The Arizona State Legislature adjourned Wednesday, June 21 on matters surrounding the state budget, after numerous negotiating sessions between Democratic Governor Janet Napolitano and leaders of the nominally Republican Legislature.
Among the agreements made during the 164-day session was a $5-million budget for new school voucher programs that enable disabled and foster-care children to attend private schools with tax money. Napolitano conceded to the Republicans’ voucher agenda in order to win their accord on some of her other educational priorities, including the all-day kindergarten bill.
In this bill Napolitano insisted that all-day kindergarten be extended throughout the state, which would affect Arizona families, especially those with young children. The Legislature approved $160 million in the budget for full-day kindergarten, far exceeding her initial $105-million request.
The Republican-fueled voucher programs, which enabled the advancement of the all-day kindergarten bill among other education policies, have created a flurry of controversy among Arizona educators and have drawn criticism from many people who disagree with “the message the governor sends by agreeing to spend public money on private or religious education,” according to a June 20 editorial in The Arizona Daily Star.
Arizona Education Association (AEA) President John Wright is among those who vehemently oppose the voucher program approval as a bargaining chip for advancing other components of the state’s education budget. “The deal is not worth the damage,” wrote Wright on the AEA web site of the trade-off that he thinks will “jeopardize public education funding for the future.”
Though controversial, the consensus reached by Napolitano and the state legislature encompasses many other education-related components besides the voucher programs, including a half-billion dollar education budget and salary raises for teachers.
In a June 25 Scottsdale Tribune article, Scottsdale Education Association President Eric Kurland said that “he believes Napolitano did the best she could do in tough circumstances.” He was not pleased, however, with the inclusion of vouchers in the public education budget.
“There are some things in the budget that are not palatable,” Kurland said. “Vouchers are among those, because they’re taking money away from public education.”
Amid the heated debate over the recently approved Arizona education budget, there are people who support the school voucher programs. Robert Teegarden from The Alliance for School Choice applauded the implementation of voucher programs in Arizona because he believes that vouchers “work.” “Vouchers, like tax credits, tax deductions, charter schools, etc., are all vehicles which return some of the ‘educational choosing’ back to the family,” Teegarden said. “Vouchers return the decision-making to the person closest to the consumption: parents.”
Teegarden is frustrated that “the ‘v’ word has become taboo in our society” because “[v]ouchers, tax credits and the like more closely align educational needs with schooling costs,” he said. “Vouchers essentially affix an educational backpack to each kid which their parent can [use to] shop for that educational opportunity consistent with their family values, not the state’s or its unions’.”
School-voucher denouncers, however, maintain that vouchers ultimately take money away from public education and that the voucher system Napolitano approved could “open the door for similar vouchers for all parents, not only those with disabled or former foster children,” argued an editorial in The Arizona Daily Star.
According to the editorial, AEA President Wright said that “the state constitution bans the use of state funds for religious instruction” and that “a legal challenge to the governor’s action is a virtual certainty.”
This politicizing of school vouchers and accompanying opposition towards voucher programs upsets Teegarden. “[I]t’s dangerous and a disservice to define [vouchers’] reality solely through the political processes that we all experience,” he said. “[I]t seems that family choice in education is an idea that should surmount the political machinations of any particular state and be enshrined as one of those fundamental principles which we all believe and share.”
As the debate over school vouchers continues to stir, people on both sides of the issue can agree with Teegarden when he said, “education has become the civil rights issue for the 21st century.”
Katherine Duncan is an intern for Accuracy in Media, Accuracy in Academia’s parent organization.