America’s schools have become a battleground in a tense culture war, stoked by Republican leaders and the mainstream media. Arizona is a key battleground in the fight.
“As a kindergarten teacher, I never, in a million years imagined that someone from my district would have to call me and advise to me not to come to a school board meeting for fear of being attacked,” Arizona teacher Kelly Fisher told us. “At school board meetings right now, all school year, parents showing up screaming and shouting about their children, saying that we were harming their children and yell about indoctrination, critical race theory. Teachers had to be escorted out by the police because of threats from parents.”
“I really feel like in the 23 years I’ve been in the classroom, this has been the roughest year.”
So we went to Arizona to investigate –– who are the players behind the Republican strategy on Critical Race Theory?
“A lot of this bad legislation that we are seeing, especially the push for anti CRT, a lot of that is coming from the Koch brothers from Alec and here in Arizona, uh, the Goldwater Institute, which is the bane of our existence,” Fisher said.
The Goldwater Institute is a far-right policy organization in Arizona that is a part of the Koch lobbying network. One of its key figures in recent years was a man named Clint Bolick.
Bolick was one of the first people to use “critical race theory” as an attack in 1993.
Former School Privatizer Tells All
We actually talked to someone who worked with Bolick at The Goldwater Institute and helped push their agenda in the state. This is Charles Siler, a former Goldwater Lobbyist.
Critical race theory is just the latest vehicle for the right wings, grievance industrial complex. These are the culture wars that they use as a smokescreen to advance their political goals. Most of their policies are broadly unpopular. When I was working at the Goldwater Institute one of the biggest challenges that I faced was how do we take these really unpopular ideas and frame them as broadly popular. This is where the culture wars really comes into play.Charles Siler, former school privatization lobbyist
Does Ted Cruz know that CRT isn’t being taught in public schools? I’m sure he does, but that isn’t what’s important. Once he turns parents out to school board meetings over this topic that’s when he can start to work on those people about how to get those kids out of those school systems. And that’s creating an artificial support for privatization and voucher programs.
Using toxic, harmful rhetoric to advance school privatization isn’t a new strategy. In 1954, when the Brown v Board of Education ruling called for desegregating American schools, the right wing saw an opportunity to stoke racism for their agenda.
Virginia approved a plan to give families $100-150 vouchers to send their kids to private schools, which were legally racially segregated. In some places like Prince William county, this was such an egregious act that they had no public schools open whatsoever and black students couldn’t attend any schools. They might give them a voucher, but there’d be no private schools willing to accept them.
This strategy was bolstered by popular neoliberal economist Milton Friedman who wrote an essay supporting privatization over integration. His associate Emerson Schmidt–the Director of Research for the US Chamber of Commerce–wrote, pointing to Friedman’s work: “We should never overlook an opportunity to expand private effort”
That opportunity was to use racist dog whistles to privatize schools. The Goldwater Institute is using that same strategy today, and they’re not alone. They are just the Arizona arm of The State Policy Network, a Koch-linked group that is deeply involved in the anti-CRT movement across America.
Another group in the Koch network is Parents Defending Education, whose stated goal is to “reclaim our schools from activists promoting harmful agendas.”
The Parents Defending Education president, Nicole Neily, is deeply embedded in the Koch network, director Ian Lindquist is from the American Enterprise Institute–another arm of the network. Edward Blum, another director, comes straight from DonorsTrust, which Mother Jones called “the Dark Money ATM of the Alt Right.”
And then there’s Christopher Rufo, one of the loudest voices against Critical Race Theory. He admitted to The New York Times that this isn’t about kids, it’s about cultivating political power: “I’ve unlocked a new terrain in the culture war, and demonstrated a successful strategy.”
“This isn’t a conspiracy theory. They admitted it,” Siler told us. “They use the fear surrounding racial equality to sneak in school privatization.”
Privatizing schools is usually done in two main ways: voucher programs, where parents are given tax-payer funded vouchers that they can use at traditional private schools in lieu of public schools, like what happened after desegregation, and charter schools – schools that are publicly funded, but can be run by for-profit organizations and aren’t subject to the same regulations and oversight as traditional public schools. Both siphon money from the public education system into something unregulated and potentially for-profit.
If you look at the boards of these organizations, you’ll see why they support school privatization. Because they own the schools. It makes them a lot of money: states either flat-out allow for-profit organizations to run charter schools, or allow schemes where non-profits exist as a facade to pass money to for-profit organizations.
Let’s go back to Arizona to see how this privatization strategy has played out to great success.
In 1994 a cohort of Republican state legislators, backed and encouraged by the Goldwater Institute, passed a bill to bring charter schools to the state. Today the whole industry is big money. School founders make millions by choosing their own salaries.
Arizona eventually had a voucher bill too, hidden under the name “Empowerment Scholarship Accounts” or ESAs, prepaid debit cards from the state parents could use to pay for private school.
“We design those to create a shell game where we laundered public funds through parents,” Siler explained, “so that they could spend that money on private parochial and religious schools.”
The bill passed the Arizona legislature but public school advocates successfully petitioned to shut it down and forced it to a ballot measure: the people of Arizona voted against it. But it passed: 16-14 across party lines.
So Why Is Privatization Bad?
When you think “private school” you might imagine a fancy institution like in Gossip Girl, but the types of schools benefiting from this scheme couldn’t be further from that.
“In the strip mall where the grocery store I shop is located, there was a private school and it was there one week. And the next time I went back to the grocery store, it was a vet’s office with no sign of a school ever existing,” Fisher said.
While some charter schools report high standardized test ratings, Stanford researchers found “charter school quality is uneven across student demography and geography, and only 19 percent of charter schools outperform their noncharter peers in math and reading.” And you can guess which students get access to those 19 percent.
“Technically they’re open to everyone, but the charter schools build systems to keep out students they don’t want,” Siler explained. “If you look at the enrollment numbers at a charter chain like BASIS in Arizona, they have far fewer Black and Latino students than the general Arizona population. Charter schools are pitched on the idea of helping kids with special needs, but only 1.2 percent of BASIS student population has special needs compared to over 11 percent in Arizona statewide.”
Privatization is bad for teachers too. Since embracing privatization Arizona, compared to other states, is 49th for teacher pay and 46th in per-pupil spending. And that’s not saving taxpayers money, it’s just being transferred to the privatization industry.
“School privatization is bad for students, bad for teachers and bad for taxpayers. The only people it’s good for are those raking in the millions of dollars of state and federal tax dollars and the people they pay to keep it that way,” Fisher told us.
What Are The Alternatives?
Advocates of school privatization say this is all about “parent choice,” and otherwise empowering parents and kids to have a voice in their education. There are models that do that:
The Community School is one option: community schools are public schools that team up with their surrounding community, including public agencies, nonprofits, small businesses, parent associations, and more. They sometimes offer dental care, mental health resources, food clothing and bill assistance.
They also actually work: New York City community schools report significantly higher graduation rates, lower absenteeism, and higher student achievement in math and writing. And disciplinary incidents were significantly lower too.
But what will it take to get support for community schools nationally? A lot. The Koch network is very powerful. They’re creating battles in the culture war at an astounding pace.
“The whole plan,” according to Siler, “is to break public schools to break these community institutions, a place where we all work and can see the power of collective action in a very real and meaningful way in our own lives.”
Fisher told us, “Every day, as one of the leaders of my union, I have teachers leaving their keys and walking out of their classrooms. And that’s heartbreaking because the bottom line is who’s going to be there for our kids. Now I’m getting emotional.”
All of this chaos has a tangible legislative effect : 27 voucher programs have popped up in 16 states and DC, and 45 states and DC have charter school programs. The Koch network is winning, but it doesn’t have to be that way.
Don’t fall into their culture war trap. Take the fight to voucher and charter school bills, which are both extremely unpopular among most voters.
“America’s public schooling is our last great public institution,” Fisher said. “One of the few things that has yet to be completely exploited for profit. Let’s keep it that way.”