In April of 2017, school choice advocates across the country applauded a historic win when Arizona passed a law expanding Empowerment Scholarship Accounts. The accounts, which operate as a type of school voucher program and were initially started to provide more choice for students with disabilities, would become accessible to every student in the state. At the time, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos touted the move as a “big win for students and parents in Arizona.”
But the backlash was swift. Opponents to the bill’s passage, concerned that the expansion would drain public education coffers, have blocked enactment of the bill until this coming fall.
In November, the Libre Institute, the Latino front organization of Americans for Prosperity, a Koch-funded group, announced it was launching a six-figure campaign aimed at educating the Latino population about “school choice.” Latinos make up 31 percent of Arizona’s population, increasingly making them a target of campaigns, including on school choice reform efforts. Their votes will be critical in determining whether or not the scholarship expansion is enacted through a veto referendum placed on the 2018 ballot by Save Our Schools Arizona, a grassroots organization that secured over 100,000 signatures in opposition to the expansion.
The expansion’s free market approach, argues the Libre Institute, would benefit Latino students, because greater school choice allows them to pick schools where they’ll received the best learning experience. Carlos Alfaro, Arizona’s coalitions director for the Institute said the recent campaign efforts in Arizona are meant to educate families about those options and denied that the push had anything to do with political messaging. According to Politico, the group is engaging in similar campaigning tactics in other states regarding school choice votes, including in Nevada, where a scholarship account program was up for expansion in 2015 but was ultimately not funded.
In a state whose largest school district has been under desegregation orders since the 1980s, some education experts say the program would be a detriment to Latino students and could end up re-segregating schools. “What ends up happening is you have a phenomenon called ‘white flight’ and that is largely what (vouchers) facilitate,” said Nolan Cabrera, associate professor at the University of Arizona. Cabrera studies racial dynamics in education, and described how voucher systems have historically resulted in segregated schools. “A few white families leave the district and then a few more and as the minority population rises there becomes this fear, this idea of ‘what is happening to our district?’”
The expansion is structured in ways that tend to discourage the participation of many Latino students, critics say. For the 66 percent of Hispanic students who are considered low income, their families may not be able to make up the difference between the voucher, which is estimated to provide $5,700 per student, and the average cost of private school tuition — approximately $10,000. In addition, there are other out-of-pocket costs such as school uniforms and transportation.
“At every single step there are systemic barriers to Latino populations taking advantage of this,” Cabrera said.
There are other limiting factors at play. School choice studies indicate that families with higher levels of education and income are more likely to know how to take advantage of voucher programs — and “those factors also correlate to race and ethnicity,” said Kevin Welner, a professor at the University of Colorado and director of the National Education Policy Center. There is some evidence that that effect may already be playing out in the state. According to an Arizona Republic analysis conducted last March, students who have taken advantage of the current voucher program overwhelmingly come from wealthier school districts, despite the fact that it was meant to benefit students with disabilities, as well as Native American students, and those that attend low-performing public schools, among other marginalized groups — prompting discussion as to whether the program was being properly marketed to lower income and minority students.
While the bill has been presented as an opportunity for low-income students to access better education, said Cabrera, instead it will siphon funds away from already poorly funded district schools, which serve a majority of Latino students, and distribute those to private schools. For every “scholarship” awarded to a student, the same amount of money is taken out of that student’s previous district school. Vouchers are a form of “‘reverse Robin Hood,’ ” said Cabrera, “taking away monies from the poor and giving them to the rich.”
Scholarship supporters argue that public schools won’t need those funds since they’ll be tasked with educating fewer students, but Dawn Penich-Thacker, one of the founders of Save Our Schools Arizona, said that paying for school services doesn’t work on a pupil-by-pupil funding basis. “You have to realize that when one student leaves and takes their $5,000 with them, (schools) don’t just get to turn off the air conditioning, they don’t get to stop serving lunch and they don’t get to cancel the bus.”
Various conservative groups, including Americans for Prosperity and the Goldwater Institute have sued Save Our Schools in an attempt to stop the referendum from reaching the ballot this fall, and filed an appeal in February after a district court judge dismissed the case. If they succeed, the result will be a defunding and resegregation of public education, said Cabrera. “The more we disinvest in the public, the worse the public performs, and the worse it performs, the more we can point to it as a reason to disinvest more,” he said. By advocating for programs like vouchers, Cabrera said, groups like the Libre Institute “are harming the most vulnerable populations in our public schools.”