Accountability Arizona Charter Schools Privatization School Choice Vouchers

Harper’s: When Arizona Decided to Divest from Public Education

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Alexandra Neason wrote an excellent and comprehensive article in Harper’s about the aggressive school choice movement in Arizona, which has been chipping away at public education for more than two decades.

She begins her story by focusing on a hard-working teacher of children with disabilities. She teaches in a windowless trailer. Her starting salary was $31,000. Now, after several years, she is earning $40,000. She buys supplies for her classroom and her students.

The legislature and the governor oppose public education. First, they introduced charters, which are unregulated and engage freely in nepotism and conflicts of interest. Then, they began shifting public funds to voucher programs.

This spring, while public school districts serving minority families and disabled children couldn’t afford basic supplies or comforts, Arizona’s legislature approved the broadest, most flexible interpretation of what Betsy DeVos, the secretary of education, and her allies tout as “school choice.” Governor Douglas Anthony Ducey, buoyed by fellow Republicans on both sides of the statehouse, signed a law expanding Empowerment Scholarship Accounts, Arizona’s take on school vouchers. Typically, vouchers use tax dollars to pay private institutions; through E.S.A.’s, money that could otherwise fund public education is loaded directly onto debit cards that select parents can use to subsidize private tuition and related expenses. Similar programs exist elsewhere — in Florida, Mississippi, and Tennessee — though those limit eligibility to families with children who are disabled; Nevada developed an unrestricted program, but courts have blocked its funding. More than any other state, Arizona has managed to bolster E.S.A.’s as a way to advance alternatives to traditional schooling. That makes it a model for conservatives across the country, yet Piehl and her colleagues view the legislature’s decision as the latest example of a disturbing trend: divestment from public education.

Today, Arizona is home to more than 500 charters, both nonprofit and for-profit. And its legislature is eager to divert more money to religious and private schools.

500 charters — both not-for-profit and for-profit — operate throughout the state.

In 1997, Arizona further expanded its school choice offerings by passing the nation’s first tax-credit program for education. Through this program, people could donate money to nonprofit organizations that had established scholarships for kids to attend private schools; the donor would receive a dollar-for-dollar tax break, a benefit initially expected to cost the state $4.5 million per year.

Private schools receiving funds this way, many of them religious, began to increase their tuition and publish step-by-step guides instructing parents in how to apply for the scholarships. (Among these schools was Northwest Christian, in Phoenix, whose elementary science and social studies curricula were developed by BJU Press, a creationist publishing house.) Over the years, the legislature passed bills to expand the program — including one that enabled companies to participate — and the tax breaks eventually topped $140 million. Between 2010 and 2014, one group, the Arizona Christian School Tuition Organization, received $72.9 million in donations, triggering the same amount in tax breaks. By law, such organizations are allowed to keep 10 percent of donations to pay for operational costs, and in 2013, according to IRS filings, the executive director of Arizona Christian received $145,705. The executive director, as it happens, was Steve Yarbrough, a Republican who is now the president of the state senate. His earnings were reported to the public; the tax-credit program nevertheless continues to thrive.

The parents and educators of Arizona are finally fighting back. They gathered more than 100,000 signatures to get a referendum on the ballot in 2018, which will challenge the expansion of vouchers.

Eighty-five percent of the students in Arizona go to public schools. If their parents and educators stand up for them, the voucher program will be routed next year, as it has been in every state that has held a referendum. Expect the Koch brothers and other billionaires to pour money into Arizona to fulfill the dreams of Betsy DeVos. Don’t be surprised if the DeVos Foundations (there are more than one) fund the fight to disinvest in public education.

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