The consequences of turning education into a political football are becoming apparent in Arizona.
Newly elected Gov. Katie Hobbs has made clear she wants to gut the state’s Empowerment Scholarship Accounts program, reversing the work of her predecessor, Gov. Doug Ducey. Gov. Hobbs, who attended a private Catholic school growing up, contends she wants all Arizona children to attend public schools. Mr. Ducey’s program, which was expanded to include all students during his final year in office, paid parents the cost of tuition for the school of their choice.
The dramatic change in state policy adds to a list of political fights over education between state Republicans and Democrats.
Gov. Hobbs wants to scrub the ESA program to reward and solidify one of her strongest voting groups: public school teachers and administrators. In addition to eliminating school choice, she plans to present a budget that dramatically increases how much money the state allocates to public schools. In her opinion, the reason Arizona schools annually rank near the bottom of America’s education system is a lack of investment.
Her solution is to stop letting parents choose where their children go to school.
By contrast, Gov. Ducey ignored national rankings, pointing out that these assessments are often prepared by organizations closely affiliated with public school teacher unions and administrators. Instead, he annually proposed modest state funding increases and pointed to privatizing education as the best way to boost test scores.
Gov. Hobbs’ reversal of state policy — changing from school choice to no choice — will not improve Arizona’s public education system overnight. Aside from the reality that schools are already financially broke, getting the funds needed from a Legislature with a Republican majority won’t be easy, and may not be possible.
Even if she can get more money to public schools, the process of improving student test scores requires more than just paying teachers higher wages.
Meanwhile, national rankings of Arizona public schools continue to hover near the bottom. In 2018, a WalletHub report ranked the state as the fifth-worst school system in America. Last year Scholaroo.com ranked Arizona 47th for the least educated, 38th for educational attainment, 48th for school quality and 48th in the number of colleges/universities per 100,000 adults.
If spending were not enough of an issue on its own, Republicans have found political strength by appealing to parents with nothing less than fear tactics about what their children are being taught in public school classrooms.
Last year meetings of the Sierra Vista Unified School District governing board were frequently attended by constituents who often made emotional statements warning of critical race theory, gender neutralizing and other “woke” issues. Several meetings started with protestors outside the doors of the meeting room.
Once again, the consequence of these political issues clouding the classroom responsibilities of teachers and confusing the education of kids, detract from the ultimate mission of teaching the critical skills necessary for the success of our democracy, our industry and our society.
Take politics out of education, and let’s get back to the simplicity and the importance of what old-timers refer to as “ … the three Rs.”