Part 4: Arizona, A Cautionary Tale for the Nation

For over 20 years, Arizona’s public schools have been under siege. Organized opposition has slashed education budgets and undermined public education. 

In the previous segment, we explored the nation’s first vouchers, made into law right here in AZ. Did you miss it? Catch up here. 

Arizona, A Cautionary Tale for the Nation

Arizona is the cautionary tale of what can (and will) go wrong as school privatization spreads through the states.

Until the 1980s, Arizona had quality schools and well-compensated teachers. But over the past 30 years, the focused work of well funded privatization proponents has  starved our public education system and perpetuated a dangerous myth about “failing” public schools. Now, Arizona ranks last among the states in teacher retention, 49th in teacher pay, and 46th in per-pupil spending. 

How did we let this happen? The disinvestment in Arizona’s public schools has been far from accidental; the trajectory has been relatively swift and shockingly destructive to our children, schools, and communities. Indeed, special interest groups and lobbyists identified Arizona early on as a prime target for privatizing and a petri dish for testing a variety of methods to undermine public education as a common good. 

In 1991, when Governor Fife Symington first came into office, Arizona ranked 24th nationally in teacher pay. During his tenure, that number dropped to 30th in the nation. The Symington administration failed to fund school districts for more than 8% of inflation costs or the 3% growth in student population every single year. 

By 1995, the state had fallen to 46th in education spending in the nation. Following Milton Friedman’s philosophy of unfettered free markets, slashing of government oversight, and increased private ownership, Symington pushed extreme tax cuts for corporations to limit revenue, pushing the state to the brink of starvation. Those cuts have yet to be restored, and in fact continue to be pushed year after year by state lawmakers to the detriment of public programs. Arizona currently gives away over $14B annually in corporate and personal tax cuts, credits, and expenditures.

The charter school industry was launched during Symington’s term, with the stated purpose that “the public education institutions would be forced to compete and get better.” Despite decades of “competition” with no proven benefit, this groundless talking point remains an article of faith among privatizers. Arizona continues to have some of the least restrictive charter laws in the nation, and has failed to put in place laws to promote transparency or accountability. Bad actors have taken advantage of these lax laws, and have turned incredible profits while draining much needed funding from our public schools. 

Despite these shocking statistics, special interest groups like EdChoice, founded by voucher architect Milton Friedman, continually rank Arizona “#1” in “school choice” because the only metrics they focus on are growth of privatization schemes like vouchers. Repeated studies have failed to document any significant improvement in educational outcomes or student achievement, and many private schools resist attempts to measure educational progress.

So who is pushing these laws that siphon funds from our public schools, and how have they gotten away with it? It’s simple. Arizona lawmakers propped up by well funded state and national special interest groups, including DeVos’ American Federation for Children, Americans for Prosperity, and Arizona’s Goldwater Institute, follow these steps to discreetly and incrementally privatize our schools:

  1. Discredit. Spread the narrative that public schools are “failing” or “government” schools that promote “one size fits all” curriculum. Enforce a school grading system that doesn’t account for factors of poverty and trauma.

  2. Disinvest. Cut funding to the public school system by shrinking state revenue, shifting the burden to local property owners and parents. This disproportionately affects schools in impoverished neighborhoods with low property values and little disposable income.  Slash entire programs like full-day kindergarten. Underfund to the point that schools must cut the positions like librarians, counselors, music teachers, and aides that help public school students prosper. As funding has decreased, test scores have decreased as well.

  3. Divert. Declare that public schools do not work and claim there must be other options that are entitled to public funding (the myth of “school choice”). Glittery options for private schools are touted as a better education (even though they do not have to play by the same rules). In 2019, more than $200 million was diverted from public to private schools. 

  4. Repeat. 

To learn more, watch for our next installment, Selling “School Choice.”

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