Jonathan Hoffman

Jonathan Hoffman is a guest columnist for the Arizona Daily Star

Ron Medvescek / Arizona Daily Star////////

We are in the midst of a huge battle over the direction of childhood education. The Arizona State Legislature recently passed a law expanding the Empowerment Scholarship Accounts (ESA), a program that provides funds for parents to be applied toward education expenses, including private school tuition, for children previously attending public schools.

These accounts differ from the original voucher program that the Arizona Supreme Court found unconstitutional in 2009 because the state made direct voucher payments to schools operated by religious institutions. With the ESAs, however, payments are made to the parents who, in turn, direct the money to a variety of educational products and services, including religious private schools. Because the parents are directing the final expenditure of the funds rather than the state, the program now passes constitutional muster.

Arizona is leading the way nationally in the school choice movement, and the battle lines formed quickly. The Republican majority in the Legislature is for the law along with some nonprofits including the libertarian-leaning Goldwater Institute. The anti-school-choice groups include district school proponents and left-leaning politicians represented primarily by Save Our Schools Arizona (SOS).

SOS is using the voter initiative process to force a referral of the law to the 2018 general election ballot. This thrust is being parried by the other side through challenges to the validity of the signatures on the petitions and citing the failure of many paid signature gatherers to comply with regulations covering their work. However, the signature validity rate is trending high so it will likely make the ballot.

There also may be a technical problem regarding the wording that identifies the bill on the petitions, but it is a stretch.

Competition encourages creative change and improvement. In fact, like it or not, change demands it. As in market economics, more resources are directed to better providers when the consumer has a choice. Dawn Penich-Thacker of SOS disagrees, “Illogical claims of ‘competition’ imply an even playing field,” citing decades of de-funding public schools and lawmakers “inventing more ways to subsidize private schools.”

If an “even playing field” was truly a requirement for competition, then IBM (remember it?) would still dominate the computer industry as it did in the ’80s. On the other hand, Jonathan Butcher of the Goldwater Institute points out that alternatives to district schools are not the only beneficiaries. He states, “According to research conducted on similar programs, 31 out of 33 studies find that parental choices in education improve the academic outcomes on public schools. So research suggests giving families options like Arizona’s education savings accounts could have similar results for Arizona public school students.”

It is ironic that many of those who champion the notions of “choice” and “diversity” are quick to severely limit them when it comes to education. Consumers always suffer from problems created by monopolies, and those problems can be devastating when it is a government education monopoly.

If education is to be compulsory, then the goal should be for students to achieve an academic standard, not merely to corral them in government-operated schools. If there is diversity and choice in education, parents will be better able to directly participate in the raising of their children with regard to their education rather than ceding that authority to the tender mercies of the government.

Jonathan Hoffman has lived and worked in Tucson for 40 years. He has served on the Tucson Pima County Bicycle Advisory Committee and on the board of the Pima Trails Association. Email him at tucsonsammy@gmail.com.