Vouchers Call for Political Hard Work

Posted on July 03, 2002 | Type: In the News
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After the U.S. Supreme Court cleared the way for educational vouchers, it was widely assumed that Arizona would be one of the first places to try to adopt them.

After all, Arizona is ranked first among the states in school choice, according to a study by the Manhattan Institute.

But that may not be the case for an odd reason: The right might not push for them.

Getting vouchers passed will require strong leadership from the governor and superintendent of public instruction as well as an active grass-roots constituency. Arizona came within an eyelash of adopting a low-income voucher program in the mid-1990s due to a strong push by then-Gov. Fife Symington and Superintendent of Public Instruction Lisa Graham Keegan.

Whether such strong leadership for vouchers will be renewed depends in part on whether Republicans retain those two positions this fall. All the Democratic contenders for both positions are flatly opposed to vouchers, except for state Sen. Jay Blanchard, running for superintendent, who merely says he won't close the door.

Interestingly, there appears to be broader support for vouchers among Republican candidates for governor than superintendent.

Secretary of State Betsey Bayless has already released a voucher proposal, modeled after a Florida law that gives them to students attending failing schools that do not improve. In a recent Arizona Chamber debate, she said she would be reluctant to go beyond that.

At the same debate, former Congressman Matt Salmon and Treasurer Carol Springer expressed support for vouchers generally available to all students and not limited to low-income students or those attending failed schools. Salmon, the Republican front-runner, says he has been "emboldened" by the court ruling.

In the superintendent race, only the appointed incumbent, Jaime Molera, is a voucher supporter. In fact, his support of vouchers cost him the teachers union's endorsement, which had to come as a shock given how assiduously he has worked with the group.

Molera says he supports vouchers targeted at low-income students and those attending low-performing schools. And not, as he puts it, "on the cheap," such as the $1,500 per pupil the Symington-Keegan proposal would have provided.

While Molera is the strongest choice advocate in the race, the extent to which it would be a priority for him isn't clear. It certainly wasn't what he worked on in the little over a year he has held the job, instead concentrating on defusing the ticking time bomb that AIMS test had become and seeking to soothe hard feelings among educators engendered by Keegan.

But the snub by the teachers union has made the choice landscape in the Republican primary more inviting for Molera, particularly running against two anti-voucher candidates in former legislators Tom Horne and Keith Bee.

Despite the possibility of having moderate to strong voucher leadership from the GOP standard-bearers for governor and superintendent, a lot of conservative activists and intellectual leaders have cold feet about a voucher fight.

An Arizona voucher proposal would still face a legal challenge, given a state constitutional provision specifically barring state aid to private or sectarian schools.

So an Arizona voucher program might require a constitutional amendment, requiring a public vote. And even a statutory program might very well be referred to voters anyway.

While opinion polls show strong support for vouchers, they haven't fared well in ballot campaigns, falling victim to the deceptive "kook schools" argument.

So, facing the prospect of a tough legislative battle, followed by tough litigation and electoral battles, some on the right are asking, why bother?

Instead, they favor concentrating on expanding the existing tuition tax-credit program.

Darcy Olsen, executive director of the Goldwater Institute, has proposed expanding the tuition tax-credit program to include corporations, such as has been done in Pennsylvania and Florida. Capping the program at $50 million, she estimates that 22,500 scholarships a year could be offered, which, unlike the current program, she would target at low-income students currently attending traditional schools.

There is a growing doctrinal dispute in the right between growth-oriented fiscal conservatives, who oppose social engineering through the tax code, and social conservatives who have decided to compete with leftists and corporatists for the booty.

Right now, social conservatives have the upper hand in this dispute, both nationally and in Arizona.

Vouchers might be a cleaner, more fiscally responsible approach. But they would require a lot of political hard work, for which there might not be the appetite.

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