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Curmudgucation: AZ: Reining In The Vouchers

Arizona has always been a privatizing paradise when it comes to education. They were leaders in charter profiteering and have worked hard to create an inhospitable atmosphere for teachers. They also have led in the rush to make school vouchers universal so that everyone, no matter how wealthy, no matter that they had always been in private school, would get a chunk of taxpayer money, which has in turn led to them being one of the first states to demonstrate how a universal voucher program can bust a budget

Arizona's legislators, by combining huge tax cuts and school voucher costs, have managed to dig a $2 billion dollar hole in just a year. And in return, Arizonans have received a voucher program with little transparency or oversight (or, as the Koch organization likes to put it, "permissionless").

Governor Katie Hobbs has announced a plan to make the ESA-style taxpayer-funded vouchers more accountable and transparent. Here are the highlights:

Staff at private schools that accept the taxpayer-funded vouchers will have to pass a fingerprint background check. What? You thought any place that worked with children must require some sort of rudimentary background check of employees? Silly you.

Private schools that accept taxpayer-funded vouchers cannot simply throw out the IEPs or Section 504 plans for students with special needs. What? You thought that a school that accepted a student with special needs and a plan for meeting those needs couldn't just ignore the plan? Silly you.

Increased accountability for taxpayer dollars. Parents can't just spend voucher money on ski vacations. Someone will have to actually approve that large purchases are for actual educational items. Not only that, but the Auditor General will have the power to monitor and report on how the private schools spend the taxpayers' money--just like public schools.

No price gouging. Just as in other voucher states, in Arizona the advent of vouchers was met by a bunch of private schools raising tuition costs. When vouchers go to people who were already paying tuition for a private school, the vouchers amount to a taxpayer-funded windfall for both the school and the parents. 

Private schools accepting taxpayer-funded vouchers have to set some minimal standards for people put in teaching jobs. Parents and students must be informed of the rights they give up to attend a voucher-accepting private school, and that school must also report things like graduation and absenteeism rates. You know--the kind of stuff that is a basic expectation for a public school.

Also, Hobbs would re-instate the requirement that students getting taxpayer-funded vouchers must have attended a public school at some point. 

It's all pretty basic, common-sense stuff, most of it requiring basic safety standards and the same kind of transparency that taxpayers expect when they fund a public school.

Who could object to that? Heck, it might even keep the voucher program from self-destructing.

Voucher fans in Arizona, led by the far-right Goldwater Institute, are having a cow.

Calling the regulations a "bizarre attack on esa families," the Goldwater Institute has a list of terrible, awful features of Hobbs' proposal.

First, the requirement to provide special education services is "insulting." Private schools have been using vouchers to sign up for private schools that have done a super-duper job, so this is... unnecessary? They seem to be arguing that private schools already do this, but if that's the case, then I'm not sure why making it a requirement is so terrible. 

Or maybe it's that only some private schools actually do it. 

Gov. Hobbs seemingly wants to force every educational provider to scale up its offerings of special education services or else close its doors. How exactly is it that Arizona’s children will benefit when a small school in an economically disadvantaged neighborhood without the capacity to hire the proper dictated cadre of special education teachers is suddenly shuttered?

How exactly is it that students with special needs will benefit if such a school that can't handle them is kept open? Teaching students with special needs is part of the job. If you can't do the job, don't get into the business--that's the free market, isn't it? And what about the small schools in economically advantaged neighborhoods that don't provide services because part of their appeal is that your students won't have to deal with Those Children there?

Second--and I can't believe this one--is an objection to background checks for staff. Is Goldwater seriously trying to defend a private school's ability to hire felons? Their argument is, again, some of our schools already do that, and also, public schools have examples of classroom teachers disciplined for inappropriate behavior. True, but so what? Does Goldwater intend to argue that when a public school teacher is fired and punished for illegal activity, it should be okay for a private school to hire them?

Third, the whole accountability for tax dollars spent offends them. Vouchers are for fewer dollars than the public system receives per pupil, which I guess means "This is a bargain so don't dare ask what you're actually getting for your money because it's cheap!" 

Fourth, the price gouging thing sends them into a paroxysm of bold print. Private school rates are going up slowly, and public schools are expensive, so how dare you!

Fifth, they should not have to hire certified teachers. After all, charters don't have to (which is a fair point except for citing CREDO's bogus report about charters outperforming public schools). Anyway, certification isn't worth anything, anyway.

Sixth, the requirement to spend three months in public school is an "arbitrary obstacle." This naked attempt to prop up enrollment" for district schools would get in the way of the naked attempt to prop up the finances of private schools. 

Finally, that auditing and transparency stuff. Goldwater says that the proposal amounts "to little more than an attempt to undermine state law and subjugate parents and private school operators to the bureaucratic compliance machinery of public education." They are really committed to the idea that education should not only be a privately procured marketplace commodity, but that that marketplace should be unregulated. 

Goldwater has continued to broadcast its great alarm on the dead bird app, insisting that these rules will somehow "ROB FAMILIES OF SCHOOL CHOICE" as if it will cripple school vouchers to involve accountability and background checks and special ed. It's a high level of panic for what are a modest and minor set of reforms. 


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Peter Greene

Peter Greene has been a high school English teacher in Northwest Pennsylvania for over 30 years. He blogs at Curmudgucation. ...