Action Alert: tell your legislators to vote no on privatization of public education

DeathStarThe Arizona Republic today takes a deep dive into the attempts by the “Kochtopus” Death Star, the Goldwater Institute (and presumably ALEC), together with Cathi Herrod’s Christian Taliban at Center for Arizona Policy (CAP), to privatize public education in Arizona.

One would think that joining together this much evil would cause a temporal rift in the space-time continuum. But I digress.

In reality, what we have here is an attempt to create a direct taxpayer subsidy to private education nonprofit and for-profit corporations. This is “corporate welfare” by any other name, but because this sophisticated scheme to fleece Arizona taxpayers is set up for individuals to access an account — a “pass-through” to the corporations that financially benefit — the Arizona Court of Appeals accepted Goldwater’s legal legerdemain that this somehow is not really a direct taxpayer subsidy. This is a question that remains to be decided by the Arizona Supreme Court.

It is, in fact, unconstitutional. The Arizona Constitution prohibits state funding to private and parochial schools:

Article 2, Section 12: “No public money or property shall be appropriated for or applied to any religious worship, exercise, or instruction, or to the support of any religious establishment.”

Article 11, Section 7: “No sectarian instruction shall be imparted in any school or state educational institution that may be established under this Constitution, and no religious or political test or qualification shall ever be required as a condition of admission into any public educational institution of the state, as teacher, student, or pupil;”

You need to read almost to the end of the Republic’s report to learn that the constitutionality of Empowerment Scholarship Accounts (ESA) is awaiting action by the Arizona Supreme Court:

In 2012, a Maricopa County Superior Court judge ruled the accounts complied with the state Constitution because they allow parents to choose among educational options. The Arizona Court of Appeals upheld the ruling. Both sides are waiting to see whether the Arizona Supreme Court will hear the case.

If the Court of Appeals’ incorrect decision is allowed to stand, it will render null and void the two constitutional provisions cited above through legal legerdemain. Only the citizens of Arizona possess the power to amend the Arizona Constitution at the ballot.

This is where things stand today as this Divisive Arizona school plan advances in Legislature:

The Arizona Legislature will soon decide whether to dramatically expand the state’s nation-leading efforts to give parents control over where to spend their child’s taxpayer-generated education funds.

The state’s Empowerment Scholarship Account program was, at the start of this school year, scheduled to disperse $10.2 million to 761 students. If expanded as proposed, the 3-year-old program could within the next five years apply to more than 28,000 students and strip more than $374 million a year from public and charter schools, based on the current average cost.

The goal is to eventually expand the program to the state’s more than 1 million public and charter schoolchildren.

Opponents of the bills say an expansion on that scale would be a deathblow to public schools.

The program transfers a certain amount of public money per child into private bank accounts called Empowerment Scholarship Accounts, or ESAs, and gives qualifying families a debit card to spend the money on education. The money can go toward private-school tuition, homeschooling materials, online classes and community-college tuition. Families can also set aside up to $2,000 of those funds for college each year.

“This is an opportunity for every parent to place their child in an environment that best fits their child’s educational needs,” said Sen. Kimberly Yee, R-Phoenix, one of the sponsors of legislation to expand the program.

But Democrats, public-school organizations and teachers unions say the program pulls desperately needed money from public schools and, at a time when officials are pursuing greater accountability for public schools, allows money to be spent with little oversight or assurance the child is receiving an adequate education.

“ESAs will decimate public education,” Senate Minority Leader Anna Tovar, D-Tolleson, said. “It moves the focus to providing families with taxpayer funds to send children to private school and does nothing to address the needs and priorities of public education.”

* * *

The Goldwater Institute, a conservative Phoenix-based think tank, developed the ESA program and pushed it through the Legislature in 2011 with support from influential advocacy group the Center for Arizona Policy. The program is based on the controversial national voucher effort, but allows more options and, unlike vouchers, has so far withstood legal challenges.

“The idea was to create a school-choice system for the 21st century, one that was not limited to private schools but would allow families to individualize an educational program for their children,” said Goldwater Institute Vice President for Litigation Clint Bolick. “This is the broadest array of educational options ever placed at the disposal of parents.”

Tim Ogle, executive director of the Arizona School Boards Association, said Arizona already has “the most choices for parents in any of the 50 states.”

“This is not about school choice,” Ogle said. “It’s about the privatization of schools.”

The program initially applied only to students with special needs — about 125,000 of the state’s 1 million schoolchildren.

In 2012, the Legislature expanded the program to children attending a school that received a state grade of D or F, as well as children in active-duty military families and children adopted from the state foster-care system.

In 2013, lawmakers expanded the program to apply to incoming kindergarten students who meet existing criteria.

Currently, about 150,000 Arizona children qualify. The program is restricted to about 5,600 new students each year. The cap expires after 2019.

* * *

Sen. David Bradley, D-Tucson, said the program just doesn’t add up.

“I can be homeschooling my child, get $6,000 tax free to do that and there’s no accountability,” he said. “And then I get to hold on to $2,000 a year for scholarships? What?”

Program participants are required to submit quarterly receipts to the Arizona Department of Education. The Arizona State Treasurer’s Office also reviews the receipts. According to the Department of Education, spending is closely monitored and parents who violate the rules are removed from the program. The department said it has referred two parents to the Attorney General’s Office for prosecution based on suspected fraud.

* * *

The Legislature started the session with six bills proposing to expand ESAs in various ways. Three are still advancing.

HB 2150 (House Engrossed version .pdf), which passed the House and moves to the Senate, would allow the children of military personnel killed in the line of duty to participate. The bill is scheduled for a public hearing Thursday before the Senate Education Committee.

SB 1236 (.pdf) and HB 2291 (.pdf) are identical bills, which puts them on a fast-track. They each need a committee of the whole and a final vote in their respective chambers and then would be combined and sent directly to Gov. Jan Brewer.

The bills propose to gradually expand who is allowed to participate in the program.

* * *

While the proposed expansion could cost public and charter schools hundreds of millions of dollars each year as parents move children into private schools, it also carries an increased cost to the state due to the funding formula for certain students.

According to legislative staff, expanding the program under HB 2291 or SB 1236 would cost the state an additional $46,100 in fiscal 2016, $3.5 million in fiscal 2017, $7.6 million in fiscal 2018 and $12.5 million in fiscal 2019.

The bills are expected to be amended to apply to all children who attend or will attend a Title 1 school, instead of based on family income. Title I refers to a school that receives federal funding for a high percentage of students from low-income families. Bolick said Department of Education officials said it would be too difficult to administer based on individual families.

“We’re trying to make the program available to kids in high-poverty schools and ultimately we’d like to make it available to every parent,” Bolick said.

The Goldwater Institute claims the accounts save the state money since it’s giving students 90 percent of what the state would have given a public or charter school to educate them. According to one Goldwater Institute report, the state saves $12.3 million for every 5,000 children using the accounts.

But legislative staff analysis tells a different story. The state pays more to charter schools to educate a student than public schools. So moving a public-school student into an ESA costs the state an average of $602 per child, while moving a charter student to an ESA saves the state an average of $642, according to the legislative staff report.

For students already in private school who obtain an ESA, the state goes from paying nothing to paying an average of $5,158.

* * *

Chuck Essigs, government-relations director for the Arizona Association of School Business Officials, said he fears expanding the program to all students at Title 1 schools could turn the program into the next alternative-fuels fiasco, a reference to the 2000 vehicle tax-credit legislation that was expected to cost the state $10 million and ended up exceeding $200 million.

* * *

Further diminished funding to public schools would hurt classrooms already grappling with state cuts, said Andrew Morrill, president of the Arizona Education Association.

“We can expect (budget) cuts to follow, further depleting resources that teachers need to teach students well,” he said.

* * *

The future of the program hinges on its ability to withstand legal challenges and Goldwater’s [and ALEC’s] ability to win support in state legislatures around the country.

* * *

If the Legislature passes the bills to expand the program, it’s unclear what the governor will do. Brewer signed the laws creating and expanding the program, but she vetoed one expansion effort in 2012 citing fiscal concerns.

This is really very simple, people. Anything that bears the fingerprints of the Goldwater Institute, ALEC, and the CAP is by definition bad public policy. This is an attempt to create a direct taxpayer subsidy to private education nonprofit and for-profit corporations, i.e., corporate welfare, in direct violation of the Arizona Constitution. These right-wing organizations do not give a damn about your child’s education, your child just represents an opportunity from which they can financially profit by fleecing Arizona taxpayers.

You need to contact your state legislators today and demand that they vote against this unconstitutional attempt to privatize public education in Arizona.

2 responses to “Action Alert: tell your legislators to vote no on privatization of public education

  1. Frances Perkins

    Just like with the lack of accountability in charter schools, this is total unaccountability for private schools, for profits, and the wonders of isolation in home schooling. This is a full scale assault to undermine public schools. You vote for school boards. How many of you will or have voted for charter school boards or private school boards? And they are not held to any standards, except the “market.” Well the market HAS ruled. 85% want their local! neighborhood public schools. You can guarantee, anything with Goldwater or Herrod’s figure prints on it IS BAD for Arizona citizens of all ages.

  2. For a similar take – with a focus on what’s at stake – please visit my blog. http://www.cactuscaucus.com