I recently came across an August 2013 report by Lindsey M. Burke from The Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice titled: The Education Debit Card – What Arizona Parents Purchase with Education Savings Accounts. The report makes many claims begging to be refuted. In the executive summary, the author credits Arizona with creating “a model that should be every state policymaker’s goal when considering how to improve education: funding students instead of physical school buildings and allowing that funding to follow children to any education provider of choice.” The model referred to here are Empowerment Scholarship Accounts (ESAs).
In September 2011, Arizona’s ESA program started with a modest enrollment of 153 students with special needs. In 2012, enrollment had grown to include more than 300 children with special needs. Expansion continued that year with eligibility granted to more than 220,000 Arizona students, including 125,000 children with special needs, 87,000 children in underperforming public schools (rated D or F), 11,500 children of active- duty military families, and any additional foster children.Currently, according to AZ Ed News, more than 250K students are eligible to apply.
Although I totally “get” a parent wanting the very best for their own child, I am also brought back to a quote by John Dewey’s (possibly the most significant educational thinker of the 20th century): “what the best and wisest parent wants for his child, that must we want for all the children of the community. Anything less is unlovely, and left unchecked, destroys our democracy.”
The real truth is, the majority of children (for a multitude of reasons) will simply not be able to avail themselves of the ESA opportunity. So, I find myself asking what are the real reasons Arizona legislators and other leaders are pushing vouchers as the solution for educating our children? Color me cynical, but let me offer some thoughts:
1. A voucher by any other name. The ESA bills are model American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) legislation. As reported by education activist and blogger David Safier: “The Goldwater Institute came up with the idea for ESAs as a second workaround (the first is our tuition tax credit law) to make vouchers legal in a state where the constitution prohibits the use of public money for religious instruction. (Did you know over 70% of Arizona’s private schools are religious?) The term of art for this kind of legislation is “backdoor vouchers.” The conservative’s ultimate goal is vouchers for all.”
2. What can parents afford with an ESA? AZ Senator Al Melvin (who is running for Governor this year) likes to tout vouchers for every child at $9,000 per child is either ignorant or disingenuous. First of all, if every child in Arizona were given that much funding, it would cost as much as entire budget of the state of Arizona ($9.054B vs. a budget of 9.18 billion.) Secondly, the ESA base rate this year is only $5,400 per child, not $9,000. So, what private school can parents send their children to for $5,400? The website Private School Review shows the average tuition at Arizona’s private elementary schools as $5,465. Please note, this is not the total cost. Private schools do not typically offer free transportation to/from school or like public schools do, nor is a free/reduced fee lunch program offered. Additionally, parents are often expected to donate time, or in the case of at least one school, get charged $10 per hour when they don’t donate the requisite amount. Finally, please note the $5,465 cost is just tuition. What else is not included in this cost – books, athletics, extracurricular activities?
3. Despite claims to the contrary, competition is not the answer for everything. Whereas public school districts should be collaborating with each other to ensure the most effective use of taxpayer dollars, open enrollment and school choice encourages just the opposite. Marketing campaigns and intra-district bussing is now the norm to boost enrollment numbers. Additionally, where engaged, caring parents would once get involved as part of the solution in their community public schools, now they vote with their feet and take their talents to private options versus applying them to the common good.
4. There is little accountability or transparency in the use of the ESA funding. A recent Arizona Capitol Times article reported parents with ESAs have saved up roughly $2.5 million of taxpayer dollars over the past three years causing many to question the program’s accountability. After all, these unspent funds equal 21 percent of the almost $12 million handed out since 2012 and represent 68 parents holding onto amounts from $10,000 to over $61,000. A representative for the Arizona Department of Education (AZ DOE) said they have no authority over how much of the quarterly disbursements must be spent, only that the receipts for the expenses reflect allowed expenditures. The AZ DOE administrator of the program said the department is aware of the growing accounts, but has no authority over how much of the quarterly disbursements must be spent. Obviously though, money held onto is not money spent on a child’s education. As a vivid case in point, one “tight-fisted parent has hung onto $61,047 while spending only $825.” How can this be in the child’s best interest?
5. But wait, weren’t ESAs supposed to save the state money? ESAs were supposed to save the state money, but now they will cost Arizona more than educating children in the public school system. Despite the legislature’s unwillingness to change the law to allow it, John Huppenthal, the AZ Superintendent of Public Instruction has unilaterally moved to provide all ESA students funding at 90 percent of the charter school funding level, which is currently higher than the district school level. This translates to all students on ESAs getting the charter school amount, an additional $1,684 to $1,963 over what was given for students transferring from traditional schools. Additionally, according to the AZ Joint Legislative Budget Committee, the newly expanded availability to kindergarteners that might have attended private schools anyway at parental expense drives up the cost as well.
6. Superintendent of Public Instruction, not public schools! Superintendent Huppenthal recently shilled for The Alliance for School Choice recording a robo-call that went out to 48,000 qualifying families and referred families to a Goldwater Institute website for more information. His$250,000 marketing campaign evidently produced results with applications for the 2014-15 school year doubling from 2,479 from 1,100 the previous year. When questioned about his actions, he said “he is the Superintendent of Public Instruction, not public schools.
Given the facts surrounding the push to expand ESAs, one must ask why? I suspect politics is largely responsible. “Arthur Camins, a teacher and director, center for innovation in Engineering and Science Education, Stevens Institute of Technology” posits the corporate reformers believe (or want us to believe) that “Improving all schools is hopeless. Poverty will always be with us.” That’s why he says, they believe they need to offer privately governed schools to serve the “best among the unfortunate.” They know not all children will be successful, they just need a system for sorting through those who can be. “This is the cold hard truth. Only we (the best and smartest) have the guts to act on it.”
Camins goes on to write that, “in-school tracking and magnet schools have long served to mediate dealing the hard truth that poverty undermines children’s readiness and ability to engage in and sustain learning.” Now though, the new well-funded partnerships trying to provide a systemic alternative to public schools is more “explicitly elitist and anti-democratic” than ever before. “As long as the only seeming rational choice is self-preservation, people who can, will choose it.” What is new now is “the scale of the effort and resulting damage, the ever-widening disparity in income and differential life chance opportunities and the erosion of the very idea of social responsibility for the common good.”
Dr. Tim Ogle, Executive Director of the Arizona School Board Association writes that “allowing some selected children to “opt out” of public education to go to schools with unknown aims and objectives removes incentives to develop new creative solutions to education’s toughest challenges. Let’s call these accounts what they are: government subsidies for private enterprise using children as the currency.”
Voucher programs aren’t about offering parents a choice, they aren’t about ensuring special needs children have every opportunity, and they aren’t about improving the educational outcomes for our students. What they are about is making money…lots of it. Big money, lack of transparency and accountability, and legislators collaborating with big business…sound like a familiar recipe for disaster to anyone else?