As a school board member and locally elected guardian of public education, I am concerned that those who would dismantle it are making headway. Senate Bill 1363 [empowerment scholarship accounts (ESAs)] currently working its way through the Arizona Legislature will siphon off even more funding from our public schools. It further expands the Arizona ESAs Program to kindergarteners and increases the amount available.[i] Both the Arizona Education Association (AEA) and Arizona School Board Association (ASBA) oppose the bill and are appealing a Maricopa District Judge ruling that taxpayer dollars may fund private schools. This, after the Arizona Supreme Court found in 2009 that two similar school voucher programs violated the Arizona Constitution’s ban on aid for religious or private schools.[ii]
The 2011 law gave parents of special needs children access to public education monies and was further expanded for this school year, essentially doubling eligibility to 200,000.[iii] Funds can be used for curriculum, testing, private school tuition, tutors, special needs services or therapies, or even seed money for college. The program however, requires parents to waive their child’s right to a public education…a right that is guaranteed under the state constitution, in order to receive the benefits.[iv]
Only 362 students in Arizona had ESAs last year, but 92 percent of ESA funds went to private schools, in many cases for children whose parents could afford the schools without the assistance. For students without special needs, the program provides from $3,000 to $3,500 a year. As this is not nearly sufficient to cover the cost of tuition to a private school (which can be as much as $10,000), the program is unlikely to benefit students from low-income families.[v] Last year, this voucher program took $5.2 million from public education funding. If SB1363 is passed, amount could potentially increase to over $20 million and public school funding tied to enrollment will likely be reduced.[vi]
Senator Melvin and Representatives Smith and Kwasman continue their campaign against public education by sponsoring this bill. Senator Melvin has voted against public education at every turn, and he and his fellow legislators have worked to ensure a lack of accountability and transparency in the law includes assurances that no government agency is empowered to “exercise control or supervision over any nonpublic school or home school.” I’m not sure how any reasonable person thinks this is in the best interest of the public, but then, maybe that’s not their intent.
The right answer, whenever public funding is involved, is more accountability and transparency, not less. It is why we have school boards elected by the public and it is why those school boards must abide by the Open Meeting Law. While empowerment accounts appear to place choice in the hands of parents, the choice is actually in the hands of private schools, which can pick and choose that they admit.[vii] Taxpayers have the right to know how their money is being used, and what results it produces. That is in the public’s best interest.
[vi] AEA Legislative News Email