Disassembling Efforts to Legalize Opting-Out in Arizona: A Case Study of Legislative Politics
by Michael A. Szolowicz - 2021
Background/Context: Opt-out is a national movement based on local efforts as most notably expressed in New York. While studies have addressed opt-out demographics and local impact, fewer studies address the political activism that extends beyond the act of refusing specific tests to changing standardized testing policy.
Purpose/Objective/Research Question/Focus of Study: This case study extends understanding of the opt-out phenomenon by examining and disassembling a case of efforts to legalize opting-out of state-mandated testing through a state legislative process. The policy reform efforts are framed and disassembled through the discourse of the New Right and elements of the political spectacle.
Setting: This study is set in the Arizona State Legislature’s 2015 and 2016 sessions.
Population/Participants/Subjects: This study follows the efforts of state legislative policy actors including state legislators, state department of education officials, the state teacher association, and parent opt-out activists.
Research Design: This is a qualitative case study examining three bills intending to legalize opting-out introduced across two state legislative sessions.
Data Collection and Analysis: Data were collected utilizing progressive theoretical sampling to identify key legislative policy actors and collect public statements regarding the pending legislation. Data focused on legislative hearings and floor votes publicly archived on the legislature’s website. Text of the bills along with contemporary social and traditional media statements were also collected, as were interviews with two state legislators. Data were analyzed for themes arising from the participants themselves, for elements of the New Right discourse, and for elements of the political spectacle.
Findings/Results: The generally White and affluent demographics of this case’s opt-out movement leadership reflect national patterns. Likewise, the movement leadership focused on themes of local control and privacy rights. This vaguely symbolic language combined with casting big government as enemies suggests a fluency in the spectacle of modern legislative politics. Ultimately, opt-out proponents compromised in favor of a new policy initiative reflecting themes of neoliberalism and neoconservatism, the Menu of Assessments.
Conclusions/Recommendations: The compromise with the experimental Menu of Assessments policy to gain more local control over tests while keeping the expectation of testing in place suggests a limited victory for democracy. However, the Arizona opt-out movement’s legislative efforts might also be understood as tension within the hegemonic New Right coalition.
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