Are Arizona’s Defunded Public Schools the Future of American Education?

Trump’s secretary of education is expanding school voucher programs under the guise of providing greater “school choice” to parents, but as some historically underfunded public school systems show, further divestment spells disaster for public education and the hope for an educated public. At Harper’sAlexandria Neason spent time in Phoenix, Arizona to examine the effects of divestment. From lawsuits and budget cuts to unsafe buildings, Arizona’s struggling public schools suffer some of the country’s lowest teacher salaries and funding per pupil. Naturally, many teachers leave after five years, and the state’s teachers no longer just teach. They canvas door-to-door to ask citizens to help schools financially, and they use their own money to buy books and basic supplies that all public schools should have. And yet, against all evidence and logic, the secretary of education is advocating for a national voucher program. This isn’t the future Americans deserve.

When Governor Ducey signed the new E.S.A. bill into law, he did so in the absence of any studies evaluating its effectiveness. Across the country, there has been relatively little long-term research examining voucher programs, and the findings that do exist are at best mixed. In Milwaukee, a report found that while some voucher kids are more likely to graduate on to a four-year college, there is little to support the notion that, on the basis of test scores, they are better prepared. A recent study of Indiana’s program, which was expanded while Mike Pence was the governor, discovered that students saw drops in math scores, and did not improve in reading until they spent at least four years in private school. In April, the U.S. Department of Education released an analysis of the program in Washington, D.C., the nation’s only federally funded voucher system. The results were grim: Students who used vouchers earned markedly lower scores on math tests in their first year compared with those who applied but did not receive a voucher. Children in kindergarten through fifth grade also had lower reading scores. Secretary DeVos defended the program anyway, insisting that parents overwhelmingly support it.

The election of Trump, and DeVos’s confirmation, has effectively made school choice into national policy. The vouchers, education savings accounts, and tax-credit programs that already exist are poised to grow. This year, thirty-five states have introduced bills that would either create or expand school choice programs. On the federal level, DeVos’s education budget proposal includes $9.2 billion in cuts. (If implemented, it will gut teacher preparation and professional development, after-school programs, Special Olympics activities, American history, and the arts, among other things.) She will instead finance her school choice priorities, namely a $250 million increase in scholarships that send kids to private (including religious) schools and a $1 billion infusion to the Furthering Options for Children to Unlock Success (FOCUS) program, which sends money to districts that do away with zoning and adopt open enrollment — as Arizona does.

In June, DeVos’s camp received judicial validation. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Trinity Lutheran Church Child Learning Center, in Missouri, which sought public funds to build a playground. “We should all celebrate the fact that programs designed to help students will no longer be discriminated against by the government based solely on religious affiliation,” DeVos cheered. In the dissent, Justice Sotomayor, joined by Justice Ginsburg, wrote that the decision “slights both our precedents and our history, and its reasoning weakens this country’s longstanding commitment to a separation of church and state beneficial to both.”

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