FIFE'S DOUBLE TALK ON EDUCATIONGOVERNOR SYMINGTON'S SCHOOL-VOUCHER PLAN IS A GIFT FOR CONSERVATIVES--NOT THE POOR
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.
"They vote," GOP pollster Bruce Merrill says. "These people give money. They march. They go to the polls."
Spout the ideology of the right, and the right embraces you. Especially if you take on the National Education Association.
Knowing this, Symington--in his State of the State address last month--blasted public education and the teachers' union as "a closed shop afraid of change, a monopoly of mediocrity more vigilant in guarding turf than instilling knowledge."
It's not an original thought. For years, right-wingers have openly blamed teachers for the woes of the American educational system. Forbes magazine recently dubbed the NEA the "National Extortion Association," calling it "the most powerful U.S. trade union."
Arizona Senate Majority Leader and longtime school-choice supporter Tom Patterson calls the National Education Association and its local minion, the Arizona Education Association, "the true 600-pound gorilla," charging that the union wants to retain carte blanche to perpetuate waste. It'll spend big bucks to keep it that way, Patterson says.
Indeed, during the 1992 campaign cycle, the Arizona Education Association poured $100,000 into political races, mainly supporting Democratic legislative candidates. The California Teachers Association spent about $14 million--compared with the opposition's $1.7 million--to crush the voucher ballot proposal last year.
Patterson chuckles at the suggestion that he, Symington and others stand to profit--in the power structure or the bank book--with a win on vouchers. "This is not a big political winner," the senator earnestly says. "This is a labor of love."
@body:Financial and political support for vouchers is not consolidated, as it is on the other side, with the National Education Association. But the support is there. In spades.
Conservative economist Milton Friedman has been touting school vouchers for decades. The Reagan and Bush White Houses always lent a sympathetic ear, but school-choice advocates were suddenly without a pulpit when the Clintons hit D.C. In fact, far-right Republicans found themselves ideologically homeless. So in early 1993, they founded Empower America, a Washington, D.C., think tank that, according to the Wall Street Journal, "blends Wall Street money and the grassroots marketing techniques of Perot-era politics."
The board is chaired by Malcolm Forbes Jr. and includes such GOP bigwigs and possible 1996 presidential contenders as Jack Kemp (a former congressman and U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development secretary), William Bennett (former U.S. education secretary and drug czar) and Jeane Kirkpatrick (former U.S. delegate to the United Nations).
Empower America strongly supports school choice, but is not devoted solely to the cause. That task is left to a group founded last October named Americans for School Choice. With offices in Chicago and Washington, D.C., the organization offers legal services, fund raising, research and advertising for state voucher efforts.
Lamar Alexander, former governor of Tennessee, former U.S. education secretary and yet another possible 1996 presidential contender, is a member of the board, along with Bennett and Kemp. Alexander is a longtime associate of fellow Tennessean and education entrepreneur Christopher Whittle. The U.S. Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee spent weeks investigating Alexander/Whittle investments before Alexander was confirmed as education secretary in 1991.
Whittle's the guy who made millions by bringing Snickers commercials to public-school classrooms on his televised Channel One info/newscasts. He stands to make far more with his national chain of private schools, the Edison Project. The key, of course, is vouchers: public dollars into private schools--Whittle's private schools.
Former Yale University president Benno Schmidt Jr. has signed on with Whittle as the Edison Project's figurehead. Lurking in the background is Alexander, national school-choice advocate.
As explained in its literature, Americans for School Choice has clear goals for 1994: to launch ballot initiatives in at least five target states; to push legislative initiatives in at least four states; and to build powerful organizations in at least 25 states.
@body:On October 15, just eight days after the formal creation of Americans for School Choice, up sprang The Better Schools for Arizona Committee.
Its leaders include Arizona Chamber of Commerce leader and Phelps Dodge exec Nicholas Balich; Arizona Cotton Growers guru Rick Lavis; Salt River Project lobbyist and Arizona Tax Research Association chairman Russell Smoldon; and Jim Bush, an attorney and Phelps Dodge lobbyist. The committee's goal is to push education-reform legislation, specifically, vouchers. Joan Barrett, the group's executive director, insists there is no formal link to Americans for School Choice; instead, she says, The Better Schools for Arizona Committee is affiliated with Arizona Business Leadership for Education (ABLE), a local group of business leaders devoted to reform.
The emergence of The Better Schools for Arizona Committee is curious in light of the fact that last year, ABLE joined a coalition that backed education reform without vouchers.
Tony Mason, an attorney and one-time Democratic gubernatorial candidate who co-chairs ABLE with Lavis, says vouchers will lead to a better-educated work force.
The jury's still out on that one. In Milwaukee, a study by the University of Wisconsin at Madison shows that while some voucher-kid test scores increased, others declined. And a significant percentage of those who initially opted for the $2,900 vouchers indicated dissatisfaction, eventually switching schools, according to the study.
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 grce 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.)
Her colleagues shake their heads in amazement. "You're gonna have to hire psychologists and psychiatrists to figure out what snapped there," Representative Sue Gerard says of Graham's newfound commitment.
"I have changed in this process," Graham agrees. No more Mrs. Nice Guy. ". . . What it takes is being willing to have people mad at you for a long, sustained period."
The New Lisa Graham surfaces when it's suggested she's carrying Symington's water, perhaps in exchange for an endorsement for higher office.
"Oh, bullshit. That's bullshit. It's not carrying the governor's water. . . . This is my idea. It's my program," she says. Furthermore, she insists--after fuming that the suggestion is patronizing and sexist as hell--I have not cut a single deal with the governor."
@body:When Arizona's voucher proponents realized they may be short Republican votes, they turned to Hispanic Democrats. As the Wall Street Journal noted in a February 2 editorial, this is a popular tactic used in voucher battles around the country.
But instead of accurately describing the intense lobbying aimed at Hispanic Democrats--particularly by the Catholic Church--the Journal referred to a "quiet revolution," suggesting that Hispanic Democrats are flocking to support school choice.
That has not been the case in Arizona. At best, the Hispanic community is split when it comes to vouchers. And support among Hispanics, for the most part, has not translated into votes. For months, Senator Lito Pea was the sole Democrat solidly committed to vouchers. Representative Joe Eddie Lopez recently indicated that he will probably join in support. Others remain in strong opposition; a few are reportedly wavering.
Senate Minority Leader Pete Rios is not wavering. And he doesn't appreciate some of the lobbying tactics of the opposition.
"I think it's pretty obvious," says Rios, who received a pro-voucher call from the governor of Puerto Rico. "They're using Hispanics to try to get to Hispanics. They're using high-powered Republicans to get to Republicans. They're using whatever will work with particular legislators."
So why not use Catholics to get to Catholics? Pea, who says he hasn't been lobbied by the church, laughs at the idea. "What would they do, threaten you to go to hell?" he asks.
The Catholic Church has been a longtime advocate of public aid to private schools. According to Church Schools and Public Money: The Politics of Parochiaid, a book by Edd Doerr and Albert Menendez, American Catholic schools lost more than two million students between 1970 and 1990. In Arizona, the total number of students enrolled in Catholic schools declined by almost 50 percent during that time.
Because Catholic schools have access to volunteers, they are generally able to keep tuition lower than at secular schools. While the $1,500 voucher wouldn't appeal to a secular private school, Catholic schools see it as a way to boost declining enrollment.
In California, the church officially took a neutral position, but many parishioners heard pro-voucher messages from the pulpit. In Arizona, Monsignor Ed Ryle, lobbyist for the Phoenix Diocese of the Roman Catholic Church, has joined the pro-voucher movement.
Ryle is modest about his powers of persuasion. He looks heavenward, hands together in mock prayer. "I pray hard every day that everybody will come around," he says, giggling. The clergyman devotes most of his time to lobbying for issues of social welfare, and insists he has little power when it comes to stacking up votes. "I don't have PACs; I don't have money to go to fancy fund raisers," he says. He has, however, been responsible for rallying Hispanics around the voucher cause. Keli Luther, an aide to Graham, says Ryle really "got the ball rolling" in the Hispanic community. Ryle says he's always been honest about his intentions. "I don't blindside people," he says. But just a few weeks ago, he orchestrated an event that caught Pete Rios by surprise. When Rios was invited to lunch by Ryle, Rios didn't have to ask the topic; he knew it would be vouchers. What he says he didn't know was that Lisa Graham and other voucher supporters would be there, ready to bombard him with propaganda.
Rios arrived late for lunch; the first person he saw was Graham. "I looked, I said, 'Okaaaaay! I think I know why I'm here,'" he recalls. He apologized for his tardiness, ate his lunch and quickly escaped.
When questioned about the incident, Graham pauses. "I had the thing on my calendar for two weeks," she finally says. "I can't imagine Rios wouldn't have known I was [going to be] there." Last week, a group of Hispanic leaders gathered in the Senate lobby to endorse Graham's reform package--vouchers and all. After a brief press conference, some of the participants exchanged sharp words with Democrats such as Rios, who remain opposed to vouchers.
A crowd gathered to watch. To one side stood members of The Better Schools for Arizona Committee. On the other side, Arizona Education Association president Kay Lybeck and lobbyist Mary Kay Haviland.
And far above the fray, on the Ninth Floor of the Executive Tower, was Fife Symington.
@body:Not every Republican is as loyal to the Cause.
The Capitol has been abuzz for weeks with word of arm-twisting by Republican leadership, Symington's office and special interest groups. Lisa Graham insists the only pressure has been "intellectual." The Senate's Tom Patterson concurs. "There's been no suggestion of any retribution of any kind," he says. House Minority Leader Art Hamilton disagrees. "To suggest," he counters, "that members haven't had their political careers threatened in terms of at least having precinct committeemen talked to or having it suggested that they're not good Republicans, Tom himself can't believe that. It certainly has happened. It's been the talk of this whole damn place."
In fact, the lobbying has gone far beyond relatively innocuous phone calls, letters and visits from national school-choice supporters such as Pete Du Pont, former governor of Delaware. The rumor mill churns out whispers of legislation--such as Susan Gerard's Success by Six and Senator Patti Noland's juvenile-crime package--held hostage for voucher votes.
There's no proof. Of course not, scoffs Pete Rios. "They're not tactics you want out there for public consumption," Rios says.
As Democratic leaders, Hamilton and Rios can be expected to enjoy a dig at the opposition party. But Republicans themselves tell tales of intimidation and threats--mainly from the Governor's Office.
The mood has been particularly hostile in the House, where Graham's bill faces its first major hurdle. A group of Republican representatives now known as the Solid Seven--Gerard, Sue Grace, Sue Lynch, Becky Jordan, Freddy Hershberger, Lou Ann Preble and John Verkamp--absolutely refuses to support Symington's vouchers.
Gerard is amazed at the pressure she's received, from national leaders to impoverished California school children. Her office neighbor at the legislature, conservative Republican and voucher supporter Greg Patterson, isn't speaking to her, she says, as she digs through folders and files on her desk, looking for letters and messages from lobbyists. She pulls out a message from Tracey Thomas, chairman of the Lincoln Caucus, a religious-right organization. Thomas phoned on behalf of "the Republican party, Governor Symington, Bill Bennett, Lincoln Caucus, Phoenix 40 and others," she reads aloud, tossing the slip of paper aside with a smirk. "I'm gonna write back to him," she says.
Gerard digs around some more, and comes up with a large envelope. Inside are 12 letters, each sealed in its own envelope and addressed to Gerard. The letters were individually penned by students at La Escuela de la Raza Unida, a private K-12 school in Blythe, California. "Arizonas present voucher plan should be given because there are children that don't want to be in pubilc school and they have to be their because their perents don't have the money to send to a differnt school," writes Sandra Gutierrez, one of the school's 40 pupils. Carmela Garnica, the school's director, encouraged her students to write. She was an organizer for California's defeated ballot measure, she says. The letter writing was voluntary, "kind of like an extracurricular thing," she says.
"Once it goes to Arizona, if it does," Garnica adds, "hopefully, it will lead to other states."
Representative Sue Lynch, vice chair of the Education Committee, has endured ridicule from former congressman-cum-radio-talk-show host Sam Steiger. And she's one of a few legislators who were actually hauled up to the Governor's Office for a quasi-private audience with Symington. (Aarons and House Speaker Mark Killian were also present, she says.) The meeting was short. "I just told him [Symington] that the answer was no. And I told him that at the beginning of the conversation and the end of the conversation," Lynch says.
Between the "no"s, the governor asked Lynch if she was, perhaps, a school teacher by profession. (She's not.) Aside from being somewhat offended that the governor didn't bother to find out her profession on his own, Lynch resents the implication. "I don't like the attitude that some of the legislators down here have toward teachers," she says. In most cases, the lobbying has just made the Arizona naysayers dig their heels in. Representative Becky Jordan, who opposes vouchers because she believes that the concept is unconstitutional, wears her heart on her sleeve--for everyone from Symington and Du Pont down--with no small amount of pride. "They tried to get me to come on KFYI to debate this, and I said it would be really boring, cause there's no debate," she says. In private circles, the recalcitrants are called heroes.
Republican Senate naysayers have endured pressure, too. Senator Keith Bee says he's been threatened with primary opposition if he doesn't change his vote and support Graham's bill. "That message did travel to me down through the grapevine, that if I did not support the vouchers, there would be a possibility of a primary in my district. . . . My suspicion is that it came from the Governor's Office--at least, I was led to believe that," he says.
Bee's opposition to vouchers solidified when he received the product of a mass mailing by The Better Schools for Arizona Committee. The committee sent prestamped cards to Republican precinct committeemen in Bee's legislative district; the cards urge legislators to support vouchers. The effort backfired.
"I'm getting these cards back, only they have been changed," Bee says. The committeemen have crossed out the word "support," replacing it with "oppose," and added comments: "Just say no." "No, no, no." "Say no.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Phoenix New Times' biggest stories.
- Inmates Accuse Arizona of Experimenting with Lethal-Injection Drugs
- 10 Things Arizonans Hate About Snowbirds
- Scottsdale Couple Are Pioneers in Tiny-Home Movement in Arizona