Raising Up Education As A Public Trust

January 1, 2017

Public debate on education in Arizona has missed the forest for the tree.

You remember all the angst last spring over the State Land Trust. The state treasurer and many others tied themselves in a knot over Proposition 123 stealing from the future to pay for the present.

But we have a far bigger trust that is much more at risk.

This isn’t a trust you put in a bank. It’s the kind of trust that is a long-standing collective responsibility, in this case one that has been handed down from generation to generation for 180 years.

The trust is public education. We need to raise up public education as a public trust. And recognize we are its guardians.

We are entrusted with coming together to oversee, to pay for, and otherwise improve upon a system of educating and developing every generation of children to become responsible, contributing members of society.

This trust is so much part of the fabric of our society, so much an article of faith, so much a high-minded principle, that it’s not written into law or the Constitution. It’s such a fundamental concept that we have taken it as a given for most of our lives.

We need to raise up public education as a public trust. And recognize that we are its guardians.

Stop to think about it for a moment.

We trust there will be a public school in every neighborhood of every city, a public school in every small town across the state.

We trust these schools will take in every child who shows up at their doors, no matter their income, no matter their race, no matter their religion, no matter their special needs, no matter even their conversancy in English. Whoever shows up are the kids they have to educate.

We trust these schools will open those doors 180 days a year. We trust they will have a qualified teacher in every classroom. We trust that their students will be taught reading and writing, and math, and science, and history, and art.

We trust even that there will be football games on Friday nights.

The public education trust has been handed down to us by all those with a civic responsibility who came before us; we are the guardians of it today.

Its assets are much larger than the real estate holdings and financial securities of the State Land Trust.

Its assets are much larger than the real estate holdings and financial securities of the State Land Trust. We the public have invested untold billions of dollars in buildings, the infrastructure to keep the entire system operating, and brigades of teachers in every city and town. That’s a lot to keep up.

The public gets what is subordinate to what. When voters were forced last May to pick between protecting the financial capital of the State Land Trust and the human capital of the public education trust, they chose the latter.

Even with the approval of Proposition 123, the vast majority agrees we are still not supporting our public schools to the degree they need. One of the most quoted factoids of recent months is the Arizona Republic poll showing three-quarters of Arizonans believe schools are underfunded.

The financial woes go beyond sheer dollars. The entire school funding formula has become a hall of mirrors needing massive reform. The initial intentions of the school equalization formula are being partly subverted, with schools needing the most ending up with the least. School systems are being forced to spend too many dollars recruiting and training teachers, recruiting students, and complying with wasteful regulation, rather than putting every possible dollar into helping students to learn.

New Year’s Resolution

Recognizing public education as a public trust should simplify the education-related questions we ask of our legislators.

Here’s a simple litmus test:

“Do you, Mr./Ms. Legislator, support public education for the public trust that it is?”

In response, we want an unequivocal yes. The question then becomes “And what are you prepared to do to raise up the trust?”

Watch out for weaseling. This is a direct and simple concept. Equivocal replies such as “yes, except that . . .” or “yes, but only if . . .” indicate more opposition to the public education trust than they do support.

Rally your network of friends and colleagues to encourage these legislators to support the cause.

Attempts to correct even minor aspects of any of the above aren’t allowed to get out of legislative committee.

This neglect is not by accident. The failure to address these issues is entirely deliberate on the part of those who want off to write off the public education trust. They might not state their wishes as such, but they’d be happy to let the trust falter and fail, no matter how many billions of dollars are invested in it.

Their intent is a far bigger threat to the public education trust than is the funding crisis. The entire premise of public education is under attack by those who want to privatize it for, in one way or another, their own benefit.

Having chiseled away at public education in Arizona for years, this well-oiled movement now has its sights set on its ultimate objective.

Give every child a chit for $5,400 – money that otherwise would have been spent on our public schools – and let ‘em spend it wherever they please. On private school, parochial school, Christian school, online, at home. However they choose to be schooled.

Incoming House Speaker J.D. Mesnard is on a first-name basis with the initiative. He refers to it simply as “the universal.”

The public education trust be abandoned. Our collective responsibility be abandoned. Nothing more important than giving individuals the freedom and the wherewithal to look out after nothing more than their own best interests.

We are at a momentous inflection point, and the debate is not getting nearly the public attention it deserves.

If privatizing education is really the direction we as a state want to go, we should do so with our eyes wide open rather than half-closed. We are at a momentous inflection point, and the implications are not getting nearly the public attention they deserve.

Just as the previously obscure State Land Trust became last spring the subject of intense public scrutiny, the arm-twisting going on in the back corridors of the Legislature over universal vouchers in particular and privatization in general needs to be brought out into the open.  Let’s openly debate the merits, just as we did with the State Land Trust.

Arizona already has more school choice than anywhere in the country. Yet student movement among schools is yet to diminish the achievement gap – the lever that has been used to call schools into question. Now we are asked to give away public money with no strings attached other than it be spent on “education.”

Arizona has plenty of choice already

Disadvantaged kids do no better in charter schools

Arizona voucher law skips over accountability recommended in “model” legislation

One of the huge risks of universal vouchers is that public schools will be reduced to a tipping point where they become unsustainable, causing the public education trust to come tumbling down.

Unfortunately public school administrators and some of their pseudo allies are strangely silent. Administrators suffer from the captive’s dilemma, reluctant to speak up for fear of riling legislators into imposing further deprivations. Meanwhile, supposedly pro-education organizations are compromised by conflicting agendas among their members and affiliates.

But we the public have to recognize the clear-cut choice before us.

We can abrogate our collective responsibility. Let every family, every child fend for themselves in trying to figure out how to get schooling. In this new world, no one would be responsible for anything but their own best interest.

Or we can uphold the collective responsibility – we are responsible to the schools, the schools are responsible to us – that has been passed down generation to generation.

We shouldn’t be running away from this responsibility as some in our state are all too eager to do.  Instead we should be embracing it as the banner for going forward. The objective is not simply to cling to the status quo.  The objective is to take the steps necessary to restore its luster.

Public education needs to be raised up as a public trust. And we need to do better as its guardians.