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.
Opt-out is a national movement (Pizmony-Levy & Green Saraisky, 2016) based on local efforts as expressed in New York (Hursh, 2019; Wang, 2017), Colorado (Clayton et al., 2019), and Florida (Schroeder et al., 2018). While these and other studies address opt-out demographics (Paquin Morel, 2019) and public perception of the movement (Pizmony-Levy & Cosman, 2017), fewer studies address the political activism that extends beyond the act of refusing specific tests to changing standardized testing policy.
Opting-out became a political movement in Arizona as the reality of Common Corebased standardized testing loomed. Some parents sought a legal path to opting-out, citing Arizona Revised Statutes 15-102(A)(3), which allows parents the right to refuse any learning material or activity. In 2015, newly elected attorney general Mark Brnovich (Republican) issued an opinion stating that rights to opt-out are limited and the limited nature of parents opt-out rights that are specified in state law indicates the Legislature did not intend to include opt-out of statewide assessments (Brnovich, 2015). Stymied by state law, opt-out proponents turned to changing the law in the state legislature.
This case studys purpose is to extend understanding of the opt-out phenomenon by examining and dissembling the case of these efforts to legalize opting-out of state-mandated testing during the regular sessions of the Arizona State Legislature in 2015 and 2016. Examining this Arizona experience adds to our understanding of the 0pt-out phenomenon by providing insight into an understudied state and by looking into the complexities of lawmaking. Arizona is historically a conservative, Republican-leaning state providing a point of comparison to opt-outs epicenter in New York. Further, Arizona historically has been a leader in developing the standardized testing policies now seeing resistance from the opt-out movement.
In dissembling opt-out Arizonas legislative efforts, I interpret the movement through the policy paradigm of New Right conservatism (Apple, 2000; Ylimaki, 2011). An early mention of opt-out as resistance to the hegemonic New Rights emphasis on standardized testing was made in Smith et al.s (2004) work on the political spectacle (Edelman, 1988). I utilize elements of the political spectacle as a roadmap for interpreting complex legislative processes in seeking to answer the following research questions:
1. Who composes the opt-out Arizona leadership?
2. How did the Arizona opt-out leadership engage in the legislative process?
3. To what extent did this legislative engagement advance the opt-out cause?
This study proceeds with an explanation of the New Right paradigm, a review of existing opt-out literature, and a discussion of political spectacle elements relevant to interpreting the legislative process. After presenting my methods to this case study, including the collection of archived legislative video, related social and traditional media texts, and two interviews with legislative policy actors, I present key findings and a discussion addressing the three research questions. Conclusions include the relevance of opt-out Arizonas leaderships demographics to national trends of the time, the leaderships political use of the vaguely symbolic rhetoric of local control and parental rights while casting big business as an enemy, and the leaderships use and response to of backstage dealings in the legislative process as demonstrating fluency in the spectacle nature of modern politics. Opt-out Arizonas legislative experience ended with a compromise solution involving a new policy initiative, the Menu of Assessments, which represents a limited victory for local control. Future research regarding the implementation of the Menu of Assessments may reveal if opt-out Arizonas compromise set the stage for continued movement toward a social democratic paradigm or reinforced the existing hegemonic conservative testing regime.
THE NEW RIGHT PARADIGM
That conservatism shapes the modern American educational discourse has itself become a type of hegemonic interpretation of the current policy landscape (Apple, 2000; Friedman & Friedman, 1990; Hursh, 2007, 2016; Watkins, 2012; Ylimaki, 2011). Educational policy and practice are shaped by the now common-sense assumptions that the values of free-market choice, technocratic management, analytic data, and a return to idealized traditional values hold the keys to increasing American competitiveness, success, and power in an increasingly globalized world (Apple, 2000; Ylimaki, 2011). These assumptions stand in stark contrast to a social democratic paradigm that emphasizes the values of personal dignity, equity, freedom, creativity, and co-responsibility (Apple, 2000; Hursh, 2016).
Apple (2000) assessed how four diverse and in some ways contradictory interests coalesced into one conservative hegemonic bloc. Specifically, neoliberals represent dominant economic elites intent on using markets and the power of individual choice to solve all social problems. Joining neoliberals are a group of economic and cultural conservatives seeking a return to an age of purported higher standards, student discipline, and their definition of real knowledge. The authoritarian populists, whom some more colloquially might call the Religious Right, are working- and middle-class groups who distrust the state and lament the loss of fundamental religious standards to secular humanism. Finally, the professional new middle class are the principals, superintendents and other educational leaders committed to expanded use of the techniques of accountability provide the technical expertise to solve educational problems. While each group has its own interests, and sometimes those interests are in competition with each othersuch as the inherent tension between neoliberal choice and neoconservative standardizationthe interests coalesce together into a generally mutually supportive coalition powerful enough to affect policy, practice, and even the assumptions of what education should be.
While Apple (2000) explored the philosophic and macro-level political creation of conservative hegemony, others (Hursh, 2016; Watkins, 2012) explore mezzo-level mechanisms through which the educational marketplaces are created. Private businesses operating on models of corporatization, marketization, and competition have moved into this new marketplace. Both authors argue that these conservative goals have been promoted by both political parties, thus making the conservative modernization a bipartisan effort. Both note that the plutocracy of powerful parties underwrote recent educational reforms such as proliferating charter schools, promoting vouchers, and adopting the Common Core standards.
OPT-OUT MOVEMENT LITERATURE
That standardized testing derived from top-down mandates and did not arise from grassroots efforts (Kohn, 2012) is inherently illustrated in the opt-out movement. An early proposal of opting-out of standardized tests as means of guerilla warfare against the undemocratic and powerful corporate interests transforming public education is seen in Smith et al.s (2004) critique of the political spectacle of modern corporate-driven educational policy. Smith et al. told the story of how a colleague suggested to parents in one of Arizonas upscale affluent communities that they keep their kids home on test days and draw as much media attention as they could to their decision to opt-out (p. 260).
Academic interests regarding opt-out have tended to focus on several key themes including who is opting-out, where they are opting-out, why they are opting-out and what impact the opt-out movement is having on policy. Pizmony-Levy and Green Saraiskys (2016) ground- breaking study of opt-out participants demonstrates the movement has national appeal. However, their study, like much other opt-out literature (Casalaspi, 2018, 2019; Hursh et al., 2019; Paquin Morel, 2019; Wang, 2017), draws heavily from New York. New Yorks high opt-out rates, particularly in affluent areas such as Long Island, and the weight of available studies combine to suggest New York forms an epicenter for the opt-out movement. While opt-out is occurring in other states including Florida (Currin et al., 2018; Schroeder et al., 2018) and Colorado (Clayton et al., 2019), Western states in general and Arizona in particular are underrepresented in the literature.
Opt-out participants tend to belong to certain demographic and stakeholder groups pursuing common goals. The opt-out movement is generally composed of White and relatively affluent participants (Bennett, 2016; Clayton et al., 2019; Pizmony-Levy & Green Saraisky, 2016). Parents form the key stakeholder group in driving opt-out (Casalaspi, 2019; Currin et al., 2018; Mitra, Mann, and Hlavacik, 2016; Paquin Morel, 2019). Wang (2017) and Hursh et al. (2019) connect teachers to the opt-out movement, suggesting mutual grassroots interests. Common reasons for participating in opting-out include opposition specifically to the Common Core (Wang, 2017) and resistance to various expressions of neoliberal discipline such as loss of teacher curricular control, corporate influence in schools, and undue pressure placed on students by standardized tests. To fight against this, some advocate for more local control (Currin et al., 2016; Paquin Morel, 2019; Schroeder et al., 2018).
Very little work has addressed state-level legislative activism by the opt-out movement. Casalaspi (2018) briefly mentions the New York opt-out movements success in altering teacher evaluation policies and shortening standardized tests before emphasizing more local efforts. Currin et al. (2018) discuss an interview with a Florida opt-out activist regarding the difficulties of legislative involvement, including the danger of bills being co-opted and bills ending up looking like what was originally intended. Neither further examines legislative politics.
THE POLITICAL SPECTACLE
To disassemble opt-out Arizonas engagement in the complex legislative process, I turn to elements of the political spectacle. The political spectacle (Edelman, 1988, Smith et al., 2004) suggests policy processes resemble a theatrical production utilizing various symbols, creating allies and enemies, and occurring both publicly onstage and privately backstage, all resulting in the reinforcement of existing power structures. Wang (2017) suggests that the opt-out movement operates in part through effective use of symbols. Indeed, one of the earliest mentions of opt-out advocacy was by Smith et al. (2004) as a symbolic action related to their broader work on the political spectacle. Symbolism in the political spectacle can take two forms: concrete and vague. Concrete symbolism forms a visible means for creating a group. The act of opting-out is one such visible means. Vague symbolism incorporates language that either allows multiple interpretations or is otherwise difficult to argue against. The political spectacle suggests that policy actors utilize both forms of symbolism to create groups that are then portrayed as either allies or enemies to their particular cause. Enemies are defined and constructed by group leadership as a means to emphasize group identity and thus pursue the groups objectives. Also, the political spectacle suggests that policy is formed partly onstage in public forums such as legislative hearings and partly backstage through private meetings and influence from powerful actors on policymakers. Onstage language tends to take the form of vague symbolism, as rhetoric is employed to gather broad support, while backstage language tends to be more specific and transactional, representing quid pro quo type exchanges.
This study is therefore framed by the paradigm of the hegemonic New Right conservatism. Opt-out literature addresses demographics and motivation but has neglected conservative-leaning states and the exploration of policy change processes. Elements of political spectacle are utilized to disassemble the complex legislative process.
DATA AND METHODS
This policy-centered case study (Stake, 1988, 1995; Yin, 2009) examines the efforts of leaders to legalize opting-out in Arizona. The case study allows exploration of a phenomenon defined in space and time while including historical background, setting, and economic, political, legal, social, and other contexts. The case study approach is appropriate to this project, which is specifically confined to the Arizona Legislature in the 52nd regular session encompassing 2015 and 2016, yet also draws context from broader legal, historical, and policy paradigm realities.
During the 2015 and 2016 regular sessions of the 52nd Arizona Legislature, three opt-out bills were introduced: House Bill 2246, House Bill 2056, and Senate Bill 1455. The text of these bills became the starting point of the data collection, which then proceeded through a process of progressive theoretical sampling (Altheide & Schneider, 2013) to identify texts related to these bills. The Arizona Legislature both livestreams and archives video of its proceedings, including committee hearings, floor votes, and some caucus meetings, and makes them publicly available through the legislatures website. Legislative procedures allow for interested stakeholders from the public to address pending legislation with the committee. These videos provide a key synopsis into the rhetoric and thinking of engaged stakeholders and the legislative policymakers themselves. The four committee hearings where opt-out was an agenda item form the core of the data: the House Education Committee hearing on February 18, 2015; Senate Education Committee hearing on March 19, 2015; the House Education Committee hearing on January 20, 2016; and the Senate Education Committee hearing on February 18, 2016. Additional video footage from caucus meetings and floor votes was also collected for insight into the legislatures thinking but did not include other stakeholders. Further, the Arizona Legislatures website provides written documents regarding each bill that include the minutes from each hearing, summaries of amendments and votes and, on the House side, copies of written statements provided to legislators by stakeholders who wanted to voice a position but were unable to attend the hearing itself.
As I identified key policy actors, I also engaged in online searches for publicly available information regarding their involvement in opt-out specifically and politics in general. Particularly, I examined the campaign websites and media appearances of three legislators who played key roles in the policy process related to opt-out in Arizona: Chris Ackerley, who sponsored the opt-out legislation; Paul Boyer, who chaired the House Education Committee; and Sylvia Allen, who sponsored the Senate Bill 1455 and chaired the Senate Education Committee.
To gain insight into the behind-the-scenes workings of the opt-out movements legislative efforts, I contacted policy actors with a request for interview. Only two legislators responded to requests for interviews: Representative Chris Ackerley, a Republican first-term legislator and Prime Sponsor of two opt-out bills, spoke with me via phone and in person during the 2016 session. Senator David Bradley, a veteran Democrat on the Senate Education Committee, spoke with me in a semi-structured interview following the 2016 session.
I also monitored the websites and registered for publicly available email updates from various interest groups during the 2016 legislative session. Interest groups monitored included the state Chamber of Commerce, the Arizona School Boards Association, the Arizona Freedom Alliance, the Arizona Education Association, and the Arizona Charter Schools Association.
Video and audio were first transcribed and then coded both inductively and deductively. Texts were first analyzed inductively utilizing NVivo qualitative software (version 11). Thirty-nine separate themes were identified, including issues of accountability, achievement, data collection, local control, policy relationships, and rights. Analysis was then reframed to deductively to examine themes using qualitative media analysis (Altheide & Schneider, 2013) focusing on themes related to the conservative hegemony such as neoliberalism, neoconservatism, and corporate influence on educational policy requirements. I also looked for evidence of counterhegemonic social democratic language representing democracy and equity. Documents were further deductively coded for evidence of the political spectacle including the use of concrete and vague symbols, the construction of allies and enemies, and evidence of backstage deal-making.
In addition to analyzing the rhetoric and events, I also analyzed each committee hearing to collect quantitative data regarding the numbers of stakeholders who spoke, publicly available demographic information on stakeholders such as organizations represented, ethnicity, gender, and number of children in school. These data were then compared to other local and national trends represented in the opt-out literature.
This study relies on publicly sourced data related to a legislative process. The study therefore represents how stakeholders want to be seen and perceived and may not reveal possible underlying motivations or tensions. Further, those participating in the legislative process are movement leaders with the time, energy, and ability to be at the State Capitol building engaging in the process. Hence, participants may or may not be truly representative of the movement they represent. The stakeholder interviews which might have shed more light into behind-the-scenes machinations were limited by lack of stakeholder responses. Thus, identifying and understanding backstage dealings were subject to the interpretations of the two White male legislators who did speak with me and to inferences drawn from publicly available data. Finally, this case examines opt-out in a specific place and time, and findings may not necessarily be generalizable to other experiences.
This section summarizes key findings by first identifying and describing key policy actors and then proceeding to synopsize each bill: HB 2246, HB 2056, and SB 1455, presented in chronological order.
KEY POLICY ACTORS
Key policy actors included legislators, interest groups, and government agencies, as summarized in Table 1. Assessment of pro or con status was based on the policy actors publicly stated position, insights gained from interviews, or inferences from legislative actions.
Table 1. Key Policy Actors in Arizona Opt-Out Legislation, 20152016
Key legislative actors include the three legislators who had ongoing and direct impact on the opt-out legislation. Representative Chris Ackerley, a White male first-term Republican Representative who is also a public school teacher, served as the Prime Sponsor of both House bills. Representative Paul Boyer, a White male Republican who also worked as a teacher in a charter school, served as a cosponsor of the opt-out bills and as the House Education Committee Chair. Sylvia Allen, a White, female Republican, and the only one of the three with national recognition due to statements about supporting prayer in schools among other controversial issues, served as the Senate Education Committee Chair in 2016.
The Mommy Lobby was represented by multiple speakers. Six different women, all appearing White and all stating they had children in schools, spoke across the committee hearings. One stated she had children in the Chandler Public Schools, a large school district in Southwest Phoenix. Their childrens ages included 3rd, 5th, and 8th grades along with high school.
FIRST ATTEMPT: HOUSE BILL 2246
The legislative debate over opt-out officially began the afternoon of February 18, 2015 as the Arizona House of Representatives Education Committee addressed HB 2246, Statewide Assessments; Parental opt-out (Arizona State Legislature, 2015a).
As the Prime Sponsor of the opt-out legislation and therefore the legislator responsible for shepherding HB 2246 through the legislative process, Representative Ackerley was given the privilege of speaking to the committee first. He began, This is a simple bill and it is to affirm student and parental rights. He continued by referencing the lengthy and passionate debate the committee had just heard regarding removing Arizona from the Common Core and surmised that his opt-out bill did not solve the problem of standardized testing requirements but rather was to simply affirm parental rights. Ackerley countered the attorney generals opinion that parents do not have the right to opt-out with the realistic argument, But effectively they do. A parent can withhold their kids from school. Because that withholding negatively impacts other policy mandates, such as the federal governments 95% testing rate mandate and state mandates where standardized testing impacts both school performance labels and individual teacher evaluations, disallowing opt-out essentially put parents at odds with the school district. Ackerley addresses this reality as a parent arguing his parental interest is to know that my son is reading on grade level, but that is not information the state needs to know. The state simply needs to make sure that my sons school is accomplishing its goal.
Having framed the issue as one of parental rights set against the false threats of intrusive federal government, Ackerley passed the podium to other speakers. The Arizona Education Association argued, The underlying tenant of this bill is that it is a parents choice. It is not the teachers choice. It is the parents choice. The Association realistically recognized the impending reality of parents having their kids sit out just as we have started to see across the nation. The Association continued by noting that some might be surprised at their stance on this bill, but assured the committee that the Association was interested in simply returning to parents the option if they want to have the students take the statewide assessments or not.
Gina Ray represented the Mommy Lobby, an interest group composed of parents active in promoting opting-out and whose Twitter page declared No to data mining and Kids are not human capital. (MommyLobby, 2015) Ray declared, I love my Chandler school district so much and I dont want anything bad to happen to my school or my district. I do not want any funds or any downgrading of the grade level my schools have already achieved. She further claimed that hundreds of parents would be opting their children out of this test because they are both opposed to the Common Core and they do not want personally identifiable information stored on their child in a national data base. And they are passionate are this. Further, parents should have the right to opt their children out of any state assessment that is unproven and contains data mining. She concludes by quoting James Madison suggesting the government may take over not only education but also religion if so allowed and so the state should show some courage and buck up against the federal government.
The theme of the federal governments Common Core as a threat to religious liberty was further expressed on other debate stages. In a written comment submitted to the committee, a stakeholder wrote, Please support this bill and give our kids legal cover to opt-out of the data collection in the Common Core tests. Our family experienced persecution at our charter school since we opted out of last years field test. In a later podcast separate from the legislative hearing, the theme of persecution was developed through a scene where, A lot of parents were opting-out, and the school
put a police officer at the front desk to keep things calm. If a student chose to take the test, parents were not allowed to go back there. If I wanted to see my child, I was not allowed to. (Kays, 2015, April 20)
Ray continued by addressing the theme of data collection concerns, stating: You can see all the types of data these companies want to collect on our children for the purpose of selling to our children. She compared the intrusion to the proverbial camels nose in the tent, as the beginning of the end of privacy rights in this country, and pointed out that the Chamber of Commerce was making the opt-out struggle an uphill battle, as the Chamber of Commerce owns a lot of our legislators. They funded and own the legislators. (Kays, 2015, April 20)
Others reinforced these themes, including a White Republican precinct committeewoman who told the House Education Committee that a lot of the data mining will come about through students taking these tests. Another Mommy Lobby representative, Jennifer Reynolds, told the Senate Education Committee on March 19, 2015 that the Arizona test was not uniquely Arizonan and she did not want her children to be guinea pigs in some federal Common Core experiment (Arizona State Legislature, 2015b).
The vote of the House Education Committee on HB 2246 is informative. The committee advanced the bill to the full House on a party-line 5-2 vote. Five White Republicans, including four males, one of whom was a former conservative radio talk show host now representing one of the states most affluent districts, voted in favor of opt-out. Two Democrats, including a Hispanic female representing a border region agricultural area and a Black male representing a low socioeconomic urban district, voted against. Perhaps reflecting the tension between parental rights and corporate desire to keep opt-out illegal, some Republicans shared they might change their vote later. Indeed, HB 2246 eventually passed the full House but failed on a tie vote in the Senate.
Had the bill passed, Arizonas new Republican governor was likely to have vetoed it. Governor Duceys first priority as governor was to implement a new standardized test requiring high school students to pass a standard citizenship test to graduate. Duceys citizenship test was specifically exempted from the opt-out legislation and did become the first bill he signed into law.
This first opt-out attempt therefore saw the issue as framed by movement leaders around issues of parental rights including local parental control in choosing tests and privacy from corporate and federal government data mining. The business community was cast as an opponent of opt-out.
SECOND ATTEMPT: HOUSE BILL 2056
Opt-out was revisited a year later with the introduction of HB 2056, statewide assessments; parental opt-out, and sponsored again by Chris Ackerley and joined by Paul Boyer, the Chair of the House Education Committee, and Sylvia Allen, Chair of the Senate Education Committee. Chair Boyer assigned the bill a hearing date at the House Education Committees January 20th, 2016 meeting. The bill was never heard, as Boyer pulled the bill and ended up holding it for the rest of the session, thus preventing a vote.
I spoke with Representative Ackerley and asked why the bill was not heard. Ackerley described a full-court press by the charter schools and their business community allies against opt-out (C. Ackerley, personal communication, January 20, 2016). While the business and charter school communities had stayed largely silent during the 2015 debate, the recent passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) had raised some questions as to whether or not the federal government would still require a 95% testing rate. If that rate had in fact changed, some legislators, who had used the federal requirement to oppose opt-out on the pretext of not wanting to jeopardize federal funding, might be inclined to change their support. Therefore, the business and charter communities politically mobilized in 2016. Much of this opposition played out behind the scenes and out of the public eye through emails and other lobbying efforts to legislators. However, two public effects were visible.
The states largest newspaper, the generally business-friendly Arizona Republic, published a viewpoint article (Allhands, 2016) arguing, Some parents want a legal way out thinking it will improve their educational experience. But it wont. All it will do is make more work for teachers and muddy the waters by allowing students to hang out in the cafeteria while the rest of the class finishes its exams? (You know, because thats a great way to spend students time). Regarding school effectiveness, Allhands continued, schools could just as easily say, Ah, well, Junior read those books we assigned in class. Hes fine. And then were back to the mindless promotion that our third-grade proficiency requirement and high-school graduation requirements were supposed to eliminate.
In addition to serving as a state legislator, Representative Boyer also worked as a teacher for a Phoenix area charter school. The cofounder and board chairman of this school and its affiliated network is also on the State Charter Schools Association Board. Further, he serves as a charter school representative to the State Board of Regents. The Arizona Charter Schools Association laid forth a public statement of policy goals for the 2016 legislative session including, Above all other priorities, the Association supports local control. Schools should retain the right to choose curriculum consistent with their educational philosophy. The Associations policy agenda then continues, charter students outperformed the state average of students passing the test in ELA and Math by 512 percentage points in every grade level (Arizona Charter Schools Association, 2016). The Arizona Charter Schools Association was utilizing their standardized test score results as a marketing tool, a tool that would be negatively impacted if students were allowed to opt-out.
This second opt-out attempt therefore focused on business community efforts to prevent opt-out. The business community launched a backstage full-court press that likely resulted in opt-out legislation being held in committee and thus never receiving a hearing or vote. Onstage, a traditional media ally in the states largest, business-friendly paper published a critique to sway public opinion.
THIRD ATTEMPT: SENATE BILL 1455
The Mommy Lobby also engaged in backstage negotiations, as suggested by the sudden appearance of a strike-all amendment to Senate Bill 1455 being heard in the Senate Education Committee on February 18, 2016 (Arizona State Legislature, 2016b). A strike-all amendment removes all the language from an existing bill and replaces it with new and often completely different language. In this case, SB1455 educational certification applicants; restrictions, became parental opt-out; statewide assessments.
Senator Allen set the tone by speaking to her own bill, a tone that was at once familiar and novel. She began, Heres what Im thinking in the amendment. First off, I want to know philosophically that very much I believe in parents rights. She continued, what were debating today is the right of parents to be able to be concerned about their child being tested in a particular test. She suggests that we pick another test as soon as the contract with the states current standardized test supplier is up and suggests this might be an agenda item for next year. What the Senators do already have, however, is the Menu of Assessments bill:
We do have a Menu of Assessments that Im running to try to pull it back to choice. Choice is an important thing for Arizona. We have worked so hard all these years to provide a lot of ways for parents to educate their children. You have a choice and I dont want parents to have to feel that they have to pull their children out of school and then have that child be penalized.
She concludes by marrying the problem of statewide assessment with the Menu of Assessments so that schools and districts have the ability to pick a different test if they want to. A school or district can choose their preferred test, but a parent can say please give my child another test, the school can figure out what that might be and hopefully everybody is happy.
The Mommy Lobby appeared in force at the Senate Education Committee meeting. Jennifer Reynolds reiterated her status as a mother of four children who is fighting for local control for education. I strongly urge you to vote yes for Senate Bill 1455 to ensure parents have the natural right to decide if their children should participate in a statewide assessment. She continued with a discussion of threats parents have received over opting-out, the long delay in reporting results, the fact that the state test was not developed in Arizona, and concludes, Local schools should be allowed to choose their own test that better matches their curriculum. In follow-up questioning to Reynoldss statement, Senator Allen asked, Would allowing your daughter to take a different test, would that be all right? to which Reynolds responded, I think it would as long as we as parents have access to know whats on it.
Kristin Bencomo took the podium and discussed the relative merits of various tests including the Arizona Instrument to Measure Success (AIMS) and the Iowa Test of Basic Skills. She argued, Giving schools the opportunity to pick that test I think provides the best opportunity for our students to get the foundational schools they need. The only male to speak at this hearing, Greg Rucker, took the podium and briefly stated his concerns over the collection of student data. Sophia Cogan, also of the Mommy Lobby, talked about her 5th grade son being forced to sit for hours doing nothing in front of a computer while other students tested. In answering a follow-up question from Senator Lynne Pancrazi, a White female Democrat representing a rural agricultural area, regarding allowing choice in the test taken, Cogan responded, Yea, a lot of my concerns are with the AzMERIT test. My concern with that, what you just stated, is what test are they going to give them instead? and expressed concerns about test validity and data collection. Senator Allen summarized the exchange with, Data is a big part of this. Gina Ray returned and shared her view that the AzMERIT was immoral, but then agreed that she as a parent she would let her child take a test as long as she could go to a room at the school district and view that test. She also expressed concern that the AzMERIT is not a validated test but came to Arizona through rubbing some shoulders with some political friends for [a company] to make millions of dollars. The president of the company makes over $566,000 a year and the AzMERIT costs us over $5,000 per test question. She concluded by agreeing that there are some acceptable tests that she would allow her children to take. Lisa Hudson, also from the Mommy Lobby, stated her pleasure to be speaking to the committee and expressed her concern that ultimately they [the federal government] will test more non-cognitive matters versus academics. She also referenced other states that have already allowed opt-out.
SB 1455 allowing opt-out passed the committee but failed in the Senate by an 11 to 18 vote. The Menu of Assessments went on to become Arizona state law, with some Arizona school districts implementing their own choice of tests, such as the ACT and SAT, for the first time in the spring of 2019 (Rosenblatt & Stephenson, 2019). This opt-out attempt saw a reiteration of parental themes of local control, privacy, and data mining. However, the opt-out proponents also showed a willingness to allow testing as long as they had local control over what test was offered.
Demographically, the leadership of Arizonas opt-out movement tends to match the national trends (Pizmony-Levy & Green Saraisky, 2016) toward White, female, and relatively affluent participants. All of the representatives from the Mommy Lobby presented themselves as female, appeared White, and discussed their children of various school-going ages ranging from about third grade through high school. One Mommy Lobby representative mentioned her children attended public schools in Chandler, Arizona, a large suburban community. While Mommy Lobby leadership did not discuss their financial or other employment status at the public legislative hearings, the fact that they had the time to appear at the State Capitol building and participate in the legislative process suggests some degree of social capital, such as the affluence to afford to be engaged midday in politics.
The Mommy Lobbys allies were also predominantly, although not exclusively, female and predominantly White. Organizations allied with the Mommy Lobby included the Arizona Department of Education, led by the State Superintendent of Public Instruction, a White female, and the Arizona Education Association, whose representative was also a White female. Senator Sylvia Allen, a White female, became a key legislative ally. Chris Ackerley, a White male with children of his own in public school and himself a public school teacher, served as the legislative champion on the House side.
Demographic divisions between opt-out supporters and opponents are synopsized in the first vote on the opt-out legislation for HB 2246 in the House Education Committee, which visually depicts the movement. Five White Republican committee members, including one who had previously worked as a conservative radio talk show host and now represents one of Arizonas most affluent legislative districts, supported opt-out. The two Democrats, one Hispanic female representing a largely agricultural district along the southern border with Mexico and one Black male representing an urban area in south Phoenix, both opposed opt-out. The only significant difference between the divisions in this vote and national opt-out demographic trends is the Republicans in Arizona tended to support opt-out while the Democrats tended to oppose it.
Opt-out leadership engaged the legislative process using two significant arguments. First, they used the rhetoric of local control, emphasizing that local parents, schools, and districts should determine what, if any, tests their children take. Second, opt-out leadership emphasized parental privacy rights, particularly related to the data mining of their children by the big businesses that make the test and the big government that administers them. Both arguments are consistent with rhetoric from local opt-out leaders in other areas of the United States. As employed in the legislative process, the local control and privacy arguments also served a useful political purpose through their vaguely symbolic nature (Edelman, 1988; Smith et al., 2004). Local control and privacy are ideals deeply engrained in the American political consciousness, and publicly opposing those employing this rhetoric in the onstage public legislative process would make the opponent seem churlish at best and un-American at worst. Opt-out leadership developed the sense of creating allies through support of their grassroots by casting opposition, particularly big business accumulating wealth by using the private data of innocent children, as a political enemy to be avoided and defeated.
When the charter schools who use standardized tests as a key marketing tool and their allies in the Chamber of Commerce organized to oppose opt-out, they did not publicly engage with the rhetoric of local control or privacy. Instead, they utilized another element of the political spectacle by launching a backstage full-court press. They won a notable victory in persuading the Chair of the House Education Committee to hold HB 2056, thus never allowing the bill to be discussed or voted upon in committee. The House Education Chair was a sponsor of HB 2056, suggesting his personal commitment to the opt-out bill; however, he also worked at a charter school whose leadership was active in the opt-out opposition, suggesting a quid pro quo deal was struck behind the scenes. The Mommy Lobby also engaged behind the scenes. Just as opt-out leadership in Florida suggested that the legislative process can change quickly, and bills can become something completely different from their original intent (Currin et al., 2018), so Senator Sylvia Allen introduced a strike-all amendment to SB 1455 changing the bill from its original topic of educational certification applicants; restrictions to an opt-out bill.
Ultimately, the power of pro-business interests allied with a minority interested in the equity that standardized testing promises defeated all three opt-out bills. However, while testing is still required, the opt-out movements goal of local control has been advanced, as opt-out allied with Senator Sylvia Allen and Representative Paul Boyer in passing legislation allowing for a menu of assessments. The Menu of Assessments states each local education authority must still administer a test, but the district or charter can choose which test from a state-approved list or even develop their own.
The impact of opt-outs compromise with the Menu of Assessments is complex to assess. On the one hand, the compromise can be interpreted as a victory for democracy (Apple, 2000; Hursh, 2016). In this interpretation, the opt-out agenda was driven by caring, committed, and concerned citizens, most prominently seen in the leadership of the aptly named Mommy Lobby, who challenged the status quo of standardized testing. In true democratic form, a compromise solution in the Menu of Assessments was achieved. This compromise allows freedom for opt-out proponents to continue their political engagement at the local level by assuming co-responsibility for test selection and thus advocating for tests that more accurately reflect the human dignity and creativity they seek.
On the other hand, the democratic value of equity was not a significant argument of the opt-out movement, nor does the movements demographics suggest that equity was a major concern. Further, by the time SB1455 was being debated in the Senate Education Committee, opt-out proponents were actively using the New Right (Apple, 2000; Ylimaki, 2011) language of neoconservatism by agreeing that testing in general was acceptable, but the problem was state-mandated and corporate-driven testing. The opt-out movements concern for local control could also be viewed as a form of neoliberalism itself, simply taking the idea of choice one step further away from the state and toward the individual parents. Indeed, Senator Allens comments in the debate on SB1455 repeatedly mention choice. The opt-out movement also routinely employed the language of the authoritarian populists, referring to the persecution their children had experienced by the schools and referencing their natural rights given by the creator. In this interpretation, opt-out Arizonas legislative experience is less a victory for democracy and more an illustration of the tensions Apple (2000) suggested existed within the New Right coalition. Expressed another way, this legislative process was a political spectacle that ultimately protected the existing conservative testing regime.
CONCLUSIONS AND FUTURE RESEARCH IMPLICATIONS
Opt-out Arizona leaderships demographics are consistent with national trends of the time as predominantly White, female, and possessing some degree of affluence. Like other local opt-out movements, opt-out Arizona focused on local control and privacy rights. This vaguely symbolic rhetoric combined with portraying big business and big government as enemies and the use of backstage dealing demonstrates a fluency in the spectacle that is modern politics. 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 movements legislative efforts might also be understood as tension within the hegemonic New Right coalition.
This case was limited to one legislative process in one state at one time. Other states did fully legalize opting-out, and exploring the differences in demographic, legal, historical, and political contexts between Arizona and these states may inform why some movements achieve their policy goals while others fall short. Also, the Menu of Assessments presents a novel approach to testing policy. Future research might explore whether the Menu of Assessments advances democratic values of equity, caring, and co-responsibility or reinforces the existing hegemonic conservative paradigm.
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