On July 7th, 2022, AZ Governor Doug Ducey signed House Bill (HB) 2853 into law, expanding the Arizona Empowerment Scholarship Account (ESA). The ESA is a publicly funded program that allows K-12 students to apply for vouchers to attend a private school. It is another development in a trend towards reshaping education to be in line with the needs of capital, under the pretext of “school choice” and through the strategy of school vouchers. The assault of the market on education progressed rapidly during the COVID-19 pandemic with the closure of schools. The steps taken by the government in Arizona toward the privatization of education follow the principles of “competition”. The expansion of vouchers increases the terrain for entrepreneurship and demonstrates the use of the bourgeois state by the monopolies in siphoning public resources from schools.
Although HB 2853 did not establish ESAs, it did expand the allocation of public resources toward investments and incentives for private schools. In a state with one of the highest concentrations of charter schools run for profit, this law marks a further step in the onslaught of the bourgeoisie in their efforts to commodify education and roll back democratic rights. Arizona is a state where the laws of capitalist profitability allow the business moguls of education to create a complex web of educational management organizations, such as the Leona Group, BASIS, K12, Connections, and Academia, to plunder the state coffers in a myriad of ways, and to consistently lobby for policies that open new terrain for capital.
The transformation of the school for the needs of a few companies allows the capitalist class to determine the content and management of education, to perpetuate the exploitative system that devours our children for the benefit of a few. Though the mouthpieces of the Democratic Party are content to attack this law without addressing the essence of the issue, the class interests at work, Marxist-Leninists should not parrot these criticisms. We must reveal how the bourgeoisie uses the state to subsidize the monopolies and guarantee their profits.
A Closer Look at Arizona
There is a political-economic component to the trend of privatization in public schools. Public funds are being redirected toward two main avenues of education reform: vouchers, for private-school tuition, and charter schools, which are often owned by private entities. When we talk about funds, we speak of taxes, as that is how public schools are funded. These taxes come from the working class and popular strata, as well as the bourgeoisie. But taxes, like everything in class society, have a class character, and the working class pays a disproportionate amount in taxes, as another mechanism of exploitation. Taxes on the workers by the bourgeois state are further extortion of the workers by the bourgeoisie, cutting directly into their income. The parasitic ruling class pays taxes through a portion of the surplus value they extract from the working class. Yet this tax is extremely low, due to the tax breaks they get for actions deemed “good for society”. But what investment opportunities in public services are profitable? This is how the ruling class uses the state to funnel taxes back into private education schemes while still reaping a larger profit. A concrete example of this is when corporations and religious organizations use these “good for society” tax breaks to fund scholarships to private schools. They can do this through a state law that allows corporations owing income tax to Arizona to redirect up to 100% of their tax obligation to School Tuition Organizations. Through this process, the bourgeoisie can fund private education while paying less in taxes and keeping more of their profits.
A series of austerity measures passed in the 90s in Arizona have lowered tax rates for the wealthy, from 7 percent to 4.54 percent, and decreased corporate tax rates, shrinking the revenue brought in from corporations. Since 1994, this has opened the floodgates for state-financed and privately run charter schools. In 1997, Arizona passed the first tax credit program for funding private education. This program has expanded yearly, and the addition of ESAs in 2011 has resulted in the plundering of billions in public resources by corporations such as the BASIS Educational Group. In this environment, the capitalist politicians in Arizona have led school funding cuts of up to 36 percent from 2009 to 2018.
What does this all mean? Less revenue collected from the wealthy and corporations as a result of the tax cuts for the bourgeoisie, combined with slashes in public school funding, sees larger sums of the General Fund (Arizona state budget) allocated to privatization schemes. This increase in funding to private education results in a disproportionate amount of the wages of the working class and popular strata passing into the hands of large businesses. Public education is on a path toward no longer being free. To dig deeper into this claim, let us take a look at the differentiation of taxes in Arizona. A relative decrease in total state and local taxes paid (income, property, sales, and use taxes) occurs for Arizonans as their income increases. The richer you get, the fewer taxes you owe. The lowest-income 20 percent of Arizonans as of 2018—$11,900 per year—contribute 13 percent of their income in total taxes, more than any other income group in the state. Similarly, among the next 20 percent of taxpayers, whose average income is $28,000, total taxes are the 10th highest nationally and, on average, account for 10.9 percent of their income. Combining this with the next two taxpayer brackets, for the bottom 80 percent of taxpayers in Arizona we find that they pay 41.8 percent of their combined income to total taxes. On the other hand, the top 20 percent pay only 20.1 percent of their combined income. The top 1 percent of households, which have an average income of $1.1 million, contributes only 5.9 percent of their income in total taxes. And with an enormous amount of this money destined for the coffers of large education companies, one must ask, who pays for this, and who benefits? The companies pay little or no income taxes, so the answer is simple: we do. Our income from work finances the large education monopolies.
Hands in the Pot
Let us now look at how the domestic bourgeoisie, particularly those of the religious and right-wing sections, use their political organs and parties to pump additional profits from state budgets into the pockets of the capitalists. The Goldwater Institute, the organization responsible for the creation and promotion of ESAs, is a conservative and libertarian think-tank and litigation organization that promotes “free-market public policy research”. It is affiliated with the well-known State Policy Network (SPN), the policy, communications, and litigation arm of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). The SPN shares the same funding sources as ALEC, including Koch Industries, the Richard and Helen DeVos Foundation, and the Walton Family Foundation, all three of which have a history of seeking to privatize education. The Goldwater Institute is one of the many political organs of the bourgeois Republican party, which has their representatives in the state government in Arizona pass laws aligned with their interests. One of their main representatives is Doug Ducey, a pawn of Koch Industries. They view the public education system as a new market, one with the potential for immense profits. This is what drives them towards, not only building massive private and charter school networks but also destroying, bit by bit, the public education system. These ESAs are one such program. First established in 2011, the program opens savings accounts for eligible students in which the state then deposits a portion of the “student’s funds from the state education formula”. In other words, funds that are meant to pay for a student’s public education are instead funneled into private schools, through these accounts, all while Arizona public schools consistently rank among the lowest in the US in funding. The schools of the children of the working class are destroyed, while those of the bourgeoisie are built up.
The representatives of the newly elected Arizona State Board of Education (BOE), especially Julia Meyerson and Karla Phillips-Krivickas, both driven by capitalist logic, aid in the hoarding of public education systems into the hands of the monopolies. Meyerson is the founder and executive director of a network of charter schools called Vista College Prep, and thus directly benefits from the passing of this law. Karla Phillips, while not owning any schools herself, has spent decades advocating for charter and private schools. Before joining the BOE, Phillips was a research associate at the Goldwater Institute, the very organization responsible for the creation of ESAs. During her time there, she co-authored research on “Arizona’s first 50 charter schools and early charter school legislation”. Intense political and ideological intervention by the bourgeoisie takes place through this complex network of mechanisms and actors. The monopolies use their political think tanks and foundations as organs to lay the ideological groundwork for the justification of expanding the surplus of capitalists through “school choice”. They justify the gross underfunding of public schools with false promises that private and charter schools will incentivize the improvement of public schools through competition and thus provide elite education to the children of the working class. This is pure demagoguery. Schools adapted to the inhumane laws of the market could never fulfill such promises.
An important ally in the drive towards commodifying and private-subsidized education is religiously affiliated organizations. In Arizona, 53% of all schools are religiously affiliated. The influence of religious groups can be seen when looking into the finances of the movers of the bill. For example, one of the primary movers is Rep. Ben Toma’s third largest donor, the Arizona Leadership Foundation (ALF). The ALF is a Catholic-oriented school tuition organization that funds Catholic school tuition for students through tax-credit scholarship programs. Out of the 27 co-signers of the bill, the ALF has donated to 20 of them. The influence of religious organizations is evident with BOE members Jenny Clark and Katherine Haley. Clark was educated at the University of Arizona and was a member of the Campus Crusade for Christ organization. After college, she spent almost three years working for The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kentucky. She then founded the Love Your School (LYS) organization, which connects parents with resources for private and homeschooling education. Catching the eye of the governor, she was appointed to the BOE in April of 2022.
Haley is a former US congresswoman and the founder of the Oak Rose Group, a lobbyist organization with ties to Evangelical groups. They attempt to hide these connections by carefully omitting any religious language, opting instead for more “secular” terms. This is in line with the fact that some private schools emphasize the secular nature of the education that they provide. Catering to those worried about violations of secularism presents a ripe opportunity for private school bosses to gather not just the children of the ruling class but also the children of the middle class. For example, they replace “Christian values” with “Moral convictions” and “Promoting Christianity” with “Promoting human flourishing.” Further, Haley is also on the board of trustees for The Trinity Forum which, according to their mission statement, “endeavors to cultivate, curate, and disseminate the best of Christian thought, to equip leaders to think, work, and lead wisely and well.” Taking advantage of the destruction of public education and “culture wars in the classroom”, organizations like the Oak Rose Group, finding a loophole in the separation of church and state, serve as effective facilitators in the transfer of the education system into the control of the monopolies.
The Two Bourgeois Parties
It is important to note that the government policy of each bourgeois party has special importance, since each highlights certain priorities and differences, utilizing symbolic concepts at the level of propaganda to achieve public consensus in the context of the overall bourgeois political scene in each country. The two bourgeois parties in the US have differed little in their management of education in the last two decades, despite the Democrats being championed as the “party of education”. At a time when the capitalist states were adopting policies of deregulation, privatization, outsourcing, and competition in public services, for both parties, any “educational reform” has been in the service of capital. While many variations of the management of education have been tried, public schools in the US have been transformed into paupers for large companies, with the common thread between the Democrats and Republicans being to break the back of the teachers union and further subject the schools to the jungle of the market. What we must keep in mind is that, regardless of their rhetoric, both parties represent the interests of the bourgeoisie.
What is happening in Arizona is not unique to the Grand Canyon state. It lines up perfectly with the national Republican strategy of privatizing education through vouchers and charter schools. From the nomination and confirmation of Betsy DeVos for Secretary of Education in 2017 to the passing of ESAs in Florida, Mississippi, Nevada, and Tennessee, all are connected to this national strategy. However, this is not a market solely pursued by the Republican bourgeoisie. The Democratic Party has also been pushing for the privatization and commercialization of education. Both Obama and Cory Booker have been some of the most vocal proponents of school vouchers. Yet the Democrats would have the working class believe that they are the defenders of public education simply because they claim to oppose the Republicans.
In recent years, responding to the Republicans leading a reactionary “school choice” program to take advantage of closed public schools during the COVID-19 pandemic and the so-called “culture wars”, Democrats have given lip service to protecting public schools. While their labor lieutenants cull the most militant teachers from the unions, Democrats aid in the targeting of teachers through programs that link teacher pay to student performance measured by tests catered towards standards and curriculums dictated by private companies. These “standard-based reforms” are also an attack on students, further linking the goals of educational attainment and their creative development with the goals of big business. This was demonstrated by the policies of Obama-era Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, in Race to the Top and measures of the Office of Innovation and Improvement to startup more charter schools and expand charter school management companies. Furthermore, the Democrats have helped open the way for the monopolies to commercialize food and transportation in schools, expand business-school contracts, and multiply the profits of education management organizations.
The false promises of the Democrats are nothing new, with the failure of Biden to deliver on campaign promises, continuing the Trump administration’s education policies, and remaining quiet on charter schools and voucher programs, as well as his vow to end high-stakes testing. The Biden administration speaks of funding gaps for schools while approving billions of dollars in imperialist war plans in Ukraine to counter the imperialist intervention of Russia and strengthen the Euro-Atlantic camp, padding the pockets of the arms monopolies, and taking one more step in the confrontation with capitalist China to maintain the dominant position of the US in the imperialist system. The war hawks of the Democratic party speak hypocritically of the educational disparities of immigrants, African-Americans, women, and other oppressed sections of the population, but their guns are pointed at the heads of workers and oppressed peoples abroad. Their hypocrisy is demonstrated in their years of support for vouchers and privatization efforts. The Democrats ignore that these business plans for the school resemble the same education plans formulated by the military regimes of Argentina and Chile.
In this country, students pass out from hunger, others study with electricity cut off, some are forced to drop out of school to become another number in the child labor statistics, schools are closing, and teachers are finding themselves more and more in precarious conditions, all in the face of a gutted public school system while public funds are diverted to war profiteers which represent the same forces that seek to privatize education. The uniform nature of education is breaking down further as the school is cut and sewn according to the measures of a society that divides people into those who labor and those who do not. The school that the bourgeois political parties are helping to build cannot accommodate the needs of students and teachers but turns them into pieces that will be exploited by the machinery of exploitation for the benefit of the monopolies. These privatization schemes, even as far back as the court ruling from Brown vs the Board of Education and the Regan and Nixon administrations, demonstrate that, whatever the pretext, the bourgeoisie intends to chip away at the right to education and strengthen the role of the companies in the classrooms.
Serving as a central aim of privatization efforts is the dismantling of teachers’ unions. Teachers, who are already severely underpaid and overworked, will have to endure further cuts to their pay as the bourgeoisie continue to redirect public school funds to private schools. The schools, molded in the interests of the bosses, are increasingly emphasizing standardized testing and the curriculums of the textbook companies, also known as K-12 businesses. These education speculators dismantle the role of the teacher and the school through the use of tests, curriculums, teacher licensing exams, and online public schools, and seek profit from every facet of the public school. The four companies, Pearson Education, ETS (Educational Testing Service), Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, and McGraw-Hill collectively spent more than $20 million lobbying in states and on Capitol Hill from 2009 to 2014. The No Child Left Behind, otherwise known as No Corporation Left Behind, mandated millions of new standardized tests which saw the expansion of these companies.
As schools continue to implement the curriculum of the companies, the ability of the teachers is increasingly being tied to the “data” from these standardized tests. This data is used to determine the effectiveness of the teacher, linking the outcome of students to a teacher pay scale known as “merit pay”. The subjection of the teacher to the idea of merit imprisons educators in the corporate development model, handcuffing them to the underlying ideological implications of capitalism: competition. This provides the needed ammunition for the capitalist politicians to pin the tail on teachers for underperforming students, blame the unions for failing schools, and justify anti-teacher policies under the pretext of “parental choice”. The propaganda associated with achieving public consensus on the individual role of teachers and teachers’ unions for schools reflects the strategies of bourgeois politicians seeking to turn the role of education over to private hands. All their excuses about teachers being a source of “liberal indoctrination” and propaganda surrounding “critical race theory” serve one purpose: to turn the school into a new field of higher profits.
The onslaught against teachers has been facilitated by the capitulation of the leadership of the teachers’ unions to each new management team of the state and federal departments of education. The American Federation of Teachers (AFT), National Education Association (NEA), United Federation of Teachers (UFT), etc. consistently tail the bourgeois parties, especially the Democrats. The AFT has endorsed political candidates like Hilary Clinton, who sat on the board of Wal-Mart, a company with a history of seeking to destroy public education, New York governor Eliot Spitzer, and recently the Florida Education Association (FEA) endorsed Charlie Crist who signed off on the voucher program for private schools in Florida. Shackling the teacher’s unions to these politicians leads to dead ends. No real educational reform can be made until the unions break from the liberal-conservative paradigm and in general with the Democrats and the other bourgeois management forces represented by the “progressives” and the Democratic Socialists. This includes Katie Hobbs, the newly elected governor of Arizona. The path to follow is not the lesser evil, but class emancipation.
The Communist View on Public Education
In our capitalist society, the educational system is essential in the perpetuation of the dominant bourgeois ideologies and for this purpose education is being used to segment knowledge, eliminating the ability to know worldviews through the company-dictated curriculum and thus achieving a biased and partial vision of reality. The education system plays a fundamental role in the training of new generations of workers where the business is present in all spheres that surround education. The progressive worsening of public education serves as an excuse for new educational reforms that deepen privatization, especially with public financing. We are facing a miserable future for the youth where they are educated to the minimum to carry out social production. Ending the commodification of education implies ending the origin of commodification itself: the capitalist system. However, there are many milestones on the path to improving our educational system.
The proposal of the Communist Workers’ Platform in education collides head-on with the aims that guide the bourgeois parties. We seek to build an education for the children of the working class and we refuse to allow working-class youth to be trained as the servants of capital. Our conception of education is that it is a basic right afforded to the people, derived from the possibility of each participating in the cultural life of the country to satisfy the needs and creative capacities of our people. Our organization presents a clear dilemma: either an education built for the working class or one built for capital. Both are incompatible no matter the attempts of the bourgeoisie to conceal this from the working class and its children. We oppose all entrepreneurial action in education and denounce the ideological character of the curriculums which only serve to transmit the ideology necessary to consent to an exploitative system. We call on the students and teachers to turn their anxiety, despair, and uncertainty into an organization against those who want to achieve further exploitation. A clearer vision of education is necessary where the development of a complete person is based on an education taking into account different educational stages from the moment of birth, as opposed to the privatization of childcare centers, until higher professional education and university. Faced with the lack of resources and drained schools, we must defend public education, being clear to subordinate it to the integral development of humanity and not to that of a few companies. This can only be guaranteed with a single face-to-face, public, free, compulsory, secular, and universal system respectful to the various languages and based on modern and adequate infrastructure, open to the people.