Letter from Arizona — From the September 2017 issue

Class Dismissed

When a state divests from public education

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In 1871, Anson P. K. Safford, the governor known as the father of Arizona’s public schools, proposed a bill that would organize counties into school districts and levy property taxes to cover the cost. Public education was necessary for all (white) American children, he believed, in order to distinguish them from the Apache. Legislators resisted the tax increase but eventually passed a version of the bill that taxed ten cents on every hundred dollars of property, to be set aside for a school fund. Later, when an attempt was made to split the fund between public and sectarian schools, Safford condemned the idea. Doing so, he said, “could only result in the destruction of the general plan for the education of the masses, and would lead, as it always has wherever tried, to the education of the few and the ignorance of the many.”

The school choice movement — a clever term for which, like “pro-life,” there is no reasonable opposite — arrived in Arizona a century later, reigniting the old debate about the role of public money in private education. Its breakthrough, charters, was the brainchild not of Republicans or so-called school reformers but of Albert Shanker, the president of the American Federation of Teachers. In 1987, he visited a public school in Cologne, Germany, which had abandoned its country’s rigid academic tracking system and given teachers direct control over their curricula. As students advanced, their teachers followed them. Classrooms were more diverse than those in traditional schools, and students were of mixed ability. The school was a success, and it inspired Shanker to propose teacher-driven laboratory classrooms in the United States. Naturally, he imagined charter schools as places where teachers could enjoy great autonomy and would be firmly unionized. The response from Republicans of the era was lukewarm, to say the least. William Kristol, founder of The Weekly Standard, who was then employed by the federal Department of Education, assured Shanker that “traditional methods are working.”

Over time, however, conservatives found that charter schools could be useful as a means to promote open-market principles in education. In 1991, Minnesota passed America’s first charter school law, striking a deal with reformers in which taxpayers would fund “innovative” schools not bound by state curricular requirements or accountability standards. The floodgates opened, and the charter system ultimately deviated sharply from Shanker’s vision. Arizona passed its charter law in 1994, and during the first year, the Department of Education received as many as 400 applications from individuals and groups seeking to open schools. Today, more than 500 charters — both not-for-profit and for-profit — operate throughout the state.

In 1997, Arizona further expanded its school choice offerings by passing the nation’s first tax-credit program for education. Through this program, people could donate money to nonprofit organizations that had established scholarships for kids to attend private schools; the donor would receive a dollar-for-dollar tax break, a benefit initially expected to cost the state $4.5 million per year.

Private schools receiving funds this way, many of them religious, began to increase their tuition and publish step-by-step guides instructing parents in how to apply for the scholarships. (Among these schools was Northwest Christian, in Phoenix, whose elementary science and social studies curricula were developed by BJU Press, a creationist publishing house.) Over the years, the legislature passed bills to expand the program — including one that enabled companies to participate — and the tax breaks eventually topped $140 million. Between 2010 and 2014, one group, the Arizona Christian School Tuition Organization, received $72.9 million in donations, triggering the same amount in tax breaks. By law, such organizations are allowed to keep 10 percent of donations to pay for operational costs, and in 2013, according to IRS filings, the executive director of Arizona Christian received $145,705. The executive director, as it happens, was Steve Yarbrough, a Republican who is now the president of the state senate. His earnings were reported to the public; the tax-credit program nevertheless continues to thrive.

Arizona’s foray into vouchers had a more troubled start. The first attempt, in 2006, was ruled unconstitutional by the state Supreme Court because it deposited public money directly into the coffers of private schools. But in dismissing the program, the court did not reject its creed: Justice Michael D. Ryan wrote that choice advocates had been “well intentioned,” and suggested that there might be a way for tax dollars to send special-needs students to private or religious institutions. At the time, an organization called Alliance for School Choice was operating in Phoenix; it would later move to Washington under the name American Federation for Children, with Betsy DeVos as its chair. Sydney Hay, a lobbyist for the firm, told me that Ryan’s response provided a “road map.” She and her colleagues formed a working group to analyze the decision, and soon had their “eureka moment.” Justice Ryan had pointed the way to what would become Empowerment Scholarship Accounts.

The E.S.A. program became law in 2011. Although the system was pitched to serve disabled children, in the years that followed, legislators, goaded by a rising number of school choice lobbyists circling Phoenix, gradually expanded eligibility. Accounts were made available to those enrolled in or living within the zones of schools that earned D or F letter grades on their state report card; children of active-duty military personnel or of the legally blind, deaf, or hard of hearing; students living on Native American reservations; children in foster care; and siblings of qualified applicants. Arizona is now home to about 480 private schools — nearly 60 percent of which have religious affiliations (predominantly Christian) — serving some 64,000 students.

When Hay started working on school choice reform, “It was a free-market argument, which of course pits Republicans versus Democrats,” she told me. She and her cohort have since found success by approaching vouchers as a social justice concern, she said. “In the beginning, it was, ‘Oh no, these are going to be the death of public school education.’ That opposition is pretty much over.”

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

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