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Janresseger: In Arizona, Beyond Meager School Funding and Charters’ Theft of Funding, is a Third Problem

In two posts earlier this week, this blog explored contributing factors to the fiscal crisis in Arizona that has left teachers underpaid and public schools underfunded. First, Governor Doug Ducey and the Republican state legislature have been committed to Grover Norquist’s pledge that they will never raise taxes. And second, Arizona has a robust charter school sector which sucks money right out of public school budgets.

But there is a third problem—braided together with the first two as a central strand of anti-government, pro-privatization public policy enacted in Arizona.  The state has committed itself to a rapidly expanding, statewide, neo-voucher Education Savings Account program. Jacobin Magazine‘s Eric Blanc describes Arizona’s years’ long commitment to vouchers: “State funding for private schools has taken an array of forms. In 1997, Arizona pioneered a program granting individual and corporate tax credits to fund private-school tuition. The policy has expanded by 20 percent yearly, costing the state over $1.1 billion since 2009… The expansion of  ‘Empowerment Scholarship Accounts’ (ESAs) is the most recent innovation in the privatizer’s playbook. In 2011, Arizona became the first state in the U.S. to create ESAs, prepaid bank cards granted to parents for private-school educational expenses. Initially, the ESA program was limited to students with special needs, but in 2012 it was broadened to incorporate children in ‘failing schools,’ the foster-care system, or Native American reservations. Last year alone, ESAs cost Arizona $49 million in funding.”

Then last year the Arizona Legislature passed, and Governor Ducey signed an expansion of the Education Savings Account program to make every child in the state—1.1 million students—eligible by 2022. While the program size is initially capped at 30,000 students, it is well known that, once such programs are established, legislatures very often raise the caps. (For a detailed definition of Education Savings Accounts and an explanation of how they work, please read these briefs—here and here—from the Network for Public Education.)

Jacobin Magazine‘s Blanc provides background to explain how vouchers—and neo-voucher tuition tax credits, and neo-voucher Education Savings Accounts—have dominated Arizona: “Arizona is the epicenter of a nationwide struggle over school privatization.  Over the past two decades, the arch-conservative billionaire Koch brothers and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) have spent millions financing efforts to decimate Arizona’s public education system for the benefit of big business. As ALEC explained in a recent tribute to Arizona’s pioneering privatizing efforts, ‘With this expansion [of school (Education Savings Account) vouchers in April 2017], Arizona is not only solidifying its place at the top of the ALEC Report Card on American Education ranking, but showing the rest of the country that educational choice doesn’t have to be limited to being a lifeline for a few students, trapped in the worst the public education system has to offer. Instead, Arizona has offered Americans a vision of a totally new world.’ ”

Blanc continues: “Arizona has long been a favored target of the right-wing Koch Institute and ALEC, a hyper-conservative Koch-funded corporate legislation mill. A number of leading Arizonan politicians are deeply embedded in, and indebted to, these bodies.  Governor Doug Ducey has been part of the Koch network since 2011 and more than a third of Republican legislators were wined and dined last year at ALEC’s annual summit to promote ‘free-market’ model legislation… These efforts by ALEC, the Koch brothers, and their brethren have largely paid off. Since 1994, Arizona has witnessed a proliferation of state-financed but privately run charter schools. With over 180,000 charter students, Arizona now has proportionally more than any state in the U.S. ALEC was clearly justified in ranking Arizona number one in its Report Card on American Education.”

Public school supporters had begun mounting a backlash against privatization, however, even before last week’s statewide walkout by teachers in revenue-starved public schools. Save Our Schools Arizona emerged last year. Blanc explains: “(A) powerful anti-privatization movement has emerged in Arizona over the past year. It began with a small group of teachers and mothers who first met each other last spring during the legislative sessions on SB 1431 (the bill to expand eligibility for Education Savings Accounts to all 1.1 million Arizona students) and ended up creating a group called Save Our Schools Arizona… Through a grassroots signature gathering campaign from May to August last year, SOS Arizona succeeded in putting SB 1431 on the November 2018 ballot. Arizonan voters now have an opportunity to deal a blow against the Koch brothers’ privatizing agenda by voting ‘no’ on Proposition 305.”  Previous attempts in recent months to quash the referendum have failed.  First, the signatures collected by the grassroots coalition were challenged but they have now been deemed valid.  There was also an unsuccessful court challenge to block Proposition 305.

The Arizona Republic‘s Yvonne Wingett Sanchez and Rob O’Dell report that last week that at the very end of Arizona’s legislative session—while school teachers were protesting outside for additional public school funding—the legislature once again tried to thwart Proposition 305, this time with a legislative maneuver.  A group of legislators introduced a bill to repeal and replace SB 1431, the bill that expanded ESA eligibility to all 1.1 million students. The intention was that if the original legislation were repealed, the repeal would nullify Proposition 305 which challenges SB 1431.

Sanchez and O’Dell explain: “A repeal would have knocked Prop. 305 off the November ballot and erased one of Ducey’s crowning legislative achievements… (SB 1431’s) passage raised Ducey’s national stature with high-dollar donors and school-choice advocates, including DeVos.  But politically, repealing the law could have benefited Ducey and Republican lawmakers in swing districts by ending a ballot measure that will motivate thousands of parents, teachers and public education advocates to go to the polls.” At the end of the session the legislature’s maneuver failed. Voters will have an opportunity to vote on Proposition 305 in November.

A legal scholar who tracks the parasitic impact of privatization across the states on the funding of public schools, Derek Black published a commentary last week about the phenomenon we can see playing out in Arizona—where the public schools have been starved for funding at the same time charters and vouchers have been rapidly expanded: “Teacher strikes are generating a healthy focus on how far public education funding has fallen over the past decade. The full explanation, however, goes beyond basic funding cuts. It involves systematic advantages in terms of funding… for charter schools and voucher programs as compared to traditional public schools. Increasing public teacher salaries may end the current protests, but speaking as an expert in education law and policy, I believe it won’t touch the new normal in which public education is no longer many states’ first priority… The current debate over school funding must move beyond teacher salaries and whether the books in public schools are tattered.  Those conversations ignore the systematic policies that disadvantage public schools…  The public school teaching force has already shrunk. Class sizes have already risen.  And the rules that advantage charter and private schools remain firmly in place… As a state constitutional matter, the law requires that states make public education their first priority.”

Thank goodness for the teachers who have walked out this spring and highlighted the significance of our having a deeper conversation about these matters that affect public school funding, teachers’ salaries, and conditions for students in schools across many states. While our society has maintained a myopic focus on comparing test scores from school to school and blaming teachers, we have ignored a mass of structural problems pushed through legislatures controlled by people like the Koch brothers, ALEC, and our own current Education Secretary, Betsy DeVos and her American Federation for Children.

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Jan Resseger

Before retiring, Jan Resseger staffed advocacy and programming to support public education justice in the national setting of the United Church of Christ—working ...