How an Education Crisis Is Spurring a Seismic Shift in Arizona Politics

With a major ballot initiative, public school advocates are pushing back on Republican efforts to defund and privatize education.

Jennifer C. Berkshire   |    October 28, 2020

A Red for Ed protest in Arizona (Gage Skidmore/Flickr)

This article originally appeared on The Appeal, which hosted The Political Report project.

With a major ballot initiative, public school advocates are pushing back on Republican efforts to defund and privatize education.

The criminal legal system is closely entangled with schools and education policy. This article is the second in a three-part series, in the run-up to Nov. 3, about local elections where education issues are at stake. You can read the first story in the series here.

When Ivan Penich cast an early ballot this fall, he voted to send President Trump back to the White House for a second term. Then the Mesa, Arizona, resident gave a thumbs-up to a ballot measure that would raise taxes for the state’s wealthiest residents to increase funding to public schools. Penich, a 69-year-old Army veteran and the operator of a dental lab, says his rationale was straightforward. “My grandchildren deserve a good education like my daughter had.”

According to recent polling, a commanding number of voters share Penich’s sentiments. Proposition 208, which would levy a 3.5 percent tax on Arizonans earning more than $250,000 to pay teachers more and hire more of them, is supported by 60 percent of registered voters, including one-third of Republicans.

That taxing the rich to pay for schools would emerge as a cause with bipartisan support in 2020 is not a complete surprise. More Arizonans now identify education, not immigration, as the top priority facing the state, reflecting mounting concern with schools that are notoriously underfunded, teachers who are poorly paid, and a teacher shortage crisis so severe that 28 percent of the state’s classrooms lack a permanent teacher.

Education has become a potent political issue since #RedforEd protests shone a harsh light on the condition of Arizona’s schools in 2018. After a historic teacher strike, educators doubled down on electoral organizing. Democrats gained four seats in the state House of Representatives that year. Now they’re poised to tip the House and possibly the Senate in their favor. If they succeed, voter dissatisfaction with the GOP’s embrace of controversial policies aimed at dismantling, defunding, and privatizing education will be a major reason.

A similar pattern is playing out in other key battleground states, including Michigan and Texas. In these states and others, the gulf between voters who believe in taxpayer-funded public education and GOP candidates who are hostile to it has created an opening for Democrats.

For decades, Arizona has been a petri dish for free market education experiments. Charter schools, publicly funded private schools, education savings accounts that allow parents to spend taxpayer funds on a dizzying array of education “options” with little state oversight or accountability—the Grand Canyon State has them all. The latest innovation to take off, “micro schools” managed by a for-profit company called Prenda, replaces teachers with untrained and unlicensed “guides” who oversee five to 10 students within their own homes. The company, which denies that it is a school, is raking in millions of dollars through Arizona’s expansive school choice programs.

As school choice offerings in the state have ballooned, they have increasingly competed for funding with traditional public schools. “It all comes out of the same funding bucket, and the bucket wasn’t that big to begin with,” said Sharon Kirsch, research director for the grassroots public education advocacy group Save Our Schools Arizona. 

The push for free-market education reforms has typically been justified in terms of greater academic achievement. Proponents of charter school expansion, for example, point to test score gains in math and English among students attending urban charters. Critics cite the downsides of the free-market experiment, including greater segregation and charter schools’ track record of harsh disciplinary practices that fuel the school-to-prison pipeline, disproportionately affecting nonwhite students and those with disabilities. But Arizona’s school choice debate has been far less focused on results. The lack of oversight and accountability that are a feature of the state’s school voucher program have made it virtually impossible to answer basic questions about how students are faring academically, or even which private schools are benefiting from taxpayer funds. 

That hands-off, regulation-free vision is precisely what an array of deep-pocketed interest groups in Arizona are pushing. Organizations like the Americans for Prosperity, funded by Charles Koch and the American Federation for Children, founded by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, are a major presence in the state. More recent arrivals to the school choice lobbying space include Yes Every Kid, which is another Koch project, and Love Your School, an offshoot of the right-wing Center for Arizona Policy.

Said Kirsch: “I’m not sure most people have any idea that these groups are essentially running education policy in Arizona.”

Americans for Prosperity and the American Federation for Children were behind a 2018 ballot measure, which Arizonans trounced, that would have made every student in the state eligible for a private school voucher. Yet despite clear antipathy—one Arizona Republic columnist wrote that voters “stoned the thing, then they tossed it into the street and ran over it”—Republicans have forged ahead with efforts to grow the voucher program. This year, they enacted controversial legislation to allow a handful of students from the Navajo Nation to attend a private religious school in New Mexico at the expense of Arizona taxpayers.

Kate Brophy McGee, Republican state senator for Arizona’s 28th District, opposed previous voucher expansion efforts, but she was a key “yes” vote this time around. She characterized the bill as a necessary effort to help the Navajo students. But public school advocates—including the legislative Indigenous Peoples Caucus—saw something more ominous: the latest in a long-running effort by the GOP to defund, dismantle and privatize the state’s public schools.

“You have a used-to-be moderate candidate in a moderate district taking more extreme positions on education because of pressure from the party,” said Charles Siler, a former lobbyist for the pro-voucher Goldwater Institute who now works with Save Our Schools Arizona. “The party has shifted its platform to be more antagonistic towards public schools while the voter base hasn’t shifted, at least not to the same extent… That’s created a big opportunity for Democrats.”

When Christine Porter Marsh ran against McGee in 2018, she came within 267 votes of unseating the GOP incumbent. This year, the former Arizona teacher of the year is challenging McGee again in one of the state’s most-watched races, and she’s confident that she’ll emerge victorious.

Marsh, who teaches English at a Scottsdale middle school has good reason to feel optimistic. The suburban Phoenix district where she grew up and now aspires to represent is in the throes of a demographic transition. The district’s affluent enclaves—and longtime GOP strongholds—including Arcadia, Biltmore, and Paradise Valley, are trending bluer as new residents move in. In the last six years, voter rolls in this part of Maricopa County have swelled by 17,000, three quarters of whom are Democrats.

Marsh says that frustration with the GOP’s complete abdication of funding public education is fueling a political realignment in the district and across the state. “People are fed up and they’re beginning to see that that systemic disinvestment is not an accident,” Marsh said.

The Arizona GOP is also in the throes of a Trump-era transformation that has played out in the education arena. A recent Arizona Republic investigation documented the outsize influence of the far-right Patriot Movement on the state’s Republican Party. In just a few years, the group has evolved from a handful of loud online voices falsely warning of an imminent Muslim invasion to an influential force on state policy, including successfully pressuring Governor Doug Ducey to declare the state reopened for business even as the COVID-19 pandemic rages.

When thousands of teachers walked out of schools in 2018 under the banner of #RedforEd, their call for higher teacher pay and more funding for Arizona schools won strong public support. But the monthlong protests also spurred a countermovement: Purple for Parents, an offshoot of the Patriot Movement. The parent activists have targeted school district diversity and equity initiatives, which they say are marginalizing white people. They’ve also led a backlash against comprehensive sex education in K-12 schools, painting it as a conspiracy to push kids to identify as lesbian, gay, or transgender.

“They’ve been going around to all of the school boards pushing for no sex education, no equity, diversity and inclusion,” said Chandler school board member Lindsay Love. Chandler, a suburb southeast of Phoenix, is in District 17, where voters elected their first Democratic state representative in 2018, and where Democrats are heavily investing to flip a state Senate seat. Love, who ran for school board in 2018 as a progressive underdog and became the first Black woman to win a seat, says the Purple for Parents protests are fueled by more than objection to district policies. “Our Tea Party Republican groups are having this last grand stand against changes that are taking place in Arizona.”

The activists’ extreme rhetoric on schools is pushing away a subset of Republican voters who send their children to public schools. “People see what happens in their schools, they know their teachers. They hear this extreme rhetoric about kids being groomed for sex trafficking or Shariah marriage and they know that it’s not true,” said Siler. “Republicans can’t win when their rhetoric is so contrary to what people experience in their own lives.”

That dynamic is shaping a state representative race in nearby District 23, a heavily Republican district that includes most of Scottsdale and all of Fountain Hills. Two years ago Democrat Eric Kurland came within three percentage points of winning the seat. Today, the former elementary school teacher is convinced that victory is within his grasp. 

Kurland is aided by the GOP’s sharp shift to the right. One of his previous opponents, Jay Lawrence, whose penchant for outrageous comments drew the attention of John Oliver’s HBO show “Last Week Tonight,” lost to a primary challenger who ran to his right. Kurland will now face off against businessman Joseph Chaplik, whose campaign platform includes opposition to comprehensive sex education in schools, and John Kavanaugh, a Republican incumbent, in race for two seats.

Demographic changes in this suburban district are also a factor. “Our demographic mimics what has happened around the country where voters have flipped,” said Kurland, adding that District 23 has had an influx of voters who are highly involved in their local public schools.

To voters who are drawn to eastern Maricopa County in part because of its top-rated schools, the GOP’s hostility to public schools offers little. Kurland says the embrace of his “Time for a Teacher” message by voters in the district is also a sign of exhaustion with two decades of GOP dominance in Arizona that has pushed schools and teachers to the brink.

After polling this fall showed Kurland as the favorite to win the district, an Arizona political news site fired off a warning to Republicans: “If LD [Legislative District] 23 is in play, everywhere is in play.”

“I really feel like this is a moment from my fifth-grade science curriculum where you’re talking about for every action there’s an equal and opposite reaction. We’ve been under the thumb of one-party rule in Arizona for so long,” said Kurland.