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Public education advocates ramp up for 2014 election


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  • Lisa Irish/Arizona Education News Service

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School is out for the summer, but Arizona public education advocacy groups are heating up their work to talk about issues before the August primary and the November general election.

“While our public education system is governed and funded by the state legislature, public education of Arizona students is a non-partisan issue,” said Doreen Zannis, executive director of Support Our Schools Az, a community-based grassroots volunteer organization. “We strive to bring forth issues in a non-polarizing, interactive environment.”

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Arizona Education Network volunteers talk to community members at an event.

Support Our School Az’s priority issues include sufficient and stable funding for public district schools, an equitable school choice system, early childhood education, and ensuring local control of schools and that high school graduates are college- and career-ready, Zannis said.

“There is a disconnect between our legislative leadership and what the majority of Arizona families want for their children’s educational needs,” Zannis said. “SOSAz seeks to erase the disconnect by amplifying the representative voice of the 84 percent of Arizona families who choose public district schools.  We provide a collective place to inform and engage citizens on public education issues.”

Expect More Arizona’s annual non-partisan statewide initiative Vote 4 Education raises awareness of critical education issues and asks Arizonans to make education a top priority when they vote.

“This year, Expect More Arizona will continue to work with our growing network of partners statewide to elevate a shared vision and policy priorities needed to achieve a world-class education for every Arizona child,” said Pearl Chang Esau, president and CEO of Expect More Arizona. “We will provide a briefing guide to share our top education priorities with the media, candidates, and voters.  We will encourage voters to make their voices heard via social media and coordinated days of action.  We are also joining forces with a number of other organizations to encourage Arizonans to vote, in the primary and general elections.”

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Pearl Chang Esau, president and CEO of Expect More Arizona, says annual non-partisan statewide initiative Vote 4 Education raises awareness of critical education issues and asks Arizonans to make education a top priority when they vote.

Vote 4 Education’s priority issues include making sure kids can read and have early learning opportunities that set them on a path to success, recruiting and retaining a high-quality, well-supported teacher in every classroom, achieving high expectations and standards for all students through Arizona’s College and Career Ready Standards and making higher education and career training accessible for all students.

On their websites, public education advocacy groups keep parents, community members, and school and business leaders updated on what is happening in the Arizona Legislature and connected with information and resources on current education issues such as the state funding formula for public district schools, public charters and Empowerment Scholarship Accounts.

“We do everything we can to make sure our parents know about their choices – by holding forums, posting answers to our questionnaires, sharing information about current legislation and budgetary issues – in the hopes that that information will translate into the election of people who really support our traditional public schools,” said Cindy Bitcon, 2013-14 president for Scottsdale Parent Council, a district-wide non-profit parent group since 1977.

To let community members know candidates’ thoughts on certain education issues, Scottsdale Parent Council, which promotes communication and cooperation, monitors services and advocates for the highest quality of education for all students, posted 12 legislative candidates’ responses to their four-item questionnaire on their website as well as video of a legislative candidate forum held on May 14 that 17 Arizona House and Senate candidates in districts 23 and 28 took part in.

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Doreen Zannis is executive director of Support Our Schools Az, a community-based grassroots volunteer organization.

“Given the timing of primaries, it is always a challenge to both get candidates to appear at forums, and time those forums so that our parent constituents can come,” Bitcon said. “A few years ago, with the implementation of a Scottsdale Parent Council website and the increased use of e-mail alerts, we asked candidates for office to submit answers to our questionnaires, so as to give our constituents a way to easily access information about their choices at the ballot box. We had a positive response and have continued the practice.”

Since Support Our Schools Az, Scottsdale Parent council, and Expect More Arizona are non-profits, they cannot endorse candidates.

“The more that our citizens have access to good information and the ability to cast their votes confidently on education issues and ballot choices in Arizona, our efforts to engage citizens to make high quality public education their top priority will resonate with our legislators and the policy and funding decisions they make,” Zannis said.

Working together

While each advocacy group has its own goals, the Arizona Coalition for Quality Education helps education advocacy groups work together to more efficiently use their resources and have greater impact on key education issues by coordinating priorities, messaging and events, said Geoff Esposito, chairman of the group and government relations analyst for Arizona School Boards Association.

“Last year, we trained district and political action committee leaders on bond and override campaigns,” Esposito said. “Over the course of the legislative session, we discuss key bills to make sure that everyone’s aware of when those committee hearings are, determine what issues we want to mobilize people around, and provide action alerts that each group can share with their network.”

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Volunteers with Arizona Education Network answer questions at the Tucson Book Fair.

Expect More Arizona is coordinating and collaborating with dozens of community, education and business partners around the state to identify priority issues that are critical to ensuring every child has access to a world-class education that prepares him/her for career and life, Esau said.

“Scottsdale Parent Council is one of many organizations actively working to highlight the good news of public education, and grow community support for our schools,” Bitcon said. “We have collaborated with other organizations to bring about positive changes in education in Arizona, and continue to be a part of a growing voice of advocates for high quality, universally accessible education for all children.”

“One of our most important parts of our mission is to help educate, not only our parents but the entire community within Scottsdale Unified School District boundaries, about the real state of school funding in Arizona and how that translates to classroom dollars here in SUSD,” Bitcon said.

“Understanding where we stand nationally – 47th lowest in the nation for per pupil funding – and further that the Arizona equalization funding formula dictates that every Arizona public school student, regardless of the property base in her area, is allocated the exact same amount of base level funding by the State, are critical pieces of information that are not widely known in our community.”

Scottsdale Parent Council highlights the active underfunding of legally mandated support for public schools including little to no funding for the School Facilities Board, reduction in funding for all day kindergarten, and underfunding of soft capital, services for gifted and special education, and the utilities formula, Bitcon said.

This fall, the group is “wholly committed to making every effort to pass the SUSD override this coming fall, as it is clear to us that local funding is simply the legal mechanism for communities to fill the funding gaps created by the state’s funding formula,” Bitcon said.

The Arizona Legislature’s education funding cuts during the recession and slow economic recovery heightened many education advocacy groups’ activities and led to the creation of the Arizona Coalition for Quality Education, which grew from the March for Schools rally at the capitol in 2009. The Arizona Education Network, a non-partisan volunteer organization, also began at that time.

“Our organization came together as a response to the funding cuts in 2009,” said Jen Darland, vice president of Arizona Education Network. “Five years later, Arizona leads the nation in the depth of cuts to our public K-12 schools. At a time when underfunded classrooms across the state face the daunting task of fulfilling state-mandated education reform and demand for strict accountability is at an all-time high, we remain committed to calling upon our elected leaders to prioritize funding for our public district schools.”

While Arizona Education Network focuses primarily on the funding of public K-12 education, the group maintains relationships with advocacy networks that span the whole continuum of education from cradle to career, and speaks out on “both the academic and economic impact on our state when our elected leaders fail to properly fund public education,” Darland said.

“In an era of severely reduced state funding for public schools, expansion of programs that funnel taxpayer dollars into private, often religious, schools with little to no oversight is especially troubling,” Darland said. “It is time for our state leaders to pass legislation that addresses oversight and heightened accountability over the Empowerment Scholarship Accounts, as well as the School Tuition Organizations. Between these two quasi public-private programs, millions of taxpayers’ dollars are funneled out of the public view, with no accountability or oversight.”

This year, Arizona Education Network provided up-to-the-legislative-minute bill stats, facts, and specific legislative member voting details to media and community advocates, and information, resources, and established contacts to individuals and groups interested in becoming more effective school advocates. President Ann-Eve Pedersen and co-vice presidents Jen Darland and Eileen Jackson were interviewed by local and national media about public education funding, school privatization, oversight and accountability.

“Like many other public education stakeholder organizations, we activated our network to contact their elected officials and push back on the expansion of the taxpayer-funded Empowerment Scholarship Accounts,” Darland said.

“Every year, we grow increasingly more alarmed by the lack of charter school oversight, accountability, and equity of access – for students with special needs, for example – and services – such as free and reduced lunch, transportation and selective admissions practices,” Darland said. “We will continue to urge legislators to ensure that any school receiving public funds provides equitable services and opportunity for all of our state’s schoolchildren.”

Leading up to the primary and general election, Arizona Education Network continues to build a coalition of public education supporters and provide information, resources, and assistance to groups organizing candidate forums, community engagement and get- out-the-vote activity.

“We are a nonpartisan 501 (c) 4 and in prior election cycles, we refrained from endorsing candidates even though we are legally allowed to do so,” Darland said. “This is the first election cycle our board is earnestly considering formally endorsing candidates.”

Upcoming events

As the primary and general election draw closer, education advocacy groups have events planned to highlight education issues.

On June 6, The Arizona We Want Institute in conjunction with The Arizona Republic, Channel 12 News and azcentral.com will host a forum where candidates for governor Ken Bennett, Doug Ducey, Fred Duval, Christine Jones, and Scott Smith will address the issues a 2013 Gallup Arizona Poll identified as most important to Arizona citizens – education, job creation, land, water and open spaces, infrastructure, healthcare, young talent, encouraging citizen voice and building community. The event is open to the public and will be live-streamed through azcentral.com.  Anyone interested in attending can register at http://www.thearizonawewant.org/events/index.php.

“This is a great opportunity for Arizonans to learn where candidates stand on important topics, including education,” Esau said. “The forum will be streamed live from our website at ExpectMoreArizona.org, where we’ll also feature a live Twitter feed so viewers can weigh in and share their thoughts with the candidates and others.”

As a 501 (c) 3, Expect More Arizona does not endorse specific candidates or influence the outcomes of candidate elections.

“Beginning in early July and continuing through the general election in November we will be recruiting volunteers to help educate their friends, colleagues and neighbors about important education issues and to participate in Vote 4 Education events and activities,” Esau said.

Anyone interested in volunteering in Vote 4 Education events should contact Erin Eccleston, Vice President of Community Outreach and Mobilization at ErinEccleston@ExpectMoreArizona.org.

The Arizona Parent Teacher Association is holding its convention May 30 through 31.  A pre-conference session on community advocacy will be held Sunday, June 8 in Tucson the day before the Arizona School Administrators summer conference. Support Our Schools Az and the Arizona Diamondbacks will showcase the achievements of Arizona’s public district school kids during the Walk4Education from 1 to 5:15 p.m. on Sept. 13  at Chase Field.

“All of us are impacted by the quality of our public education system, whether directly, as parents of students, or indirectly, with your property value being commensurate with the quality of your neighborhood school,” Zannis said.

Support Our Schools Az encourages citizens to become informed, engaged in the decision-making process through social media, community round-table discussions, small group legislative meetings and public presentations, and to vote, Zannis said.

By organizing comfortable conversations in neighborhoods statewide, Support Our Schools Az helps people overcome the fear and intimidation that historically have kept many from engaging in discussions, Zannis said.

“With a central, non-partisan base of parents, community members, business owners and educators communicating within their daily lives, we exponentially expand the sphere of influence,” Zannis said. “We shift from the short-term mentality of fighting each piece of legislation, to becoming educated and consistently engaged.”