In late May, Republican legislators were hard at work hacking and slashing at the state budget, taking vicious swipes at public education funding and other programs that affect Arizona's children.
But they found time to take a few days off from their labors to pass a bill replacing vouchers that pay for private school tuition with … vouchers that pay for private school tuition.
The new bill replaces front door vouchers, which the Arizona Supreme Court declared unconstitutional, with back door vouchers that accomplish exactly the same thing.
Let me back up a little and explain. Three years ago, the Republicans passed a bill setting aside $5 million of taxpayer money to cover private school tuition for children with disabilities or in foster homes.
That's a simple, straightforward voucher program, but it happens to be unconstitutional. The children could use the money to go to religious schools, and the State Constitution forbids the use of government funds for religious purposes. So the Supreme Court ruled the voucher program had to go.
Republican legislators decided to work around the Constitution by transforming the $5 million into tuition tax credits. They halted work on the budget, called a special session, passed the bill and sent it to the Governor, who signed it. The result is, the same children get the same money to attend the same private schools.
Why can a tax credit be used to pay for religious school tuition if vouchers can't? Because the money never makes it through the statehouse doors. The money comes from corporate "donations" which are given to the students in the form of scholarships, so it's not officially state money.
But don't make the mistake of confusing these "donations" with corporate generosity. The companies get 100 percent of their money back as a credit when they file their taxes. The cost to the corporations? Zero. The cost to the state budget? Five million in uncollected taxes, the same amount as the original vouchers.
What we have here is a constitutional distinction without a fiscal difference. A voucher is a voucher is a voucher. Whether it walks in through the front door or slips in through the back door, it's the same taxpayer money paying for private school tuition.
If you ask Republicans why they voted for the new tax credit bill, they'll tell you, "It's all about the children." Most of them will be lying. If they cared so deeply about children in this state, they wouldn't have written those draconian cuts to public education, children's health care and vital Department of Economic Security programs into their budget.
No, this is about the conservatives' ceaseless efforts to privatize education here and across the country. If they had their way, we would have a massive voucher program, siphoning hundreds of millions of dollars out of public schools and into private schools, with similar programs in other states.
The conservatives' problem is, voters nationwide keep turning down vouchers. The issue has been put to popular vote 11 times, and it's been voted down every time, most recently in 2007 in conservative Utah, by a margin of 62 percent to 38 percent. Voters don't take to the idea of using public money for private education.
So the conservatives' answer is to give vouchers another name: tuition tax credits. In 1997 they got Arizona to pass the nation's first tuition tax credit law. By 2008, we were spending $68 million a year on the program. It's a fraction of what they hoped for, but they managed to slip the elephant's trunk into the state education tent.
The idea hasn't played as well elsewhere as it has in Arizona. Only six other states have followed our lead. But while our Republican legislators cut public education budgets, they've managed to slip another $5 million in vouchers through the back door.
It's time we put a lock on that thing.
Dave Safier is a regular contributor to Blog for Arizona.