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ESA opponents pick union politics over racial equality

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Cries of “structural” and “systemic” racism have swept through our nation. Yet ironically, many of the same voices calling for the dismantling of American institutions—from police to private property—in the name of racial justice, are the very forces most fiercely protecting a status quo that systematically restricts opportunities for students of color. Perhaps nowhere is this clearer than in the debate over educational freedom now raging in Arizona via SB1452. 

Robert Baca

Robert Baca

This bill, which would extend eligibility to the state’s Empowerment Scholarship Account, or ESA, program to low-income students as well as children of military veterans, has brought powerful testimony from civil rights icons and local leaders like Pastor Drew Anderson.  In Anderson’s words: “I am a registered Democrat and I am a product of school choice. … I’m here today as a concerned African American who pastors a church in south Phoenix. …  I’m praying that this bill gets passed.” Janelle Wood of the Black Mothers Forum likewise announced, “I am in support of school choice. … if you’re talking about ‘saving our schools,’ I need you to first save our children.” 

Children like those in the Baca household — kids who had been attending Arizona public schools until campus closures halted their educational progress. My (Robert’s) son, once an A student, began failing his schoolwork, while his younger sister similarly struggled to grasp material absent (in) in-person explanations from her teacher. So, like many other parents this year, I eventually withdrew them from public school and began homeschooling them on my own.  

 Currently, ESAs are available only to certain Arizona students such as children with special needs and those in D or F-rated public schools. My kids’ public school, Desert Meadows Elementary, is not technically a “failing” school (it most recently earned a “C” grade), so ESAs were not available to my family. But under SB1452, kids like mine would have the chance at an ESA. 

Matt Beienburg

Matt Beienburg

Despite such pleas and experiences, however, opponents of the bill have lashed out at the program, with one lawmaker even claiming: “This has been a calculated movement to re-segregate schools.” History aside, the real calculation seems to be the opposition’s willingness to prioritize the demands of teachers unions over the actual desires of minority constituents. 

 If that sounds harsh, consider the findings from the Harvard-affiliated journal Education Next’s 2020 Education Poll, which found 65% support (vs. 17% opposition) for low-income private choice programs among African Americans, a staggering contrast to the mere 12% support among teachers’ union members (who were 80% opposed). Hispanics similarly clocked in at odds with the teachers’ union: 59% supporting private choice vs. just 25% opposed. 

But what about the defeat of ESA expansion in Arizona a few years ago? Well, as noted by Yellow Sheet Report: Local pollster George Khalaf recently conducted  a poll on support for ESAs and found that in a post-pandemic world, even Hispanics and Democrats are changing their tunes on ESAs. …  A whopping 70 percent supported expansion. … That majority extends to Hispanics, who support it at 78 percent…” These findings also mirror the surge in ESA support shown in other Arizona and national polls. 

 Despite this support, opponents have launched other attacks on SB1452, arguing, for example, that it is too expansive. Sen. Rebecca Rios, D-Phoenix, for instance, complained that SB1452 would “open [ESAs] up to 70% of kids,” while The Arizona Republic warned that “Under the bill, two thirds of Arizona’s 1.1 million public-school students  650,000 to 700,000 children  would become eligible.” In its current form, SB1452 would indeed give some 600,000 students who qualify for free and-reduced-price lunch the chance to participate in the program. 

 But let’s be clear about just who these kids that we wouldn’t want to risk giving ESA access to really are. Roughly 80% of these children are students of color. Specifically, as a 2018 report by the Arizona Minority Education Policy Analysis Center found, minority students accounted for 78% of free and-reduced-price lunch kids in Arizona, while white students made up just 22%. This means SB1452’s free-and-reduced-price-lunch eligibility provision would ensure minority students access to ESAs at a rate of almost 4 to 1 compared to their white peers. 

 Moreover, while opponents complain that SB 1452 would give nearly twothirds of students access to the ESA program, consider again who this actually refers to. Based on the minority center’s report, the free and reduced-price lunch eligibility provision in SB1452 would cover “over 66 percent of Hispanic students in Arizona,” approximately 59% of African American students, and just 26% of white students. 

To be clear, lawmakers should seek to advance policies that protect the rights and liberties of all people, regardless of race or wealth. But especially as union activists seek to point fingers in every direction but their own when it comes to “structural barriers” holding back communities of color, perhaps it is time lawmakers rethink their loyalties and take action to remove the real obstacles affecting communities in need. 

 Robert Baca is an Arizona parent of three children. Matt Beienburg is the director of education policy and the director of the Van Sittert Center for Constitutional Advocacy at the Goldwater Institute. 

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