The Privatization Playbook

The Privatization Playbook

Across the country, well-funded special interests are working to dismantle public education in a coordinated attempt to privatize our nation’s most cherished and democratic institutions — our public schools. Watch Save Our Schools Arizona’s newest video, “The Privatization Playbook,” here

Last year, the school voucher movement swept across the country, with Iowa, Arkansas, Florida, Oklahoma, Ohio, and Indiana following Arizona’s lead by massively expanding their taxpayer-funded school voucher programs. While school voucher lobbyists disingenuously frame their movement as a response to COVID-era school policies, the reality is that extremist lawmakers are following an astroturf plan created decades ago: The Privatization Playbook.

Special interest groups funded by billionaires such as Betsy Devos, the Kochs, and the Walton family have steadily chipped away at the foundations of our public education system for decades, with the long-term goal of total privatization to profit off of America’s children and peddle dangerous extremism. 

Step 1: Discredit

While the privatization playbook was written decades ago, the movement was turbocharged by opportunists during the pandemic in 2020. Bad actors such as DeVos’ American Federation for Children, Manhattan Institute’s Christopher Rufo, Turning Point USA, and Moms for Liberty seized on confusion to create hysteria and turn parents against their students’ teachers and local schools.

It started with heated debates over school re-openings and mask mandates during the early days of the COVID pandemic, then quickly turned to manufactured outrage over Critical Race Theory (CRT) in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. When the CRT furor had run its course, groups pivoted to a frenzy over Social Emotional Learning (SEL), calling educators “groomers” and “pedophiles.” This includes the notorious “Libs of TikTok” account, which spurs its followers into such hysteria that they have carried out at least 21 bomb threats against schools and hospitals. These same groups have now shifted their focus to Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, demonizing DEI programs in K-12 and higher education. 

Christopher Rufo, a leading figure in the school privatization movement and part of the far-right hostile takeover of the New College in Florida, has been incredibly transparent about the strategy.

He has worked relentlessly over the last four years to merge a set of swirling ideas — or “brand,” as he calls it — in the public consciousness that does not reflect what is actually taught in public schools. In a recent lecture at ultra-conservative Hillsdale College, Rufo told the audience to be “ruthless and brutal” in creating a narrative and detailed the strategy for replacing public education with a universal voucher system: “To get to universal school choice, you really need to operate from a premise of universal public school distrust,” Rufo explained.

The strategy of discrediting public education continues to play out in Arizona. Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne has stated he will “do everything [he] can to help” the anti-public school group Moms for Liberty, which has been designated a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center. He has used the Arizona Department of Education website to parrot Moms for Liberty messaging, stating that Social Emotional Learning is “a gateway method – ‘Trojan Horse’ – to introduce elements of CRT.” 

Arizona State Senate Minority Leader Mitzi Epstein recently called out how the strategy has been employed here in Arizona: “By making wild accusations about public schools as evil… Republican [elected officials] are fomenting rancor without evidence to support their claims. Their goal is to sow fear around public schools, unwarranted fear.”

Step 2: Defund

Even though the vast majority of people in red states support and rely on their local public schools, billionaire special interests have pressured politicians (and donated heavily to their campaigns) to make dramatic cuts to public education. States such as Texas, Iowa, Idaho, Utah, Arkansas, and Florida have the lowest state funding per pupil, leading to low teacher salaries and causing massive teacher shortages. Children are deprived of quality learning and extracurriculars, class sizes have ballooned, and facilities and buses are in disrepair. This is all by design. 

Starvation of public schools is already occurring in Arizona, where special interests like the Kochs and the American Federation for Children have spent millions of dollars on elections to buy the legislature they would need to enact their privatization plan. To till the soil and make the case for vouchers, these groups had to defund public education to the brink of collapse. 

Through draconian tax cuts in the 1990s, lawmakers intentionally shrunk state revenues in Arizona, eventually leading to massive K-12 cuts. By 2008, Arizona had sunk from 35th worst in public education funding across the US to 47th worst. Then came the Great Recession, during which Arizona lawmakers made deeper cuts to K-12 schools than any other state. By late 2016, Arizona’s state funding per pupil was down 36.6% compared to before the Great Recession. 

While some of these massive cuts have slowly been restored following the Red for Ed movement in 2018, Arizona has consistently remained at the bottom of the nation for per-pupil education funding, ranking second to last in 2023. Some Republican lawmakers have bragged about their caucus making “historic” investments in public education. Still, recent efforts to shore up dollars for public schools have barely made up for inflation since 2008 and certainly have not made Arizona competitive with other states. 

In 2021, the Republican-led legislature and former Governor Ducey passed tax cuts for the wealthy that have since dramatically reduced revenue. Now that these tax cuts are fully phased in, Arizona faces an $835 million shortfall for the current fiscal year and another $879 million deficit next year, for a combined shortfall of $1.7 billion. These cuts make lifting Arizona’s public schools out of last place for funding all the more difficult — by design. 

In the span of just a few decades, special interests made good on their goal to defund Arizona’s schools to the point of starvation, readying themselves for the next step in the playbook: dismantling public schools. 

Even though the vast majority of people in red states support and rely on their local public schools, billionaire special interests have pressured politicians (and donated heavily to their campaigns) to make dramatic cuts to public education. States such as Texas, Iowa, Idaho, Utah, Arkansas, and Florida have the lowest state funding per pupil, leading to low teacher salaries and causing massive teacher shortages. Children are deprived of quality learning and extracurriculars, class sizes have ballooned, and facilities and buses are in disrepair. This is all by design. 

Starvation of public schools is already occurring in Arizona, where special interests like the Kochs and the American Federation for Children have spent millions of dollars on elections to buy the legislature they would need to enact their privatization plan. To till the soil and make the case for vouchers, these groups had to defund public education to the brink of collapse. 

Through draconian tax cuts in the 1990s, lawmakers intentionally shrunk state revenues in Arizona, eventually leading to massive K-12 cuts. By 2008, Arizona had sunk from 35th worst in public education funding across the US to 47th worst. Then came the Great Recession, during which Arizona lawmakers made deeper cuts to K-12 schools than any other state. By late 2016, Arizona’s state funding per pupil was down 36.6% compared to before the Great Recession. 

While some of these massive cuts have slowly been restored following the Red for Ed movement in 2018, Arizona has consistently remained at the bottom of the nation for per-pupil education funding, ranking second to last in 2023. Some Republican lawmakers have bragged about their caucus making “historic” investments in public education. Still, recent efforts to shore up dollars for public schools have barely made up for inflation since 2008 and certainly have not made Arizona competitive with other states. 

In 2021, the Republican-led legislature and former Governor Ducey passed tax cuts for the wealthy that have since dramatically reduced revenue. Now that these tax cuts are fully phased in, Arizona faces an $835 million shortfall for the current fiscal year and another $879 million deficit next year, for a combined shortfall of $1.7 billion. These cuts make lifting Arizona’s public schools out of last place for funding all the more difficult — by design. 

In the span of just a few decades, special interests made good on their goal to defund Arizona’s schools to the point of starvation, readying themselves for the next step in the playbook: dismantling public schools. 

Step 3: Dismantle

The Privatization Playbook’s Final Step: Once public schools have been discredited and defunded, special interests push private school vouchers as a solution to “failing schools” under the false promise of “school choice.” But when the bad actors who created the problem are pushing the solution, you can be sure they have an agenda. The dark money groups funded by Betsy DeVos, the Kochs, and the Waltons (among many others) share a purpose — to dismantle public education. And they will stop at nothing to achieve this goal. 

In 2022, Arizona was the first state to pass universal ESA vouchers. The Republican-led legislature and former Governor Ducey worked with groups funded by the Kochs and Betsy DeVos, like the Goldwater Institute and Love Your School, to force universal vouchers into our state on a razor-thin party-line vote that discarded the will of Arizona voters. Now, two years into the universally expanded program, the ballooning costs of ESA vouchers are rapidly destabilizing Arizona’s public education system. These unaccountable vouchers are exacerbating the severe lack of funding for public schools by diverting massive amounts of tax dollars dedicated to public education from Arizona’s already starved state budget. 

Universal vouchers have had catastrophic impacts on Arizona’s budget. While the universal ESA voucher program was initially estimated to cost only $35 million in its first year and $65 million in its second, in reality, the program’s cost skyrocketed to $590 million in its first year, and we projected it will reach over $800 million this year. Because 78% of voucher recipients never attended public schools and had previously paid for private schooling on their own dime, the vast majority of these costs are new to the state. Due to Arizona’s massive budget shortfall, the state does not have funds to allocate to this runaway program. 

In Arizona, the playbook has progressed so swiftly under universal ESA vouchers that public schools are being dismantled right before our eyes. Here are just a few examples of how school districts in Arizona are already being forced to deal with the dramatic impacts of universal ESA vouchers:

  • School closures. Paradise Valley Unified (PVUSD) is shutting down three local schools, a full 7% of their district, at the end of this school year to resolve a budget shortfall. These closures will save the district a mere $1.8 million annually – meanwhile, vouchers are draining $28 million a year within the boundaries of PVUSD alone.
  • Teacher and staff layoffs. Mesa Public Schools (MPS), the largest school district in the state, is considering cutting hundreds of teaching jobs next year. The district is facing cuts of up to $19 million — meanwhile, vouchers are draining $34 million a year within MPS boundaries.
  • Transportation cuts. Flagstaff Unified (FUSD) is cutting transportation services for nearly 600 high school students. Because the district is facing budgetary constraints, it cannot meet requirements and is forced to cut transportation access for students — meanwhile, vouchers are draining $8.2 million a year within FUSD boundaries. 
  • Cuts to mental health supports. Dysart Unified School District (DUSD) voted to eliminate all social worker positions after this school year, saying they have no funding to continue the positions — meanwhile, vouchers are draining $18 million a year within DUSD boundaries. 

“Why would anyone want to dismantle our public schools?”

Some groups, such as the Waltons, view school privatization as a way to profit off of our kids, while others, such as Moms for Liberty and Turning Point, seek to push religious and political extremism. Some, like Americans for Prosperity, believe the government has no role in assuring the public good. All are dangerous movements that threaten American democracy — and all are using taxpayer-funded school vouchers to achieve their insidious goals. 

At Save Our Schools Arizona, we are fighting back against this dangerous agenda. Our organization began in 2017 to defeat universal vouchers, but when we started pulling the threads, we realized the issue was more significant than we could have imagined. We are now joined by grassroots groups like ours across the country that are doing the critical work to educate Americans of the dangers of school vouchers — before it’s too late. Join us!

Watch our newest video here: bit.ly/PrivatizationPlaybook

Join our movement! Sign up HERE to volunteer or join a Community Action Team near you.

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