Note: HB 2291 (.pdf), the House version of the Empowerment Scholarship Account bill, was held in the Committee of the Whole (COW) on Monday.
ProgressNow Arizona press release:
Emails Reveal Huppenthal Robo-Calls for Vouchers More Extensive Than Reported
PHOENIX— The Arizona Legislature is scheduled to vote [Monday] on a massive taxpayer-funded expansion of private school vouchers, a move that could deliver a devastating blow to under-funded public schools in every community in the state.
As lawmakers prepare to debate House Bill 2291 today, ProgressNow Arizona is releasing internal emails that show Superintendent of Public Instruction John Huppenthal worked closely with anti-public-education lobbyists to encourage tens of thousands of Arizona families to abandon public schools for private education. The emails were obtained through a public records request.
The emails show that Huppenthal, who leads Arizona’s public school system, and an anti-public education advocacy organization that financially backed his election, dramatically misrepresented the scope of a recent joint marketing effort to encourage parents to put their pull their kids out of public schools. They also reveal internal concerns at the Arizona Department of Education about the legal implications of Huppenthal participating in the call.
Huppenthal earned criticism from across the state last month after he recorded a promotional robo-call for the non-profit Alliance for School Choice. That call urged thousands of Arizona families to use state-funded “empowerment scholarship” vouchers to attend private schools “for free.” Media reports sourcing Huppenthal put the number of calls at 15,000 households. But according to department emails obtained by ProgressNow Arizona, the robo-calls and an accompanying mailing targeted 48,000 households, more than three times the number reported. As reported by ProgressNow Arizona last month, a sister organization of the non-profit Alliance spent $62,000 in an independent expenditure to support Huppenthal’s 2010 election.
“While the Legislature is poised to throw the barn doors wide open to publicly funded parochial schools, violating the Arizona Constitution, our state’s top public education official was actually working to promote and compound the damage,” said Robbie Sherwood, ProgressNow Arizona executive director. “The emails show there is a coordinated, well-funded effort to dismantle our public school system, and our Legislature and Schools Chief are part of that effort.”
The emails released to ProgressNow Arizona also reveal internal angst among Huppenthal’s staff about the accuracy and legality of the email script in light of an ongoing legal challenge to the state’s voucher program. The Arizona School Boards Association and the Arizona Education Association are challenging the state-funded vouchers in the state Appeals Court arguing that Arizona’s Constitution prohibits public funds going to private schools.
After being forwarded a request and draft of the robo-call script on Jan. 30 from Alliance for School Choice lobbyist Sydney Hay, Department of Education Public Information Officer Jennifer Liewer replied to Huppenthal’s assistant, “That script is rather misleading. Can we make edits?”
Liewer was referring to Hay’s original script for Huppenthal, which read: “A new state program provides money for parents to send their child to a private school for free. That’s right, you may be able to send your child to a safe and secure private school for free – AND have money to pay for other educational needs like books and tutors.”
A week later, Hay again pinged Huppenthal’s assistant asking about the status of the call, indicating that a mailing to the 48,000 households would be going out that weekend. After a round of edits approved by Hay, Huppenthal’s spokeswoman Liewer again urged caution because of the lawsuit.
“Please relay to the Superintendent that because of the legal actions in this case, we need to ensure he is speaking accurately about the program. Otherwise, he may be held liable in a lawsuit,” Liewer wrote to Huppenthal’s assistant. That note prompted a response from the Department’s lobbyist Aiden Fleming, who expressed concern that the robo-call urges parents to log on to a website run by the private Libertarian think tank The Goldwater Institute.
“I do have issues with their askamomaz.org website as it isn’t official and will essentially have to link to ours to get them signed up,” Fleming wrote to the team working on the call. “I think we should be hesitant to endorse their site as their information isn’t always up-to-date or always accurate.”
Despite Fleming’s and Liewer’s reservations, Huppenthal’s robo-call script appears to have been approved with relatively minor changes and still directed families to the Goldwater Institute-run website.
So far only about 600 students use the “empowerment scholarships.” But if HB2291 is approved with a proposed amendment from the Goldwater Institute, all children in Title I schools would be eligible for private school vouchers. That would extend the voucher program eligibility to 73 percent of Arizona’s public schools and nearly 900,000 students. With marketing assistance from Huppenthal and the Alliance, the program is likely to grow exponentially, sending thousands of students and millions of taxpayer dollars to private and parochial schools with no accountability.