No question about it. Republicans with most of the power in Arizona are enemies of public education. They've demonstrated it over and over, for years. But what would they do to public education if they could do anything they wanted? It sounds like a simple question, but it's a tough one to answer. I'm going to take a stab at it.
We have to begin by defining our terms. "Public education" and "publicly funded education" are two different things. Public education is both funded and run by the public, with publicly elected school boards which have the power to make the final education and personnel decisions. Only school districts fit that description. Charter schools are a public/private hybrid, publicly funded but privately operated, answering to the owners and their appointed boards. At one time, private schools were both privately funded and privately run, but with the growth of vouchers, they're becoming kind of a charter/private hybrid, getting a whole lot of their funding from the public but having even less public oversight and control than charter schools.
Arizona's supporters of public education often say Republicans want to "dismantle" public education. I've always been uncomfortable with that term. It sounds too much like the plan is to take public education apart, piece by piece, until it's no longer there. To my ears, "dismantle" sounds a lot like "destroy," and I don't think that's accurate. About 75 percent of Arizona's school children attend public schools. Of the remainder, almost 20 percent are in charters and between 5 to 8 percent are either in private schools or home schooled. There's no plausible way to create enough charters and private schools to get take care of the 75 percent currently in public schools. I suppose districts could be made into collections of charter schools, an experiment currently being tested in a few cities in other parts of the country, but I don't see it happening here, at least not on a statewide scale. Public education is here to stay, and I think most Republicans are OK with that. They don't want to dismantle, as in destroy, school districts. What the want to do is damage, degrade and devalue them.
Regardless of the words we use to describe it, the question is, if Republicans had their way, what would the damaged, degraded, devalued public education look like? I doubt many Arizona Republicans have thought this question through and have a coherent answer, but if they did, I think it would go something like this.
"Public education for everyone," they would say, "is too damn expensive, even here in bottom-of-the-barrel-in-per-student-spending Arizona. And too much of what we spend is wasted on all those failing kids in failing schools. What we need is quality education and adequate funding for those who need it and are willing to take advantage of it, and good-enough-for-low-skilled-work education for the rest. Why waste all that money and effort trying to give a comprehensive, K-12 education to children who won't need more than a 6th grader's understanding of reading, writing and arithmetic to do what their employers will require them to do?
"What we really need," they would continue if they were willing to be brutally honest, "is a three-tiered education system. At the top will be a world class education for the children who will grow up to be the captains of industry as well as the innovators, scientists and technology geniuses who will provide the knowledge base to keep our business sector moving forward. Those students will attend the state's most expensive private schools or a handful of academically challenging charter schools filled with cherry-picked students who will either rise to the challenge or fail and drop off along the way. The second tier will be schools that provide a strong education for students who will need to go on to college so they can fill in the middle ranks of the economy. They will include some middle-priced private schools, charter schools with a college prep curriculum, and assorted public schools in high achieving — read, middle-to-high income — areas. The lowest tier will be schools set up to warehouse the rest of the students, where class sizes are large and the cost of buildings and educational materials are kept to a minimum, where teachers are just good enough to keep order and give students the kind of basic skills they will need for low paying, low skill jobs."
How would you go about this? For one thing, you would provide taxpayer money to subsidize tuition to expensive private schools, making it easier for those with means to give their children the best possible educational experience. At the same time, you would keep the general school funding level low. Then you would transfer as much of the general education funds as possible to district and charter schools with the highest achieving students, which tend to be in the higher income areas, and that would further beggar the public schools serving the lowest income students in the state.
Arizona is well on its way to achieving the right wing, anti-public school vision, though there's lots of work left to be done to get it right. We have two forms of private school vouchers. The legislature wants to institute "results-based funding" for district and charter schools. Our most recent education legislation allows anyone with a bachelor's degree to teach, which would help fill the teaching slots in low income schools where teaching conditions will be so undesirable it'll be hard to find credentialed teachers willing to apply.
Republican elected officials should feel proud when they see how much work they've done to damage, degrade and devalue public education. As for the rest of us, who value a quality education for all children? We should hold them responsible for the work they've done, in letters to the editor and phone calls, at rallies, and where it counts the most, at the ballot box.