Conservative, anti-public education forces in the Arizona Legislature hope voters will allow them to create the mother of all private school voucher bills.

They're working to put a measure on the ballot that would wipe out a section of the Arizona Constitution forbidding the use of state funds "in aid of any church, or private or sectarian school."

With that line out of the Constitution, the legislature will be free to pass a law telling parents, "Just send us the bill for your kid's private school tuition. We'll take the money out of public school funds and pay the tab."

Before we look deeper into what's going on in Arizona, let's step back and look at research on the effects of vouchers on student learning.

Study after study has concluded, there is no significant difference between the academic achievement of similar students in public and private schools. That's true whether the private school students' tuition is paid for by vouchers or by their parents.

The latest study came out a few weeks ago. It looked at the Milwaukee voucher program that's been going on for two decades. The authors of the study concluded, "Voucher students are showing average rates of achievement gain similar to their public school peers."

The researchers, by the way, are conservative, pro-voucher profs at the University of Arkansas. And the study's conclusions are accepted by a well-respected voucher advocate at the conservative American Enterprise Institute.

So this isn't some liberal, anti-voucher hit piece. The researchers would have liked nothing better than to show voucher students out-performing their public school peers. To their great credit, they had the scholarly integrity to present their data honestly and conclude the voucher program did not lead to academic gains.

Even the Bush Administration's Department of Education released a study concluding that similar students at traditional public, charter and private schools have similar levels of academic achievement. The only exception is Conservative Christian private schools, where student achievement lagged behind.

So the question is, why do pro-voucher conservatives want to spend taxpayer dollars to pay for private school tuition if it's not about raising student achievement?

The answer is, Arizona's conservative ideologues don't like public schools, period. Their goal is to defund public education and move as much money as possible to private schools.

This legislative session, Republicans have hacked away mercilessly at public school funding and will gladly cut more if the sales tax increase fails at the polls. At the same time, they've tried every trick in the book to increase the amount of money that goes for tuition tax credits which cover private school tuition, even for children of wealthy parents. The tax credits use money that could otherwise go to educate public school children.

And now, they want to remove constitutional restrictions that forbid the use of state funds to pay for private school tuition.

Republican Sen. John Huppenthal, who is running for superintendent of public instruction, thinks we should redefine the meaning of "public schools" to include private schools and home schooling. Really. That's what he said.

Imagine what funding for Arizona schools would look like if our newly elected head of public instruction proclaimed, "And by public instruction, I mean private schools too." He would be pounding on his bully pulpit pushing for vouchers from day one.

The Goldwater Institute, the epicenter of conservative ideology in Arizona, has been pushing vouchers for years. In his book supporting vouchers, lead litigator Clint Bolick wrote, public schools are "one of the biggest and most pernicious government monopolies in the free world."

He calls public schools a "pernicious government monopoly." Bolick, like his colleagues at the Institute, is no friend of public schools.

Over 90 percent of Arizona's children attend the public schools these people want to cut to the bone, and now they hope voters will allow them to transfer state funds to private schools. If this dangerous ballot measure comes up for a vote, let's hope Arizonans reject it soundly.


Dave Safier is a regular contributor to Blog for Arizona.

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