Monday, February 12, 2018
Two weeks ago, the Koch brothers hosted a retreat in Palm Springs to discuss their upcoming agenda. Their Institute includes about 700 other groups and individuals who donate at least $100,000 per year to support their agenda. They were also joined by the Governor of Arizona. Public education appears to be their primary target for reform. According to the Washington Post,
Changing the education system as we know it was a central focus of a three-day donor seminar. . . . “We’ve made more progress in the last five years than I had in the last 50,” Koch told donors during a cocktail reception. “The capabilities we have now can take us to a whole new level. … We want to increase the effectiveness of the network … by an order of magnitude. If we do that, we can change the trajectory of the country.” . . . “The lowest hanging fruit for policy change in the United States today is K-12,” said Stacy Hock, a major Koch donor who has co-founded a group called Texans for Educational Opportunity. “I think this is the area that is most glaringly obvious.”
They plan to make their largest offensive in Arizona. What would have been the largest voucher program in the nation recently failed there. The legislature settled for a scaled down voucher program rather than one that had the capacity to voucherize the entire education system of the state. In theory, the public education system could have disappeared over night. In practice, many parents would probably forego the opportunity of a voucher, and the private system lacks the capacity to absorb everyone anyway, but the legislation would have laid the groundwork to change both.
Now, the Koch Institute is attempting to get a proposal on the November ballot and take the issue to the voters. They believe they can convince them to voucherize education. They have the Governor's support. He said “This is a very real fight in my state. I didn’t run for governor to play small ball. I think this is an important idea.”
"Transformation" is an appealing concept in education, particularly in Arizona. I would venture to guess that a strong majority in Arizona would like to see the education system transformed. By most objective accounts, it is in shambles. Arizona's per pupil funding for public schools currently ranks 47 out of 50 states. It also ranks at the bottom of the nation in terms of equality between districts. The Education Law Center's 2017 School Funding Fairness Report grades Arizona's funding distribution as an "F." Arizona spends the least on students who need the most. That same report also shows that Arizona is doing almost nothing to fix its low funding levels or unequal distribution. Arizona ranks 49th in the nation in terms of the level of fiscal effort it exerts to fund its schools.
The most mind-boggling data, however, comes from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP). This past fall, it released a report showing that, after adjusting for inflation, school funding in Arizona is down 33.6 percent since 2008. No one else is close. The next largest cuts are in Florida. Funding is down 22 percent there. As I demonstrate here, the funding is down, in large part, because states like these made no attempt to assess what level of cuts education could sustain during the recession. They simply hacked away at education, arguably using the Recession as an excuse to target education. This thesis is only further strengthened by the fact that when tax revenues came back to Pre-Recession levels in 2012, they refused to replenish education funding. They kept it at low levels, hence troubling numbers like those revealed by the CBPP. Moreover, vouchers (and charters) did not see these types of cuts. To the contrary, voucher and charter funding doubled, quadrupled, quintupled, and octupled in several states.
So does education need transformation in places like Arizona? Absolutely. But for the Koch Institute, transformation means preferencing choice, not improving public education.
As I detail here, those who want to preference vouchers and charters have been able to capture public policy debates by focusing on the problems of public schools without offering any solutions. When they do so, state constitutions may be the average students last line of defense.