by Félix Pérez
Arizona’s most extreme state politicians and the state’s highest ranking school official have been all over the news lately for all the wrong reasons. Whether it’s the state superintendent making robocalls to parents promoting private school education or more than a dozen politicians being wined and dined behind closed doors by the secretive and controversial American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, a connecting thread throughout is the abandonment of public schools in favor of for-profit schools.
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On Tuesday, Phoenix news station CBS5AZ.com aired a blockbuster investigative report about a private membership drive for state legislators by ALEC at a high-dollar restaurant. Among the 17 elected officials in attendance was state Rep. Debbie Lesko, ALEC’s point person in the legislature and sponsor of a bill that would expand the state’s private school voucher program.
That followed questions raised by 12 News about whether Superintendent John Huppenthal was funneling more money to voucher schools than allowed by state law. Last month, Huppenthal, the state’s highest elected school leader, got into hot water for recording a robocall to 15,000 parents telling them how they can use taxpayer money to send their kids to private schools.
At the time, teacher Andrew Morrill, president of the Arizona Education Association (AEA), said it was clear that Huppenthal had decided that the goal of Arizona’s public education system is for profit, rather than the education of Arizona’s 1 million students. Huppenthal, continued Morrill, had “thrown himself over into a marketing strategy for the profiteering side of education.”
It is appalling that the Superintendent of Public Instruction would ask parents in this state to remove their children from Arizona’s public schools and enroll them in private schools. He has a responsibility to support our state’s system of public education, which includes our students, our teachers, our education support staff, and our schools, to ensure that they have the resources they need in order to succeed.
Educators, administrators and friends of public education are fighting back against two bills that would expand the voucher program — one by Lesko and the other by Sen. Kimberly Lee — and the continuing disinvestment in public schools.
Dozens of AEA members visited the state legislature last week and the week before to meet with lawmakers. Separately, more than 230 of Arizona’s superintendents signed off on an open letter prompted by Huppenthal’s robocalls and the voucher expansion bills. They wrote:
“We, the school district leaders in Arizona, are troubled that some of our current elected and appointed state leadership seem unwilling to provide a quality education for all of Arizona’s children. Recent advocacy efforts by elected officials to grow the privatization of education in Arizona compel us to speak out.
“It appears that the goal of the current education-reform movement is to move designated “tax money” out of the public sector and transfer it into private hands. This transfer of funds, known as Empowerment Scholarship Accounts, vouchers or tax credits, is designed to subsidize students to attend private schools rather than using these desperately needed funds for the public schools.”
Since 2008, the Arizona Legislature and Gov. Jan Brewer have cut over $1 billion in education funding.