Friday, May 16, 2008

School vouchers nixed in Arizona

School vouchers took a beating in a decision handed down yesterday by Arizona's Tucson-based Court of Appeals, Division Two. Specifically, in Cain v. Horne (PDF), the court ruled that the Arizona Scholarships for Pupils with Disabilities Program, which enables disabled children to attend private school, and the Arizona Displaced Pupils Choice Grant Program, which similarly helps foster kids pay private school tuition, run afoul of the Arizona Constitution.

Article 9, Section 10 of that document reads:

No tax shall be laid or appropriation of public money made in aid of any church, or private or sectarian school, or any public service corporation.

I think that's an unfortunate provision, but there's no doubt that it exists. Given the clear words of the document, the court's interpretation seems reasonable.

So, what does that mean for school vouchers as a means for expanding education options for Arizona families? The overt glee of the Arizona Education Association should be a clue. When the state's leading cheerleader for Stalinist schooling is rapturous, it's a sure sign that the education menu is getting trimmed.

But that doesn't mean that choice is dead -- just that vouchers are probably off the table unless the state constitution is revised.

The court of appeals pointed the way to an alternative when it cited 1999's Kotterman v. Killian decision by the state supreme court:

In Kotterman, the court disposed of the Aid Clause challenge in a single paragraph, finding the tax credit there was neither an appropriation of public money nor the laying of a tax...

So, that leaves tax credits -- with which Arizonans have substantial experience -- as a viable option for enabling foster children and disabled kids to attend private schools, if they so wish. Tax credits have the additional advantage of further removing the state from the process, putting distance between officials and the tuition money and minimizing the influence government can exercise over schools and families. That increases the likelihood that the schools families choose can actually have different philosophies and curricula than the public schools, rather than being carbon copies of the institutions parents seek to escape.

Homeschooling remains an option, of course, as do charter schools, distance learning and paying private tuition out-of-pocket. Simply because parents can choose what's right for their own children, pretty much any of these options are superior to sending your kids to the cookie-cutter traditional public schools we're all mugged to support, whether we want to or not.

Ideally, I'd get the state as far out of education as it is out of religion, if I could, and for many of the same reasons. We don't need state-employed teachers trumpeting officially sanctioned lessons any more than we need state-funded pastors delivering officially sanctioned sermons. But that's a distant goal for the moment.

The court of appeals decision may have been a bit of a setback, but it didn't kill education choice for Arizonans.



Blogger John said...

Ok, as much as I respect you and I enjoy reading you blog, I can't let that comment go without a response. (The one about getting the state as far away from education as it is from religion) I agree with the state not being involved at all in religion, but education? What would be the alternative? Private-schools for the well-off. That's what. I know you are not a fan of public education, but I would prefer the state to pay for the education of the majority of people who would not be able to afford the expenses of a good education in a private school. You are a very thoughtful person, do you seriously believe that public schools are worthless? That teachers in public schools only feed the students the bureaucratic crap that is forced upon us? I know this is whole issue is big and relates to the role of the state and the type of society we want to live in, but I cannot in good conscience support a system where the wealthy have the best schools and the rest have.. nothing? The current format for public education, how it is funded and structured may not be the most equal or ideal institution, but I really don't see an alternative that would be more just or better for the society as a whole.

Thanks again for bringing up the other articles, especially about abuse of power here in AZ. You've become a must read for me.


May 16, 2008 10:35 PM  
Blogger J.D. Tuccille said...

Good questions all, and deserving of good answers. I'll do my best here, but I think the points you raise are worth an in-depth treatment in a full post, which I'll write very soon.

First, do I think that teachers in public school only feed students bureaucratic crap? Unfortunately, in many cases they have to. Curriculum nationally is increasingly top down, with some states reserving the choice of textbooks to a state-level selection committee. Teachers who would try to sneak in some creativity find the time eaten up by the pressing need to "teach to the test" -- AIMS and the like. Not surprisingly, the best people rebel and get bounced, quit in frustration or don't go into the field at all.

Perhaps as a result, even though per-pupil expenditures have steadily risen in constant dollars over the years to an all-time high, the rate of literacy is actually in free-fall.

Interestingly, de Tocqueville reported near-universal literacy during his travels to the U.S. during the 1830s and 1840s; as early as the Revolution, it was 70%-100% (among whites, I should add, due to the disparate treatment given blacks and Indians).

This leads into an answer to your question about educating people in the absence of public schools. Clearly, colonial-era settlers weren't attending non-existent public schools, and most weren't paying money for private schools. How were they learning?

The answer is: By a variety of means, formal and informal. We're accustomed to the idea that education takes place in a big building with desks and salaried teachers and regular hours, but that's a relatively recent innovation, and not necessarily a positive one since it works from the premise that everybody thrives in the same setting. Education has traditionally followed a variety of paths, most of them rather seamlessly integrated into everyday life.

And in the modern world of computers, telecommunications and easy transportation, even more options are available than to our ancestors.

I'll allow this, though: If we find that education as a purely private endeavor is less practical now than it was in the past, we should confine the state to handing out vouchers or tax credits to families who then choose where and how their children will learn. That keeps government out of the curriculum and allows families to choose the approach that's right for them.

Anyway, as I said, this topic is worthy of an in-depth treatment. I'll write one up soon, so stay tuned!

May 17, 2008 7:51 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ok, that is some good points and while as a history teacher I admire Tocqueville as much as the next historian, I don't clearly see how our current society could free itself from our current educational system and return to its pre-20th Century roots. To advocate otherwise may be idealistic but not very practical. I'll be looking for your full post on the topic. Thanks again, John.

May 17, 2008 5:43 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey John,

I read the post above and your comment, and I don't agree that private schools are for the well-off. I think the ideal way to educate young people, if governemnt MUST be involved, is to allocate per-student funding as follows: each school age child gets a voucher to spend on schooling of X dollars. Parents choose whether to spend it at a public school, a private school, a Christian school, a madrassah, etc. The point being *parents choose*. Many many teachers would break away to form new school and specialize in particular ways of educating children. Some will fear the risk involved and stay in a public school tenure system. Some won't. Parents choose. In Arizona, the public schools are so lousy I think people get dumber when they attend. The public schools are not doing an acceptable job educating. At all. They exist to provide highly-compensated work for unionized state employees.

May 20, 2008 5:20 PM  

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