The attacks on public education by “privatization” ideologues have ramped up under Betsy DeVos, who–as Mother Jones has reported–wants to use America’s schools to build “God’s Kingdom” and who has spent a lifetime working to end public education as we know it. She has ramped up those efforts since becoming Education Secretary, and she has help from other billionaire privatizers.
Arizona has become the hotbed for an experiment rightwing activists hope will redefine America’s schools – an experiment that has pitched the conservative billionaires the Koch brothers and Donald Trump’s controversial education secretary, Betsy DeVos, against teachers’ unions, teachers and parents. Neither side is giving up without a fight.
Groups funded by the Koch brothers and cheered on by DeVos succeeded in getting Arizona lawmakers to enact what the Guardian describes as “the nation’s broadest school vouchers law.” (If it is broader than Indiana’s program, that’s saying something.) The state-funded vouchers were designed to give parents more school choice and–like Indiana’s–could be used to enroll children in private or religious schools.
For opponents, however, the system wasn’t about “choice”–it was about further weakening Arizona’s public school system.
Six women with children in the public schools had lobbied unsuccessfully against the measure, and they decided to fight back. Arizona law allows referenda (Indiana’s does not), and the women decided–long odds or no– they would gather the 75,321 signatures they needed to get a referendum on the ballot to overturn the law. They formed a group, called it Save Our Schools, and set out to collect the needed signatures.
The six women inspired a statewide movement and got hundreds of volunteers to brave Arizona’s torrid summer heat to collect signatures – in parks and parking lots, at baseball games and shopping malls. Their message was that billionaire outsiders were endangering public education by getting Arizona’s legislature – in part through campaign contributions – to create an expensive voucher program.
One reason for their success in generating a movement was the fact that Arizona’s public schools are so obviously underfunded. Some classes have 40 students; schools have to ask private citizens to donate money for supplies and books.
One study foundthat Arizona, at $7,613, is the third-lowest state in public school spending per student, while another study foundthat from 2008 to 2015, school funding per pupil had plunged by 24% in Arizona, after adjusting for inflation – the second-biggest drop in the nation.
Save our Schools submitted 111,540 signatures to the secretary of state in August 2017, but the Koch brothers’ political arm, Americans for Prosperity, sued to block the referendum. A judge dismissed the lawsuit and approved the referendum for 6 November – it’s called Proposition 305. The vote will be closely watched by people on both sides of the debate as the Kochs and DeVos hope to spread the voucher scheme and opponents look to Arizona for clues on how to stop them.
A grassroots group of parents successfully overturned the massive school voucher expansion supported by the state’s Republican establishment, as the “no” vote on Proposition 305 won by a wide margin, the Associated Press has projected.
The “no” vote victory on Prop. 305 has major implications for the school-choice movement in Arizona and nationally, as the state has long been ground zero for the conservative issue and Republican leaders have crowned the Empowerment Scholarship Account expansion as a national template.
This is the way democratic systems are supposed to work when legislatures pass measures that conflict with the desires of the voters.
If we have public schools that are not performing satisfactorily, we need to fix them–not abandon them. And we absolutely should not be sending tax dollars to religious schools–a practice that only deepens America’s already troubling tribalization.