History of School Privatization

Universal public education that isn’t dependent on one’s gender, race, social status, wealth, or religious belief is a fairly modern invention. The Aztecs had some of the first compulsory public schools attended by all children, although they differed from modern public schools in that enrollment began at the age of 15, and they maintained separate systems for higher-status children and lower-status children. This universal education system was wiped out by Spanish colonization of the empire, and publicly-funded compulsory education for all children wouldn’t really appear again until the early 1800’s in Prussia.

Since then the value of publicly-funded universal education systems open to all students has spread across the world, greatly increasing access to education by marginalized populations. Literacy is increasing in every corner of the globe as access to education improves, which has led to greater social mobility and economic growth.

Public investment in schools has been shown to have economic returns of around 6.8 to 10.6 percent in a randomized study of school construction, making public education one of the strongest investments people can make towards future economic growth.

Despite the clear benefits of our evolving and improving public schools, not everyone values social equity, mobility, and universal secular education. As a result, there are some highly effective groups working to dismantle public education in Arizona and across the country.

School Dismantling & Privatization in America

Modern public school privatizers like to frame education as a commodity rather than a public good. A metaphor they often use is that students should come with a “backpack full of cash” that public and private schools compete for, where the profit motive is expected to drive innovation and reward effective schools with more resources.

The most obvious flaw in this metaphor is that public education isn’t a consumer product, it is a public good. Public education and public schools are a part of a community’s physical and intellectual infrastructure.

When public funds are diverted from public schools and into private ones, students aren’t taking backpacks full of cash with them, they’re taking essential elements of the public infrastructure with them: textbooks, desks, teachers, counselors, bricks, busses, and all of the other pieces that have to come together to build and maintain an effective institution of education.

Public schools are an integral element of the fabric of American life, and are cornerstones of their communities. Even with our robust cultural support for public education, we also legally and culturally recognize the rights of parents to make decisions regarding their children’s education.

In Pierce v. Society of Sisters (1925) the U.S. Supreme Court struck down an Oregon law that required children to attend public schools and it upheld the rights of parents to determine how their children were educated. But it also made it clear that states have a right to regulate all schools, whether they’re public, private, or conducted in the home.

No question is raised concerning the power of the State reasonably to regulate all schools, to inspect, supervise and examine them, their teachers and pupils; to require that all children of proper age attend some school, that teachers shall be of good moral character and patriotic disposition, that certain studies plainly essential to good citizenship must be taught, and that nothing be taught which is manifestly inimical to the public welfare.

History of School Privatization

Universal public education that isn’t dependent on one’s gender, race, social status, wealth, or religious belief is a fairly modern invention. The Aztecs had some of the first compulsory public schools attended by all children, although they differed from modern public schools in that enrollment began at the age of 15, and they maintained separate systems for higher-status children and lower-status children. This universal education system was wiped out by Spanish colonization of the empire, and publicly-funded compulsory education for all children wouldn’t really appear again until the early 1800’s in Prussia.

Since then the value of publicly-funded universal education systems open to all students has spread across the world, greatly increasing access to education by marginalized populations. Literacy is increasing in every corner of the globe as access to education improves, which has led to greater social mobility and economic growth.

Public investment in schools has been shown to have economic returns of around 6.8 to 10.6 percent in a randomized study of school construction, making public education one of the strongest investments people can make towards future economic growth.

Despite the clear benefits of our evolving and improving public schools, not everyone values social equity, mobility, and universal secular education. As a result, there are some highly effective groups working to dismantle public education in Arizona and across the country.

School Dismantling & Privatization in America

Modern public school privatizers like to frame education as a commodity rather than a public good. A metaphor they often use is that students should come with a “backpack full of cash” that public and private schools compete for, where the profit motive is expected to drive innovation and reward effective schools with more resources.

The most obvious flaw in this metaphor is that public education isn’t a consumer product, it is a public good. Public education and public schools are a part of a community’s physical and intellectual infrastructure.

When public funds are diverted from public schools and into private ones, students aren’t taking backpacks full of cash with them, they’re taking essential elements of the public infrastructure with them: textbooks, desks, teachers, counselors, bricks, busses, and all of the other pieces that have to come together to build and maintain an effective institution of education.

Public schools are an integral element of the fabric of American life, and are cornerstones of their communities. Even with our robust cultural support for public education, we also legally and culturally recognize the rights of parents to make decisions regarding their children’s education.

In Pierce v. Society of Sisters (1925) the U.S. Supreme Court struck down an Oregon law that required children to attend public schools and it upheld the rights of parents to determine how their children were educated. But it also made it clear that states have a right to regulate all schools, whether they’re public, private, or conducted in the home.

No question is raised concerning the power of the State reasonably to regulate all schools, to inspect, supervise and examine them, their teachers and pupils; to require that all children of proper age attend some school, that teachers shall be of good moral character and patriotic disposition, that certain studies plainly essential to good citizenship must be taught, and that nothing be taught which is manifestly inimical to the public welfare.

5 Major Privatization Movements

5 Major Privatization Movements

1920’s

A movement to Americanize children by opening schools with Protestant values

1950’s – 60’s

A rise in the establishment and use of private schools for white families to avoid having their children attend integrated schools following court orders. These institutions became known as “segregation academies”

1970’s 

To counter the anti-integration movement, magnet schools were created to encourage multiculturalism and educational diversity 

1980’s – 2000’s 

Religious groups began seeking public funding to support their private, parochial schools, leading to the rise in taxpayer-funded voucher programs and subsidies for primarily religious schools 

1990’s – 2010’s 

Following a number of federal education reforms, private groups and individuals began driving the development of charter schools which operate in a quasi-public, quasi-private space and compete with traditional public schools

As a result of these various privatization movements, we have a vast array of school choice programs available to students. These are often publicly funded and benefit private organizations with varying degrees of oversight. Many of the programs are similar but use different names for marketing or mechanisms to circumvent legal prohibitions on school privatization.

Contemporary School Choice Options

1920’s

A movement to Americanize children by opening schools with Protestant values

1950’s – 60’s

A rise in the establishment and use of private schools for white families to avoid having their children attend integrated schools following court orders. These institutions became known as “segregation academies”

1970’s 

To counter the anti-integration movement, magnet schools were created to encourage multiculturalism and educational diversity 

1980’s – 2000’s 

Religious groups began seeking public funding to support their private, parochial schools, leading to the rise in taxpayer-funded voucher programs and subsidies for primarily religious schools 

1990’s – 2010’s 

Following a number of federal education reforms, private groups and individuals began driving the development of charter schools which operate in a quasi-public, quasi-private space and compete with traditional public schools

As a result of these various privatization movements, we have a vast array of school choice programs available to students. These are often publicly funded and benefit private organizations with varying degrees of oversight. Many of the programs are similar but use different names for marketing or mechanisms to circumvent legal prohibitions on school privatization.

Contemporary School Choice Options

Key Privatization Cases

Key Privatization Cases

Lemon v. Kurtzman (1971) created the “Lemon Test” to help determine the constitutionality of a state providing aid to private, religious institutions. The U.S. Supreme Court found that any state action “must have a secular legislative purpose”

Committee for Public Education v. Nyquist (1973) the Supreme Court ruled that private religious schools should not receive public funding when that funding overly intertwines the state and religious organizations.

Mueller v. Allen (1983) held that school choice benefits individuals, not institutions, and therefore complies with the First Amendment.

Aguilar v. Felton (1985) the Supreme Court struck down a New York program that sent public educators to private religious schools to aid students on the basis that it overly intertwined the state and religious organizations.

Witters v. Washington Department of Services for the Blind (1986) the Supreme Court upheld an individual student’s interest to have taxpayer funds support their enrollment in a private, religious school since they determined there would likely be no significant portion of the state aid flowing to a religious education. This case threw the doors for public funding of private, religious education wide open again, making room for a number of programs to follow in the decades since.

School Dismantling & Privatization in Arizona

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:

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.

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.

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.

REPEAT

Lemon v. Kurtzman (1971) created the “Lemon Test” to help determine the constitutionality of a state providing aid to private, religious institutions. The U.S. Supreme Court found that any state action “must have a secular legislative purpose”

Committee for Public Education v. Nyquist (1973) the Supreme Court ruled that private religious schools should not receive public funding when that funding overly intertwines the state and religious organizations.

Mueller v. Allen (1983) held that school choice benefits individuals, not institutions, and therefore complies with the First Amendment.

Aguilar v. Felton (1985) the Supreme Court struck down a New York program that sent public educators to private religious schools to aid students on the basis that it overly intertwined the state and religious organizations.

Witters v. Washington Department of Services for the Blind (1986) the Supreme Court upheld an individual student’s interest to have taxpayer funds support their enrollment in a private, religious school since they determined there would likely be no significant portion of the state aid flowing to a religious education. This case threw the doors for public funding of private, religious education wide open again, making room for a number of programs to follow in the decades since.

School Dismantling & Privatization in Arizona

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:

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

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.

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.

REPEAT

The First Vouchers: STOs

The First Vouchers: STOs

Hailed widely by school choice extremists as the future of educational options (or “school choice”), STO vouchers are dollar-for-dollar tax credits that benefit private schools without passing through the state Treasury at all, resulting in significantly less money for public schools.

In 1997, then-Governor Fife Symington signed into law a private tax credit law that would set the stage as Arizona’s first form of vouchers. At the time, the Joint Legislative Budget Committee (JLBC) estimated that the cost would be $4.5M per year. In 2019, the cost now tops $160 million per year, and 93% of these vouchers are used for religious schools.

When Gov. Symington signed the law, it was touted by special interests as a tool to make private education more accessible to low-income families. Instead, STOs have grown into a lucrative business opportunity for some, and a system of subsidies that keep private education a privilege for those who can already afford it.

The STO program has grown by almost 4000% in 20 years. Arizona legislators have strategically and repeatedly expanded it, while several have personally profited from the organizations themselves.

Growth of STO Tax Credit program

In the past 20 years, 18 other states have followed Arizona’s lead in establishing private-school tax credit programs. However — unlike Arizona — most of these other states require that the majority of funds go to low-income students, and many cap the programs at low figures, like $10M per year.

Even “school choice” boosters such as current AZ Supreme Court Justice Clint Bolick have soured on STO vouchers since their inception. Bolick, who co-founded the Institute for Justice in Washington, DC to support vouchers and who “defended them up to the Arizona Supreme Court,” has since made clear:

“It’s not a charitable purpose to contribute to your own child’s education,” said Bolick. “I support comprehensive school choice in Arizona, but we don’t have it. And it’s frustrating to see these programs manipulated to try to achieve goals they are not intended to achieve.”

Bolick has also publicly denounced “swapping” scholarships, saying that this practice goes against the charitable intent of the program. Because parents cannot give a tax credit to an STO in their own child’s name, they frequently swap with other parents. Bolick also stated he was shocked to find out that the schools themselves were instructing parents on how to engage in this scholarship-swapping practice.

When even the architects admit their program isn’t working, it might be time to abandon the blueprint altogether.

Despite the obvious problems with Arizona’s first voucher program, profiteers and privatizers have continuously developed more and more ways to divert funding from public education, to devastating effect.

Hailed widely by school choice extremists as the future of educational options (or “school choice”), STO vouchers are dollar-for-dollar tax credits that benefit private schools without passing through the state Treasury at all, resulting in significantly less money for public schools.

In 1997, then-Governor Fife Symington signed into law a private tax credit law that would set the stage as Arizona’s first form of vouchers. At the time, the Joint Legislative Budget Committee (JLBC) estimated that the cost would be $4.5M per year. In 2019, the cost now tops $160 million per year, and 93% of these vouchers are used for religious schools.

When Gov. Symington signed the law, it was touted by special interests as a tool to make private education more accessible to low-income families. Instead, STOs have grown into a lucrative business opportunity for some, and a system of subsidies that keep private education a privilege for those who can already afford it.

The STO program has grown by almost 4000% in 20 years. Arizona legislators have strategically and repeatedly expanded it, while several have personally profited from the organizations themselves.

Growth of STO Tax Credit program

In the past 20 years, 18 other states have followed Arizona’s lead in establishing private-school tax credit programs. However — unlike Arizona — most of these other states require that the majority of funds go to low-income students, and many cap the programs at low figures, like $10M per year.

Even “school choice” boosters such as current AZ Supreme Court Justice Clint Bolick have soured on STO vouchers since their inception. Bolick, who co-founded the Institute for Justice in Washington, DC to support vouchers and who “defended them up to the Arizona Supreme Court,” has since made clear:

“It’s not a charitable purpose to contribute to your own child’s education,” said Bolick. “I support comprehensive school choice in Arizona, but we don’t have it. And it’s frustrating to see these programs manipulated to try to achieve goals they are not intended to achieve.”

Bolick has also publicly denounced “swapping” scholarships, saying that this practice goes against the charitable intent of the program. Because parents cannot give a tax credit to an STO in their own child’s name, they frequently swap with other parents. Bolick also stated he was shocked to find out that the schools themselves were instructing parents on how to engage in this scholarship-swapping practice.

When even the architects admit their program isn’t working, it might be time to abandon the blueprint altogether.

Despite the obvious problems with Arizona’s first voucher program, profiteers and privatizers have continuously developed more and more ways to divert funding from public education, to devastating effect.

Vouchers By Another Name: ESAs

Vouchers By Another Name: ESAs

In 2009, the Arizona Supreme Court unanimously declared Arizona’s school voucher programs unconstitutional, stating that vouchers violate a constitutional ban against diverting taxpayer dollars to private and religious schools.

This defeat proved only a temporary setback for privatizers.

The decision simultaneously handed the privatizers a roadmap to circumvent the Constitution through another route. While the court ruled that vouchers violated the Aid Clause of the AZ Constitution by transferring state funds directly to private schools, the decision noted that vouchers would be constitutional **if** public funds were simply to go to individuals (who then could choose to spend those funds on private or religious schools). In its decision, the Court painted a clear description of what would become Empowerment Scholarship Accounts (ESA vouchers), the nation’s first private school voucher program. This mechanism would load tax dollars onto a debit card that would be mailed to parents seeking a private education for their child instead of to the private schools themselves.

Using this cue, in 2011 AZ lawmakers passed a limited $2.5 million ESA voucher program that cracked open the door to a new form of voucher via a sympathetic population—students with special needs, whose families had understandably been asking for better services from public schools whose slashed budgets made it increasingly harder to meet the needs of the highest-need students. The AZ Supreme Court issued its final decision in 2013 (Niehaus v Huppenthal) affirming the constitutionality of this workaround.

Over the next 5 years, the legislature incrementally expanded eligibility to several new categories of students, including those attending public schools that received a D or F rating, children in military families or foster care, children on Native American reservations, and incoming kindergartners. This strategy of incremental expansion has proved highly effective for the privatizers. Lawmakers who support privatizing public education have largely evaded public scrutiny by systematically passing “small” programs for sympathetic populations.

ESA Voucher Cast and Enrollment by year

Knowing universal vouchers were being forced through in the midst of a starving public school system and an unprecedented education crisis, frustrated parents and teachers filed a citizens’ referendum to put SB1431 on the ballot. This formalized into Save Our Schools Arizona, and thousands of SOSAZ volunteers worked across the state to collect 110,000 signatures, successfully defended against several lawsuits at the AZ Supreme Court (with Justice Clint Bolick on the bench), and ultimately ran a statewide campaign to defeat universal vouchers by a 2 to 1 margin in November 2018.

Around the US, vouchers have been put to voters over 20 times, and each time they have failed. According to Politico, “when voters in states across the country have been asked if they want to send public money to private schools through vouchers, they’ve pretty much always said no.” Arizona proved to be no exception.

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