How Teachers and Organizers Challenged the First U.S. Education Savings Account Voucher Program

From Observatory

Observatory » Area » Charter Schools
Source: Our Schools

A destructive voucher program drained the state of millions of education dollars.

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Jeff Bryant is a writing fellow and chief correspondent for Our Schools. He is a communications consultant, freelance writer, advocacy journalist, and director of the Education Opportunity Network.
This article was produced by Our Schools.

Introduction[edit | edit source]

The moment Beth Lewis realized the powerful political forces she was up against was when she was seated in the gallery of the Arizona House watching Republican legislators, one by one, fall into line to support a 2017 bill she and her fellow teachers had come to the capitol to oppose. Then-Republican Governor Doug Ducey and others “working the bill” on the floor took any wavering members into a back room for a “conversation,” while lobbyists in the wings nodded and hand-signaled with lawmakers to track the bill’s progress. When the bill’s handlers agreed a vote was in order, it passed easily. Then, “it was like a party,” Lewis recalled when I spoke to her in 2018, with lawmakers high-fiving each other and lobbyists shaking hands and backslapping. “It was sickening,” she said. “I realized our state legislators weren’t at all interested in representing the people.”

The bill, which the State Senate also passed and the governor quickly signed, opened up education savings accounts, called Empowerment Scholarship Accounts, to all of the state’s 1.1 million students. The new accounts, previously restricted to students with special needs and students attending schools receiving a grade of D or F on the state’s school report card, would provide $4,400 a year, 90 percent of the amount of money the state would typically send a district for enrolling a student, for a family to spend as they wish on their children’s education. Students with disabilities and poor students would receive more money than other students.

For parents to receive the money, on a debit card, they would have to agree not to enroll their children in a public school—essentially giving up their children’s right to a free public education. Other than that, the program had few regulations and little oversight in how public money was being spent. For that reason, Lewis, who was an Arizona public school teacher at the time, and others who opposed the bill, called the savings accounts “vouchers” that would drain funding from public education.

The lobbyists working the House floor that night in 2017 were from the Goldwater Institute, a right-wing advocacy group based in Arizona with extensive connections to the Koch brothers and a number of organizations and networks with close Koch ties including ALEC (the American Legislative Exchange Council), the State Policy Network, and the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity. For years, Charles and David Koch and their associated foundations had invested heavily in electing Arizona lawmakers, including Governor Ducey, and expanding the education savings accounts was one of their crowning achievements.

Passing the bill was also a moment of triumph for the education agenda of the administration of former President Donald Trump. Shortly after news of the passage of the voucher expansion broke, Trump’s U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos tweeted, “A big win for students & parents in Arizona tonight with the passage of ed savings accts. I applaud Gov. @DougDucey for putting kids first.”

But despite their defeat in the state legislature, Lewis and her colleagues with Save Our School Arizona pushed a referendum onto the ballot, Proposition 305, that would let Arizona voters decide the fate of the bill. Were the initiative to fail, as Lewis and her colleagues were hoping, the Koch brothers’ plan to expand vouchers would be defeated.

Arizona Democrats running for office at the time, including Democratic 2018 gubernatorial candidate David Garcia, who took on Ducey, embraced opposition to the voucher program and threw their support behind teachers who called for more funding of public schools.

If pro-education candidates won, and Prop 305 went down in flames, the teachers would have led a remarkable campaign that not only would have been a victory for public schools but also would have threatened to topple the Koch brothers’ political empire in the Grand Canyon State.

Before There Was #RedforEd[edit | edit source]

“The teachers’ protest movement, which… [called] itself #RedforEd, … transformed the political battleground” in Arizona, reported the New York Times in 2018.

The weeklong walkouts that happened earlier that year demanded higher teacher pay and more funding for schools. #RedforEd not only won concessions from Ducey and the state legislature; it also culminated in placing a referendum on the ballot, called InvestInEd, that would have raised income taxes on individuals and households earning more than $250,000 and directed the increased revenues to public schools. However, the State Supreme Court struck the initiative from the ballot, for technical questions about its wording.

But months before there was #RedforEd, there was the fight against school vouchers.

After Lewis and her colleagues watched the statewide voucher expansion pass in the Arizona capitol, they began to meet regularly and formed Save Our Schools Arizona. At first, their effort to overturn the legislation got few supporters, Lewis recalled, even among teachers. Few understood that “scholarships” was just another word for “vouchers” and that “empowerment” actually meant parents had to give up the right for their children to receive a free public education.

The “turning point,” according to Lewis, was the revelation that citizens could use a petition campaign to refer legislation to a ballot. That gave anti-voucher advocates a specific goal and steps—how many signatures they’d need and how many volunteers they’d need to recruit to circulate the petitions.

A Costly Program for Wealthier Families[edit | edit source]

Also aiding their communications effort was an accumulation of evidence of how poorly the voucher program measured up to its purported intention to “save” low-income families from “failed” public schools.

Most of the students who participated in the program, 70 percent, came from some of the state’s most highly rated schools—rated A or B on the state report card. Only 7 percent of the money was being used by students leaving D- or F-rated schools. The majority of these families were also not low-income, but instead resided in the wealthier suburban communities in the state.

Other analyses found that the vast majority of parents participating in the program used the money to pay for private school tuition. Given that most private schools in Arizona are religious schools, a reasonable conclusion is that the education savings accounts were mostly subsidizing wealthier families’ desires to leave public schools to seek out religious educations for their children.

Furthermore, since the average payout from the voucher program was $5,700 per year for children without disabilities, and the average private school tuition in Arizona at the time was $6,126 for elementary schools and $19,162 for high schools, the vouchers were supplementing parents, who were likely already able to afford private schools, with a “coupon” that heavily discounted the tuition. Families of students with disabilities, who received $19,000 in voucher money on average, could even be “profiting” from the program, as there was very little to no monitoring of how they spent from the accounts.

In 2018, Arizona’s voucher program was already draining $141 million from the public school system, and in fact, cost the state an additional $62 million each year—roughly $4,700 per student, adding 75 percent more to what the state paid to educate a regular public school student.

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Kochs Versus ‘a Bunch of Volunteers’[edit | edit source]

Armed with information about how the voucher program was defrauding the state of millions of education dollars, the Save Our Schools (SOS) Arizona team formed their campaign to get 75,321 signatures to place Prop 305 on the ballot.

“We did most of our outreach through social media,” recalled Sharon Kirsch, another leader in SOS Arizona I spoke with in 2018. “SOS never had any money.”

Kirsch, a university professor, became interested in overturning the voucher expansion after she saw the bill zoom through the State Senate without serious consideration of what the expansion would do to public schools. Its sponsor was former State Senator Debbie Lesko—a recipient of large campaign donations from the Koch brothers and other conservative donors—who was a senior member of ALEC (the American Legislative Exchange Council) and was elected to Congress in 2018.

Relying on a network of volunteers—made up mostly of retired educators, parents, and community activists—SOS Arizona submitted 111,540 signatures in August 2017.

After SOS Arizona announced it had successfully gathered more than enough signatures to place the referendum on the ballot, the Koch network intervened again. On the night SOS delivered the signatures for review by the secretary of state’s office, Lewis recalled, they were told “both sides” would be allowed to be present at the review. Who was the other “side”?

“All of a sudden all these men in dark suits came into the room,” said Lewis. “They paired up with each examiner from the state and hovered over their shoulders, pointing to signatures they felt should be challenged or thrown out.”

The “suits” were from Americans for Prosperity, a right-wing pressure group that operates as a political arm of the Koch brothers to advocate and lobby at state and local levels for small government, deregulation, privatization, and anti-labor union policies.

“When I investigated what these right-wing organizations were doing to oppose us,” Kirsch explained, “I realized how strategic they’ve been. They’ve been working on their privatization efforts for years. They fund teams to work full-time on the issues. They’re breeding their own PhDs through academic centers they sponsor. And we just have a bunch of volunteers.”

Americans for Prosperity, along with the American Federation for Children, founded by former Secretary DeVos, sued to block the referendum. But in January 2018, a judge dismissed the lawsuit.

In the meantime, Governor Ducey met with donors in the Koch network, pledging to go big on passing Prop 305 and asking for their support. “This is a very real fight in my state,” he said. “I didn’t run for governor to play small ball.”

“In 2018, Koch donors see Arizona as ground zero in their push,” the Washington Post reported that year, and the Koch brothers’ money had continued to pour into the state through Americans for Prosperity and the Libre Institute, an astroturf group spending “hundreds of thousands of dollars,” according to a local news outlet, “targeting Arizona Latino families with ads, mailers and phone calls” urging them to vote “yes” on Prop 305.

“We had to bring in Spanish-speaking volunteers to counter the propaganda being spread by the Koch Brothers’ Libre group,” said Kirsch. “We reached out to community organizations like LUCHA (Living United for Change in Arizona),” an Arizona-based grassroots group advocating for social and economic justice in the Latinx community. “They’ve been very helpful in spreading our literature,” Kirsch said.

In addition to its stealth campaign in the Latinx community, supporters of school vouchers also created a #YesforEd campaign that mimics the logo of the teachers’ #RedforEd campaign—a blatant attempt to mislead voters about the initiative and convince them to vote yes.

“This is the lowest of the low when it gets to political dirty tricks,” said Dawn Penich-Thacker, who was working with SOS Arizona when I spoke to her in 2018. “They are obviously trying to mimic #RedforEd” and create the false impression that a “yes” vote on Prop 305 would support teachers and public-school funding, when it would in fact have done the exact opposite.

‘Education Is the Driving Issue’[edit | edit source]

While SOS Arizona tried to keep its effort to block voucher expansion nonpartisan, its cause had champions running for office in the Democratic Party in 2018.

In the race for governor, Democratic candidate David Garcia was stridently opposed to the voucher expansion and urged voters to vote no on the proposition.

“A change in education is Arizona’s No. 1 issue,” Garcia said in a televised debate. “It is my strength, it is Ducey’s weakness, and it’s going to be the difference.”

Alex Gomez, the co-executive director of LUCHA, shared her insights on two issues Garcia addressed during his campaign—the rising power of Latinx voters and the significance of education in the Arizona elections.

She told Our Schools in 2018 that LUCHA completed an effort to register over 20,000 new voters in the Latinx community and canvassed them to ensure they voted. Working with other like-minded organizations, LUCHA’s goal was to turn out 190,000 new voters from the Latinx community in the 2018 midterm elections.

LUCHA supported the educators who walked out of schools statewide in 2018. “The midterms caught its wind after the teacher strike,” said Gomez. “That moment when there were 75,000 people at the capitol was a big part of building momentum. It became so clear that the legislature is more interested in their corporate donors than in doing the right thing for education and moving the state forward.”

Gomez expected LUCHA’s support for Garcia’s pro-education platform and opposition to Prop 305 would energize new voters, particularly those in the Latinx community who were “very grateful because no one has ever come to them before.”

“Education is the driving issue in Garcia’s campaign,” she said, and “we’re encouraging voters to vote against 305.”

In many down-ballot races, Democratic candidates united around education and opposition to Prop 305. In the race to unseat Debbie Lesko in Arizona’s District 8 of the U.S. House, Hiral Tipirneni drew a sharp contrast to the Republican incumbent on education, calling Lesko, “the ringleader behind the infamous voucher bill, which takes our tax dollars out of public schools and uses them to pay for private school tuition.”

In state legislative races, two Democratic candidates and LUCHA endorsees, Raquel Terán, running in Legislative District 30, and Gilbert Romero, in LD 21, canvassed and phone-banked on Prop 305 and urged voters to vote no.

‘No Hiding Behind the Curtain’[edit | edit source]

Those leading the opposition to Prop 305 hoped to do more than just defeat the bill; they wanted to expose the corrupt network behind the effort to privatize Arizona public schools and change the conversation about what would truly help education in the state.

“Teachers are carrying the torch against privatization in ways they never did before,” said Lewis. “They have a level of understanding of the issues I’ve never seen before.”

“Even if we defeat 305, I know folks at Goldwater are already crafting a new bill to replace the voucher bill with something else,” said Kirsch. “But people are paying attention in ways they never have in the past. They’re changing the conversation to making public schools the priority instead of all these other schemes that take money away from them.”

“We’re leaving everything out on the field and are really hopeful about the results,” said Gomez. “Even before election day, we’ve already won because we’ve exposed the corruption of the Republican Party. There’s no hiding behind the curtains anymore.”

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