Cathi Herrod, the president of the Center for Arizona Policy, told Christian school allies in a phone conversation last winter about her lobbying efforts to prevent as little government oversight of as possible. A recording of the conversation was obtained by The Arizona Republic, who broke the story.
Herrod told The Republic that she did not see the newsworthiness of reporting on the contents of a private conversation which took place months ago. As is often the case with politics, however, candidate conversation such as these are the only time when the public gets a glimpse at the true motivations of special interest groups.
“The audio offers a rare, behind-the-scenes view of efforts to shepherd controversial and closely watched legislation,” wrote Yvonne Wignett Sanchez and Rob O’Dell, both of whom have covered the school voucher debate for the past two years.
Two quotes from Herrod highlight how she and other supporters of using public funds to partially subsidize private school tuition approach the issue.
First, Herrod explains how concerned she is regarding any government oversight of private schools, including regulation to require schools to report standardized testing results.
“Some who want the test results reported to the government, it’s so they can show that private schools are doing better,” she says. “I just think that’s a path that we don’t want to go down with the government.
“My concern is that if we allow government regulation of private schools, then we’re no longer private schools — we’re on our way to becoming governmental, you know, government schools.”
Laurie Roberts, an opinion columnist at The Republic, quips that this scheme of highly limited to no transparency constitutes a “trust-but-don’t-you-dare-try-to-verify plan.”
Second, Herrod highlights through a story that she believes that accountability should come from the parents.
“As I had one dad tell me recently, ‘It’s not like I’m writing a $10,000 check without holding the school accountable for what’s going on with my children,'” said Herrod.
The article does not say if Herrod later explained how parents would be able to judge the quality of a school if the school did not have to release testing data.
Giving the rich a helping hand
Cathi Herrod’s conversation came as the Arizona legislature was debating whether or not to expand the Empowerment Scholarship Account, a voucher program started during Governor Jan Brewer’s term in office.
Rob O’Dell and Yvonne Wingett Sanchez reported for The Republic last June on the astounding lack of government oversight and accountability of how the vouchers were spent.
“For example, some parents transferred all of their scholarship money into a 529 college-savings account and then left the program — preventing the state from recouping the funds,” explained the reports.
The amount available to parents through these vouchers would not cover the full cost of tuition at many private schools. Since most Arizona families cannot make up the several thousand dollars per year difference, these voucher programs essentially act as a subsidy for wealthier families who do not send their children to public schools.
Public schools have suffered greatly in recent years. Republican dominance of all levels of state government has led to a proliferation of state support for charter, private, and Christian schools.
The voucherization of education in Arizona has corresponded with a dramatic drop in funding for public schools and teachers.
Arizona was one of the worst states in terms of education cuts during the Great Recession. Funding in 2017 was 14 percent lower than it was before the Great Recession hit a decade earlier, according to the Associated Press.
This situation has led to demonstrations and calls for a teachers strike. According to Arizona Educators United, Arizona educators are calling for a 20 percent salary increase, competitive pay for all education support staff, a permanent salary structure that includes annual raises, a restoration education funding to 2008 levels, and no new tax cuts until per-pupil funding reaches the national average.
Disputes between educators and state governments over teacher’s pay and education funding have led teachers across the country to go on strike or demonstrate, most notably in West Virginia and Oklahoma.
Coming market failure in education
Laize Faire attitudes towards charter and private schools such as those expressed by Cathi Herrod and reinforced by laws passed by the Arizona State Legislature are moving the state dangerously close to a school closure crisis.
In January a charter school in Goodyear abruptly closed, leaving more than 600 students and their parents wondering what to do next.
A report by The Republic found that dozens of charter schools were at risk of closure due to financial or academic issues:
Charter holders of 40 schools were labeled as “going concerns” by their auditors in the 2016-17 school year, a subjective measure meaning there was concern that they could close within a year due to their finances, according to The Republic’s analysis.
Charter holders of 125 schools — 28 percent of those with available data — failed at least three of four quantifiable measures of financial health set by the state charter board, according to the newspaper’s analysis of financial reports of operators representing 454 schools.
Financial issues were mentioned as the reason for 30 of the 260 recorded school closures on the charter board’s website. Academic reasons were cited in 28 instances.
While Eileen Sigmund, president and CEO of the Arizona Charter Schools Association, described the Goodyear closure as an “anomaly,” the data paint a different picture.
From what we know about Cathi Herrod’s conversation with private Christian school leaders in the state, it appears that they are much more concerned about government mandates for transparency rather than ensuring the systemic health of Arizona’s increasingly complex and patchworked system of education.
A previous version of this article erroneously said that teachers in Arizona were on strike.