Arizona has spent over a decade chipping away at public education, and now ranks dead last in the US. Is this the future we want for Arkansas?
Arkansas is about to receive the “most comprehensive education reform in the nation” that will be pushed through the legislative process over the next couple of weeks. Perhaps the most extensive component of the reform is that of a voucher program that will siphon education funding from public schools into private and parochial schools. The greatest predictor of future outcomes is data from similar previous endeavors, and one of the nation’s biggest voucher schemes began twelve years ago in the state of Arizona.
Arizona’s trajectory into being ranked the worst education system in the nation started in a similar fashion to Arkansas’s first step toward school choice: narrow criteria for at-risk populations. In Arkansas we call it the Succeed Scholarship, and it began in 2015 as a way for disabled students to have subsidized access to appropriate education in private schools to meet their needs. With a chronically under-funded special education system, a desperate parent of a child with a disability is understandably grateful for such an opportunity. The program was expanded to offer the scholarship to other populations like students from military families and those who have spent time in foster care. Again, the needs-based offerings seem appropriate for these populations.
But look at the Succeed Scholarship from the perspective of a long-game political strategy: the Succeed Scholarship offered at-risk populations access to something they need only because public schools were systematically starved of resources and demonized by lawmakers whose ultimate goal is to funnel as much money as possible into private and parochial schools. It’s the perfect foot-in-the-door for a bad-faith argument that every child should have this kind of opportunity.
And that’s exactly what’s being argued by the Sanders administration and the GOP lawmakers who have waited patiently for this education overhaul.
Arizona did the same thing in 2011 with the so-called “Empowerment Scholarship Accounts.” A handful of student populations similar to those on the original Succeed Scholarship list were offered access to these accounts. This was the beginning of what would eventually become universal school choice under Governor Doug Ducey. Implemented for the 2022-2023 school year, the Arizona all-out voucher program offers parents a debit card loaded with thousands in public funds annually. They can spend it in several ways, including homeschool costs, tuition at a private school, or to pool several kids’ voucher amounts to create a “microschool” in which the parents hire teachers of their choosing.
Up to last year’s implementation of universal school choice, Arizona had spent over a decade chipping away at public education, and was ranked lowest in the nation in education overall. Why didn’t that stop their GOP governor and GOP legislature from slowing the roll of privatizing the system further?
Because improving education has never been the plan — privatizing education has.
And that’s where we find ourselves in Arkansas right now after seven years of chipping away. If only Arizona had been a cautionary tale instead of a blueprint toward disaster.