like I low-balled my estimate. The actual figure appears to be at least double what I came up with, meaning the impact of open enrollment on TUSD's loss of students, and on Arizona's education landscape, is more significant than I realized.

Since Arizona's new open enrollment policy was put into operation in 1995, students can attend any public school that has an empty desk. In district, out of district, it doesn't matter so long as parents can find a way to transport their children to the schoolhouse door. Students inside a school's attendance area and inside the district get first shot at going to a school, but after that, it's open to everyone.

So how many students living in the TUSD attendance area go to schools in other districts? In my post I arrived at a range of students by the back door. I looked at the number of open enrollment students in the Catalina Foothills School District — a whopping 3,000 out of a total student population of 5,200 — along with anecdotal information from Vail School District and used that to arrive at an estimate of 1,500 to 3,000 students. I was pretty sure that was low, but I wanted to stay on the conservative side.

A few days after I finished the post, by one of those odd coincidences which happen all the time, an Arizona Charter Schools Association piece came across my desktop with figures about how many students participate in open enrollment. In the study it cited, 31 percent of students in 9 Maricopa County school districts went to public, non-charter schools which weren't their neighborhood schools. That's twice the 16 percent who attend charter schools.

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Monday, June 24, 2019

CNN Notes Raul Grijalva of New Mexico Is Calling for Trump's Impeachment

Posted By on Mon, Jun 24, 2019 at 8:46 PM


Well, here's some fake news for you: In CNN's roundup of congressional Democrats calling for the impeachment of President Donal Trump, the crack news organization identifies "Rep. Raul Grijalva of New Mexico."

We know Silver City is attractive and all this time of the year, but we're pretty sure Raul is still representing Arizona's Third Congressional District.

(h/t `Tom Miller)

Thursday, June 20, 2019

A Multi-Factored Look At TUSD's Enrollment Decline

Posted By on Thu, Jun 20, 2019 at 1:32 PM


Tucson Unified School District has been losing students steadily since 2000. Lots of students. At its turn-of-the-millenium high point, the district had 62,500 students. This school year, the number was 46,000. That's a loss of 16,500 students, over 900 a year.

Why is TUSD losing students year after year? The answer you're most likely to hear is, the district is the problem. It's the administration. It's the teachers. It's the curriculum. It's "D," all of the above. Fix the administration, fix the teachers, fix the curriculum, and the numbers will climb.

But the standard answer is far too simple. The district may deserve part of the blame for declining enrollment, but most of the drop was inevitable, created by changes in Arizona's educational landscape and a slowing of Tucson's population growth.

For the sake of argument, let's start with the assumption that TUSD is no better or worse now than it was at its 2000 high water mark of 62,500 students and see what else is causing the district to lose students.

I see three factors beyond the control of the district as the major reasons for the enrollment decline.

Two of the factors were created by the Arizona legislature's push for "school choice." The first is the emergence of charter schools. The competition for a limited pool of students means that every student inside the TUSD boundaries who attends a charter is one less student in the district. The second is the state's open enrollment policy, which lets parents send their children to schools in nearby districts. Open enrollment gets far less attention than charter schools, but it is a significant force pulling students living inside the TUSD boundaries to suburban school districts with more affluent, whiter populations.

The third important factor is the slowdown of Tucson's population growth. Students lost to charter schools and open enrollment haven't been replaced by an influx of new students.

Let's look at the factors one by one.

Charter Schools

Arizona's first charter schools opened their doors in 1995. They grew steadily, but since they started from zero, it took awhile for them to have an impact on school districts' enrollment numbers.

In 2000, 50,000 Arizona students were enrolled in charters. I don't have any direct data on how many of those charter students lived inside the TUSD boundaries, but a reasonable estimate is about 3,500. TUSD students made up about 7 percent of the state's public school population in 2000, and 3,500 is 7 percent of the state's charter school population.

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