Stop Diverting Our Public Education Funding!

The GOP loves to tout free enterprise

But they sure don’t have a problem diverting public education funding to private schools. As reported in the AZ Daily Starthis morning, Rep. Matt Gress, R-Phoenix, is pushing a bill to once again divert taxpayer dollars to private schools. This time, the goal is to provide scholarships for a degree in education to students attending private and religious colleges. The scholarships would require students to teach one year in a public school for every year funding was accepted.

This bill would expand the Teachers Academy created in 2017 at Governor Ducey’s request. The program currently pays a year of college tuition at public community colleges and universities for education degrees in exchange for each year of teaching in an Arizona public school. This year’s $15M budget for the program was woefully inadequate with as many as 300 students on the scholarship waitlist at ASU. Governor Hobbs has proposed another $15M in her budget to handle the shortfall, but I’m guessing the GOP-led Legislature will agree to that (maybe) if the funding can go to private colleges.

Even if the additional funding was approved, Grand Canyon University could suck up $17M of it all on its own. According to the school, they have 3,000 students enrolled in programs to help make them certified teachers and at least 80% of those will teach in public schools. The good in that is that we’d have more certified teachers filling Arizona district and charter classrooms.

Attacking Separation of Church and State

The bad news is that $17M is more than the program’s current funding, and GCU mandates students must sign a statement of faith that includes an acknowledgment that marriage is between a man and a woman. GCU’s Statement on the Integration of Faith and Work also states, “Jesus Christ is both Savior and Lord… and that salvation comes through Jesus Christ alone.”

GCU has offered same-sex marriage benefits to employees since 2015, a move they took voluntarily. Their website also states that one must not be Christian to attend the university. But, this is yet another example of the effort to divert taxpayer dollars to private schools and private religious schools in particular. It also is another attempt to break down our nation’s long-standing separation of church and state.

As for program funding, the Joint Legislative Budget Committee fiscal note attached to the bill states that “the appropriation is not tied to a statutory formula”. This, the JLBC says, allows private institutions to offer scholarships that may decrease the allocation to public universities.

Long-Term Goal – More Conservative Teachers?

The problem isn’t that our public community colleges and universities can’t produce more teachers. Rather, the problem is the lack of additional funding to provide scholarships for this program. Opening up the program to private schools, even with the additional $15M Governor Hobbs is proposing, won’t help the scholarship shortfalls at our state universities, but may drive those students to the private schools. Long-term, that would likely mean more conservative teachers in our public schools – a change all of us would have helped pay for. Wait…could that be part of the plan?

And, Arizona’s GOP-led Legislature has proven itself totally disinterested in ensuring any kind of accountability and transparency in the awarding of taxpayer dollars to private K-12 schools. How can we believe this would be any different?

One of the Few Unifying Institutions We Have Left

Once again, they are instead, working to dismantle our public schools. This, according to Daniel Buck, a rising star conservative education writer. He writes that public schools are, “one of the few unifying institutions that we have left”. Buck goes on to say, “If we continue to individualize and atomize the classroom, we shouldn’t be surprised if our culture and political climate follow suit”.

Education blogger Peter Greene first wrote about Buck making a case for public education. Green writes of Buck,

“The argument he makes in this latest piece–that the nation benefits from having students share core experiences together while learning some of the same material even as they learn how to function in a mini-community of different people from different backgrounds–that’s an argument familiar to advocates of public education. The “agonizing individualism” and personalized selfishness that he argues against are, for many people, features of modern school choice–not public schools.”

So yes, I have concerns with this bill for several reasons. But, my greatest concern is the further erosion it helps precipitate, of our common good, our common identity, our unifying forces. We seem to be rapidly devolving into a “screw you, it’s all about me” form of self-identity where there is no value in those things that contribute to the common good and no participation in the public square. Public schools, in the words of Thomas Jefferson,

“Is here placed among the articles of public care, not that it would be proposed to take its ordinary branches out of the hands of private enterprise, which manages so much better all the concerns to which it is equal, but a public institution can alone supply those sciences which, though rarely called for, are yet necessary to complete the circle, all the parts of which contribute to the improvement of the country, and some of them to its preservation.”

Public schools, from preschool to the university level, bring together people from many different walks of life. Segregation, often (sometimes inadvertently) fueled by financial means, or the desire to be around (or have your kids be around) people just like you, only serves to exacerbate our differences and our polarization.

Our Public Schools Knit Our Communities Together

Our Founding Fathers understood this, wrote author Derek Black on, they knew public education was key to the survival of our democracy. Thomas Jefferson once warned against the “‘tyranny’ of government that would follow unless ‘the people at large’ were ‘educated at the common expence of all'”. John Adams went even further, saying that, the education of “every rank and class of people, down to the lowest and the poorest” had “to be the care of the public” and “maintained at the public expense.” The importance of it he said, required that, “no expense…would be too extravagant.”

Black went on to write in his book “Schoolhouse Burning: Public Education and the Assault on American Democracy”,

“America’s education story is ultimately a story of the tension between the idea that the nation’s democracy rests on the foundation of education and the inability to ever fully deliver on that commitment. Education, like democracy, has long been a work in progress. But that progress has come by remaining fixed on our fundamental ideas, not questioning them because of our own failures to reach them – and certainly not relacing them with something else. And as we ponder our own distinct, yet similar, challenges in providing education to all and uniting a polarized nation, we would be well served to ask whether we will resolve them by moving further away from or closer to our public educaiton commitments.”

We know how to fix public schools. At the root of it all are our teachers. Paying them what they are worth, respecting their expertise, and yes…in the beginning…ensuring they get the absolute best education we can provide. The quality of that education won’t improve if we continue to divert funding. Let’s focus on our public schools of teacher education for our public schools of student learning. Let’s keep our democracy strong!