Carlos Alfaro struggled to keep up in school as a child. Carrie Brown was a star student. Alfaro’s family immigrated to the United States from Mexico; Brown grew up in conservative Kansas. Life brought both of them to Arizona and gave each a deep appreciation of the value of education. Now, they are both passionately involved in the fight over the expansion of the state’s Empowerment Scholarship Account program, but on opposite sides of the issue. Here are their stories.
Carlos Alfaro listened for footsteps inside the house. He had just rung the doorbell of a ranch-style home in Mesa. He smiled at a gold door-knocker through his black beard.
He heard nothing.
The 27-year-old advocate hung a paper pamphlet about education choice on the doorknob and headed to the next door, evangelist-style.
He was stumping at 10 a.m. on this Saturday in early December as part of an education choice campaign for the Libre Institute targeting the East Valley.
Libre is a Libertarian-leaning organization that says it uses principles of economic freedom to empower Hispanic communities. Alfaro is the Arizona coalitions director for the group — which is connected to the Koch brother-funded and -founded Americans for Prosperity, a powerhouse advocacy organization that promotes conservative and Libertarian legislation and ideas.
Collectively, both Libre and Americans for Prosperity are interested in promoting what’s been branded as “school choice,” or the ability for all parents to choose in what kind of environment their child learns. This includes religious, independent, online, and home schools. The catchall phrase also encompasses open enrollment and Empowerment Scholarship Accounts, better known as ESAs. The ESA program in Arizona is a contentious one — it aims to give parents access to public funds that can be used for private school tuition, therapies, and other education-related services.
Under a law passed last spring, the Arizona Legislature broadened the availability of ESAs to all of Arizona’s 1.1 million students. This means if any Arizona parents want to take their children out of their public or charter schools, they can take the money with them. Ninety percent of the state money that would have been given to the school that the student previously attended would be allocated to the parent in the form of a debit card.
Opponents of the law said it would drain too much money out of already underfunded public schools. Their disdain for the idea prompted them to collect thousands of signatures last summer to put the ESA expansion on the 2018 ballot.
Carlos Alfaro says he wishes ESAs had been available when he was a kid.
After his family immigrated to the United States from Guadalajara, Mexico, when he was in fifth grade, Alfaro says he had a hard time staying focused in his classes.
In high school, he was more interested in playing soccer and hanging out with his friends than learning algebraic formulas. Algebra, it turned out, would be his foe for life.
He failed the course and had to retake it during his senior year at Saguaro High School, just barely graduating on time.
It wasn’t until he took a world religion class at Scottsdale Community College about eight years ago that he really got interested in his own education. He liked the style of active learning and defending his own viewpoints.
Libre was a perfect fit for him — it was a job that allowed him to advocate for viewpoints he cared about, while helping the Latino community.
“There’s not one way to do education, and if we are stuck with a one-size-fits-all system, that is not going to be beneficial to our kids,” Alfaro says. “It didn’t work for me … I’m trying to show people they have options if something’s not working for their kids.”
Alfaro says that if his parents had been able to access an ESA, he might have landed at a school that pushed him to interact and debate with his fellow students. He thinks he might have thrived in a charter school model such as Great Hearts Academies or the Arizona School for the Arts, though charter schools are public and don't get ESA funding.
He believes universal ESAs can provide an escape hatch for students who are struggling academically, whether it’s because they’re being bullied or aren’t getting enough out of a classic classroom lecture.
“I’d think we can all agree that we should invest in our kids’ education,” Alfaro says. “It really shouldn’t matter about institutions or a particular educational option. It’s about if the kid is actually learning.”
That’s the message he tries to impart on his door-to-door journeys throughout the Valley.
But on that early December morning, the reactions to his campaigning were hit or miss.
“Did you know Arizona has led the nation in academic improvement for the last six years?” he asked a woman whose small daughter runs circles around Alfaro while he speaks. This fact maybe overstating things, as it comes from a very niche statistic: Arizona showed significant progress in fourth- and eighth-grade math, science, and reading between 2009 and 2015, according to the Nation’s Report Card.
“Did you know that Arizona leads in freedom on where you can take your kids to school? That could be home school, charter, district — do you think this is a good thing?” he quizzed a man who’s working on his car in a driveway.
The man engaged briefly, giving a noncommittal response.
Alfaro had been door-knocking for about 20 minutes when he encountered a woman walking her dog in his direction on West Kiowa Avenue in Mesa. As the two crossed paths, the poodle mix jumped up on Alfaro’s blue jeans.
Alfaro seized the opportunity to engage the dog’s owner in a conversation about education. She’s a small, middle-aged woman with glasses, wearing a red zip-up hoodie with fluffy cotton lining that matches her pup’s fur.
“Arizona is actually leading the nation in where you can go to school — in choice,” he said. “Do you think that’s a good thing?"
“Uh, no,” the dog owner replied. “Because anybody could come to our schools and, not that I’m prejudiced or anything, but there’s a lot of Mexicans … and my grandson is not getting taught the way he should get taught.”
“Because anybody could come to our schools and, not that I’m prejudiced or anything, but there’s a lot of Mexicans … and my grandson is not getting taught the way he should get taught.”
“Is it the instruction?” Alfaro asked, cocking his head to the side.
“He’s not spending enough time with reading and math because they have to keep practicing English, and I don’t like that,” she said.
“That’s very interesting. Yeah,” Alfaro said in his usual soothing tone.
“I’m not prejudiced. I have friends that are Hispanic. And I don’t have a problem with that.”
“Yeah, no,” he said, his eyes widening. “That’s what we’re trying to do, is trying to get your perspective on what’s important. About how we should be teaching our kids. But, yeah, it’s surprising to hear that even though we have all these challenges, we’re going on seven years in leading the nation in academic improvement.”
Alfaro remained on brand, and wished the woman a “wonderful Saturday” and a “Merry Christmas.”
Later, as a first-generation Mexican-American, he would reflect on the conversation and call the woman’s words “disturbing.”
But today, he stayed focused on ringing the next bell. He hurried on to the next house and pressed the doorbell. No one answered. He hung another pamphlet on the knob and let out a long breath.
Even when Carrie Brown was in grade school, she was a few steps ahead of the game. She considered her courses at her public high school in Overland Park, Kansas, a route to a successful future — especially her French course.
In the midst of mastering verb conjugation, a great teacher inspired her to think beyond her textbooks. She could study abroad as an exchange student. She could spend a year living in a chalet in the Alps. She could practice the language and eat real French baguettes — as long as she stayed away from drugs and got good grades.
So she did.
She also went on to get her master’s degree in Middle Eastern studies from the University of Arizona.
But these days, Brown has a new source of motivation: saving public schools.
She carries that focused mindset with her in everything she does. The mother of two knows more about the state of education in Arizona than your average citizen. She’s read studies. She’s spoken at the state legislature. She’s been keeping tabs on education policy since the ’90s, when she did a brief stint teaching at a charter school.
Now at age 42, she pours passion into everything she does, whether she’s fighting for more recess at her son’s elementary school or volunteering for Save Our Schools Arizona, better known as SOS Arizona. The grassroots group collected more than 100,000 signatures over the summer to put the universal ESA law on the 2018 ballot.
As an unofficial researcher for the SOS Arizona team, Brown’s been sniffing out information about groups interested in promoting ESAs like Libre. She’s managed to find out who the key players on the other side of the issue are, creating a digital map with the photos and titles of people like Alfaro on her iPad. Dawn Penich-Thacker, SOS Arizona’s communications director, calls Brown an “incredible internet super-sleuth.”
In between walking the dog, dropping her children off at school, and cooking dinner, Brown browses education literature. Knowledge is power, she hopes. It’s the best weapon she has. Well, other than the army of other parents and teachers and retirees and citizens who came together to complete SOS Arizona’s historic referendum.
She has two boys in the Kyrene Elementary School District, which spans Tempe, Chandler, and Phoenix. She worries they won’t have the same opportunities she had as a child. In 2016, Arizona’s average per-pupil spending was at $9,136, compared with the $12,469 national average, according to a report from the Arizona Auditor General. That year, only about 53 percent of available money was spent on instruction for kids — the lowest percentage since the state began tracking the numbers in 2001. The rest of the money was spent on other operational uses.
Brown fears that if universal ESAs go through, things will get worse.
But legislators like Senator Debbie Lesko, who sponsored the universal voucher bill that ultimately passed in May, wanted to increase the number of children who could use an ESA to accommodate their education, whether they used it on private school tuition, books, or even equine therapy.
The agreement legislators came up with in the spring had a cap, allowing an estimated 30,000 students into the ESA program by 2022. In 2017, the Arizona Department of Education estimated about 3,500 students had enrolled in the program.
Brown isn’t only concerned about public schools because of her boys. Sure, they’re her priority. She hopes they won’t get lost in the shuffle of a large class. She wants them to have a teacher who motivates them to think about their future like she did. She wants them to have an opportunity to try the violin in the school orchestra, even if they quit after they find out what a drag practicing is.
But she also knows her kids are more privileged than most. They have a loving mom who will advocate for their best interests. Some Arizona children don’t have parents who have the means, time, or understanding of the system to sign their child up for an ESA. And then, realistically, there are parents who just don’t care.
The Arizona Republic found that more than 75 percent of last year’s ESA account money was coming from A and B schools, rather than D and F schools. Students from wealthier families are taking advantage of ESAs at a higher rate than lower-income families. This could be because many of the children using the vouchers are disabled — or because the ESA won’t cover the full cost of tuition at most private schools and lower-earning parents can’t make up the difference.
Brown and the rest of the SOS Arizona team say it’s the low-income and minority students who could fall through the cracks of this program.
She hopes she’ll play a small role in making sure there’s a safety net for these children in the public school system.
On an early Saturday in mid-November, Carlos Alfaro leaned back in a folding chair in a field office for the Americans for Prosperity Foundation at 32nd Street and Indian School Road.
Instead of door-knocking, he was calling registered voters of all demographics and reading questions to them off a script on an iPad.
As the Arizona coalitions director for the Libre Institute, Alfaro has been charged with leading this education campaign in the state, which he says is nonpartisan. The campaign is part of Libre’s education-focused arm, registered as a 501(c)(3) for tax purposes.
Alfaro calls the Libre Institute “one of the brands” of the Americans for Prosperity Foundation. Some of the Institute’s Latino-focused efforts seem altruistic. They lead workshops during which they help immigrants apply for citizenship. They offer free English classes, health checkups, and back-to-school programs.
But Libre has a second arm — the Libre Initiative. This is a 501(c)(4) political group, known for getting involved with legislation and policy. Although the school choice campaign Alfaro is working on is a specific product of the Institute, everything is connected through the Koch network.
What Alfaro lacks in algebra skills, he makes up for in charisma. He has the perfect voice for phone surveys. He speaks to most everyone like he is talking to a child who’s just scraped a knee or lost a grandparent. Perhaps this is because some of his earliest foundations in English were formed by elementary school teachers and the PBS show Arthur. Maybe it’s just a gift.
“How are you today?” he asked as if his vocal chords were coated in honey. “We’re calling people today to let them know that education in Arizona is improving. Families have more educational options than ever.”
As he talked, five other men, all volunteers for Americans for Prosperity, were sprawled out on leather couches making similar calls. They made frequent trips to a spread of snacks, attacking bags of animal crackers and conchas. A nearby folding table was covered in iPads and fliers, courtesy of Libre’s well-funded school choice campaign.
This scene varies substantially from the volunteering Carrie Brown does for SOS Arizona.
First of all, SOS Arizona has more volunteers. Alfaro says Libre has about 147 active volunteers in the state, but SOS Arizona enlisted about 2,500 people to help with its referendum. They ended up paying about six people to collect signatures, but the rest of its base was a patchwork of volunteers.
Another difference is experience. Alfaro previously worked as the Arizona political director for the Marijuana Policy Project, a group that aims to reduce penalties for marijuana use, among other things. Most of the Save Our Schools volunteers are moms, teachers, and concerned retirees with little political experience.
Brown says the most political experience she had before SOS Arizona was protesting the run-up to the Iraq War while she was obtaining her master’s degree in 2002. Her work with SOS Arizona inspired her to get involved with her state representative Mitzi Epstein’s re-election campaign for 2018.
Libre is not the only resource-rich organization that’s supporting universal ESAs. There are at least three other major conservative- and Libertarian-leaning organizations that have taken on the issue: Americans for Prosperity, The American Federation for Children, and The Goldwater Institute.
There’s a greater reason these groups have taken an interest in school vouchers. For groups like Americans For Prosperity, it’s not only about helping children. It’s also about promoting the concept of competition in a free market.
“Some people say, ‘Oh, you’re out there and you only care about private schools.’ No, that’s not true,” Jenney says. “We believe in competition. That’s the most important thing. … Competition is the only reason why, frankly, anything in the world improves without monumental effort and luck.
"Once in a while," he continues, "you get lucky and things improve without competition. But mostly, you know, the reason why Starbucks doesn’t suck — or if you hate Starbucks, it doesn’t suck more than it does now — is because there are local coffee shops that if Starbucks isn’t providing what you want, people will be able to switch to another model. It’s the only thing that makes people perform in the long run.”
Brown believes groups like these are using children and “school choice” as a MacGuffin. She believes all the talk about children picking schools that best fit their needs is a distraction. The real goal, she says, is expanding competition until Arizona’s education system is all but privatized.
Alfaro disagrees. He calls himself and the Libre team “the cheerleaders of education,” and says that wanting both school choice and a free market aren’t mutually exclusive.
“It’s all about freedom,” Alfaro says. “I learned English at my district school and I am for good public schools — but I’m also for competition. So they can compete against each other. And so saying we want to privatize schools is completely the wrong notion. We want to make public education accessible to everybody.”
And with the ideas of helping children and free-markets swirling in their heads, all of these groups — groups like Libre and Americans for Prosperity on one side and SOS Arizona standing alone but strong on the other — are embattled in a game of cosmic chess on the issue. They’re strategizing and plotting to capture the narrative around public education.
Jeanne M. Powers, an associate professor at Arizona State University’s Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College, says the differences between groups like Libre and SOS Arizona are stark.
“Libre maybe started as a grassroots, but it has attracted a lot of resources from the Koch brothers,” she says. “You might call that an Astroturf kind of group. … They have professional organizers and that is very different than a bunch of mothers who get together and do this on their own time.”
But Alfaro says that, for him and the people Libre serves, this is ultimately about allowing Arizonans to choose a better life for themselves.
As an immigrant, he says the idea of deciding to leave one place for a new one where you can be more prosperous is not a new concept. His family did it, and now he says he wants to see Arizona children benefit in a similar way.
“This is specific to anybody who’s worked to get to a better place,” Alfaro says. “If it’s just moving to another neighborhood or moving to another country or doing a little bit of research and going to a better school, it’s the drive to get to a better place. To get to a place where you can learn successfully and get the knowledge that you need. And become a successful human — have a good life."
They were about 30 minutes early for the oral arguments for a hearing on the school voucher lawsuit. Brown asked a friend to pick up her son from school, so she could observe legal back-and-forth about the validity of the referendum petitions, about 450 of which she collected herself. She wore a warm, gray sweater, a paisley shirt, and jeans.
Tom Jenney from Americans for Prosperity and a handful of lawyers lined up on the other side of the room, all dressed in dark suits.
Jenney, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit against Save Our Schools, says the group decided to throw their weight behind the lawsuit because it’s less expensive than campaigning — they don’t want the law to go on the ballot in 2018.
Brown and a handful of other women she worked with for months to combat universal vouchers were blocking the doorway to the court. Brown knew there was limited seating and she positioned herself so she could make it into the courtroom first once the doors are unlocked.
As the doors opened, she and other SOS Arizona volunteers filed into a row left of the door and snagged seats behind their lawyer. As the minds behind SOS Arizona, they were all unofficial defendants. More broadly, as they see it, they’re defendants of public education in Arizona as we know it.
On the right side of the courtroom door, people from a smattering of pro-voucher groups such as American Federation for Children sat silently. A few journalists sat in between the groups like a buffer.
Judge Margaret Mahoney is expected to decide whether the referendum is valid in early 2018 — whether SOS Arizona really did falsely advertise what their petitions were representing, amounting to fraud. Whether it really matters that the petitions citizens signed said the voucher expansion bill was signed during “the fifty-third session of the legislature” rather than the “first regular session of the fifty-third legislature.”
A tension settled as the people on either side of the courtroom door waited to rise for the judge, who was running a few minutes late. Brown gazed at the crowd on the other side of the door, trying to place everyone and figure out which groups they’re with.
She wanted to make sense of who was involved — of what she was up against.
Once the court was called to order, lawyers for the two sides debated the validity of SOS Arizona’s referendum for over an hour and a half.
One attorney for ESA proponents, Kory Langhofer, claimed some of the signatures obtained during the referendum were fraudulent. He said mistakes were made when filling out the petitions and some notaries failed to sign documents legibly.
A lawyer for Save Our Schools Arizona, Roopali Desai, argued that the challenge to their referendum should be dismissed all together because Arizona state law didn’t allow for challenges when the ballot initiative was submitted.
“The plaintiffs do not have standing,” she said.
The battle lines in the courtroom were clearly drawn. On a more abstract level, they have been for a long time, according to Jack Schneider, a historian, policy analyst, and assistant professor at the College of The Holy Cross in Massachusetts where he’s been studying education for years.
“Vouchers have always been divisive,” Schneider says. “The only people talking vouchers for a couple decades were far-right, free-market ideologues.”
Free-market economist Milton Friedman was one of the more well-known of those ideologues, often referred to as the “grandfather” of school vouchers. Friedman articulated one of the earliest ideas for the vouchers in his 1955 essay “The Role of Government in Education.” He proposed government should get out of the business of education and offer parents a stipend instead. The ideal was considered radical for years.
When Ronald Reagan proposed vouchers in the 1980s, there was a strong blowback. So strong that Vice President George H.W. Bush learned a lesson from it, instead throwing his weight behind charter schools.
When Ronald Reagan proposed vouchers in the 1980s, there was a strong blowback. So strong that Vice President George H.W. Bush learned a lesson from it, instead throwing his weight behind charter schools, or publicly funded entities not tethered to ordinary state curriculum requirements. These schools sneaked open-market principles into education.
Both charter schools and open enrollment were allowed in Arizona when a legislative school-reform package passed in 1994. Three years later, income-tax credits passed, allowing individuals to receive credit for any contributions they made to private-scholarship funds.
In 2006, the legislature made its first run at getting vouchers passed for foster children and special-needs kids. This was ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court because public money was directly deposited into private schools. But after some rethinking, revision, and help from lobbying groups like American Federation for Children, formerly chaired by Betsy DeVos, our current U.S. Secretary of Education, ESAs finally passed in 2011. At first, they only covered select children, including those with disabilities.
But eligibility continued to expand over the years, which brings us to today.
Groups like Libre and SOS Arizona are all hovering over the issue, hoping to be heard — hoping their voices will be the loudest in the fight over the future of education in the state.
Schneider says if groups lobbying for universal vouchers succeed, in Arizona and on a national scale, it could ultimately lead to a privatized education system. It’s not likely to happen soon or even at all, but vouchers are a precursor to making education a private service, rather than a public one.
“So much of the vision and purpose of public education is not actually about the individual,” Schneider says. “It’s really about building a stronger society. It’s about preparing a citizen for a life in a democratic society. It’s about preparing people to be neighbors and workers and also poets and artists and individuals. In which case, if you have these public purposes, you do want a public system.”
Brown spends a lot of time thinking about the future and the “what ifs” of privatization. She worries that vouchers could ultimately lead to staggering inequities. She’s concerned lower-income families in struggling districts will suffer more if students leave and take money with them. She frets about schools being treated like any other kind of commodity.
Once, DeVos likened choosing a school to finding a food truck to eat from.
As Schneider puts it: “There are all kinds of reasons why schools are different from food trucks and it seems almost laughable that I even have to say that sentence out loud.”
“Ultimately,” he continues, “we end up pretending that we are empowering people with choices when instead we are telling them: Go out and choose without enough information in a very limited market — because certainly not all schools would accept a voucher — and deal with the consequences on your own. This is no longer something we’re all in together.”
But Brown and SOS Arizona are proof that the public can come together. They’re evidence that a group of ordinary citizens can be savvy and scrappy enough to put up a fight against big money.
“I’ve been waiting for this for years — to have other people who want to engage on the state level about public education,” Brown says. “I used to feel alone, but not any more.”
Sitting on a stiff chair in court, surrounded by other SOS Arizona volunteers, Brown was anything but alone.
Brown hopes the courts will decide that the universal voucher law will go to the 2018 ballot so voters can resolve the fate of the expanded program. Alfaro hopes Judge Margaret Mahoney will declare the SOS Arizona referendum invalid, making way for more choice.
For now, they both plan to keep doing what they’re doing. Brown will keep digging. Alfaro will continue to spread the world about school choice to those who will listen.
Alfaro and Brown have almost nothing in common. They’re different ages, of different backgrounds, and they want very different things for education in their state. But the thread that connects them is how much they care. They’ve both altered their lives to fight for this issue. They both strongly believe what they’re doing is the right thing.
When you’re on one side of an issue, it’s easy to assume the other side is evil — especially in the divisive political climate of the time.
Alfaro says he’s knocked on about 500 doors for the campaign. Asking Arizonans about education has shown him just how strongly people feel about the issue. The school system touches everyone at some point — and most people have something to say about it, no matter their opinion or political party.
"We feel like we’re enemies or we’re on opposite sides of an issue. And as a parent, I hate that. Because we’re on the same side of the issue: We want what’s best for children."
Although some of his conversations have been more pleasant than others, he’s learned that there’s passion behind all of it.
And, for the most part, he chooses to learn from that passion.
“I used to know it all, you know,” Alfaro says, laughing. “It’s always interesting to be exposed to people who don’t agree with you. Those people will broaden your perspective. When you get into a debate or something and you’re like, ‘Oh, I don’t know what I’m talking about,’ that’s kind of like a shock to your beliefs. It made you want to learn more.”
He says the first time he realized this was in his world religion class at college, but he’s carried it with him into this campaign.
“At the end of the day, we all try to make our schools stronger and try to protect our kids and have better outcomes,” Alfaro says. “We might just be focusing on different ways to get there. But I believe if we sat down and talked, we could at least arrive at: you know what I want, I know what you want. And I think we could find that common ground.”
Brown is a little bit more skeptical. If someone like Alfaro knocked at Brown’s door, she knows they wouldn’t change her mind. She says the optimistic part of her wants to believe that most people involved on Alfaro’s side of the issue are good, but she’s also learned that official organizations and lobbyists have agendas.
And she believes those agendas will ultimately tear parents and teachers and children and institutions apart.
“You find yourself at these public meetings, and here you are a parent,” Brown says. “And here are a bunch of other parents. And we feel like we’re enemies or we’re on opposite sides of an issue. And as a parent, I hate that. Because we’re on the same side of the issue: We want what’s best for children. But we’re functioning in a system that has pit us against each other. That is what choice and competition does. It pits groups against each other.
“There are winners and there are losers.”
And if universal ESAs pass, Brown believes Arizona’s children will lose.
Alfaro would call it a win.
Clarification: In an earlier version of this story, Alfaro implied that an ESA might have helped him get into a charter school. Charter schools are public and don't get ESA funding.