by David Safier
Yesterday I wrote a quick post slamming the Star's editorial board for applauding Geico's $8 million school voucher donation even though GEICO's "generosity" won't cost it a cent. The company will get back every cent when it pays $8 million less in taxes. The money will come out of the state coffers, meaning you and I are paying for GEICO's $8 million gift. Yesterday I said I'd get back to the subject in more detail later. Later is now.
Let's start by looking at the two forms of vouchers in Arizona. The first is the Tuition Tax Credits, often referred to as backdoor vouchers. People and corporations give money directly to School Tuition Organizations (STO) out of their own pockets, and the STOs give out the money as scholarships to private schools. Come tax time, the donors get all their money back in the form of tax credits. So, for example, if I write a check for $1,000 to an STO, I'll pay $1,000 less on my state taxes, meaning I've spent no money, and the state is $1,000 poorer. That makes tuition tax credits vouchers for all intents and purposes. If there's a distinction between regular vouchers and tuition tax credits, it's a distinction without a difference. In the same way, Arizona's more recent "Empowerment scholarships" are vouchers as well. Certain students qualify for these scholarships, and money is taken from the state coffers and put into an account the students' parents or guardians can tap into for private school tuition or other educational services. Once again, the state is paying for education at non-public schools, so once again, it's a voucher.
Both vouchers were passed as law by the legislature, not voted on by the public. There's a reason for that. No voucher initiative has ever passed in the U.S. Ever. Even in conservative Utah with its strong Mormon Church where people might be especially inclined to want the state to pay for religious schooling, a 2007 voucher initiative went down, with 62% voting No. And a Gallup Poll taken this August said that 15% fewer people like vouchers now than they did in 2012 -- down to 29% from 44%. Vouchers are simply unpopular. That's why you rarely hear voucher supporters use the "V" word.
There are a number of reasons why I think vouchers -- which many conservatives, especially conservative libertarians, love -- are a bad idea.
First, Arizona has lots of school choice. Students can go to any public school in Arizona they want to on the state dime, so long as they can get there and there's room. Lots of students in the Catalina Foothills and Vail districts attend University High, for instance, and TUSD-area students can return the favor by attending Cat Foothills schools, Vail schools -- any public schools in the area -- free of charge. And then there are charters which, once again, anyone can attend if there's space and they have the transportation. That's a whole lot of choice. And if there's an educational option missing, a charter or public school can be set up to fill the void.
Really, the main reason parents choose private schools is religious. In Arizona and nationwide, about 75% of private schools are religion-based. Arizona is forbidden from setting up religious public schools, and it's forbidden from directly funding religious education. Hence the byzantine structure of the Tuition Tax Credits and the Empowerment Scholarships: to keep the state at arm's length from the money so it can be used for religious school tuition.
But let's say you have no problem with your tax dollars funding religious education. You still might have a problem with the schools that receive your tax dollars. The state puts virtually no restrictions of private schools taking voucher money. The state has no say about the curriculum, and the voucher-supporting legislators even made sure private schools students don't have to take AIMS or any other standardized test. So we have no idea what kind of school we're supporting when we pay for students' private school tuition.
So, how do you feel about your tax dollars paying tuition to, say, the Aryan Christian, Anti-Interracial-Marriage Prep School? You OK with that? How about the "God Gave This Land to Me" Israel/Judea/Samaria Hebrew Academy? Or the Jihad-Power Muslim Day School?
You might have problems with some secular schools as well, like the Guns-Are-For-Killing K-3 Primary School. ("We meet on the shooting range. Parents must supply uniforms and ear protection.")
Some people in Arizona hated TUSD's Mexican American Studies program so much, they passed a law making it illegal. So how will those people feel about funding the Arizona-Is-Part-Of-Mexico, Spanish-Only [We're writing our name in English so all you Anglos know what this place is all about] Escuela [For you Spanish illiterates, that means School]. Everyone OK with your money going to pay students' tuition there? Tom Horne, how about you? John Huppenthal, no problem? What about all you legislators who voted for HB2881? Are you good?
Private schools are minimally regulated, which is fine. But when something is a public good, it needs to be responsible to the public, and taxpayers have the right to expect some form of regulation and oversight concerning how its money is spent, especially when that public good is the education of our children. With vouchers, anything goes.
A "WHO'S RESPONSIBLE FOR THE EDITORIAL?" NOTE: Saying "The Star is responsible for the editorial" isn't a good answer, since the news and editorial staffs have a wall of separation between them. The partial right answer is, "The Star Editorial Staff," the six member group listed above the editorial. A more complete answer, according to a talk I attended by editorial writer Sarah Garrecht Gassen, is this. The six people, or whoever happens to be around that day, sit down and decide what the editorial will be about, what position it will take, and what the basic arguments will be. Then Sarah writes the editorial, not from her own perspective, but in a way that best reflects the staff position. So the question is, who was around that day to decide that vouchers are wonderful things and GEICO deserves our thanks for spending $8 million of our money on vouchers? My gut feeling is, and this is pure conjecture (if I got this wrong, I'd be happy to have someone in the know correct me), if Sarah, Fitz and Maria Parham were in the room, the editorial wouldn't be so voucher friendly. But if John Humenik (President and Publisher) and Bobbie Jo Buel were able to bring one more editorial staff member with them on a day when some of the others were doing other things, that could be the answer to the question, "Who's responsible for the editorial?"