I’ve been a university writing teacher for a decade now, so I have gotten pretty good at spotting a cut-and-paste job. I will be reading a student’s paper and suddenly the sentence structure gets more complex, the student is using words they never have before, and, in the especially lazy cases, the font changes. The students who try to get away with this usually think they are much more clever than they are and act indignant when called out on it.
So as a teacher, I’m not too surprised that the Republicans in the Arizona state legislature, that group of perpetual C and D students who also think they are much more clever than they are, like to cut corners on their work and copy and paste as well. It has been well-known for some time that national special interest groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), well-funded by the likes of the Koch brothers and the DeVos family, have helped out lazy Republican legislators by providing them “model legislation” that they can take back to their states. The books Dark Money by Jane Mayer and Democracy in Chains by Nancy MacLean have both exposed this phenomenon.
Copycat legislation from ALEC and other right-wing groups have driven policy here in Arizona for most of the last decade, and these ideas have largely gone unchallenged. But now new organizations like Save Our Schools Arizona and White Hat Research & Policy Group are starting to fight back.
Asymmetrical Ideological Warfare
Copycat legislation is not new, but now we have new evidence of just how pervasive this practice is, thanks to a massive new investigative project by USA Today, The Arizona Republic, and the Center for Public Integrity. The project’s lead story, published this past Thursday and written by Rob O’Dell and Nick Penzenstadler, reported that at least 10,000 bills mostly or completely copied from model legislation have been introduced in state legislatures over the past eight years, with 2,100 of those being signed into law. These bills have put into law radical right-wing ideas on issues ranging from abortion to guns to school privatization that just a decade ago were crazy pipe dreams of a small group of radical activists.
As detailed in the report, Arizona has been ground zero for these radical right-wing copycat bills, with many being filtered down from national groups like ALEC through local conservative think tank The Goldwater Institute. Perhaps the most notorious of these copycat bills is the one that was signed into law as SB1431 in 2017, opening up the state’s ESA voucher program to every student in the state. Universal vouchers had been a goal of the radical school privatization movement for years, which they had achieved piece by piece in various states by making ESA vouchers available to certain groups of students through copycat bills, with the goal of one day opening them up to everyone and completely undermining the system of public education.
You probably know the story of how that turned out, as a massive grassroots effort led by the group Save Our Schools Arizona got the law referred to the November 2018 ballot as Proposition 305, where it was defeated by a 2-to-1 margin. The story of SB1431 exposed the asymmetrical ideological warfare that has been waged for years by these well-funded groups which pass radical legislation that goes against the interests and will of the voters.
Leveling the Playing Field
It was in the interest of leveling the playing field that late last year a group of Arizonans started White Hat Research & Policy Group, Arizona’s new progressive think tank, where I am the Research Coordinator. We aim to be the progressive answer to the Goldwater Institute, but unlike Goldwater, we are not going to do the bidding of outside interest groups that want to use Arizona as testing ground for radical anti-government ideologies. Instead, we are going to develop solutions to the problems facing our state by working with respected researchers and organizations from right here in Arizona.
To that end, the first project we have undertaken is in collaboration with Dr. Sharon Kirsch, an ASU professor and co-founder and Research Director for Save Our Schools Arizona. Dr. Kirsch has worked with Katrina Hanna, an ASU Ph.D. student and recipient of the first White Hat Research Fellowship, to write a new in-depth white paper on the ESA voucher program and its roots in the radical school privatization movement, which seeks to turn classrooms and students into just another “market” to be exploited for the enrichment of a few.
We are going to unveil this research project and discuss its implications at an event this Wednesday, April 10 at the Arizona Latino Arts and Cultural Center in Phoenix titled “Private School Vouchers – The Trojan Horse of Education.” The event will also include a new theatrical work by WHRPG Creative Director Marcelino Quinonez titled “Choices,” which explores the impact of school privatization on students, teachers, parents and the community.
Politics is, as the old cliche goes, a marketplace of ideas. For too long, these conservative groups have had a monopoly which has allowed them to pump an endless stream of bad ideas into our state. It is time to start creating some good ideas on the other side and giving the people of our state the government they deserve.