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We Investigated How Billionaires Are Destroying Public Schools
Inside Arizona's disastrous school voucher system.
Arizona has for decades been a sinkhole for public education. The state’s schools often operate on dusty old textbooks, struggle with a perpetual teacher shortage, and rank at or near the bottom of the national rankings in overall quality.
These failures are not the result of simple mismanagement or incompetence. Arizona’s public schools have been grievously underfunded since the 1980s, as all popular public efforts to increase the state’s education budget have been met with legislative blockades or the partisan decisions of state judges. Now, Republicans are going for the kill shot: a school voucher program that sends taxpayer money earmarked for public schools to private and charter schools instead.
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Passed by Republicans in 2021 over the clear disapproval of voters, the Educational Savings Account (ESA) voucher program has already blown a hole in the state budget, costing more than $300 million this year alone after its sponsors promised it would be about one-tenth of that.
The voucher — really a state-issued debit card — is handed to parents with virtually zero strings attached, so long as their kids attend some sort of schooling. They could be shunted off to a fly-by-night private charter or an online school based in a nondescript strip mall, or they could wind up using public funds on an exclusive private religious academy that offers alternative white-washed history; the state does not regulate voucher schools. This free money and ideological leeway has inspired a growing gold rush, attracting the likes of the reactionary activist Charlie Kirk, who teamed with a Trump-supporting church to open his own chain of schools.
The vast majority of these vouchers have been utilized by families who were not previously enrolled in an Arizona public school, and thus were either already in private school or likely to attend one. That’s seen as a proxy for wealth, and the correlation is clear in the zip code data of parents taking vouchers for their kids.
The program is expected to cost a billion dollars within the next few years, and much of that will serve to subsidize either for-profit enterprises or wealthy institutions that never needed public funds. Some will be state-sponsored academies of indoctrination, which is precisely what conservative school activists and politicians say they oppose in public schools.
Arizona is only the tip of the spear, as the school privatization movement has swept through Republican-governed states with the astonishing pace reserved for the priorities of major conservative donors and right-wing religious organizations. Over the past three years, at least 15 states have established or passed privatization programs, including four within the first three months of 2023.
It’s no coincidence that the states that have more recently passed or are in the midst of passing voucher programs are the same states where moral panics around education about racism and gender identities have been loudest and most successful. School privatization has been a key goal of the conservative movement since the 1990s and dates all the way back to 1955, when the conservative economist Milton Friedman published a paper called "The Role of Government in Education.” Drafted after the Supreme Court ruled school segregation unconstitutional, Friedman’s writing inspired voucher programs across the South, which were primarily by white families whose children were rezoned into mostly Black school districts.
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