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The Long Con

Congrats, Gov. Ducey, on pulling off a heist for the ages.

Sometimes, you just have to appreciate a long con.

And Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey last week pulled off a flim-flam hustle that even worked in that old Arizona classic, a land scam.

We should add that it wasn't so admirable from the perspective of children, teachers and advocates for public education—but then, the marks of a con are rarely left happy.

We're talking, of course, about Arizona's new law expanding "empowerment scholarship accounts," which is a clever marketing slogan for school vouchers. Here's how they essentially work: Rather than send their kids to a traditional public school, parents can opt to ask the state for $5,600, which is 90 percent of what the state spends on a per-pupil basis on public schools. Then the parents get debit cards they can spend on tuition, books, tutors or other educational expenses at private and religious schools.

The expansion of ESAs will continue the ongoing efforts of Republican lawmakers and the governor to dismantle public education in our state.

So here's how it all went down: First, Ducey had to resolve some lingering legal problems for education funding. So last year, he came up with Prop 123, which asked voters to bust into the state land trust. The principal of the state land trust had heretofore been off-limits because somebody way back when had realized that growing a massive endowment for schoolkids while providing interest payments for education would ensure extra funding for schools into perpetuity (and that politicians would squander that money if they could get their grubby mitts on it)

Ducey managed to persuade leaders in the education community to settle a long-standing lawsuit by busting into the trust and giving that money to schools for a decade. Those education leaders, recognizing that a drawn-out court battle would mean they'd see nothing for the foreseeable future (and maybe nothing ever at all), went along with the plan and voters approved it by a narrow margin in May 2016.

Then, in his State of the State earlier this year, Ducey came out with a whole list of ways he wanted to support public education: pay raises for teachers, signing bonuses for teachers who agree to work in districts with low-income students, expanding all-day kindergarten, hooking up rural schools with broadband internet, loan forgiveness for STEM teachers, a funding boost for career and technical education—a total of 15 new initiatives.

And then, in the last few weeks, the con was finally on: Ducey began hammering reluctant GOP lawmakers to support the ESA legislation that was struggling to get enough votes to make it through the Legislature. This was a massive change in state education policy he had somehow neglected to mention in his State of the State when he was outlining his many goals.

And by the end of last week, he prevailed in flipping enough holdouts to get 31 GOP votes in the House of Representatives and 16 GOP votes in the Senate.

It's a thing of beauty, really: Busting open the state land trust to find enough money to hand out taxpayer dollars to wealthy parents who want to send their kids to private and religious schools that aren't held to the same testing and regulatory standards as public schools.

Ducey doesn't see it that way, of course. He praised the legislation as an expansion of "educational freedom" that helps kids get "an education that's customized to their unique needs and circumstances." And he suggested that the ESA expansion "prioritizes low-income students and families."

It actually does the exact opposite, because tuition at good private schools costs more than $5,600. And those low-income parents don't have the other resources they need to attend private schools—a car to get there, or time to transport the kid before and after work, or any number of other barriers.

Those low-income parents depend on having decent public schools in their neighborhood—and Arizona has been shortchanging those public schools for so long now that classes are overcrowded, teachers are demoralized and fleeing the state, and the quality of education continues to decline. So those who have financial resources abandon the public schools, leading to further declines. And now they have a bigger financial incentive to do just that.

Congrats, Gov. Ducey, on a heist for the ages.

Meet Your Deadline

Register now if you want to vote in next month's special city election

If you're interested in voting in the city of Tucson's upcoming special election to approve a temporary half-cent-per-dollar sales tax, you have until Monday, April 17, to register.

The sales tax would dedicate the revenues, estimated at $50 million a year for the five years the tax would exist, to road repair and equipment and facilities for the police and fire departments.

The city will be conducting the election by mail, so all registered voters will be receiving a ballot in the mailbox. The votes will be tallied on May 16.

The televised edition of Zona Politics with Jim Nintzel returns next Friday, April 14, at 6:30 p.m. on the Creative Tucson network, Cox Channel 20 and Comcast Channel 74. The radio edition of Zona Politics airs at 5 p.m. Sundays on community radio KXCI, 91.3 FM, and at 1 p.m. Saturdays and 11 a.m. Sundays on KEVT, 1210 AM. Nintzel also talks politics on The John C. Scott show at 4 p.m. Thursday on KEVT, 1210 AM.

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