At the beginning of the Arizona State Legislative session, the primary goal of the organization Save Our Schools (SOS) was to thwart the attempts of the Reactionary Republican legislators to expand Empowerment Scholarship Accounts (ESA’s) after voters rejected that idea by voting down Proposition 305 in November 2018. Their efforts, with the assistance of others inside and outside the legislature, were successful as five potential bills expanding ESA’s were stymied.
The members of SOS are also dedicated to increasing the funding for all levels of public education and are working with allies inside and outside the legislature to secure those appropriations.
The Communications Director of SOS, Dawn Penich-Thacker offered the organizations views on this legislative session, the strength of their movement, and moving forward. The questions and her responses are below:
1) Please assess and explain the legislative progress that has been made this session on the goals Save our Schools set at the beginning of the year.
“At the beginning of this Legislative Session, five different bills were introduced expanding the ESA program, either in terms of who could qualify for it or how its existing students could use the funds on more things, as well as one which sought to move the ESA oversight out of the Dept. of Education to a private/for-profit vendor. By having early, positive and productive conversations with pro-education representatives and leaders, and by informing and engaging our massive statewide network as soon as the bills would become public, we were able to either quash the bills before they ever got started or hold the good-faith conversations with sponsors and stakeholders that helped them see that the bills were not going to have a positive impact. This behind-the-scenes work was new to our organization, since we formed to do big, loud public work back in 2017, but both SOSAZ leaders and our statewide network volunteers are very dedicated to having positive, open lines of communication with our elected officials so it was a fascinating and ultimately productive process of sharing views, learning other perspectives, and ultimately showing that there are far more important priorities and many more ways to help Arizona families and students than what those bills offered.”
2) Please describe where the legislators have failed to address the concerns of Save Our Schools.
“We are really grateful for the ways most legislators in both parties have welcomed us in to meet one another face to face, talk about issues, and work through ideas. I don’t think most of our legislators have failed in that regard by any means. That’s not to say there aren’t major unresolved issues around education funding, ESA fraud, misuse and inequity, and responsible policies for education. We have very valid concerns focused on increasing teacher pay, increasing per-pupil spending, paying into District Additional Assistance, infrastructure, student-to-counselor ratio, and the ways the ESA program is being exploited but those are things we need to keep working on together because they didn’t happen overnight and they won’t be solved overnight.”
3) To what extent has support for the goals of your organization remained high over the last year? Please describe if membership is growing and the events your group has/will sponsor to help achieve your goals or increase awareness.
“We continue to grow in volunteer numbers and general public/voter engagement. We hold SOSAZ Roadshows all over the state educating folks about the history of education funding in Arizona, we call folks out to the Capitol on a regular basis, and we ask voters to contact their elected officials with specific agenda items and talking points on a weekly basis – all ways we keep our network engaged and growing. The best thing is, increasing support to public education is not partisan in the real world. It can feel partisan at the Capitol, but regular Arizona voters in every part of the state want to support public education, they want to understand the issues better, and they want to do what they can to help public school teachers and students. It’s a pleasure to help show people how to get involved because their minds and hearts are already in the right place: support public schools so they can grow our future!”
4) Moving forward, what are at least three educational issues will your organization advocate for and against after the session ends and going into 2020?
“In coming sessions, we will be working on legislation to bring more accountability and transparency to the ESA program because that’s what voters expect – to be able to see exactly how their tax dollars are spent, who is spending them, why recipients are getting this entitlement, and what they’re paying for versus what we aren’t adequately funding. We will also continue working with others on funding proposals. We’ve been either under-funding or de-funding public education in Arizona for most of the last two decades. Last year and hopefully this year will see some sizable improvements but that doesn’t just happen or continue without a lot of engagement and advocacy so we will be working with education groups, business groups, and community leaders to get more responsible funding into our public schools at dollar amounts that really make an impact, not just a gesture.”
Except for exceptional cases like special education, there is no reason for public dollars to go to families that can be utilized to pay tuition at private (especially sectarian) schools.
What the reactionaries proposed was not even an attempt for poor families to afford private school. The scholarship is only a fraction of what most private school tuitions cost. All their expansion proposals would have eventually done is give a tax cut to conservative rich families that could otherwise afford the full tuition on their own.
All legislators and citizens should be focused, like Save Our Schools, Red for Ed, and the Arizona Education Association, in ensuring that taxpayer dollars go towards bringing funding for all public schools up to 2019 levels. Children cannot go another year, let alone 11 years with our public schools not being fully funded.
It jeopardizes their future and that of Arizona’s if our public schools are not fully provided for.