Most of us are familiar with the Goldwater Institute, the so-called liberty-loving conservative think tank that claims its goal is to “advance, defend, and strengthen the freedom guaranteed by the constitutions of the United States and the fifty states.”
It’s a noble mission statement, and one I would personally support. Too bad it’s counter to what the organization actually practices.
A prime example of how the mission falls short is evidenced in the organization’s most recent lawsuit threat.
Last week, the Goldwater Institute filed an intent to sue the Arizona Department of Education for delayed payments to families who use the Empowerment Scholarship Account, or ESA, voucher program.
ESA vouchers are a creation of the Goldwater Institute. The program gives qualifying families public taxpayer dollars to use at private or religious schools or for educational therapies or curriculum, among other things.
Ten years ago, the Arizona Supreme Court shot down the Legislature’s original voucher plan because it violated our state’s constitutional ban on public funding for private and religious schools.
But the Goldwater Institute didn’t give up. Since it couldn’t operate a true voucher system that adhered to the Arizona Constitution, it simply created a workaround – a legal remedy to skirt our framers’ original intentions.
Instead of having the state make distributions to private and/or religious schools, ESA voucher funds are loaded onto a debit card and given directly to parents. Because parents have the option to use funds for purposes other than religious or private schools, the system is technically legal.
But “technically legal” is a far cry from what Goldwater claims to promote.
Vouchers do the exact opposite of what our constitution demands. They do not maintain appropriations for the “development and improvement” of public schools or give rise to a “general and uniform public school system.”
I suspect the high-priced attorneys at the Goldwater Institute are keenly aware of this fact. I also suspect their recent interest in ESA voucher payments has nothing to do with the program and everything to do with a concerted effort on the right to vilify State Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman.
The Goldwater Institute took a beating in 2018 when voters roundly rejected universal voucher expansion. Knowing they cannot rely on the voters to weaken the constitution, they’re in search of willing partners to help them do their bidding.
They have lots of friends in the legislature, and once upon a time, they had close allies in the state superintendent’s office. But Hoffman isn’t like past superintendents that carried water for school-choice advocates: She ran on a platform of strengthening Arizona public schools, not expanding privatization.
The Goldwater Institute needs to neutralize Hoffman, and it seems they’re trying to do so by creating a make-believe scandal about delays in ESA voucher disbursements.
A spokesperson for the Arizona Department of Education told the Mirror the delays in question were a result of self-reported errors that needed to be clarified before payment could be initiated. Once the errors were fixed, funds were disbursed.
It seems the only purpose of the lawsuit threat is to waste precious time and resources at an already underfunded department and, as the ADE spokesperson suggested, to score political points.
Our state is facing a classroom crisis. Teachers are fleeing. Students are crammed into classes.
Instead of attempting to make this situation worse, the Goldwater Institute could uphold its mission statement and support the efforts of others who are working to defend the state constitution.
They could back the schools currently suing the state over a decade’s worth of cuts to building and capital expenses – more than $2 billion.
Or, they could be advocating for an end to the private- and public-school tax credits that create an uneven playing field among schools and are a clear violation of a “general and uniform” school system.
Of course, we know the Goldwater Institute isn’t planning to support funding equity, and it’s their right to take an oppositional stance. But is it too much to ask for them to be honest with Arizonans?
Manipulating education policy so that it benefits the privileged few over the intended many does not advance, defend, or strengthen our Constitution. Let’s stop pretending otherwise.