One More Time…

Can you stand one more post about the scam that goes by the name of educational vouchers?

This time, I want to begin by suggesting that we may be on the cusp of reversing the effort to destroy public education in the name of parental “choice,” although not before considerably more harm is done.

The Arizona Mirror recently published a report under the headline “Arizona’s universal school vouchers are a cautionary tale for the rest of the nation.”

Here’s the lede:

The nation is watching as the devastating impacts of Arizona’s universal voucher program unfold. The most expansive and least accountable in the country, Arizona’s ESA voucher program is an unmitigated economic disaster with very real human impacts.

Arizona, like Indiana, has a legislature dominated by Republicans, and those legislators sold the concept of universal vouchers by insisting (as they did in Indiana) that it would help low-income students. They also insisted that the additional cost to the state would be negligible.

As the paper reports, just one year into what it calls “this  failed experiment,” it has become apparent that universal ESA vouchers are welfare for the wealthy. They are also on a path that will “devastate the state’s budget and lead to school closures, teacher layoffs, and eventually cuts to services like firefighters, health care, roads and more.”

The newspaper’s analysis was devastating:

  • Vouchers hurt Arizona’s economy: After universal expansion, ESA vouchers are on track to cost Arizona taxpayers over $900 million this school year — nearly 1400% higher than initially projected. The legislature could have used this funding for teacher and staff salary increases, building safety, 21st-century learning, and so much more. Instead, Arizona school districts are already looking at cuts and school
    closures.
  • Welfare for the wealthy: Universal ESA vouchers are primarily claimed by families whose children were already in private school and could already afford this option; now, these vouchers represent an entirely new cost to the state.
  • Arizona’s vouchers have no accountability: Unlike other states, Arizona’s universal vouchers have little to no transparency to taxpayers, zero academic accountability, and zero safety standards. There are no requirements to teach state standards, conduct background checks on teachers or tutors, or ensure site safety — meaning children will inevitably get hurt.
  • Vouchers hurt rural and low-income students: ESA vouchers are primarily claimed by more affluent families in wealthier zip codes and are concentrated in large, suburban areas. This robs funds from low-income and rural communities, leaving them behind.
  • With vouchers, students lose protections: ESA vouchers require parents to sign away federal rights, including protections for special education students, and are leading to many instances of state-funded discrimination against LGBTQ students, English Language Learners, and students with disabilities.

The article noted that other states have begun rethinking their voucher programs. In Texas,  a bipartisan coalition was able to block Gov. Abbott’s repeated attempts to pass ESA vouchers–the Texas legislature rejected voucher schemes five times this year. (One Texas Republican was quoted as saying “I believe in my heart that using taxpayer dollars to fund an entitlement program is not conservative, and it’s bad public policy. Expanding government-defined choice programs for a few without accountability… undermines our constitutional and moral duty to educate the children of Texas.” )

The Illinois legislature eliminated that state’s voucher program, concluding that it had enabled discrimination on the basis of religion, disability status, and LGBTQ+ status. And Georgia and Idaho have refused to institute voucher programs after concluding that the programs are both incredibly costly and lack essential accountability.

An earlier article from Politico confirmed that vouchers simply enrich wealthier Americans. It reported that the new vouchers in many cases lift—or even eliminate—household income caps, thus giving wealthier families state cash to send their kids to private schools–and data shows that many of these students aren’t leaving public schools for private ones.  Instead, most are going to students already enrolled in private schools.

Perhaps the most significant observation in the Arizona newspaper’s report was contained in the last paragraph of the article, which pointed to the underlying purpose of the voucher movement:

Universal ESA vouchers threaten to accomplish in Arizona exactly what they were designed to do: dismantle public education. Arizona would be wise to follow the nation in learning from our mistakes — before it’s too late.

Will Indiana’s legislators learn from Arizona and other states? I’m not holding my breath…but at least other states seem to be catching on.

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How Propaganda Really Works

I subscribe to a Substack newsletter titled Persuasion. (I assume there’s a URL to link to, but I’m clearly too stupid to figure it out, so you’ll have to trust the accuracy of my quotations). Recently, that newsletter added to my understanding of how contemporary propaganda works.

I’m sure I’m not the only person who hears statements from the cult of Trump and thinks “No rational person would believe that!” or “That doesn’t even make sense!” (And I’m not even referring things like Marjorie Taylor Greene’s evident belief that using solar energy means the. lights go off after sundown….)

How does crazy spread?

The  Persuasion newsletter focused on the Kafka-esq experience of a Republican county recorder named Stephen Richer. After winning that post in what was described as a “razor-thin upset,”  he took charge of counting the vote in Maricopa County, Arizona,  the nation’s fourth-most-populous county—”a swing county in a battleground state, and thus a magnet for the angry eye of MAGA following the 2020 election.”

You can guess what came next. Accusations, challenges, recounts, threats…

In February of this year, multiple checks by county officials and outside auditors had confirmed Joe Biden’s solid win, but MAGA was having none of it. Conspiracy theories swirled around the election. On the evening of February 24, Richer drove to West Phoenix to meet with a grassroots Republican group that had stalwartly supported his candidacy. His staff thought attending might be unwise. “They knew, as I did, that it would be an uncomfortable situation. I would say 90-plus percent of the people who were there were of the mindset that the election was absolutely stolen.” Within the first minute, they were yelling. Chaos ensued as people interrupted, argued, and shouted at Richer. Every half minute or so he had to pause for order. When he left, attendees followed him with cellphone cameras, yelled imprecations, banged on his car. Recall that these people had been, a few months earlier, his supporters.

Given the incoherence and sheer lunacy of the accusations and the continued lack of anything that remotely resembled evidence, you have to wonder why belief in Trump’s “Big Lie” persists.

The proofs he had produced, the explanations he had given, the debunking of the lie—none mattered. It was “one of the most dystopian moments of my life,” an eye-opening demonstration of “the extent to which one can speak untruths without any support, and a sizable percentage of the population will believe it.”

By now, Richer could see he was fighting not just frivolous fabulism but the black-hole gravitational pull of a mass disinformation campaign, a version of the “firehose of falsehood” method perfected by Russian propagandists. Such campaigns spew lies, half-truths, exaggerations, and conspiracy theories through every available channel, heedless of consistency or logic or even plausibility. The goal is as much to disorient and demoralize the target population as to inculcate a specific deception. Amid the onrush of misinformation, victims lose any sense of what to believe and whom to trust. It’s no accident that two-thirds of Republicans believe the election was stolen.

The newsletter pointed to the likely outcome of Richer’s experience, which has been mirrored in numerous other states: what sane Republican (assuming  some remain) will run for a position overseeing elections if doing the job properly will subject them to threats and constant harassment? A quick survey of GOP nominees for these positions provides the answer: very few. Instead, most Republican candidates for electoral supervision positions are “Big Lie” proponents.

Clearly, we should all support Democrats running against these candidates. But we should also ask what would it take to disabuse these cultists of a clearly ridiculous lie.

In a famous 1951 experiment, the psychologist Solomon Asch showed how easily humans can be manipulated by social pressure to conform. If everyone else in the room affirms even the most blatant falsehood, we will very often affirm it ourselves, even denying the clear evidence of our own eyes.

But a variation of the Asch experiment gives hope. If only one other person in the room—a single reality ally—tells the truth, the pressure to conform drops sharply and we become much more willing to buck the lie. That is why authoritarian regimes work so furiously to stifle opposition voices, even seemingly weak ones. It is what the Soviet dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was getting at when he said, “The simple act of an ordinary brave man is not to participate in lies, not to support false actions! His rule: Let that [lie] come into the world, let it even reign supreme—only not through me.”

In Arizona, Stephen Richer was that “ordinary brave man.” We need a lot more Republicans like him, but it doesn’t seem promising…..

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The Unremitting Attacks On Public Education

The attacks on public education by “privatization” ideologues have ramped up under Betsy DeVos, who–as Mother Jones has reported–wants to use America’s schools to build “God’s Kingdom” and who has spent a lifetime working to end public education as we know it. She has ramped up those efforts since becoming Education Secretary, and she has help from other billionaire privatizers.

Last September, The Guardian reported on an Arizona effort spearheaded by DeVos and the Koch brothers.

Arizona has become the hotbed for an experiment rightwing activists hope will redefine America’s schools – an experiment that has pitched the conservative billionaires the Koch brothers and Donald Trump’s controversial education secretary, Betsy DeVos, against teachers’ unions, teachers and parents. Neither side is giving up without a fight.

Groups funded by the Koch brothers and cheered on by DeVos succeeded in getting Arizona lawmakers to enact what the Guardian describes as “the nation’s broadest school vouchers law.” (If it is broader than Indiana’s program, that’s saying something.) The state-funded vouchers were designed to give parents more school choice and–like Indiana’s–could be used to enroll children in private or religious schools.

For opponents, however, the system wasn’t about “choice”–it was about further weakening Arizona’s public school system.

Six women with children in the public schools had lobbied unsuccessfully against the measure, and they decided to fight back. Arizona law allows referenda (Indiana’s does not), and the women decided–long odds or no– they would gather the 75,321 signatures they needed to get a referendum on the ballot to overturn the law. They formed a group, called it Save Our Schools, and set out to collect the needed signatures.

The six women inspired a statewide movement and got hundreds of volunteers to brave Arizona’s torrid summer heat to collect signatures – in parks and parking lots, at baseball games and shopping malls. Their message was that billionaire outsiders were endangering public education by getting Arizona’s legislature – in part through campaign contributions – to create an expensive voucher program.

One reason for their success in generating a movement was the fact that Arizona’s public schools are so obviously underfunded. Some classes have 40 students; schools have to ask private citizens to donate money for supplies and books.

One study foundthat Arizona, at $7,613, is the third-lowest state in public school spending per student, while another study foundthat from 2008 to 2015, school funding per pupil had plunged by 24% in Arizona, after adjusting for inflation – the second-biggest drop in the nation.

Save our Schools submitted 111,540 signatures to the secretary of state in August 2017, but the Koch brothers’ political arm, Americans for Prosperity, sued to block the referendum. A judge dismissed the lawsuit and approved the referendum for 6 November – it’s called Proposition 305. The vote will be closely watched by people on both sides of the debate as the Kochs and DeVos hope to spread the voucher scheme and opponents look to Arizona for clues on how to stop them.

Save our Schools won. 

A grassroots group of parents successfully overturned the massive school voucher expansion supported by the state’s Republican establishment, as the “no” vote on Proposition 305 won by a wide margin, the Associated Press has projected.

The “no” vote victory on Prop. 305 has major implications for the school-choice movement in Arizona and nationally, as the state has long been ground zero for the conservative issue and Republican leaders have crowned the Empowerment Scholarship Account expansion as a national template.

This is the way democratic systems are supposed to work when legislatures pass measures that conflict with the desires of the voters.

If we have public schools that are not performing satisfactorily, we need to fix them–not abandon them. And we absolutely should not be sending tax dollars to religious schools–a practice that only deepens America’s already troubling tribalization.

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The Dinosaurs On Noah’s ark

Just shoot me now.

A column in the Arizona Republic newspaper reports that the state’s Superintendent of Public Instruction has added a member to that state’s panel charged with reviewing science instruction in Arizona’s public schools.

And what eminent scientist or respected academic has been chosen for this important panel?

Here is a bit of instruction from a guy Superintendent Diane Douglas tapped to help review Arizona’s standards on how to teach evolution in science class:

The earth is just 6,000 years old and dinosaurs were present on Noah’s Ark. But only the young ones. The adult ones were too big to fit, don’t you know.

“Plenty of space on the Ark for dinosaurs – no problem,” Joseph Kezele explained to Phoenix New Times’Joseph Flaherty.

Flaherty reports that in August, Arizona’s soon-to-be ex-superintendent appointed Kezele to a working group charged with reviewing and editing the state’s proposed new state science standards on evolution.

Joseph Kezele, it turns out, teaches (his version of) biology at Arizona Christian University, and serves as president of the Arizona Origin Science Association.   The article describes him as “a staunch believer in the idea that enough scientific evidence exists to back up the biblical story of creation.”

Douglas has been working for awhile now to bring a little Sunday school into science class. This spring she took a red pen to the proposed new science standards, striking or qualifying the word “evolution” wherever it occurred.

Douglas wants the theory of Intelligent Design taught alongside the “theory” of evolution–a desire that confirms her total lack of understanding of the scientific method and scientific terminology.

A scientific theory is not the equivalent of a wild-ass guess. Scientific theories grow out of and are based upon groups of hypotheses that have been repeatedly and successfully empirically tested. Only after sufficient evidence has been gathered in support of those hypotheses will a theory be developed to explain the phenomenon in question.

Even then, scientific theories (unlike religious beliefs) remain subject to falsification–continued empirical testing to support or disprove the hypotheses upon which the theory depends. If a theory cannot be rejected, modified or confirmed by such empirical testing, it isn’t science.

Other beliefs may or may not be true (that sunset is beautiful!), but that doesn’t make them science.

Meanwhile, the new appointee to the panel reviewing Arizona’s science standards has already convinced the others to change the description of evolution from “the explanation for the unity and diversity of organisms, living and extinct” to “an” explanation–in other words, one “theory” among others.

As the columnist concluded,

So much for long-established scientific theory.

Kezele told Flaherty that there is enough scientific evidence to back up the biblical account of creation. He says students should be exposed to that evidence. For example, scientific stuff about the human appendix and the Earth’s magnetic field.

“I’m not saying to put the Bible into the classroom, although the real science will confirm the Bible,” Kezele told Flaherty. “Students can draw their own conclusions when they see what the real science actually shows.”

Because, hey, Barney floating around on Noah’s Ark.

Kezele told Flaherty that all land animals – humans and dinosaurs alike — were created on the Sixth Day.

And there was light and the light was, well, a little dim for science class, if you ask me.

The only good news here is that Douglas initially won the Superintendent’s office by a single percentage point, barely survived a recall effort, and decisively lost the 2018 Republican primary.

The bad news is, there were people in Arizona who voted for her.

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Arizona and a Sigh of Relief

Among the end-of-term decisions handed down by the Supreme Court was Arizona State Legislature v. Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission. It was an important case–had the legislature prevailed, it would have dealt a near-fatal blow to the ability of good government groups to address the practice of gerrymandering.

Some years back, via a referendum, Arizona citizens struck a blow against gerrymandering by establishing a nonpartisan commission to draw its election maps. The state legislature sued, asserting that language in the Constitution limits the right to regulate national elections to Congress and state legislatures.

In a decision that legislative scholar Tom Mann called “a model of constitutional reasoning,” a divided Court upheld the right of citizens to determine who shall 

…have the ultimate authority over who shall represent them in public office. The majority opinion quotes Madison to powerful effect: “The genius of republican liberty seems to demand . . . not only that all power should be derived from the people, but those entrusted with it should be kept in dependence on the people.”

As Richard Pildes wrote in a New York Times Op-Ed,

The main, and best, justification for direct democracy is precisely the need for this kind of check, just as the voters in Arizona exercised, on the self-interested temptations of power when legislators regulate the political process itself.

Direct democracy is hardly a panacea or a pure expression of “the popular will,” whatever that means; voters must be organized and informed, which takes resources and organizational skill. Still, direct democracy remains an important means of policing the inevitable temptations those in power have to entrench themselves more securely in power.

On Monday the court rightly recognized that, when the Constitution assigned the elections clause power to the “legislatures,” the framers were not making a judgment about whether states could create direct democratic processes as another way to regulate the national election process. Unlike their rejection of popular Senate elections, the framers did not reject popular regulation of elections: They just never considered the idea. To reject it in their name, the court wisely concluded, would have been perverse.

It isn’t easy to rein in the self-interested process of legislative line-drawing under even the best of circumstances; those who have power only surrender that power when they have no choice. Had the Arizona legislature’s challenge succeeded, redistricting reform would be virtually impossible.

File this one under “dodged a bullet.”

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