Dale Russakoff Describes Arizona Cannibalizing its Public Schools

It can be hard to notice just how sick a person—or a valued institution—is becoming. The patient gets weaker, but we deny that we’re watching the progress of a fatal disease until it may be too late. Even though teachers in Arizona had observed their colleagues leaving for nearby states, the size of their classes ballooning, and the building conditions and equipment deteriorating, many didn’t realize they could to stop the collapse until one day last spring when they watched colleagues in West Virginia and Oklahoma standing up. Then they realized they had to do something. That is the process Dale Russakoff describes in an extraordinarily well researched and well written article that appeared in Sunday’s NY Times Magazine.

Russakoff sets her Arizona story against the nationwide policy backdrop many people struggle to conceptualize: “Public education is a $650 billion national enterprise, comparable to the U.S. defense budget, except that the federal government pays only 8.5 percent of the cost.  States and local school districts split the rest in varying proportions but each state finances it differently. Texas and Louisiana tap plentiful oil and gas revenues; Northeastern states like Massachusetts and New Jersey rely on high income and property taxes.  Arizona, which hasn’t raised income taxes in more than 25 years, counts more on sales taxes and other revenues generated by a growing economy.  However they pay for it, K-12 schooling is the biggest single expenditure for all states, accounting for 36 percent of general-fund budgets on average. The Great Recession devastated education funding in every region of the country.  With tax revenues plummeting, legislators and governors desperate to slash spending turned inexorably to public schools… In half the states, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, teacher pay adjusted for inflation was lower in 2016 than in 2000… Few states were hit as hard as Arizona, where the sun, low taxes and wide-open spaces had drawn transplants from around the country, fueling an economy heavily based on real estate development.”

After the housing bubble burst and property values fell, what happened to Arizona’s school funding? “Jan Brewer and the Republican Legislature cut funds that districts relied on to pay teachers, maintain buildings, update curriculum and technology and much more.  Salaries were frozen, funding for all-day kindergarten was eliminated and class sizes climbed year by year as teachers left for higher-paying jobs and principals were forced to combine orphaned classes. By last year, Shannon Connors, a sixth-grade teacher in a high-poverty, 98 percent Latino school in Phoenix, ended up teaching two classes at once—50 students—when a succession of long-term substitutes failed to teach one of the classes effectively.”

Arizona typifies states bent on cutting taxes: “Similar situations had unfolded in every state where teachers walked off the job last spring.  A 2017 study by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities found that West Virginia, Oklahoma, Kentucky and Arizona—scenes of the largest teacher walkouts—were among the six state that cut the most aid to local school districts in the last decade.  All are solidly Republican and all have embraced small government and income-tax cuts… In Arizona, state funding per pupil has been below the national average since 1975, falling particularly after the mid 1990s, when lawmakers embarked on an almost unbroken streak of annual cuts in personal and corporate income taxes…. Even in the depths of the recession, Brewer and the Legislature cut corporate income taxes 30 percent—roughly $550 billion a year—in hopes of stimulating the economy, but without success.  Voters approved a temporary 1-cent sales tax hike in a 2010 referendum, with proceeds designated primarily for education, then decisively voted down a permanent extension in 2012. The leader of the 2012 opposition to the sales tax was Doug Ducey, now the governor of Arizona, who was then the state treasurer.”

After teachers walked off the job in May, Ducey promised a 20 percent raise by 2020: “There would be a 10 percent raise this year, and—if future Legislatures approved the funds—5 percent in 2019 and again in 2020. ”  Striking teachers, choosing to call themselves Arizona Education United: “called the raises unsustainable without new taxes.”  Teachers spent the early summer gathering thousands of signatures for an Invest in Ed ballot referendum to raise taxes, but on August 29, the Arizona Supreme Court “invalidated the petitions signed by more than 270,000 Arizonans to put the tax increase on the November ballot.”  Ducey had expanded the size of the state’s supreme court by two members—both appointed by him.  Many accused him of packing the Court and others pointed out that the lawsuit that eventually invalidated the initiative had been brought by the Chamber of Commerce.

Over a year ago, another group of Arizona citizens had noticed something seriously amiss in Arizona: a new initiative to expand school vouchers for privatized education at public school expense. In the summer of 2017, a group of parents and teachers organized as Save Our Schools Arizona and got another ballot initiative certified for the November 2018 ballot. Thanks to their work, voters will have a chance to stop the vast expansion of Arizona’s Education Scholarship Account neo-vouchers, Arizona’s version of what are known as Education Savings Accounts. The ballot initiative challenges the expansion of the program to make each of the 1.1 million school-age children in Arizona eligible—though there would be an initial cap of 5,500 new students accepted into the program each year until after 2022.  Here is how Russakoff describes the Empowerment Scholarship Accounts: “Under the voucher program, the state loads an average of $5,700 onto debit cards and issues them to parents to use for private schools, home instruction and other alternatives to public schools.”  Racing to challenge the program, members of SOS Arizona have pointed to other states which immediately lifted enrollment caps—allowing the number of debit-card-carrying-students to grow much sooner than expected, along with a rapidly growing theft from the state’s education budget.

What has driven political leaders in Arizona to collapse the state education budget, cut taxes, and expand school privatization?  Russakoff explains: “In 2016, the Brennan Center for Justice at N.Y.U. School of Law issued a report called “Secret Spending in the States,” finding that dark-money political contributions in Arizona increased from about $600,000 in 2010 to more than $10.3 million million in 2014, the year Ducey was elected governor…  In his 2014 gubernatorial campaign, Ducey ran on a pledge to cut taxes every year and drive income tax rates in Arizona ‘as close to zero as possible.’  That year, six dark-money groups spent almost $3.5 million supporting him or attacking his opponents… In 2017, the Koch brothers’ political advocacy arm, Americans for Prosperity, named the Arizona voucher-expansion bill its No. 1 education-reform priority in the country.  The American Federation for Children, another bundler of anonymous contributions, funded by the family of Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and focused on expanding school choice through charter schools, vouchers and private school scholarships, made it their top priority in the state… For weeks after leaders of Save Our Schools delivered their petitions to the secretary of state, a phalanx of activists from Americans for Prosperity and the American Federation for Children submitted multiple daily objections to individual signatures…. When the state nonetheless certified more than enough signatures as valid, lawyers representing the Koch network filed legal challenges that went all the way to the State Supreme Court but ultimately failed.”

Russakoff quotes Kelly Berg, a 20-year high school math teacher from Mesa and lifelong Republican, describing her sudden realization last May—as she sat through an all-night deliberation of the State Legislature—of the enormous barrier she and her colleagues face: “We were told to sit down when we stood in agreement…. We were told to remain quiet when applauding when a teacher, who was in tears, was pleading for support for our classes and our students… We were disrespected. We were mocked. We were listened to, but not heard. That’s what radicalized me… As the kids would say, ‘I’m woke.’ ”

Please do read Dale Russakoff’s fine article.  She connects all the pieces of this story—school funding—the role of taxes for buying public services—the impact of tax cuts—the role of far-right money buying politics—the ideology of privatization—and the cost to state budgets and to local school districts when a state undertakes to run a system of private tuition neo-vouchers along with a system of charter schools along with the state’s public school districts all out of one fixed pot of money.

As Russakoff narrates Arizona’s story, she is also providing an account of what has been happening in North Carolina, Wisconsin, Kansas, Ohio, Georgia, Michigan, Oklahoma, Kentucky, and Indiana.