Tom looks into the future of Arizona's school voucher program and sees disaster ahead

I recently got an unsolicited e-mail from the Goldwater Institute touting the part the group played in the final destruction of teachers' unions in Arizona. The wording of the press release was absolutely giddy, explaining how the cabal of white guys in expensive suits has stripped away all legal protections from people who have selflessly devoted themselves to the education of Arizona's young people for decades and suddenly find themselves at the mercy of petty administrators, dysfunctional school boards, and lawmakers who refuse to obey the law (301 monies, anyone?).

Before the guys at the Goldwater Institute move on to their ultimate goal—the complete elimination of the public school system (which helped make America the great country that it is)—they will pause for a photo op in which they will gather in front of a retirement home and kick the canes out from under old folks.

If it weren't for the fact that it would have a massive negative impact on an entire generation of our state's schoolchildren, I would almost enjoy watching the Goldwaterites and their Republican lackeys in the Legislature get their way in driving the final nail in the coffin that holds what used to be respect for teachers. Under their plan, Arizona would hand out, to parents, checks worth thousands of dollars per each school-aged kid in the house. Then, the state would say, "Now, go buy some education."

I was recently e-mailing back and forth with a good friend of mine who, due to some unknown trauma during his formative years, has turned out to be a mega-Republican. When I asked, quite sarcastically, what could possibly go wrong with such a system, he wrote "Will there be waste or some abuses? Probably..." That instantly becomes the frontrunner for the "Houston, We've Had a Problem" Memorial Understatement of the Year Award.

This thing will be the alt-fuels fiasco on steroids.

There are so many really awful things that could go wrong here, but let's start with the absolutely false notion that this plan will allow every parent to send his/her child to a good private school. We'll say that the state gives every parent $7,000. If I'm running a top-level private school (where the current tuition is already twice that amount), all I'm going to do is raise my tuition by the amount of the check. The parents who are already sending their kids to my school will gladly hand over the checks, knowing that it's not costing them a penny to do so and that the bump in tuition will help keep the Clampetts away.

For some reason, when you throw lots and lots of information at people, their eyes glaze over. So, I'll just focus on one small part of their plan and when I am done explaining it, if you don't think that it has disaster written all over it, there will officially be no hope for you.

One of the lesser-publicized parts of the plan is to give thousands of dollars per kid—no strings attached—to parents who claim to home-school their children. I've never been a fan of home schooling; I think it's, at the very least, an overreaction to the "evils" of society. But it's not against the law, so people can do it if they want to. All we can do is hope that their children don't turn out like that Spelling Bee kid from a few years back.

As it stands now, home-schooled kids are twilight, neither here nor there. It doesn't cost the state anything to educate them publicly and doesn't cost the parents anything to educate them privately. But now, the Republicans in the Legislature want to give your tax dollars to people who claim to be home-schooling their kids, whether they are doing so or not. This appears to be the Perfectly Bad Idea, one that everyone, regardless of political affiliation, can hate.

Let's start with those on the Left. They probably see a birther/gun nut/fanatic who wants to use that free money to build up an arsenal just in case a family of Mud People even thinks about moving into his trailer park. From the other fringe perspective, they see a crack ho/welfare mother who takes her brood of four kids out of public school and has them sit around and watch TV all day while she spends the 30 grand on personalized recreational activities.

But what about this scenario? You've got a family of five, good, decent people who have been unsuccessfully trying to swim upstream ever since the economy went in the toilet. Mom's job got eliminated in the downsizing and Dad can't pick up enough hours at work to make ends meet. They're near the breaking point when they hit on a plan born of desperation. They'll take their three kids out of school for a year, "school" them at home and use the $20,000 to pay down their credit cards and maybe buy that second car that the family needs. The state's not going to check where the money goes. Such a bureaucracy would be prohibitively expensive; plus, that would be an intrusion.

After a year, things are better, so they put their (uneducated) kids back in public school. But they're all a year behind and their test scores stink. Guess who gets the blame?

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