Drowning Public Education in the Bathtub

Those of you who’ve been around a while will remember lobbyist Grover Norquist, who founded Americans for Tax Reform in 1985. This was during the Reagan years when government was seen as a drag on the free market. Norquist is probably best known for this quote in 2001: “I don’t want to abolish government. I simply want to reduce it to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub”

It has been obvious for many years that Arizona Republican lawmakers want to drown our district schools since the budget for K-12 education makes up almost 44% of the state budget. But then, the predominant responsibilities of the AZ state government are to provide for public safety and public education, so…it stands to figure that education would comprise a large portion of the budget.

If you’ve listened to the AZ Republican lawmakers’ talking points over the last few years, you’d tend to believe that public education has been showered with funding. The truth however is quite another story. In fact, adjusting for inflation, K-12 funding per public school student hasn’t increased in 21 years and leaves us still 48th in the nation. In 2001, districts were provided $8,824 per student, and now, only $8,770. The high-water mark in 2007 of $10,182 per student was under Democratic Governor Janet Napolitano. This was actually $1,412 more than in 2022.

You see, pretty much all the GOP has been doing over the last few years is to reinstate funding they took away to begin with. And to add insult to injury, they’ve been chipping away at the amount available to district schools by the continuous expansion of privatization options.

Guess you’d have to be living under a rock to have missed the battle over vouchers (Empowerment Scholarship Accounts) during the past decade. ESAs were enacted in 2011 and GOP lawmakers have been steadily expanding these vouchers over the years. In 2022, (I’m really cutting to the chase here), they were finally successful in enacting a universal expansion. Not only are students no longer required to have previously attended a district school to qualify for a voucher, but there are no guardrails or caps and no transparency or accountability for private schools. And, only two months into the new law, AZ DOE had received nearly 30,000 filings for the vouchers, totaling an immediate hit to the state fund of $210M. The Joint Legislative Budget Committee only budgeted $33M for the program for the 2022-23 school year, but some now estimate the bill could approach as much as $500M.

Student Tuition Organizations (STOs) are another vehicle to poke holes in the district funding life raft. They allow taxpayers to take a dollar-for-dollar reduction in their state taxes when they give to an approved STO which provides scholarship funding to children attending grades K-12 at qualified private schools in Arizona. These STOs basically serve as a pass-through for tax credit donations to private schools while keeping 10 percent for themselves. STOs have also seen tremendous expansion over the years with the individual tax credit amount now at $1,306 which is over six times that which taxpayers can give to district schools. There are also two types of tax credits corporations can take and the combined cap for those is now up to $141M.

Just introduced last week by Representative Livingston, is HB 2014 which seeks to expand the aggregate dollar amount of STO tax credits from $6M in 2021-22 to $10M in 2022-23, to $15M in 2023-24, and to $20M in 2024-25. It also would eliminate the need for recipients of a corporate, low-income scholarship to have attended a district school prior to receiving the scholarship. Keep in mind that removing the requirement to have first attended a district school prior to receiving STO or ESA monies, accommodates students already in private school or being homeschooled, at their parent’s expense. In fact, that was the case for 80% of the filings for the universal expansion last year. And, when a student taking an ESA or STO scholarship was never in a district school, there is zero reduction in cost to that district school and ultimately, taxpayers.

These schemes are chipping away at the foundation of our district (community) schools so that eventually, they can be “drowned in the bathtub”. This is not by accident, but rather, by design. There are those in the Legislature, who do not believe in equal opportunity to learn and thrive, but rather, in survival of the fittest. And, they are hell-bent on deciding who the “fittest” are. Privatizing public education primarily serves those who “have” at the expense of those who “have not”. This continued war on public education will continue to weaken our communities and our democracy as it solidifies power and influence with those at the very top.

Want to fight back? Go to SOSArizona.org.

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