Thursday, September 7, 2017

Vouchers On Steroids: Let the Voters Decide

Posted By on Thu, Sep 7, 2017 at 9:00 AM

Voucher supporters don't believe in a fair fight. Pro-voucher legislators don't trust the voters they work for. They're trying to quash a referendum on the vouchers-on-steroids-for-everyone law passed last session, using any means necessary. If that effort fails, expect them to repeal and replace their own voucher law next session, rendering the referendum null and void.

If the referendum actually does end up on the ballot in 2018, it will make for an interesting battle. There's no way to predict which way the vote will go.

When Republicans first passed the Empowerment Scholarship Accounts law—aka Educational Savings Accounts, aka Vouchers on Steroids—a limited number of Arizona families were able to use the ESAs. But from the beginning its advocates said their plan was to make vouchers universal so everyone from welfare recipients to billionaires could get government money to pay for private schools, or pretty much any other form of non-public education. "Eventually" came in the last legislative session. They got what they wanted. If the law stays in effect, it will take twelve years for every child who isn't attending a district or charter school to receive between $5,000 and $30,000 a year to pay for their educations.

Along came a group, Save Our Schools, which began a quixotic quest to overturn the law. The effort should have been doomed from the start. Logic says you can't collect enough signatures to put a referendum on the state ballot without lots of funding. But the group's shoe-leather-driven volunteer effort worked. The referendum got the signatures it needed. Clearly, lots of Arizonans want the vouchers-for-all law off the books.

But the privatization/"education reform" movement wants its vouchers, so it mounted a challenge of the signatures. It looks like the challenge failed. According to the latest analysis, the petitions have more than enough valid signatures. The next move is to try and convince a judge that minor irregularities in the petitions are important enough to have them thrown out. That effort takes lawyers, and lawyers cost money. Enter the American Federation for Children, a big-bucks conservative education group which was founded and funded by Trump's Ed Sec, Betsy DeVos. DeVos cut ties with the group when she joined the Trump administration, but it has the same focus it always had, to pour money into promoting vouchers and charter schools. Last election cycle, the AFC plowed hundreds of thousands of dollars into the campaigns of sympathetic legislators in Arizona and similar amounts in races across the country, and now it's plowing more money into supporting the Arizona legislature's ESA handiwork.

The effort to invalidate the petitions may fail, which would move the referendum a step closer to the 2018 ballot. But there's still one cynical, anti-Democratic gambit left. When the legislature gathers in January, Republicans can get rid of their own vouchers-for-all law, which would get rid of the referendum fighting the law. Ten minutes later, they can vote in a new, slightly different law.

If the referendum doesn't make it on the ballot, Republicans should be branded as the party that not only refuses to fund education, it doesn't think the voters should have a direct voice in education matters.

If the referendum makes it on the ballot, history says the vouchers-for-all law will be voted down. Voters have never passed a pro-voucher initiative of any kind anywhere in the country. But in our current political environment, everything is up for grabs. According to a recent national survey, support of vouchers is close to a 50-50 proposition when you ask people if they support vouchers as a form of school choice. But voucher support drops when you ask if they support using government funds for private school tuition. The side that wins the slogan wars will win the vote—if Republicans have the courage and the integrity to allow the vote to happen.

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