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How Right-Wing Grifters Are Destroying Public Schools

The state's governor is using school choice to defund public education.

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Host: There’s a big and very dangerous scam transpiring right now in Arizona — and it’s happening right out in the open.

[Pete Hesgeth on Fox News]: “We talk about phase one of the insurgency to take back our schools, and you know what that is? Doing exactly what Charlie Kirk is doing with Turning Point Academy. We have to build our own schools that educate kids the way kids were educated at the founding of this country.”

Host: This is not a prank: Charlie Kirk, the right-wing vlogger and author of a book about why college is bad, is opening up his schools in Arizona. Schools for kids.

The school is a collab between Kirk and schools already run by Dream City – a far-right megachurch that claimed in 2020 to have eliminated Covid with an air filter in order to lure people to an indoor Trump rally. 

[Charlie Kirk in Advertisement]: Students from pre-k to 12th grade will be offered curriculum and programs to equip our children with the tools necessary to defend objective truth.

Host: And despite what he says here:

[Charlie Kirk on Fox News]: Parents are sick of government schools and they want an alternative.

Host: The real objective truth here is that Charlie Kirk’s weird new school is actually getting funded by the state government thanks to Arizona’s new school privatization scheme — and at the expense of the million kids enrolled in Arizona public schools. 

Beth Lewis: It’s all sort of the same ideology of removing the public good and propping up private corporate interests…education to them is, well for some folks it’s a way to spread religion… for some folks, it’s just straight profit

Host: This is the right-wing’s end-game. The hysterical protests, the book bans, obsession with critical race theory — all of it is cooked up by the religious right and dark money billionaires to crush public schools and turn education systems into factories of extremism and profit. 

And it’s breaking through in states across the country. Since 2021, at least 15 GOP-led states have established or expanded school voucher programs.

We went to Arizona, the most advanced front in the war on public education, to see the catastrophic impact of the GOP’s scheme and how people have been fighting back. The stakes couldn’t be higher.

Arizona Republicans promised that their Education Savings Account program wouldn’t cost much, because every time a kid used a voucher, the state funding for their education would simply transfer with them from public schools to their new charter or private school.

Beth Lewis: They get $7,000 to $40,000 put into a class wallet account.

Host: The catch? Anyone can use it — including kids that already go to private schools.

Beth Lewis: We know that 80% of the kids that are using Universal ESAs had already chosen private school.

So every time that child’s family takes a voucher, it’s a direct subtraction from the local public school. And I can tell you those local public schools cannot afford that subtraction.

Beth Lewis: There are 85,000 kids that are in private school and homeschooled, why would they not all take free government money with no strings attached?

Josh Cowen: The Arizona voucher program has ballooned. It’s 10 times over budget what these groups were projecting last summer when the Ducey administration pushed this through legislation.

Host: How did it get so bad? It wasn’t by popular demand, but the relentlessness of ideological and corporate interests.

Josh Cowen: By far the two biggest organizations that have been supporting school choice and private school choice have been the Walton family Walmart heirs in Arkansas, and the DeVos family based in Michigan. 

[Betsy DeVos at ALEC convention]: Arizonans are loving their ESA vouchers too. And Gov. Ducey and I just heard from some amazing students this morning about that.

Beth Lewis: The Institute for Justice and American Federation for Children, backed by Betsy DeVos, pushed vouchers in 2006. And the Supreme Court ended up ruling that unconstitutional in 2009. 

They said, “we can’t give public dollars straight to private schools. There’s a violation of the separation of church and state.” 

So special interests took those court orders… and said, “so what if we just give the money to the parents, then we’re fine, right? They can send it to the private school.”

State Senator Juan Mendez: The program was sold to the legislature as a way to serve a certain population that might not be getting served from a traditional public school. 

Raquel Mamani: It’s incremental. They start with, oh, let’s help the special ed students. Oh, now let’s help foster care. Oh, now let’s help military families, 

Juan Mendez: And once they used that argument to create vouchers, every year since then, they’ve been finding creative ways to expand the population that can participate in these voucher programs.

Raquel Mamani: Now our special education students have fallen to the bottom as far as receiving these funds.

Host: So how has this move to so-called “school choice” impacted students across Arizona?

Josh Cowen: We know that academic instability, bouncing around between schools, school closures, are really bad for children, and really bad for at-risk children in particular.

The last four voucher evaluations have shown test score drops from kids who moved from public to private school that are on par with what Hurricane Katrina did to learning rates in New Orleans after the hurricane hit. And more recently to what Covid-19 did to test scores after exams began to resume.

Host: And yet, turning vouchers into a statewide program was a top priority of former Gov. Doug Ducey, who pushed the legislature to pass it in 2017.

Beth Lewis: We ran a statewide campaign, it was on the ballot in 2018, and Arizona voters overwhelmingly rejected the measure that the legislators had passed. They rejected vouchers two to one, it wasn’t even close. 

Host: The next election, Arizonans voted to tax the rich and fund public schools… but the Republican Ducey-appointed state Supreme Court stepped in and tossed it.

Last year, Arizona public schools ranked 49th in the country in teacher pay and graduation rate, and dead last in overall quality. 

Juan Mendez: Education funding has been an issue for my whole life. I’m born and raised in Arizona, and I’ve never gone to a fully funded public education setting.

Raquel Mamani: It is exhausting to be a public school teacher in Arizona. I am a permanent sub in a middle school because of the teacher shortage. 

Beth Lewis: We don’t have aides, we don’t have coaches, librarians, right? Music teachers, art teachers, all of that has been stripped away from most of our schools and our buildings are crumbling.

Juan Mendez: They don’t have the supplies that are required of a public education. Some of our schools are still teaching off books that are so old they don’t acknowledge 9/11. 

It would be impossible to ignore how a lot of what’s going on is an organized effort to create an environment that makes it hard for public schools to exist so that there is this outward outside pressure pushing families to make choices where they send their children to charter schools and private schools.

Raquel Mamani: I’m from southern Arizona. I’m from the border. I’m from Nogales, where we know that there are one or two private schools, but the rest of the community goes to public school. They have nowhere to go. So at the same moment that their schools are being defunded and told, oh, go to a private school. Well, these rural communities, they don’t have private schools to access.

Host: Instead of funding public education, taxpayer money is going to places such as Great Hearts schools, run by a right-wing Christian school that has a long history of discrimination against students and families.

The school is expanding, opening academies that cost $7k a year — or the value of a voucher. These schools can accept or reject any student they want, as can elite private schools. 

Juan Mendez: It’s become a government-facilitated self-segregation, where we have entire public charter schools that are devoid of diversity.

Raquel Mamani: We see students being turned away for a variety of reasons. We’ve seen instances where private schools find out that the student has two moms or two dads, and then all of a sudden that student is put out because… that doesn’t go along with their mission statement or their values. And so these are public taxpayer dollars that are used to discriminate against students.

Host: If they’re not discriminatory, many of these private and charter schools are for-profit grifts, more concerned with siphoning off cash than educating kids. 

[12 News Clip]: 

It’s another big story in 2018 that will carry over into the new year: How charter school owners are becoming millionaires by profiting off the schools in ways that would be illegal in a public school district.

“Eddie Farnsworth, who’s a lawmaker, he created another company with lobbyists to buy his schools from him, and he made close to $14 million.”

Juan Mendez: They’re not looking out for the best interests of the students. They’re looking out for their bottom line.

Host: New Democratic Gov. Katie Hobbs has opposed vouchers, and she’s seeking to roll back the program to end student exploitation and avoid defunding public schools. 

Raquel Mamani: Do not believe the false narrative that this is power to the parent. And this is what, you know, students from across the tracks need to, uh, be successful. This is a grift, this is a national push to privatize education to take money from our taxpayer. It’s a lot of money. There’s a lot of money to be made on education. Arizona is ground zero. This is the petri dish where all of this was born. But this is a national push to privatize. Make no mistake about it.

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