January 2019 Church & State | Cover Story

The headline in the British newspaper The Guardian was certainly eye-catching: “Billionaires v teachers: The Koch brothers’ plan to starve public education,” it read.

The story by reporter Steven Green­house ran Sept. 7, 2018. It focused on a battle in Arizona, where big-money forces backing education privatization have been active for years. In 2017, they scored a key victory when the legislature passed a bill expanding Arizona’s voucher plan, which had formerly been limited to students with special needs, to every child in the state.

The Koch brothers, U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and others who yearn to dismantle public education in America looked at Arizona as a laboratory for what they viewed as a grand experiment. Under their scheme, taxpayer money would flow to private, mostly religious schools under the guise of “school choice” through a voucher-like plan called “education savings accounts.”

What they didn’t count on were six women who were determined to shut down that experiment – and save public education in Arizona.

“We walked outside the Capitol building, and we looked at each other, and said, ‘What now?’” Dawn Penich-Thacker said. “We had been fighting this for four months. We realized that there’s something we can do about it. It’s called a citizens’ referendum. We said, ‘Let’s do it.’”

The women – Sharon Kirsch, Melinda Iyer, Beth Lewis, Alison Por­ter, Catherine Sigmon and Penich-Thacker – faced long odds. They had no money behind them and no organization. They were all volunteers, and had just 90 days to collect more than 75,000 signatures to put the measure on the November ballot.

Undaunted, the activists formed a group called Save Our Schools Arizona. Their first task was to get the signatures by the end of summer. In August, they turned in 111,540.

Save Our Schools Arizona

(Photo: A Save Our Schools rally outside the Arizona Capitol in January 2018. Credit: Patrick Breen/ACcentral)

But pro-voucher forces were ready to play hardball. Americans for Prosperity, a pro-voucher front group formed by the Koch brothers, joined forces with the Goldwater Institute and the American Federation for Children, a group formerly run by DeVos, to file two lawsuits in an effort to block the referendum and keep the question, known as Proposition 305, off the ballot. That failed when state courts issued rulings clearing the question for the ballot.

The founders of Save Our Schools were then faced with the task of educating Arizona voters about the ballot question in a fairly short time. They began raising money and brought a number of regional field organizers on board to cover the entire state. The group also recruited a Latino outreach coordinator and an interfaith outreach coordinator.

Prior to the vote, the women were unsure what might happen. In early October, the Arizona Republic in Phoenix reported that voters appeared to be confused by the way the referendum question was phrased on the ballot. A poll by the newspaper found that only 31 percent said they planned to vote “no” (against vouchers). But once the ballot question was explained to voters, many “yes” voters flipped to “no.”

Americans United helped out by blogging about Proposition 305 and sending information to its members in Arizona, urging them to vote against the voucher expansion. 

Save Our Schools’ educational efforts paid off on Election Day when voters, by a margin of 65 to 35 percent, voted to stop the voucher expansion. The win is the latest in a string of state referenda rejecting vouchers. (See “The People Have Spoken" in this issue.)

The successful vote was likely propelled by voter frustration over the state of public education in Arizona. Critics say the system is underfunded and overtaxed.

In late April, many teachers walked out of their classrooms to protest conditions. Many Phoenix-area teachers marched to the Capitol and rallied. Among their demands was that legislators return education funding levels to where they were a decade ago, reported NPR.

“I think our students understand that we need a change and enough is enough,” Noah Karvelis, a teacher and organizer of Arizona Educators Uni­ted, said at a news conference before the rally. “We simply can’t take it any longer.”

 The teachers also demanded pay raises and smaller class sizes. The nationwide average for teacher pay is about $59,000 per year. Arizona teachers are hovering around $47,000.

Shortly after the vote, columnist Laurie Roberts of the Republic noted that the outcome was a defeat for Gov. Doug Ducey (R), observing, “Arizona voters didn’t just defeat Proposition 305. They stoned the thing, then they tossed it into the street and ran over it. Then they backed up and ran over it again.

“Voters defeated Ducey’s voucher plan by [nearly] 2-1. Ouch.”

It’s a remarkable victory made possible by a determined group of citizen-activists. To learn more about how they did it, Church & State reached out to Penich-Thacker, who ran Save Our Schools’ communications outreach. She agreed to answer some questions about the successful effort.

Q. Here at Americans United, we often hear the argument that vouchers are just a form of school choice, and choice is a good thing. We know how we answer that question, but we’d like to hear your response. So what’s the problem with vouchers?

Penich-Thacker: In our successful statewide campaign against voucher expansion, we didn’t try to combat the truism that people like having choices, but we pointed out that more choices does not necessarily mean better choices, and that that is exactly the problem with vouchers. We talked about the ways that the “choice” of vouchers actually degrades the quality of the choices the rest of us have to choose from. It’s an unequal system of prioritizing one choice at the expense of all the others, and that is fundamentally unfair and, specifically when it comes to vouchers, also irresponsible because the voucher choice is itself a poor one, with virtually no accountability, no transparency, no proven efficacy, no clear academic, financial or social benefits, basically a false choice that does more harm than good.

Q. What motivated you to act?

Penich-Thacker: Save our Schools Arizona was formed by six women – regular working moms and retirees – who had never met but started seeing one another time after time at the state Capitol. None of us had been to the Capitol before and had never been involved or particularly aware of state politics at that level, but after the November 2016 election and particularly the appointment of Betsy DeVos, we separately decided to do something more than simply vote and write emails. We decided to show up and see the process for ourselves. When we saw a universal voucher bill get introduced, we were captivated by what a terrible idea it was but also by how utterly disinterested some of our lawmakers were in their constituents’ opposition and valid criticism.

Their dismissal of our concerns really drove us to stick with it and when the voucher bill ultimately passed after unprecedented public outrage, the six of us strangers said, “We’re not giving up.” We formed a political action committee, we took out petitions, we rallied several hundred equally disgusted volunteers all over the state to circulate those petitions, and in less than 90 days we gathered 111,540 voter signatures to block the voucher law from going into effect and put it on the 2018 ballot for voters to either reject or uphold. We fought off two legal challenges thereafter by the Koch  and DeVos groups, Americans for Prosperity and American Federation for Children, and won.

Finally, vouchers were rejected [almost] 2-1 in Arizona because we ran an informational/educational campaign about how harmful vouchers are to the public education system, and about what an irresponsible and unaccountable use of tax dollars they are. We didn’t get into church and state as a major talking point, although it was a secondary talking point and certainly a primary objection by many voters.

Q. Arizona has had a voucher program for a few years. Why did the expansion become a tipping point?

Penich-Thacker: In Arizona, we suffer from massive teacher turnover, a teacher shortage, underfunded classrooms to the tune of $1 billion a year and some of the lowest-paid teachers in the country. With that as the backdrop, a voucher program that would siphon even more tax money out of the schools 95 percent of families choose simply was not acceptable.

Q. This was something of a David v. Goliath battle. The Koch brothers and Betsy DeVos were against you. What made you think you could take them on?

Penich-Thacker: Ignorance! But seriously, we had no idea what we would be up against. We had never been political operatives at any level before, let alone at a level where we were defying the ideological mission of actual billionaires. But we knew everyone we talked to thought vouchers were a terrible idea, and we believed in the idea that money can buy a lot of things, but it can’t buy people’s votes if the information was out there for them to know and decide upon. We also worked harder than any of us had ever worked before – we worked seven days a week, weekends, holidays, birthdays, anniversaries for 20 months, all for free and all at the expense of our private and personal lives.

Q. Once the measure won a spot on the ballot, you had to quickly educate Arizonans about the issue. What strategies did you use to do that? What would you say was the single most important thing you did?

Penich-Thacker: We kept ourselves in people’s faces, in terms of always holding events and rallies to attract local news/earned media, keeping our self-directed social media presence energetic and constant. [We were] always out in actual communities in person – canvasses, town halls, public events, libraries, churches, parks, music festivals, athletic events, rotary clubs, retiree luncheons, book clubs – anywhere that people gathered, we sent a team of volunteers to hand out our flyers or talk to folks gathered.

Q. How important was social media to your efforts?

Penich-Thacker: Social media was huge. We had no money (of course we fundraised, but we started with zero and functioned off small donations from regular people) so we relied on digital word of mouth and especially Facebook groups and sharing to bring people to events we held, to share information, to explain our viewpoints, often asking our network to recruit all of their friends, neighbors and families. We kept it fun, we posted constantly, we made our group and our cause THE hot topic in the state for a year a half, and we used social media to be everywhere – from the border towns down south to the Grand Canyon to everywhere in between.

Q. On election night, your margin of victory was impressive. Did that surprise you?

Penich-Thacker: Yes and no. Anecdotally, we knew we’d convinced and/or connected with many more people who objected to vouchers than supported them, but there is always that sense of uncertainty so we felt good about winning, but to reject vouchers [by a wide margin] showed us we reached people across all parties and political beliefs.

Q. Americans United often works with activists in other states who oppose voucher plans. What advice would give to those people?

Penich-Thacker: Figure out what talking points work in your community. Here in Arizona, we knew folks were concerned about public-school funding so we focused on that connection, and we knew folks are fiscally responsible, even conservative, so we focused on how irresponsible vouchers are with tax dollars, the built-in lack of transparency, lack of testing, lack of reporting, lack of responsible use/fraud. In another state, schools may be better funded so that wouldn’t work, but the funneling of tax dollars into religious schools might.

Every group should figure out which points connect with the widest swath of people and stick to those. Even if you want to talk about all the many, many problems with vouchers, restrain yourself to the one to three points that reach across all parties, all walks of life and repeat, repeat, repeat. And make the work fun – we made silly memes, we held parties on the cheap, we ran fun contests and gimmicks with volunteers. It’s a lot of work, so we made it enjoyable. We relied on volunteers, and it’s important people WANT to be doing the work, that they feel appreciated and that they feel there’s light at the end of the tunnel. 

Q. Is there anything else you would like to add?

Penich-Thacker: Keep an eye on Save our Schools Arizona; we feel we’ve just begun, and we know the fight continues.