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Save Our Schools Arizona
Weekly Education Report

56th Legislature, 2nd General Session
Volume 6, Issue 24• Week of June 23, 2024

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The Nation Watches as Arizona Budget Fails Students

This week, CNN released a scathing rebuke of vouchers in its investigation of the devastating impacts of Arizona’s universal ESA voucher program on the state budget and on local public schools.

We excerpted the written piece below, or you can read the entire article here.

Zero Accreditation, Zero Accountability, Zero Transparency: A CNN investigation found that the program has cost hundreds of millions of dollars more than anticipated, disproportionately benefited richer areas, and funneled taxpayer funds to unregulated private schools that don’t face the same educational standards and antidiscrimination protections that public schools do… Unlike some other states that have adopted voucher programs, Arizona has no standards requiring private schools to be accredited or licensed by the state, or follow all but the most basic curriculum standards. That means there is no way to compare test scores in public schools to students in the ESA [voucher] program.”

“There’s zero accreditation, there’s zero accountability, and there’s zero transparency,” said Beth Lewis, a former teacher who leads Save Our Schools Arizona, a nonprofit that advocates against school privatization.

Critics say the problems in Arizona are a warning of potential dangers as other states follow its lead. “We’re the canary in the coal mine,” said Trevor Nelson, an education activist and a parent in the Paradise Valley district where public schools are closing. “We’re on the front lines, and what happens here is going to dictate what happens in the rest of the country.”

How Special Interests Bought Vouchers: The cause has been bolstered by a small group of billionaires who have quietly spent millions of dollars on election campaigns and lobbying to push vouchers around the country. For decades, conservative activists and politicians have been pushing policies to make it easier for families to spend taxpayer funds on private education.

The American Federation for Children, which was previously led by Trump’s Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, pushed vouchers in part by playing a big role in state legislative races. In an internal presentation obtained by the progressive watchdog group Documented and provided to CNN, AFC boasted that it had “deployed” $250 million “to advance school choice over the last 13 years,” and that that spending had led to “$25+ billion in government funding directed towards student choice.” Those numbers are now even higher, Schultz said.

Charles Siler, an Arizona political consultant who worked as a lobbyist for two pro-voucher nonprofits before coming to oppose school privatization, said the recent victories for school choice were the result of a long, methodical effort by groups like AFC: “This isn’t an overnight success, this is decades in intentional, strategic labor. At a certain point you’ll hit a tipping point where public schools cannot afford to function.”

Schools accused of discrimination getting taxpayer funds: Some of the private schools that are among those receiving the most money from Arizona’s ESA program have extreme beliefs or have been accused of discriminating against students.

State records that CNN obtained through a public records request, which have not been previously reported, show that about half of the money that went to private schools through the ESA program last year went to religious schools, the vast majority of which were Christian.

Some of the Christian schools that have raked in the most taxpayer funds publish “statements of faith” on their websites mandating that teachers and staff agree to declarations such as “rejection of one’s biological sex is a rejection of the image of God within that person” and that “homosexual behavior” is “offensive to God.”

Valley Christian Schools received nearly $1.1 million in ESA funding last year despite facing allegations of LGBTQ discrimination in federal court. Valley Christian fired high school English teacher Adam McDorman after he voiced support for a student who came out as pansexual, McDorman alleged in a 2022 lawsuit. In an email that McDorman provided to CNN, the school’s then-principal argued that the idea that it was possible to be both “homosexual or otherwise sexually deviant and also a Christian” was a “hideous lie.”

In an interview, McDorman said his former school taught creationism as a scientific fact, and “whitewashed” American history to downplay the harms of slavery. He was surprised to learn about the level of public funding it was receiving: “That amount of [voucher] money is pretty staggering. They have so much taxpayer support – and no responsibility to treat their students with equal respect.”

MAGA Schools Receive Voucher Funds: Dream City Christian School, the megachurch-affiliated school that is expanding, received more than $1.3 million in ESA funding in 2023 – 10 times what it was receiving before the universal expansion passed, and more than 95% of the private schools that received funding. 

The school operates a partnership with the advocacy group Turning Point USA, which works to organize conservative students on high school and college campuses. On its website, Dream City encourages applications by declaring that it will “protect our campus from the infiltration of unethical agendas by rejecting all ‘woke’ and untruthful ideologies being pushed on students.” The private school, which is affiliated with a local megachurch where former President Donald Trump held a campaign rally this month, recently broke ground on a new wing that will feature modern, airy classrooms and a pickleball court. It’s a sign of growth at a school that has partnered with a Trump-aligned advocacy group, and advertises to parents by vowing to fight “liberal ideology” such as “evolutionism” and “gender identification.”

Dream City is just one example of Turning Point’s efforts to build a network of conservative Christian schools. During a recent video info session, Turning Point executives described how the program was “restoring God as the foundation of our education” at a time when “exposure to all of the secular, really godless ideologies is on the rise.” 

Why Are Vouchers So Costly? The state also allows families to spend the money not just on schools but on a wide variety of items that could be considered educational for homeschooled kids. Parents have been approved to use the taxpayer dollars to buy their children things like kayaks, trampolines, cowboy roping lessons and SeaWorld tickets. 

The program is costing considerably more than originally anticipated… One big reason why the program is costing so much: About half of the students participating never attended a public or charter school, according to the Arizona Department of Education, so the state had not been previously paying for their education. And only about a third of students in the program came directly from a public or charter school.

Wealthy communities are disproportionately benefiting, according to a CNN analysis of state education department and US Census data. Almost a third of the students whose families are receiving ESA funding live in zip codes with median household incomes of more than $100,000 – even though only a fifth of the minors in the state live in those zip codes.

“You’re enabling doctors, lawyers, bankers, management consultants who already had their children in private schools to get this subsidy that they were not entitled to before,” said Samuel E. Abrams, the director of a University of Colorado research center on school privatization. “This is costing taxpayers a lot of money that wasn’t anticipated.”

Vouchers Shutting Down Local Public Schools: Even as Arizona’s voucher expansion is draining money from the state budget and diverting it to conservative religious schools, critics say one of the most damaging long-term impacts could be the impact on public schools… Even small reductions in enrollment can destabilize school budgets in Arizona, which spends less per-student on public education than nearly any other state in the US. Fewer students means less money coming in, while many fixed costs remain the same.

“When kids leave those classrooms for private schools, bills still have to get paid, heaters have to stay on, buses have to run, teacher salaries remain present,” Josh Cowen, Michigan State professor, said. “So those schools do take a hit.”

The Paradise Valley district, which covers a swath of northern Phoenix and the suburb of Scottsdale, closed two elementary schools and a middle school this year, with students leaving for the final time last month… The reduction in funds from students leaving for ESA [voucher]s – and the potential of more departures going forward – put the district “over the edge” of having to close three schools at once, argued Nelson, the local education activist.

Last month, dozens of former students and teachers gathered in the school gymnasium of one of the closing schools, Sunset Canyon Elementary, to say goodbye. As kids ran around and marveled at old yearbook photos, teachers exchanged hugs with students they’d taught years or decades ago.

Susie Francis, who has taught at Sunset Canyon Elementary since it first opened its doors in 1999, said it felt surreal for the school to be closing. “This school is so much more than just a building to people, it’s a home,” Francis said, holding back tears. “So many students have touched my heart over the years.”

The closings are especially hard for students like 11-year-old Riley White, who has Down syndrome and struggles with change. Her school, Desert Springs Preparatory, is just around the block from her tidy cul-de-sac. Some staffers at the school have worked with Riley since she was a kindergartener, and she has a tight circle of friends who she calls her sisters, said her mother, Felicia White. As Riley ran around her sun-baked backyard, White said she was considering leaving Arizona and moving her daughter somewhere with stronger backing for public schooling.

With “the lack of support that gets put into our education system,” other Arizona schools will also be forced to close in the coming years, White predicted. “Sometimes I sit and I think, why am I still trying to school her in this state – when I could go school her in a state that puts a lot more emphasis on her education?”

Actions You Can Take

It’s Roundup Time! Arizonans for Abortion Access petitions are due June 24, so it’s time to sign ASAP if you haven’t done so and turn in all of your signatures to us or any of the amazing events below. You can sign, drop off, and notarize at any of the locations listed on the website!

Upcoming Events

Check out our website and Facebook events to see details and register for SOSAZ’s upcoming events!

Friday, June 28 – 4:30-7:30pm – Scottsdale

Register NOW to secure your tickets.

Join SOSAZ Network for a special film screening of award-winning author Nancy MacLean’s “BAD FAITH: Christian Nationalism’s Unholy War on Democracy.” Attendees will receive a free copy of “Democracy in Chains” signed by Nancy MacLean! Complimentary appetizers & soft drinks included. Seats are limited.

Tuesday June 25th – 6-7pm – Virtual

Register for the event HERE.

Hear from SOSAZ’s Latino Outreach Coordinator, Raquel Mamani, on an upcoming panel called: “Public Education & the Importance of Having a Seat at the Table.” The panel discussion is put on by the Latin Voter Engagement Committee with Maricopa County Democratic Party.

Click Here for a list of all of SOSAZ’s upcoming online and in-person events!

Legislative Wrap-Up

Arizona has endured another legislative session, and once again, our Republican-controlled legislature spent its time largely either attacking or ignoring the many and varied needs of our public schools. Read on to learn about the bills that didn’t pass, the cuts that public schools and essential state services suffered in the budget, and the issues that remain for next year. 

📉 Budget deficit. This was the overarching challenge for 2024, virtually inevitable thanks to the Republican-led legislature and Gov Ducey’s one-two sucker punch of tax cuts for the rich and unaccountable universal vouchers. Arizona was forced to make large cuts to balance a $1.8 billion deficit. While this budget addressed that deficit (as the state is required to do), it does nothing to move Arizona public schools forward. Arizona continues to fund public schools at 49th nationwide while fully funding vouchers for the rich, an expense that is driving half of our budget deficit

🔎 Basic funding. Basic state aid,” the largest line item for Arizona’s public schools, remained uncut, at least on paper. However, there’s a difference between “on paper” and “functionally.” Because of a lawsuit settlement, public schools get an increase each year of 2% or inflation, whichever is less. This year’s 2% increase does not cover the true cost of yearly inflation — meaning that on paper schools remained whole, but functionally took a cut. 

🌧️ Rainy day funding. This budget doesn’t touch Arizona’s $1.4 billion Budget Stabilization Fund (often called the “rainy day fund”), which was created in 1990 as a reserve the state can tap during economic downturns. This is a good thing because the state should retain an emergency fund; when the cost of universal ESA vouchers first started to snowball, Republicans said they would be willing to tap into that fund to pay for them. 

😡 Needed K-12 funding missing. The opportunity weight, which directs badly needed resources to low-income students, was eliminated for 2026 and 2027 (a nearly $130 million loss), harming Arizona’s most vulnerable students. The budget also sees cuts to district additional assistance in 2026 and 2027, which total nearly $50 million. We will of course fight tooth and nail to restore this funding in next year’s budget. 

✂️ Dual enrollment cut. The budget reduced dual enrollment funding from $15 million to $12 million. In the original unamended budget, this funding was cut entirely, but some Democrats dug in and demanded it be reinstated.

💸 ESA vouchers all but uncut. For the second year in a row, despite Hobbs’ campaign promises and repeated declarations of needed action, ESA vouchers have remained virtually untouched. This year’s only real savings is $2.5 million a year from halting summertime “double-dipping,” in which families would apply for a voucher at the end of the school year, use it for summer school, then re-enroll in public school in the fall. That’s a drop in the bucket compared to the program’s cost, an estimated $788 million this year. Extravagant purchases will not be reined in in any way, and discrimination and ideologically biased indoctrination will be allowed to continue unchecked. 

📈 STO voucher changes. The budget contains a cap for corporate School Tuition Organization tax credit vouchers, which ends an automatic 2% yearly increase. This cap is well above current levels and experts say Arizona was unlikely to reach it this year, but the cap is a start.

😐 Student safety window-dressing. The budget requires fingerprinting at voucher-funded private schools, but those records stay with the private school and are not checked against law enforcement databases. Likewise, people who have been disciplined by the State Board of Education are now banned from accepting ESA funds as tutors or vendors. 

🎉 School spending cap. Lawmakers waived the AEL district school spending cap for the 2024-25 school year, providing relief to school districts. This became a sticking point toward the end of budget negotiations. While waiving this cap is important, it would have been politically unsavvy for Republicans to refuse to lift this archaic limit and thus force a public school shutdown. We’re glad this issue won’t be used as a political hostage next year.

🤯 Ballot referrals. Lawmakers advanced a jaw-dropping 12 legislative referrals to appear on our statewide November ballots. SOSAZ opposes SCR1041, Mesnard (R-13), which would ask voters to change the state constitution to allow anyone to sue to knock a citizen initiative off the ballot on grounds that it is not constitutional, and constitutes yet another attempt to stifle citizens’ initiatives. 

💰 Prop 123 – Not As Easy as ABC: A renewal of Prop 123, on the other hand, failed to get across the finish line. The existing measure, which directs proceeds from Arizona’s land trust to public schools, expires on June 30, 2025. Republicans were not only unwilling to negotiate across the aisle to make a renewal happen, but also couldn’t agree amongst themselves on how much to lower the payout or which draconian restrictions to wrap into the measure. The new plan is for a special election in May 2025, which means Gov. Hobbs calling lawmakers into a special session as early as possible in 2025. If this fails, the General Fund must backfill the loss starting on July 1 — meaning Arizona must somehow find another $300 million from somewhere else in the cash-strapped budget. 

❌ Veto action. This year, Hobbs vetoed seven SOSAZ-opposed bills: 

  • SB1007, Hoffman (R-15), jailing Arizona public school teachers (but not teachers at voucher-funded private schools) for up to two years if they so much as recommend a book to students that lawmakers consider too “sexually explicit.” Vetoed 6/18. OPPOSE.
  • SB1097, Wadsack (R-17), making school board elections partisan and turning them into just another venue for extremist conflict. Vetoed 4/16. OPPOSE.
  • SB1151, Kern (R-27), permitting Arizona schools to post the Ten Commandments or read the material aloud to students. Vetoed 4/16. OPPOSE. 
  • SB1182, Kavanagh (R-3), banning trans kids from using the showers at school that align with their gender identities. Vetoed 4/23. OPPOSE.
  • SB1473, Kern (R-27), forcing state agencies to repay 1% of their annual budget in fines for every 30 days they are late in filing audit reports, driven by a misplaced belief that public schools are wasteful, lazy, and misusing and abusing taxpayer funds. Vetoed 5/6. OPPOSE. 
  • SB1628, Kerr (R-25), removing any reference to gender in Arizona law and replacing it with the male or female label assigned to someone at birth, eliminating any legal recognition of transgender people and violating Title IX. Vetoed 4/16. OPPOSE. 
  • HB2629, Toma (R-27), an ideologically biased curriculum mandate on “communist regimes around the world and the prevalence of poverty, starvation, migration, systemic lethal violence and suppression of speech.” Vetoed 4/2. OPPOSE. 

👎 Unfortunately, on Friday Gov. Hobbs signed one SOSAZ-opposed bill: 

  • SB1370, Bolick (R-2), banning cities from requiring businesses run by youth under 18 to be licensed or pay sales taxes if they make under $10,000 per year, opening the door to exposing kids to predatory practices, exploiting kids and rolling back child labor laws. Transmit to gov 6/13. OPPOSE.

2024 By the Numbers

  • Days in Session: 160
  • Bills Introduced: 1,798
  • Bills Passed: 363
  • Bills Signed: 259 (as of 6/21/24)
  • Bills Vetoed: 73 (as of 6/21/24)
  • Bills Waiting for Gov Action: 2 (as of 6/21/24)
  • Referrals Passed to Ballot: 8 (of those, 4 are constitutional amendments)
  • Lawmaker Resignations: 6
  • Lawmaker Indictments: 2

Public School Proud!

Check out some incredible pictures and stories from across the state that make us #PublicSchoolProud!

Know a story you think we should spotlight? Send an email to tyler@sosarizona.org to let us know!

June 23 Weekly Ed Report Web

Summer activities continue! Five Holbrook High School Roadrunners won an essay contest and had the fantastic opportunity to fly on the Cardinals’ team plane to visit the US Capitol, where they got to experience government in action!

June 23 Weekly Ed Report Web

Higley Unified is hosting a “Through the Decades” summer camp! The first week ended with a celebration of the 1970s. ☮️

June 23 Weekly Ed Report Web

Casa Grande Elementary’s annual Career Camp was a huge success! Students were able to learn about a wide variety of careers, with representatives from Lucid Motors, Animal Science Camp, Banner Health, Sun Life Health, Casa Grande Fire Department, Casa Grande Police Department, Casa Grande Public Works, Arizona Public Service, and Southwest Gas!

We are excited to announce SOSAZ’s *NEW* Public Education Defense Fund, which will protect Arizona students’ right to a safe, quality, accessible public school in their community.

Every dollar contributed to this fund will go directly towards electing pro-public education candidates up and down the 2024 ballot, from school board to the state legislature. 

Donate to SOSAZ’s Public Education Defense Fund Today!

Building a strong Public Education Defense Fund is essential to fighting back against increasingly dangerous political agendas that threaten our students’ right to learn in safety, acquire a truthful understanding of science and history, and succeed in excellent public schools.

Your contributions will help us recruit, elect, and support public education champions running for local school boards and the Arizona state legislature, shifting the balance of power at the Arizona state legislature towards one that will prioritize, fund, and defend Arizona’s public school students, educators, and classrooms. 

Thank you for helping us work toward a future where a high-quality, fully-funded public education is available to all Arizona students.

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