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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Education on the Ballot in Arizona

With all the drama going on in Washington and New York this week, it’s easy to miss some important developments in the states. A dual fight over education policy is brewing in Arizona, which I wrote about at New York.

Arizona was one of the states that experienced serious teacher unrest last spring, with a six-day teachers’ strike that forced the Republican governor and legislature to make major concessions on pay and education funding. But in part because these wins did not satisfy all the strikers’ demands, the fight over public education in Arizona is (as is the case in other states) spilling over into the midterm elections. It is the central issue in the governor’s race where incumbent Doug Ducey faces both primary and general election opposition, and will feature heavily in many legislative contests as well. But beyond that, Arizona voters will have two major education-related measures on the ballot in November.

The one gaining headlines right now (because of an unsuccessful effort by conservative groups to keep it off the ballot because of allegedly misleading language) is called the Invest in Education Act, as explained by the Arizona Capitol Times:

“The proposal, dubbed the Invest in Education Act, would increase the state’s 4.54-percent personal income tax rate to 8 percent for those who earn more than $250,000 or whose household income reaches more than $500,000, and would double the rate to 9 percent for individuals who earn more than $500,000 or whose household income is greater than $1 million …

“The measure would also designate 60 percent of the revenue from the tax hike for teacher salaries and the remaining 40 percent for operations, including full-day kindergarten and pay raises for student support employees as applicable uses for the funds.”

The idea of highly targeted taxes on the very wealthy to fund education is getting traction in a lot of places, among them Arizona. A June poll showed65 percent of likely voters — including 43 percent of Republicans —supporting Invest in Education, although Republican politicians — notably Ducey — and business groups are opposing it on the usual anti-tax grounds. But opponents haven’t come up with any alternative ways to fund the teacher pay raises and other educational improvements the governor and legislature did accept earlier this year, which makes the tax measure look fiscally prudent by comparison.

There will be another measure on the ballot in Arizona this year that could be even more significant as a national precedent: a referendum on Republican-sponsored legislation that made the state’s no-strings-attached “empowerment scholarship accounts” available (in theory, at least) to the entire student population, instead of just students with disabilities. Ballotpedia explains:

“In 2011, Arizona became the first state to establish an Empowerment Scholarship Accounts program. The original program allowed parents or guardians of students with disabilities to sign a contract to opt out of the public school system and instead receive an ESA from the Arizona Department of Education (DEP). An ESA is funded at 90 percent of what the state would have paid for the student in a district or charter school. Parents or guardians use a prepaid bank card to pay for education-related tuition and fees, textbooks, tutoring, educational therapies, and curriculum.

“This referendum was initiated to overturn Senate Bill 1431 (SB 1431), which was designed to make all K-12 students eligible to apply for an ESA.”

The new law caps the number of ESA beneficiaries, but firmly plants the idea that parents can and should directly receive education funding and make a largely unconditional decision about where to spend it, at the expense of public schools. It’s the most aggressive step any state has taken to extend the national GOP’s efforts (strongly supported by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos) to bypass schools with “backpack” funding that can follows kids wherever their parents choose to send them. The virtually complete lack of accountability for the educational results these private school (and homeschool) subsidies produce is another crucial feature of Arizona’s system.

The Republicans who have created and expanded the ESA program are defending it in this referendum fight, and there are rumors of a forthcoming Koch Network investment on their behalf. But so far the most visible activity has been by an anti-ESA-expansion group called Save Our Schools Arizona, which got the referendum on the ballot and protected it from efforts in the courts and the legislature to stop it.

Given Arizona’s status as an increasingly purple state, with a key Senate race this year and a potentially competitive presidential contest in 2020, the fight over these education initiatives could cast a long shadow over the state’s politics for some time to come.

And it could affect national politics as well.

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