At the Phoenix Country Day School in Paradise Valley, students begin instruction in lab science at age 4. Spanish at 5. High schoolers learn physics on computers and fire ceramics in an imported kiln. They use a library that, in some respects, outranks the research facilities at Arizona State University; certainly, the furniture is nicer.

Security isn't an issue. Students ignore regulation-style school lockers, preferring instead to fling their belongings--backpacks, cosmetic bags, books, a tennis racquet--along outdoor hallways lined with petunia-filled, terra-cotta pots. In the cafeteria, a sign tells kids that lunch is all-you-can-eat. (Sorry, just one dessert.)

The student-faculty ratio is 9 to 1. Every one of the school's graduates will go on to attend a four-year college. At Phoenix Country Day, they call the annual all-school play "dinner theatre." Tuition at this secular private school is $10,000 per year, give or take a few hundred, transportation not included. It's the best education a whole lot of money can buy. It's the education Arizona Governor J. Fife Symington III is buying for his own children. It's not a bad deal if you--or your spouse--are independently wealthy.

So it's no wonder Symington has emerged as the indefatigable cheerleader for school choice: a parent's government-given ability to choose between a public education or a voucher allowing a child to attend a private school.

The governor is pushing--as hard as he's ever pushed for anything--for legislation that would create a pilot voucher program for poor Arizona children.

The program, part of House Education Committee Chairwoman Lisa Graham's education-reform package, would, in its first year, offer $1,500 vouchers to 2,000 Arizona children whose families qualify for a federal free-lunch program. Arizona would be the first state to enact any such voucher plan.

Symington has vowed to veto any reform package that does not include vouchers. He's turned people who were lukewarm toward vouchers last year--such as Graham and big-business leaders--into rabid proponents. He's made it clear that he doesn't mind alienating state leaders and ripping apart his own Republican party to achieve his goal.

Just what, one may ask, is that goal? Symington's goal is not to send poor Arizona children to the Phoenix Country Day School in Paradise Valley. Fifteen-hundred dollars won't buy three months at that place. In fact, the Symington voucher wouldn't cover tuition at most secular, private schools in the state. And a parent who can't afford to buy her kid lunch can hardly be expected to supplement a voucher with hundreds or thousands of dollars.

No matter. The education of poor Arizona children is the last item on Symington's agenda, if it's on there at all.

By offering Arizona up as the new battlefield for a national jihad launched by big business, parochial schools and the far-right wing of the Republican party, our governor and his entourage are coincidentally positioning for the second coming of Fife Symington: S&L slime ball reborn as conquering hero of free enterprise in the classroom.

Even if Symington's indicted and unelectable in Arizona, at least somebody out there will remember him fondly.

Victories on the voucher front have been negligible. Milwaukee, Wisconsin's three-year-old program has received mixed reviews; Puerto Rico recently approved vouchers. After suffering defeat in legislatures and voting booths across the country--most notably last year in California, where a ballot initiative was crushed 70 percent to 30 percent--national voucher advocates are hungry for a victory.

With Symington's help, they've identified Arizona as a chink in the public-education armor. This is, after all, the state that elected Ev Mecham, once defeated a Martin Luther King Jr. holiday and approved the nation's most stringent English Only initiative. The antigays are gearing up to put their own jihad on the November ballot.

Voucher proponents applied lessons learned in other states when they crafted Arizona's school-choice plan. California's proposal, which would have made vouchers available to any of the state's six million students, was so broad and unpopular that even conservative Republican Governor Pete Wilson opposed it.

Arizona's proposal, which would establish a pilot program for just a few impoverished children, has been purposely put before the Republican legislature--with Symington leading the charge. Front-line lieutenants include big-business executives who whine publicly about a poorly trained work force and whine privately about the school taxes they pay. In vouchers, business sees big tax savings. Also marching into battle is the Catholic Church, which wants to replenish dwindling school enrollments with voucher recipients.

A group of moderate Republicans that refuses to budge in its opposition to vouchers may kill Symington's chances of victory; a church-led, last-ditch attempt to convert Hispanic Democrats may not work, either. But even if the governor loses this battle, he will have won a victory in the eyes of those he longs to impress: rich conservatives.

From the school-voucher command center, Americans for School Choice in Chicago, comes the inspirational message: "We don't have to win everywhere, but the opposition can't afford to lose anywhere."

@body:With Democratic gubernatorial hopefuls such as Eddie Basha and Paul Johnson chipping away at the moderate Republican voter base, Fife Symington desperately needs the far right. If he is to have any chance in November, Symington will need the support of conservative Republicans.

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