Monday, October 25, 2010

Penny Kotterman: Ideologue, Union Boss, Extremist, and wrong for Arizona

Makers of the "Airborne" patent medicine, before it was (even more thoroughly) discredited in a class-action lawsuit, promoted it by emphasizing that it was created by a schoolteacher. Apparently--and I do not understand the mentality--our memories of kindly old Miss So-and-So who taught us in 3rd grade were to cause us to trust it more than something created by scientists and put through clinical trials and for which we actually had some evidence of efficacy.

The Penny Kotterman campaign for Superintendent of Public Instruction has attempted a similar marketing strategy. The reason we are given to support Kotterman: she was a schoolteacher. That's it. Not her policy positions, not her values, simply her occupational history. Conveniently omitted before all audiences except those composed of committed anti-private-education ideologues are some inconvenient details: Penny Kotterman is not just any schoolteacher. She was and is one of the most committed opponents to education reform in Arizona.

If the name "Kotterman" sounds familiar it is because she was the lead plaintiff in Kotterman v. Killian, the Left's challenge to the then-new tuition tax credit program. In no uncertain terms, several years before the Supreme Court's decision in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, the ultimate decision in Kotterman established the legality of the tuition tax credit program under Arizona law.

For those who may not have been paying attention, the tuition tax credit program gives a small dollar-for-dollar tax credit to people making donations to "school tuition organizations" which in turn must contribute all but a minuscule portion of what they take in to pay the private-school tuition fees for children. Compared to a direct parent tax credit the program is a kludge that only indirectly addresses the market failure caused by double-payments, but that's not the point here. The tax credit program allowed children at the margin to benefit from real school choice.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona (then AzCLU) claimed that this tax credit program violated the Arizona Constitution and brought on Kotterman as lead plaintiff. It's worth noting that they did not, and still do not in their follow-up Winn v. Garriott, claim that civil liberties are being violated. (A digression: The only difference between Winn and Zelman is between tax credits and vouchers; by continuing this case post-Zelman ACLU-AZ's board of directors is verging on a breach of its fiducial duty to its membership.) When I served on the ACLU-AZ board of directors whose civil liberties were being violated--who was less free because of tax credits--I'd get dodgy answers ("those who don't want people who give to private schools to get a tax break" or "I don't want 'my money' going to religious schools") combined with shamed aversion of eyes. The Kotterman case itself was based on the anachronistic claim that the Arizona Constitution contained a Blaine Amendment. Even more shameful: those familiar with Blaine Amendments know that they were supported and in some states passed as a means for Protestants to officially oppress Catholics: nothing that the ACLU should support! The AZ Constitution does contain Blaine Amendment-like language but even a genuine Blaine Amendment wouldn't rule out the tuition tax credit program. The AzCLU had to go one step further, in claiming that a tax credit for people saving the state an expense is the same thing as a state expenditure, therefore when donations end up paying for religious education because parents send their kids to religious schools, it is the same as the legislature making an expenditure on religious education.

The whole thing strained credulity--it was clearly a post-hoc dressing up of vulgar leftism in civil libertarian language--as does the 9th Circuit's ruling in still-pending Winn that tax credits violate the Establishment Clause because parents choose more often than not to send their kids to religious schools and STO donors choose to support these institutions. (This line of argument was knocked out of the park in Zelman in, as I recall, O'Connor's concurrence: a program cannot be constitutional in one state but unconstitutional in another because the citizens have different religious preferences.)

But what does this have to do with Penny Kotterman? She was no Schecter-like ingenue with no ideological commitments who had been personally wronged by a government policy. Indeed given that she had not been harmed it is difficult to determine why she had standing at all. She was at the time the head of the state's largest schoolteachers' union, the Arizona Education Association and was plaintiff--as is often the case in these sorts of challenges--because she was a True Believer that the policy passed by the legislature was wrong. There are no two ways about it: In the late 1990s, teachers' union boss Penny Kotterman attempted to smother school choice, the state's most significant education reform, in its crib. Far from backing away from this today, she stands by her position on her campaign website. (The dippy justification given: 90% of Arizona kids are still in the old public schools. In other words: change has not happened therefore change should not happen.)

The usually good East Valley Tribune and many other press outlets, perhaps forgetting what kind of anti-reform extremist Penny Kotterman is, have been suckered like an Airborne purchaser into believing that Kotterman must be good for the state because she was a schoolteacher.

To quote the Trib:
Penny Kotterman is a former school teacher who has spent 33 years in education, including six years as the president of the state’s largest teacher’s union, the Arizona Education Association.

We like Kotterman for two reasons. First, she will be a stronger advocate for public schools, whose performance has declined sharply in the last decade. Beyond that, we think that — after 16 years of having politicians in the superintendent’s office — it’s time to turn that position over to a teacher who has been there and done that in Arizona’s school system.

As with electing an African-American President of the United States, in principle putting an educator in the Superintendent seat would be a welcome change. However, continuing the analogy with the Presidency: not this teacher. Penny Kotterman has too strong an ideological commitment to be counted on to serve the public interest. While I cannot give him the ringing all-out endorsement I gave Scott Stewart, there is no doubting that, when it comes to education, as a legislator John Huppenthal has been part of the solution. As the East Valley Tribune noted before denying him their endorsement, he's taken the issue quite seriously, researching the alternatives and only then backing the best. He can be counted on to support what is best for Arizona's schoolchildren, no matter what institution is educating them. He can be counted among the co-authors and co-sponsors of important education bills reducing from 18 months to 3 months the amount of time needed to dismiss poorly performing instructors from their jobs, eliminating the cap on charter school enrollment, and eliminating schoolteacher tenure in Arizona. Looking forward, he has been and remains a proponent of merit pay. Kotterman, on the other hand, we can expect to perform an inappropriate balancing of the interests of schoolchildren against the interests of unionized teachers and the public school establishment, and declares on her website that she remains 100% opposed to vouchers and tuition tax credits, which help make school choice a reality for many middle-class families.

I thus recommend that readers vote for John Huppenthal on 2 November 2010.

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