Eric Blanc, writing in the Jacobin magazine, describes the epic battle that is unfolding in Arizona between the privatization movement and most of the state’s teachers. 

For most of the past two decades, the archconservatives and ALEC have sought to destroy public education in the state.

Can the striking teachers change the narrative?

”Winning won’t be easy. Arizona’s educators have powerful enemies. And the prevalence of charter schools across the state is a serious obstacle in the current strike. But if Red For Ed can sustain its momentum in the coming days and months, it just might be able to reverse the privatizing tide…

”Arizona has long been a favored target of the right-wing Koch Institute and ALEC, a hyper-conservative Koch-funded corporate legislation mill. A number of leading Arizonan politicians are deeply embedded in, and indebted to, these bodies. Governor Doug Ducey has been part of the Koch network since 2011 and more than a third of Republican legislators were wined and dined last year at ALEC’s annual summit to promote “free-market” model legislation.”

Beth Lewis, a leader of the #RedForEd movement, said last week,

“Why are teachers being forced to do more with less every single year? Our legislators, our state leaders, simply refuse to invest in our public schools. Our governor and many of our state leaders are being propped up by out-of-state big money donors. That’s the reason we are here. These people want to push things like voucher schemes to take money out of our already starving public schools.”

The state is awash in charter schools and voucher schools. And behind many of them is the pursuit of money.

Since 1994, Arizona has witnessed a proliferation of state-financed but privately run charter schools. With over 180,000 charter students, Arizona now has proportionally more than any state in the US. ALEC was clearly justified in ranking Arizona number one in its Report Card on American Education.

“Many of these schools generate millions of dollars in private revenue. In 2014–2015, for example, BASIS charter schools made just under$60 million for the for-profit BASIS corporation that services its schools. “It’s true that some charters want to do right by students and staff, but they are few and far between,” notes Owen Kerr, a ninth-year Arizonan math teacher who was formerly employed at Imagine and BASIS charter schools. “Business is business. So I can see that though a number of charters try to do things differently, most are set up to make money.”

Charter schools are largely unaccountable. Teacher turnover is high. Working conditions are poor.

“The negative effects of privatization go far beyond draining public funds. Unlike real public schools, which are generally subject to the oversight of democratically elected school boards and superintendents, charters are accountable only to their own internal boards plus the Arizona State Board for Charter Schools, whose members are appointed by the governor. In the absence of real oversight, Arizona’s charters have been plagued by fraud and financial scandals…

”Politicians like Governor Ducey tout the high test scores achieved by charter schools such as BASIS, while conveniently overlooking the fact that these scores were produced by excluding or pushing out students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Many working-class families are deterred from applying to charter lotteries, since charters do not have to provide free lunch or transportation to school, unlike regular public institutions. For students who do make it into the charter system, rates of attrition are very high. Arizona charters are often particularly inhospitable to students with special needs or learning disabilities. Kevin Brown, a school psychologist in the Washington Elementary School District, notes that “‘school choice’ is just a nice way of saying that all the high performers need to be segregated from low performers (students and families who are disadvantaged socially and economically).”

The #RedForEd movement has awakened the public to the dire condition of education in Arizona. Will the public stay awake?

We will find out in November, when the reactionary Governor Ducey faces a Democratic opponent, educator David Garcia, who is allied with the striking teachers.