The GOP is attacking education in a shocking and disturbing and ominous way—Arizona is the laboratory.
This issue has been on my radar for a little bit. As I navigate education policy on Capitol Hill, I figured I would share a few thoughts during my brief lunch reprieve.
Fighting against the establishment of ESAs is an issue that operates on a state by state basis. ESA advocates know they cannot win on a national level, so they are going through the states. While the overwhelming majority of states oppose this policy, it surprises me that it has passed in as many states as it has. It is not just Arizona. Such legislation to a lesser degree has passed in Florida, Indiana, Mississippi, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Tennessee & West Virginia. A few other states have pending legislation on this matter but have failed to gain traction. Arizona may be a laboratory for ESAs with no strings attached, but ESAs as a policy have spread across the country like wildfire. It can be stopped however. A more coherent vision and stronger, more organized coalitions under the dome are needed.
This is clearly a case where an organized minority (corporate/private interests and disgruntled parents who bought their talking points) can beat a disorganized majority. The organized minority has a very clear and simple vision as to where they want to take education. This disorganized majority does not articulate their vision in the same way. I will get to that in a bit.
Think about it this way: Corporate interests are telling parents in these states that not only can they get their kids access to better quality education, but that they the parents get to keep more of their money to do so. Who wouldn't want this to be true? It is tough messaging to overcome because they are telling parents that they can have their cake and eat it too. It resonates with GOP partisan parents (predominantly in the suburbs) who believe that their kids are being indoctrinated by leftist propaganda in public schools and with urban parents in lower income areas who feel that public schools have failed them and see ESAs as the ticket to a better future for their children.
That said, There are considerable ways you can build strong coalitions and get pushback on this type of legislation. There are several demographics/groups who vehemently oppose ESAs and it can make for strange bedfellows.
1) Those already working in public schools - They oppose this for the reasons you mentioned above. I see no need to go into this in-depth. It is self-evident.
2) Rural areas - As mentioned in your article, the argument of there being choices for schools only applies to urban and a few suburban areas. Rural areas (including many rural Republicans) are well aware that this type of legislation does not benefit them at all due to their lack of educational infrastructure to begin with. There are a ton of red states that understand this and lobbyists have been able to fight back against ESA legislation for this very reason.
That said, the reason why rural GOP elected officials will get on board with ESAs is because corporate interests will strike the fear of God into them by primarying them with well funded opponents who will do the bidding of corporate interests instead. So these rural elected officials opposing the matter will either play ball or fight tooth and nail just to keep their positions against people with more resources than them. Making sure those who refuse to play ball are rewarded will go a long way in stopping this legislation from taking off further.
3) Parents who prefer public schools - These are parents who think schools are doing a good job of educating their kids and see the value in bolstering support for them. Either that or they have family members in public schools and see how hard they work to empower people. They need to be utilized more in fighting back against the parents who support ESAs.
4) Homeschool communities - Oddly enough, they despise these types of programs because they see it as a way for the government to take more of their money and disperse it to schools they do not approve of. I know this because I have had to rally isolated communities where homeschooling was predominant for past clients of mine.
I am probably missing a few, but these are the main observations I have related to this issue. It is a three step process to stopping:
1) Establish a more coherent vision - Parents are hooked on hopium when it comes to ESA messaging. It is sold as a bastion for hope for people devoid of it. Messages like "public dollars for public schools" and "this is an attack on public schools" only work in states where most people are already supportive of public schools or have strong public sector union presence. More creative means of defeating this in predominantly red states disgruntled by public schools are needed. More and more people also do not buy the idea that public schools need more money. Peoples pocketbooks are getting hit hard due to many policies you have written about before and the last thing parents want to do is give up more in taxes in hopes that public schools improve their quality of education. Public schools need to re-establish themselves as the symbol of hope for a better life. This starts with articulating a better vision as to why people should support public schools. Which leads me to my next point:
2) Communicate the better alternative to voters - It is one thing to criticize a policy, but what is the alternative? The Democrats exposed the GOP badly on the Affordable Care Act because the GOP truly had no alternative to healthcare. Voters responded by giving the Dems back the House in 2018. In this case, what is the alternative solution to ESAs? Maintaining the status quo is not what most people are looking for. Many are tired of the notion that public schools need more funding. The latter messaging works in some areas better than others, but for places where they do not buy into that notion, what is the better alternative? Depending on the make-up of their legislators, legislation to re-call ESAs could be a "Hail Mary" option. I have no idea though what the real answer to this question is. If I had the answer for this, I would probably be retired out on a yacht somewhere partying like it's 1999 and not hunkered down at a cafeteria on Capitol hill vigorously venting my disgruntlements on education policy to someone whom I have never met before on the Internet.
3) Organize broader coalitions - ESA groups are extremely well organized in their messaging and uniformity. Union presence is active in most states, but they need to cast a wider net and bring rural interests under their wing better. You need multiple angles whispering in these elected officials ears on why ESAs are ineffective. They do not want to hear from the same public sector union lobbyists over and over again, especially if those lobbyists never donated to their campaign.
Anyway, hope you found my brain dump today useful. Cheers!
TL;DR - Better messaging and organizing by those in support of public education is badly needed. ESAs are catching on, but they can be stopped.
With the new Arizona law, John Dewey must be rolling over in his grave.
I know you’ve been writing lots. I look forward to catching up with some of that content-I’m sure it’s valuable. I’ve had to keep my eye on work a ton for awhile, so haven’t been writing myself. I hope to soon!
You’re presenting important information here. Thanks, Andrew. I knew the plan and that it was underway, but definitely wasn’t aware It was at this stage anywhere.