Letter from Arizona — From the September 2017 issue

Class Dismissed

When a state divests from public education

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Early this May, the temperature in Phoenix reached 106 degrees Fahrenheit — the sort of dry, searing heat that locals don’t expect until deep summer. On May 8, when it had cooled to a comfortable 83, the students walking between classes at Mountain Sky Junior High School seemed relieved. Mountain Sky is at the north end of Phoenix, just off West Greenway Parkway, a road that draws a dividing line: On one side, there are dozens of modest single-family-housing complexes spreading into the distance, their roofs terra-cotta and stucco, their back yards appointed with turquoise pools. On the other, there is a mobile-home park where stained furniture has been strewn about, discarded.

Katie Piehl, who attended Mountain Sky as a child, has been teaching English language arts to special-education students there for five years. During a break, she led me across a courtyard that was flooded with light. Her classroom is not in the school’s main building but in one of several detached trailers near the back of the campus, a result of overcrowding. There would be no sunshine when we got inside, she warned — the room didn’t have windows, just a couple of slits in the wall, and one of them was covered up. That was an intentional design feature, she said, to keep the cost of air-conditioning at a minimum.

Illustrations by John Ritter

Piehl is thirty-three, with shiny shoulder-length hair recently dyed red and dimples in her smile. She wore silver earrings that swung like wind chimes. When we entered her classroom, it was dim; she opted to keep the harsh fluorescent overhead lights off, relying instead on a mismatched set of lamps that she had collected over the years from garage sales and dumpsters. The lamps also served as grow lights for the leafy plants that covered nearly every table and shelf, to give the place charm. In a corner near the front were beanbag chairs, also bought by Piehl, on which students could sit and relax during independent reading time. At the back, she had assembled a library, largely from a local secondhand store.

The bell rang and her students filed in. They were a playful bunch of eighth graders; all had disabilities, and most were Latino, though Mountain Sky’s overall population is more diverse. The kids who had filled out their planners with that week’s assignments received stickers, which Piehl had acquired for free. “They will work for stickers,” she told me.

Then she led the class in a debate. The students were encouraged to submit questions about topics important to them; each day, she selected one to pose to the group, and they expressed their support or dissent by gathering at opposite walls. On one side of the room was a laminated poster that read yes; on the other, no. Today, Piehl had selected a difficult question from the only black student: “Is racism a problem in our school?” All but one of the kids walked over to stand on his side. “I don’t want to come across as a person really angry about this,” he said. “But I have had experiences where I’m walking up and people just say the N-word out of nowhere, or say, ‘Go back to the cotton fields.’ ”

The conversation continued, with more testimonies about stereotypes and discrimination. The lone dissenter, a girl with wavy brown hair, admitted to feeling conflicted as her peers spoke about unfair treatment they’d known. On another wall, I noticed, Piehl had pinned up covers that her students had designed for William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, a story about children who must fight for scarce resources. Many of them showed the bloody head of a pig.

This spring, while public school districts serving minority families and disabled children couldn’t afford basic supplies or comforts, Arizona’s legislature approved the broadest, most flexible interpretation of what Betsy DeVos, the secretary of education, and her allies tout as “school choice.” Governor Douglas Anthony Ducey, buoyed by fellow Republicans on both sides of the statehouse, signed a law expanding Empowerment Scholarship Accounts, Arizona’s take on school vouchers. Typically, vouchers use tax dollars to pay private institutions; through E.S.A.’s, money that could otherwise fund public education is loaded directly onto debit cards that select parents can use to subsidize private tuition and related expenses. Similar programs exist elsewhere — in Florida, Mississippi, and Tennessee — though those limit eligibility to families with children who are disabled; Nevada developed an unrestricted program, but courts have blocked its funding. More than any other state, Arizona has managed to bolster E.S.A.’s as a way to advance alternatives to traditional schooling. That makes it a model for conservatives across the country, yet Piehl and her colleagues view the legislature’s decision as the latest example of a disturbing trend: divestment from public education.

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’s article “Held Back” appeared in the October 2016 issue of Harper’s Magazine.

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