Why you should care
Because Arizona has the boldest voucher-style program in the country.
At doorstep after doorstep under the scorching Phoenix sun, Judy Schwiebert collected petition signatures in the summer of 2017. The retired teacher’s sweat may come to fruition this week, when a measure she helped put on the Arizona ballot could strike down the most expansive school voucher program in the country.
Arizona’s spandex-tight U.S. Senate race could decide control of the chamber next year, but spend some time on the ground here and you realize that public schools are motivating voters at least as much as the Senate hopefuls or the latest controversy around Donald Trump. And the debate around Proposition 305 and Empowerment Scholarship Accounts (ESAs) is red-hot.
“I’ve learned so much in the last year and a half about national forces — people with specific agendas — who are trying to come in and use Arizona as their test kitchen for privatizing education,” says Schwiebert, a vibrant and sprightly 66-year-old who relishes firing up a crowd with a microphone and runs the activist group Desert Progressives Indivisible. “It’s basic to our democracy that every child should have access to quality, free public education.”
Anger has been simmering among Arizona’s educators for a while.
At issue is a contentious law signed in spring 2017 by Arizona Republican Gov. Doug Ducey. Drawing kudos from Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, the law makes Arizona the first state to open up ESAs (vouchers, essentially) to all K–12 students, meaning any parent can apply to opt out of the public school system and receive typically about $5,000 from the state for private school tuition or homeschooling. Since Arizona was the first state to launch ESA accounts for students with disabilities in 2011, the program has grown to about 5,000 kids; the new law would expand it to up to 30,000.
Arizona is offering the most ambitious statewide push for vouchers in the country, as states including West Virginia and Oklahoma consider launching or expanding their own ESA plans. Meanwhile, DeVos has proposed to spend more than $1 billion in federal funds on vouchers and other school choice initiatives. Supporters see a pathway out of failing schools for students in need. Critics such as Save Our Schools Arizona, a group of parent and teacher volunteers including Schwiebert who collected more than 100,000 signatures to get the veto referendum on the ballot, see a way to undermine those schools.
Arizona has slashed education funding in the wake of the recession. A nationwide analysis by the left-leaning Center for Budget and Policy Priorities found that funding per student declined by 36.6 percent from 2008-2015, by far the biggest cut in the country. Meanwhile, Arizona has been a test lab for school choice policies such as open-enrollment policies (letting children attend public schools other than the one they are assigned to, subject to boundaries), charter schools (a school that’s publicly funded but privately run) and vouchers (redeemable for tuition fees).
Paul Peterson, director of the Program on Education Policy and Governance at Harvard University, says voucher programs can close the gap between wealthier and poorer school districts. “Any school choice program that doesn’t tie the school that you’re going to [with] the community in which you live is going to be a more egalitarian program than we currently have,” he says. “We haven’t seen any increase in equality in the U.S. or any increase in the quality of student performance at the age of 17 in the last quarter century.”
Smaller publicly and privately funded voucher programs have popped up across the country in recent decades, typically in big cities, and a flurry of research on them has found some evidence of improvements in graduating high school or attending college for voucher recipients versus those who applied for a voucher and didn’t get one.
Nationally, the public is divided. A poll conducted in January for the pro-school choice group American Federation for Children found 47 percent of Americans in favor of school vouchers and 49 percent against, with support declining over the past couple of years. While vouchers are typically framed as helping poor children stuck in dismal schools, Schwiebert points out that $5,000 is far from covering a private school tuition of $10,000 to $15,000, meaning upper-middle-class families will end up benefiting the most, while draining their districts of funds. On top of that, a new auditor general report released Oct. 25 shows that parents in Arizona made fraudulent purchases on state-issued debit cards (like at beauty supply retailers or sports stores) and misspent more than $700,000 in public funds allocated for ESAs, which the state hasn’t recovered.
Governor Ducey, a strong favorite to win a second term on Tuesday, is publicly backing the ballot measure, as the campaign for it plays up the ESA program’s beneficiaries. “It has allowed our son to get the therapy he needs,” Jennifer Clark, co-founder of the group #YesforEd told KNXV-TV Phoenix. “And we were able to find the educational approach that best meets his unique educational needs.” Still, an early October poll by the Arizona Republic newspaper found voters confused about what the referendum would do. In addition, the Yes for Ed campaign’s slogan and red signs appear confusingly similar to the Red for Ed movement, a largely anti-voucher group involved with this year’s teacher strikes.
Anger has been simmering among Arizona’s educators for a while. The state ranks third from the bottom in the country in per-pupil spending and teacher pay for elementary school teachers and has the third-highest class sizes. This spring, more than 50,000 teachers and supporters walked out of class for six days to protest at the state capitol — in line with #RedForEd protests in West Virginia, Oklahoma, North Carolina and Kentucky. They won a 20 percent pay raise by 2020 from Ducey and the Republican-led legislature.
“The fight in Arizona over school vouchers demonstrates the stakes for parents, students and educators around the country,” says American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten. “The walkouts showed what educators and the community want: an end to using privatization as a pretext to gut public education.”
This fall, instead of protesting, the teachers in red are organizing and voting. And eyes across the country will be watching to see whether the Grand Canyon State opens the school choice floodgates.
Correction: This story has been updated to reflect that more than 50,000 teachers and supporters protested in Arizona this year, and that Judy Schwiebert does not officially speak for Save Our Schools Arizona.
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