Here's some advice from John Huppenthal, Arizona's Superintendent of Public Instruction: You should find out if you can send your kids to private school on the state's dime.
That's what the state's schools chief is saying in robocalls to people in certain areas around Phoenix and Tucson encouraging them to check out Arizona's Empowerment Scholarship Account program. The program literally uses the money that would have gone to a student's public school district, which is instead put into an account parents can use on private-school fees.
12 News' Brahm Resnik had the scoop about the existence of these robocalls, in which Huppenthal says:
This is John Huppenthal, Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction, and I have great news for you. I want you to know about a state program that provides money for parents to offer alternative education choices for their children, including private school. That's right! You may be able to send your child to private school for free.
It didn't take long for the Republican Huppenthal's detractors to follow the money. The robocalls were paid for by a group called the Alliance for School Choice. What looks like another group, the American Federation for Children, lists the Alliance for School Choice as its "educational partner." Turns out, both organizations list the same exact six-member board of directors, and the same exact 28 employees, with the exact same job titles (Exhibit A, Exhibit B). They're the same organization.
When Huppenthal was on the campaign trail in 2010, the American Federation for Children spent more than $63,000 in the race as an independent-expenditure committee in favor of Huppenthal.
A Facebook page for the Arizona branch of the American Federation for Children also touts Huppenthal as the keynote speaker for one of its "National School Choice Week" events.
Meanwhile, the amount of taxpayer funding that goes toward these Empowerment Scholarship Accounts (ESAs) that Huppenthal's touting has been on the rise, and it's likely to grow some more.
The program was started in 2011 so children with physical and mental disabilities could attend schools that might do a better job at serving them. The next year, lawmakers expanded the program to include eligibility for foster children, children with one or more parents on active-duty in the military, and children enrolled in public schools that received grades of "D" or "F" from the Arizona Department of Education.
A bill proposed this legislative session would expand the ESA program even more, so children of police officers and firefighters would qualify, as would siblings of children already in the program and all families below a certain economic threshold, at a rate that increases every year.
A legislative liaison for the Arizona Department of Education recently told our New Times colleague Sarah Dinell that a majority of Arizona students could end up qualifying.
Remember, the money for these accounts doesn't come out of thin air -- it's the per-pupil spending that otherwise would have gone to a public school district.
And that's what the state's superintendent of "public instruction" is advocating in these robocalls.
In Huppenthal's interview with 12 News, he said he's in charge of education for all members of the public, and insisted he's not the superintendent of public schools.
Wednesday, Huppenthal ended up sending an e-mail to public-school teachers taking a bit of a different tone, and insisted that he still supports the public-school system:
As Superintendent of Public Instruction, the voters of this state elected me to lead our public school system and work to ensure every child in Arizona has access to quality education.
My remarks regarding Empowerment Scholarship Accounts and my reason for agreeing to inform families of this opportunity was to apprise parents of a unique program, not advocate for private school instruction over that of a public school education. These scholarship accounts provide a unique option for children with disabilities, members of military families and students attending failing schools, which includes, but is not limited to attending a private school.
I want to make it clear that I have the utmost respect and admiration for all of our public school teachers. I work tirelessly every day to assure teachers and educators are supported, students are provided with excellent education opportunities and parents have information they need to make quality choices for their children. I have great regret if any member of the public school system felt anything less than my full appreciation for what they do on a daily basis.
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Robbie Sherwood, the executive director of the lefty group ProgressNow Arizona, said it's like the public schools system is "under a coordinated Trojan Horse attack by its own elected leader."
"It's becoming increasingly clear that John Huppenthal did not run to lead Arizona's public school system, but to dismantle it from within," he said.