So, the Arizona Legislature has us squabbling over vouchers. Again. The system is working exactly as designed: Dividing parents like me, and teachers, and community leaders, one against the other on the issue of vouchers.
But here’s the thing: Our current debate isn’t addressing questions about whether or not vouchers foster equity or promote the common good, whether they’re good for all the children or only some of the children.
Consideration of vouchers is functioning to distract us from understanding the absurd public school funding allocations in our state and how even these funding sources are being undercut.
While we talk about vouchers, the familiar pirates are pillaging the general fund again – with no intention to repay money they borrowed from public schools during the Great Recession.
Take the Credit” campaigns are about to roll out in churches and schools and at our favorite nonprofits. Those tax credits come directly from the general fund. The general fund is what funds public schools. And since 2009, the state has cut billions from public education funding.
Don’t forget Student Tuition Organizations (STOs), which also block public tax revenue from entering the general fund, redirecting it to subsidize private and religious school tuition. There is a lot of money to be made administering a school tuition organization with our tax dollars, too. One was even run a few years ago by an Arizona lawmaker.
In the Great Recession, the state cumulatively cut billions of dollars from public education funding and continues to siphon tens of millions more from the general fund through tax credits and exemptions.
But what about Red for Ed’s voter-approved initiative, Proposition 208, to fund teacher salaries and schools? Won’t it close the funding gap? It’s a good start. Still, it’s not enough to recover revenue lost to tax credits and voucher expansions.
One could say that, because of Gov. Ducey’s fiscal conservatism, Arizona has an embarrassment of riches in our rainy day fund and budget surplus. OK. Well done, governor. A grateful state thanks you for your prudence in the years following the Great Recession.
And yet, instead of applying those dollars to close the public-school funding chasm, the governor’s proposed budget includes a tax cut that will reach $600 million in the next three years.
While we raise our voices and begin to organize in response to another voucher expansion bill, public schools remain starved of resources.
Maybe this time we don’t organize another fight against voucher expansion. Maybe we try something different and pursue fully funded schools through mass organizing at the statehouse. Oh, wait. We did that, too.
What will it take for Gov. Ducey and the Legislature to restore funding of public schools and protect that revenue from the constant threat of tax credits, voucher expansions and tax cuts?
We don’t have to agree on the issues of vouchers. But surely advocates of child welfare, teachers, fiscal responsibility, or a well-educated citizenry can agree that Arizona lawmakers ought to at least reconcile public school funding with current funding needs – and protect that funding – before implementing additional tax cuts. And certainly before writing another voucher-expansion bill.
When across the community we keep fighting about vouchers, all we’re doing is fighting each other for crumbs, when we and our children should be at the table breaking bread.
Pay back our schools, Ms. Fann and Mr. Bowers and Mr. Boyer. Pay your debts, Gov. Ducey. Then fund your other interests – tax cuts or vouchers.
Arizona’s families deserve more than just crumbs.
(If you don’t believe me, or want to learn more, I direct you to AZED 101 – a presentation on the funding mechanisms of public school in Arizona: azed101.org.)
The Rev. Anne K. Ellsworth is a priest in the Episcopal Diocese of Arizona. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
My Sermons (and other thoughts)
a sampling of sermons preached in the Episcopal Diocese of Arizona and a sprinkling of other writings