Thursday, April 5, 2012

Conservatives, ALEC, and Vouchers Lose—Temporarily—in Arizona

Governor Brewer (R-AZ) caused a bill to be killed that would have greatly expanded the Arizona voucher program. Enacted a few years ago, the program gave vouchers, pegged at 90% of the average per pupil expenditure, to handicapped children’s parents that could be redeemed at any private school. The Arizona Supreme Court routinely approves of such legislation. In Fall 2011, only 75 vouchers were issued statewide. Perhaps most private schools would rather not deal with handicapped students, and those that do deal with them well cost considerably more than $8,000 per year. So legislators came back this session with a bill to expand the program to included “gifted” children. Since all God’s children are gifted in one way or another, the bill killed by Brewer would have enormously expanded the program and created a market niche for private schools: the “gifted” children of middle-class families.

Giftedness has such an absurd history in American education that basing any legislation on it is a joke. The pressure exerted by parents on administrators to label their child “gifted” results in multiple definitions–soon “gifted” is expanded to “gifted and talented”–so that ultimately the wave of giftedness has to be controlled by placing a statistical limit on the use of the label. (Many years ago while studying the distribution of “emotionally disturbed” students across states, I noticed that Utah had the highest rate of EMD pupils in the nation. That did not comport with my own stereotype of the Beehive State, so I investigated. I found out that the vigorous efforts of professionals in the state had prompted the Utah Legislature to place a cap of 3.5% on the percentage of students who could be labeled EMD, and lo and behold, 3.5% of the students in the Utah public schools were diagnosed as emotionally disturbed.)

Bills like the attempted expansion of the Arizona voucher program are probably lifted directly from the model legislation disseminated by ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council. ALEC is the source of most of the business-friendly legislation making its way around the country these days. Wikipedia says quite accurately that “The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) is a politically conservative 501(c)(3) nonprofit policy organization, consisting of both state legislators and members of the private sector, mostly representing corporations. ALEC's mission statement describes the organization's purpose as the advancement of free-market principles, limited government,federalism, and individual liberty.” ALEC’s budget amounts to roughly $7 Million a year, but only 1% of that total comes from state legislator members; the rest comes from large corporations. Among ALEC’s recent pushes has been the attempt to get legislatures to pass voter identification laws in preparation for the 2012 general election. For example, potential voters in Texas will be able to cast their ballot in November if they present identification in the form of a gun permit but not a college student ID card. Coca-Cola and Pepsi withdrew their financial support of ALEC this week.

Governor Brewer has promised her conservative backers that she will revisit the expansion of the voucher program question this summer after the state budget is set.

Gene V Glass
University of Colorado Boulder
Arizona State University

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