Arizona Versus the Privatizers

Arizona has long been ground zero for school privatization. Striking educators now have a chance to turn back the tide.

An Arizona teacher holds up a sign in front of the State Capitol during a #REDforED rally on April 26, 2018 in Phoenix, Arizona. Ralph Freso / Getty

Arizona is the epicenter of a nationwide struggle over school privatization. Over the past two decades, the arch-conservative billionaire Koch brothers and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) have spent millions financing efforts to decimate Arizona’s public education system for the benefit of big business. As ALEC explained in a recent tribute to Arizona’s pioneering privatizing efforts,

With this expansion [of school vouchers in April 2017], Arizona is not only solidifying its place at the top of the ALEC Report Card on American Education ranking, but showing the rest of the country that educational choice doesn’t have to be limited to being a lifeline for a few students, trapped in the worst the public education system has to offer. Instead, Arizona has offered Americans a vision of a totally new world.

The privatizers, however, may have met their match in Arizona’s Red for Ed movement. By fighting for fully funded, quality public schools, striking teachers and staff have put forward a very different vision of education in Arizona and the US. “For years, Arizona has been ground zero for the school privatization movement,” notes education analyst Diane Ravitch. “But Arizonan teachers have said ‘No mas!’ They are right.”

Winning won’t be easy. Arizona’s educators have powerful enemies. And the prevalence of charter schools across the state is a serious obstacle in the current strike. But if Red For Ed can sustain its momentum in the coming days and months, it just might be able to reverse the privatizing tide.

A Privatizer’s Paradise

The nationwide campaign to take education out of the public sphere has undoubtedly advanced furthest in Arizona. To quote public education advocate Carroll Burris, “Arizona is the Mecca of school choice.”

Arizona has long been a favored target of the right-wing Koch Institute and ALEC, a hyper-conservative Koch-funded corporate legislation mill. A number of leading Arizonan politicians are deeply embedded in, and indebted to, these bodies. Governor Doug Ducey has been part of the Koch network since 2011 and more than a third of Republican legislators were wined and dined last year at ALEC’s annual summit to promote “free-market” model legislation.

At Friday’s Red for Ed rally in Phoenix, Beth Lewis — an Arizona parent, teacher, and anti-voucher activist — connected the dots:

Why are teachers being forced to do more with less every single year? Our legislators, our state leaders, simply refuse to invest in our public schools. Our governor and many of our state leaders are being propped up by out-of-state big money donors. That’s the reason we are here. These people want to push things like voucher schemes to take money out of our already starving public schools.

These efforts by ALEC, the Koch brothers, and their brethren have largely paid off. Since 1994, Arizona has witnessed a proliferation of state-financed but privately run charter schools. With over 180,000 charter students, Arizona now has proportionally more than any state in the US. ALEC was clearly justified in ranking Arizona number one in its Report Card on American Education.

Many of these schools generate millions of dollars in private revenue. In 2014–2015, for example, BASIS charter schools made just under $60 million for the for-profit BASIS corporation that services its schools. “It’s true that some charters want to do right by students and staff, but they are few and far between,” notes Owen Kerr, a ninth-year Arizonan math teacher who was formerly employed at Imagine and BASIS charter schools. “Business is business. So I can see that though a number of charters try to do things differently, most are set up to make money.”

State funding for private schools has taken an array of forms. In 1997, Arizona pioneered a program granting individual and corporate tax credits to fund private-school tuition. The policy has expanded by 20 percent yearly, costing the state over $1.1 billion since 2009. Similar programs have now spread across the country, often with bipartisan support.

The expansion of “Empowerment Scholarship Accounts” (ESAs) is the most recent innovation in the privatizer’s playbook. In 2011, Arizona became the first state in the US to create ESAs, prepaid bank cards granted to parents for private-school educational expenses. Initially, the ESA program was limited to students with special needs, but in 2012 it was broadened to incorporate children in “failing schools,” the foster-care system, or Native American reservations. Last year alone, ESAs cost Arizona $49 million in funding.

A controversial bill expanding ESAs to all of Arizona’s 1.1 million students has been championed by Republican legislator Debbie Lesko, ALEC’s National Treasurer and State Chairman. With the active support of Governor Ducey, Lesko’s Senate Bill 1431 — a typical piece of ALEC “model” legislation — was narrowly passed in April 2017. ALEC praised Arizona for “[t]his revolutionary shift in financing,” which “heralds a whole new way of delivering education to students.” The reaction of Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos was similarly enthusiastic: “A big win for students & parents in Arizona tonight with the passage of ed savings accts. I applaud Gov. @DougDucey for putting kids first.”

The Damage Done

Arizona’s anti-privatization movement has a straightforward political message: given the funding crisis in public schools, it makes no sense to subsidize privately run schools. According to Dawn Penich-Thacker, a parent and co-founder of Save Our Schools (SOS) Arizona:

Everybody knows that Arizona’s public schools are underfunded, so why put so much money into vouchers? If there’s so little funding, why should it be given to profit-making businesses? There’s a tremendous amount of hypocrisy among state politicians.

In Arizona, as in the rest of the country, the decimation of public education and the push for privatization are deeply interconnected. By systematically cutting corporate taxes and school funding, Republican and Democratic politicians alike have set the stage for calls to radically overhaul the school system. As Arizona high-school history teacher Jonathan Parker observed,

Politicians starving public schools create a self-fulfilling prophecy — programs are cut, class sizes swell, quality teachers leave, thereby concocting an artificial demand for privatization. Whatever remedies privatization offers is nothing that a properly funded public school would not also provide to ALL students.

The negative effects of privatization go far beyond draining public funds. Unlike real public schools, which are generally subject to the oversight of democratically elected school boards and superintendents, charters are accountable only to their own internal boards plus the Arizona State Board for Charter Schools, whose members are appointed by the governor. In the absence of real oversight, Arizona’s charters have been plagued by fraud and financial scandals.

Working conditions for teachers in Arizona’s charters are often more onerous than in the public schools — and job security is virtually nonexistent. Former charter teacher Owen Kerr explains:

Arizona is a “right to work” state. But if you work at a charter, you have even fewer job protections. They can fire you for any reason — or no reason. And they don’t have to tell you why. Things aren’t great in our regular district public schools, but at least we have some system of rules and regulations protecting us. There’s a school board and a superintendent. And if the school administration wants to go after an employee, there has to be a reason for it, it has to documented, and it generally has to be in response to something egregious. So there’s really a night and day difference between working at a charter or at a district public school.

Overwork and precarity have translated into extremely high teacher turnover rates. Of charter-school teachers hired in 2013, 52 percent had left the profession by 2016 — ten percentage points higher than in regular public schools.

A revolving door of novice teachers inevitably undercuts the quality of education provided to students. Charter schools, furthermore, are exempt from state rules that require hiring credentialed teachers. These cuts to educational quality have gone hand-in-hand with changes in the content of school curriculum. Noah Karvelis, an elementary-school music teacher and Red for Ed organizer, observes that privatized education tends to be tailored to prop up the status quo:

[E]ducation is an incredibly powerful tool and one that is increasingly placed in the hands of the elite. With an increase of corporate control over education … there is an increase in a type of education that plays directly into a passive, consumer-based education. This type of education is extremely valuable for a capitalist society that has no need (or room) for anything other [than] passivity.

Despite the idealistic impulses of some “school choice” advocates, vouchers and charters have for the most part deepened educational inequities for working-class children, particularly from African American and Latino communities. Politicians like Governor Ducey tout the high test scores achieved by charter schools such as BASIS, while conveniently overlooking the fact that these scores were produced by excluding or pushing out students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Many working-class families are deterred from applying to charter lotteries, since charters do not have to provide free lunch or transportation to school, unlike regular public institutions. For students who do make it into the charter system, rates of attrition are very high. Arizona charters are often particularly inhospitable to students with special needs or learning disabilities. Kevin Brown, a school psychologist in the Washington Elementary School District, notes that “‘school choice’ is just a nice way of saying that all the high performers need to be segregated from low performers (students and families who are disadvantaged socially and economically).”

Arizona’s schools have become increasingly segregated under the impact of the privatizing drive. Though 44 percent of students in Arizona are Latino, they are only 36 percent of charter students. At BASIS, the demographics are even more skewed: in 2015–2016, whites and Asians made up, respectively, 51 and 32 percent of BASIS students. In contrast, Latino students were only 10 percent, and African Americans only 3 percent, of the student body. Unsurprisingly, the most vocal proponents of “school choice” — including Debbie Lesko and ALEC — are also open advocates of the anti-immigrant border-wall plan, stepped-up ICE deportations, and Arizona’s infamous SB 1070, a 2010 bill that sanctioned racial profiling. ALEC has likewise funded a series of initiatives that disproportionately target African Americans, including for-profit prisons, voter- suppression laws, and “Stand Your Ground” gun bills.

Last, but not least, privatization has undermined the ability of educators to collectively organize for their interests. Union busting has always been one of the primary goals of the “school choice” movement, especially in states and cities with relatively strong teachers’ unions capable of cohering resistance to the corporate agenda.

But even in “right to work” states like Arizona, the spread of charters has made workplace resistance significantly more difficult. Without any semblance of job security or due process, it’s hard for charter employees to organize at their school site or participate in any sustained job actions. Douglas, a charter-school teacher in Tucson, explained that “people are really scared of getting fired since labor rights for us are particularly precarious.”

At all stages of the Red for Ed movement, charter-school teachers have been present but underrepresented. Arizona Educators United, the main organization driving Red for Ed, has consciously sought to include charter schools in the statewide fight for better funding and pay. Various charter administrations have declared their support for Red for Ed’s calls for increased funding, from which they also stand to benefit. But Kristie, a charter-school employee in Scottsdale, notes that “though there are a lot charter teachers involved in Red for Ed, many of us don’t have the support from our administrations; it’s sad because we’re fighting for increased funding for all schools, including charters.”

Workplace organizing is especially difficult at charter schools. A significantly lower proportion of charters are represented in the school-site liaison network established by Arizona Educators United. Charter participation in the walkout has also been noticeably thinner. Even those schools that caved at the last minute to the teachers’ push to walk out on Thursday and Friday have now generally changed their tune. Douglas outlined the general situation: “At my school, we’re going back on Monday — and I know many other charters schools are already basically strikebreaking. Lots of teachers I know feel terrible about staying open, or going back early, since this fuels the privatizers’ narrative that charters will stay open when public schools do not.”

Kristie’s experience in Scottsdale was similar:

Unfortunately I don’t feel supported by my administration to continue the strike on Monday. They didn’t try to stop us taking our own PTO [Personal Time Off] on Thursday and Friday, but now they’ve discouraged us from continuing. There’s been kind of a fear put in to the teachers that support this movement — anything beyond Friday, we could lose our jobs.

For all of these reasons, teachers in regular public schools have been obliged to take the lead, especially during the walkout. Kerr notes that,

This a grassroots efforts across the board in education, but it’s mostly led by those in the public districts. Rank-and-filers in the charters don’t have a real opportunity to express themselves — if they do, they’re out the door the next year. So district employees have had to be the movers and shakers.

Resisting the Privatizers

Though charter-school educators remain a weak link, a powerful anti-privatization movement has emerged in Arizona over the past year. It began with a small group of teachers and mothers who first met each other last spring during the legislative sessions on SB 1431 and ended up creating a group called Save Our Schools Arizona. Dawn Penich-Thacker explains,

None of us knew each other before this all began. We were individuals who felt passionately about trying to defeat the ESA voucher bill, SB 1431, so we started speaking at the public section of the hearings. But lawmakers ignored us. The day they passed the bill, six of us happened to be at the capitol. We asked each other: What now? Do we just go home?

Luckily, one of us knew that in Arizona you can do a citizens referendum: if you collect signatures from 5 percent of the population you can get an initiative on the ballot to block a law. So six strangers, all mothers and teachers, formed Save Our Schools Arizona. We’re all volunteers, we have no money — nothing.

Through a grassroots signature gathering campaign from May to August last year, SOS Arizona succeeded in putting SB 1431 on the November 2018 ballot. Arizonan voters will now have an opportunity to deal a blow against the Koch brothers’ privatizing agenda by voting “no” on Proposition 305.

All sides are aware of what’s at stake in this battle. Immediately after SOS Arizona registered the ballot initiative in late 2017, the Koch-financed Arizona chapter of Americans for Prosperity immediately filed a lawsuit to get Proposition 305 off the ballot. Though a judge dismissed the case, similar obstructionist efforts will likely emerge in the coming months.

Addressing a Koch gathering in early 2018, Governor Ducey insisted upon the importance of defeating the SOS Arizona referendum. “This is a very real fight in my state,” Ducey declared. “I didn’t run for governor to play small ball. I think this [push for ESAs] is an important idea.”

For her part, Penich-Thacker stressed the national implications of Proposition 305:

Arizona should be instructive to the rest of the country. Privatization, the battle cry of school choice, voucher programs — the entire country needs to watch and engage the voucher battle happening in Arizona in 2018. If the Kochs’ dark-money groups keep voters from having their say in November, or if they pour millions, as promised, into a pro-voucher campaign and win, every other state with limited voucher programs can be sure they’re next for a massive expansion battle.

The emergence of the Red for Ed movement has further ratcheted up the stakes. Over the past two months, tens of thousands of Arizonan educators have gained a sense of their own power. Through their experience in struggle, many teachers — including a large number of Republicans — have become rapidly politicized. To quote Owen Kerr, “this grassroots movement could very well be the first step towards reversing privatization in Arizona and beyond. We’ve seen that we can force real changes if we raise our voices together — and if we’re organized.”

Though Red for Ed’s demands are focused on better school funding and pay, leaders of Arizona Educators United and the Arizona Education Association are open opponents of privatization. At their rallies they have given a big platform to SOS Arizona spokespeople like Dawn Penich-Thacker, who sees the walkout and the anti-voucher campaign as mutually reinforcing:

Red for Ed has more people paying attention to education than ever before. Even last year, a lot of people hadn’t heard of the funding crisis, let alone vouchers. Now you can’t go anywhere in Arizona without talking about this. Red for Ed is an incredible “force multiplier” for efforts to put a stop to increased privatization: it makes all of our tools more powerful. Now every conversation we have about vouchers and charters is amplified across the state.

Winning Red for Ed’s demands would be an important means to reverse the catastrophic conditions that make privatization appear as the only viable solution for Arizona’s education system. No less important, a victorious strike would give working people increased confidence in their power to win further anti-corporate gains through mass action. Well aware of this danger, Koch-funded institutions and politicians are investing heavy resources to defeat the walkout by red-baiting leaders of Arizona Educators Unions and intimidating school districts with lawsuits.

Whatever happens in the coming days, Arizona’s upsurge — like its predecessors in Oklahoma and West Virginia — has succeeded in revealing the depth of popular opposition to business as usual. Recent nationwide polls show that a strong majority of the US population supports the teacher strikes.

Though the initial demands in these education battles remain relatively modest, the movement has radical potentialities. If working people in Arizona and across the US are able to reverse the privatization of education, there’s little reason to assume that they’ll stop there. Key sectors of our economy — from health care to transportation to energy production — are ripe for decommodification. The Koch brothers are right to be worried.