When their leaders talk about vouchers, Arizona businesses are really talking about money. They want to keep more of it.

For instance, the January newsletter of the pro-voucher Arizona Tax Research Association says that in 1992, Arizona spent $5,072 per pupil--$3,672 for maintenance and operations and $1,400 for capital and other costs. The proposed Arizona vouchers are valued at only $1,500. However, the Tax Research Foundation's own newsletter reported that the average annual cost of private schools in Maricopa and Pima counties last year was nearly double that amount, $2,893. Parents would be expected to make up the difference.

"The optimum grant is one that provides an adequate incentive for parents to consider private schools as an option for their child, yet still provides significant savings to taxpayers," the newsletter states.

Big business insists it wants a better-educated work force. But what it really yearns for is to be released from its obligation to fund public education.

Phelps Dodge's Balich points out that the state's mining industry paid more than $48 million in property taxes in 1992.

@body:With a base of support on the national and local levels, Symington's staff fell to the task last fall of pushing vouchers through the legislature.

The voucher effort cleared its first hurdle last Friday, when the House Education Committee approved the reform bill on a 6-4 vote.

Press coverage of the school-choice issue bears the unmistakable mark of Jay Heiler, communications director for the governor and pet of Bill Cheshire, Arizona Republic columnist and former Washington Times editorial chief. Heiler, one of the governor's top advisers, is widely credited for nudging his boss to the right on school choice and other issues.

The Republic and the Phoenix Gazette have regurgitated the governor's voucher message on their editorial pages many times. "As one Capitol wag has put it: If 2,000 school vouchers is the difference between life and death for the public schools, then they and we (the taxpayers) are in bigger trouble than anyone ever imagined," Republic editorial writer Ray Archer exclaimed indignantly on one occasion.

The little things help, too. Last Sunday's Republic carried a long feature outlining the mixed results of Milwaukee's school-choice program, yet the big Page One headline was "Vouching for Vouchers." In another story, slugged "News Analysis," Jim Bush was identified by the Republic as an "attorney who has researched the issue[s]" of constitutionality and vouchers. That may be accurate, but the "analyst" failed to mention that Bush is treasurer of The Better Schools for Arizona Committee and a lobbyist for Phelps Dodge.

The real coup de grÉce for Heiler, et al., came on Sunday, January 16, when the Republic's so-called Perspective section printed four opinion pieces, all in favor of vouchers, under the obsequious heading "Essentials of Education Reform."

"The eyes of the nation are on Arizona," William Bennett wrote in one of the four pro-voucher columns. "It can become the national leader in the educational excellence and the school-choice movement." He went on to quote the Wall Street Journal in its praise for the legislation. Readers actually noticed the ham-fisted lack of Perspective--largely spouted by interloping non-Arizonans--and wrote in to complain. Not Representative Lisa Graham, the voucher mama. She had packets of the Sunday articles photocopied and in the hands of Republican House Caucus members by the next day.

Both the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Times have raved repeatedly about Symington and his vouchers.

While Heiler handles the media, Symington aide Barry Aarons works the lawmakers. Aarons, the governor's liaison to the legislature, is regarded on both sides of the aisle as a toughie. But he has been particularly ruthless on the voucher issue. Aarons was defeated in his 1992 bid to keep his appointed seat on the governing board of the Washington School District. Aarons did not return calls from New Times.

State Representative Sue Gerard, one of those moderate Republicans who is fighting the voucher plan, believes Aarons is trying to regain the clout he lost with the governor when Wes Gullett, Jay Heiler and other heavier hitters joined Symington's staff and pushed him aside.

"Barry's out of the loop now," Gerard says. "Barry needs this win on vouchers, cause he's the lead person in the gov's office on education reform. If he can get the gov a win on this, he'll legitimize himself and strengthen his position on the Ninth Floor." @rule:

@body:Hard-core pressure from national and local special interests and the Governor's Office turned the normally happy Republican family down at the legislature into a spitting, feuding pack. Few would have expected Lisa Graham to end up in the thick of it.

Though she admits to heated exchanges with Symington in years past, Graham has always been better known for her sweet demeanor--until recent months, when she suddenly came out in whole-hog support of vouchers. (Graham insists she always supported the concept, but refused to include vouchers in her education-reform bill last year, because she thought to do so would kill it. In the end, the governor vowed to veto the bill without vouchers, and the legislature adjourned before the bill could even be brought to a vote.)

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