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Is Washington Ready for Another Betsy DeVos?

Republican Debbie Lesko is Arizona’s crusader for conservative “school choice”—and, unless Democrats can stop her in April's special election, she’s about to go national.

Bob Christie/Associated Press

Betsy DeVos may have no bigger fan in all of America than Debbie Lesko. The former Arizona state senator was the only other person on stage last July when President Donald Trump’s billionaire education secretary addressed the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC)—the powerful Koch brothersfundedcorporate bill mill” that advances right-wing legislation in the states. In her speech, DeVos praised Lesko—a Republican who sits on ALEC’s board of directors—as a champion of conservative “school choice.” She specifically lauded the pathbreaking law Lesko sponsored last year to expand the state’s Empowerment Scholarship Accounts (ESA)—a voucher-like program that hands families debit cards loaded with taxpayer dollars to use for private- and religious-school tuition or other educational costs. “What a huge accomplishment,” DeVos said of this drain on the state’s already cash-strapped public-school system.

“Well, wow!” Lesko said after DeVos’s speech. “All I can say is wow. I am so excited that you’re here. Aren’t you guys excited that she’s here?” She then asked her fellow Arizona legislators who helped pass the ESA expansion to stand and be recognized. The whole room, DeVos included, gave them a round of applause.

Lesko resigned from the state Senate in January to focus on running for Congress, and she’s now the Republican nominee in the April 24 special election for Arizona’s Eighth Congressional District. A darling of the Koch brothers in her own right, she’s the clear favorite to replace former Representative Trent Franks—a Republican who resigned in disgrace last year over sexual-misconduct accusations. Conventional wisdom says Democrats don’t have a shot in this heavily conservative district. It includes former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s political base, and Trump carried the district by 21 points in 2016. But after Conor Lamb’s victory this month in a Pennsylvania district Trump won by about the same margin, Democrats are allowing themselves to hope. “Arizona can be harder than Pennsylvania,” Dan Pfeiffer, a former senior adviser to President Barack Obama, recently said on Pod Save America. Yet, Pfeiffer argued, the two districts have “essentially the same political dynamic.” “There could be a real shot here,” he said. “There’s a good candidate who won the primary a couple weeks ago.”

Pfeiffer was referring to Hiral Tipirneni, an Indian-born emergency-room physician and advocate for cancer research, who won the Democratic nomination with a moderate message. Even the conservative publication Newsmax calls her “a strong candidate,” which might explain why the Republican National Committee just invested $281,250 in this race along with $170,000 from the National Republican Congressional Committee and $100,000 on the way from the Congressional Leadership Fund. These investments come as polling by Lake Research Partners shows Tipirneni down 14 points, but Lesko’s record should motivate local Democrats looking to notch another upset victory. “Debbie Lesko has made it clear she’s representing ALEC,” Tipirneni told me. “She’s representing the Koch brothers. She’s representing her lobbyists.”

“She’s absolutely the leading voice in Arizona for privatizing our public-education system,” said Brianna Westbrook, a transgender activist who lost the Democratic primary to Tipirneni last month and is now running for state Senate. “She’s our local Betsy DeVos.”

Lesko, who didn’t respond to requests for comment on this story, says she isn’t beholden to her deep-pocketed donors. But she openly embraced the Kochs in a debate with Tipirneni this past Friday on Arizona’s 12 News. “You know, it’s interesting that people keep bringing up the Koch brothers,” she said. “I’ve never met the Koch brothers. I’m interested in meeting them someday. But they share the same values that I have.”

Those values also put her squarely behind Trump, whom she describes as “doing a good job” as president. Lesko proudly touts her endorsement from the National Rifle Association, opposes a woman’s right to choose, and couldn’t be more enthusiastic about “The Wall.” On education, though, she’s more than just a Trump foot solider; she’s a policy entrepreneur. And some of America’s most influential conservative power brokers see her ESA expansion as a model for the nation.

“Arizona is showing the rest of the country that educational choice doesn’t have to be limited to being a lifeline for a few students trapped in the worst the public-education system has to offer,” ALEC spokeswoman Anna Tarnawski said in a statement to The New Republic.Instead, Arizona has offered Americans a vision of a totally new world, in which each student benefits from an education chosen and designed specifically for him or her; a world where every child is given the best educational experience to flourish, excel, and pursue the American Dream.”

This “vision of a totally new world” isn’t yet cemented: Public-education advocates led by the grassroots group Save Our Schools Arizona have managed to force a referendum vote on the ESA expansion for this November, putting the law on hold in the meantime. “As much of a red state as Arizona is, there was huge public opposition to this,” Dawn Penich-Thacker, a spokeswoman for Save Our Schools Arizona, said. “It’s a means of separating out the haves and the have-nots.”

Arizona was the first state in the country to enact Empowerment Scholarship Accounts, also known as Education Savings Accounts, in 2011. Championed by the state’s Goldwater Institute, a libertarian think tank also tied to the Kochs, these accounts allow families taking their child out of public school to put 90 percent of the child’s share of state education funding toward private education—tuition, tutoring, or other expenses. Eligibility for the program was initially limited to a small group of students, including those with disabilities, but Lesko’s law opened it up to all 1.1 million of Arizona’s public-school kids. “That makes the Arizona expansion the broadest to date,” The New York Times reported when Governor Doug Ducey, a Republican, signed it into law in April of last year.

There are limits to this program, even under the expansion. Total enrollment, for example, will be capped at 30,000 students in 2022. But the downsides of the policy are glaringly apparent: It siphons funds from existing public schools without ensuring that the money is then invested in promising alternatives. And that’s to say nothing of the program’s management. As The Arizona Republic reported in June: “The warnings of lax oversight and little accountability proved prescient. Money was misspent but the state recovered almost none of it.”

For example, some parents transferred all of their scholarship money into a 529 college-savings account and then left the program—preventing the state from recouping the funds.

Others pocketed the money and sent their kids to public schools.

Some purchased books or other materials using their state-issued debit cards and then immediately returned them. The refunded money was put on gift cards, allowing parents to spend it with no scrutiny.

And despite the Legislature’s vehement opposition to public money paying for abortions, the ESA program became one of the only state programs to allegedly fund the procedure. In 2014, payment to a health clinic led education officials to believe ESA money had been spent on an abortion.

“You can’t even make some of this stuff up,” said Carol Burris, the executive director of the national Network for Public Education. “It’s just a really crazy scheme that’s draining the money out of public schools.” Which is why Tipirneni rejects the idea that reforming education requires privatizing it. “If you’re going to invest in new innovative teaching methods and creative approaches to curriculum, I say put that in the public schools,” she said. “That’s where the majority of our kids are going. We should be encouraging that growth, because honestly our public schools are at the center of our communities.”

Whether or not Lesko wins the special election in April, defenders of her law will still have plenty of reason to worry about the referendum this fall. As Chalkbeat education reporter Matt Barnum points out, “When school vouchers have been put up for a vote, they’ve almost always lost, including in DeVos’s home state of Michigan.” The Arizona policy only passed the legislature with a razor-thin margin, drawing opposition from all Democrats and even some Republicans. But winning the referendum is a top priority for Lesko’s wealthy allies. The Washington Post reported in January that “Koch donors see Arizona as ground zero in their push” to transform America’s education system this year. The newspaper covered a Koch seminar at a resort outside Palm Springs, California, where Ducey touted the ESA expansion and “warned that, under Arizona law, if advocates lose at the ballot box, they will not be able to legislate on the topic in the future.” “This is a very real fight in my state,” Ducey reportedly said.

Arizona legislators could also undermine the referendum. Veteran state politics reporter Howard Fischer notes that “any change in the 2017 law—even as small as a change in punctuation—would effectively invalidate all the referendum petitions and the more than 110,000 signatures that foes of expansion turned in to force the issue to the ballot.” Some Republican lawmakers want to go that route. But Save Our Schools Arizona says it’s ready for that scenario—and prepared to collect enough signatures to trigger another ballot measure.

Even if Arizona voters beat back the expansion, its architect could soon become a powerful national ally of DeVos in Congress, which speaks to the stakes when voters go to the polls next month. For now, the education secretary is struggling to advance her “school-choice” policies on Capitol Hill. “Somebody like Debbie Lesko, who is very invested in all of these voucher programs,” Burris said, “would be right there leading the charge.”