Arizona Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is: Education and the State Budget

White Hat Research & Policy Group was launched with the goal of bringing high-quality research to policy debates around a set of intersecting issues that are important to the future of Arizona, including Civic Engagement, Criminal Justice, Economic Development, Human Services, Technology and Innovation, and Education. But as we have talked to people and organizations in the community, we couldn’t help but notice how education is at the top of everyone’s mind. While all of our core issues are important to Arizona’s future, many see education as the most critical and as essential solving any of the other major problems that face our state in the coming decades.
It was for this reason that our first white paper examined the history and impact of the ESA voucher programs at the center of last November’s contentious Prop 305 vote. And of course, it was just a little over a year ago that tens of thousands of teachers descended on the capital and launched the #RedForEd movement.

So, with the 2019 legislative session wrapping up at the end of May, where does Arizona stand in its commitment to public education?

Fighting Market-Based Education Reforms

The good news is that advocates for public education have become adept at playing defense and stopping the worst of the state legislature’s efforts to relentlessly privatize education and turn it into a commodity. This is significant. As detailed by Sharon Kirsch and Katrina Hanna in our white paper, Arizona has for two decades been ground zero for radical market-based education reforms pushed by a well-funded national network that wants to destroy public education and turn it into a commodity that a small group can profit from. But the activism of the past two years, led by Save Our Schools Arizona and #RedForEd, seems to have turned that tide.
This was most clearly seen in bills related to the ESA voucher program that was at the center of Proposition 305. Despite the resounding defeat of Prop 305 last November, Republicans, led by Koch brothers flunkie Shawnna Bolick, introduced several bills to further expand the program, though in more modest ways that Prop 305 would have. As detailed in the white paper, this incremental increase in the program, which takes money out of public school funding and puts it on debit cards to be spent by parents for private education, is part of a long-term plan to deprive public schools of funding.

All of the bills expanding ESAs were defeated, as were bills which would have moved oversight of the program away from the Superintendent of Public Instruction after that seat was won by public school advocate Kathy Hoffman in November. Even a last-second end-around, which used attempted to exploit confusion over a handful of students on the Navajo reservation and expand the use of ESAs for out-of-state private schools, was defeated by pressure from Save Our Schools AZ and intervention from Superintendent Hoffman.
People in Arizona are starting to see the big picture around school privatization and market-based education reforms that we outlined in our white paper. This is an important change as we move ahead with improving our education system.

What About Charter Schools?

It also seems like public consensus has started to change around charter schools. After a series of investigations by Craig Harris at The Arizona Republic and blatant corruption by the likes of State Senator/charter school owner Eddie Farnsworth, Arizona voters are demanding greater accountability for charter schools.

This session, the Republican majority tried to pay lip service to this concern with a charter school “reform” bill introduced by Senator Kate Brophy-McGee. But the bill was clearly a smokescreen with no real reforms to speak of and House Speaker Rusty Bowers refused to even allow it for a vote. There will be even more pressure next year, as all 90 state legislative seats are up for reelection, to do something meaningful on charter schools.

But what would that look like? Conservative interests like the Goldwater Institute are clearly invested in maintaining the status quo and will put forward only the most meaningless of changes to charters, like Brophy McGee’s bill. So that is why WHRPG is starting work on a new project examining what meaningful charter school reform would actually look like. It will examine how Arizona could put in place an accountability system that encourages real student learning and prevents the corruption and self-dealing we have seen among Farnsworth and other charter school operators.

As the people of Arizona have woken up to the problem of education in our state, and soundly rejected the market-based education reforms being pushed by out-of-state special interests, it is time to stop just playing defense and go on the offense with new ideas for what education in our state should look like for the next decade and beyond. And that is what we are working on here at WHRPG.


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