Our state legislature has been busy introducing bills to redistribute taxpayer dollars designated for public education to private sources. At last count, there were seven bills (HB 2150, 2036, 2256, 2291 and SB 1236 and 1237) on voucher expansion including one “strike everything” bill (HB 2139) slipped in at the last second.
When vouchers (aka Empowerment Scholarship Accounts) were first introduced in 2011, only children with disabilities were eligible. That has now expanded to include children: who’s parent’s are in the armed forces, are a ward of the juvenile court, who attend a school or district assigned a D or F grade, are eligible to attend kindergarten, and who received a School Tuition Organization scholarship. This session, expansion efforts include those whose siblings receive ESAs, all first responder’s children and (HB 2291) children currently eligible for free or reduced lunch percent. HB 2291 also seeks to further raise the income threshold of those who qualify by 15 percent ever year going forward.
ESA 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.
Vouchers are not about school choice, that’s just the smokescreen. They are about the redistribution of our taxpayer dollars from transparent, accountable, locally-led community public schools to private and religious schools not accountable to anyone. It is a zero-sum game. Every student who receives a voucher, pulls an average of $5,400 directly out of the budget from the public school he or she left. The vast majority of private schools cost more than what vouchers will provide and only those with means will be able to take advantage of them. Yes, that’s right. Those who don’t need the help will get it and those who are desperate for the help will just get more desperate, stuck in public schools starved for resources.
It should be no surprise to public education supporters that any attempt by pro-public education legislators to attach accountability amendments for these vouchers has been met with fierce resistance from the pro-privatization club. In fact, one bill was held rather than risk having it pass with accountability measures attached to it.
Over 85 percent of Arizona students still attend public schools. They shouldn’t have to make a choice. The state should take care of their fundamental responsibility to properly fund and support these community public schools so that every school is a good school. But then, this ideal isn’t just a political sound bite, nor is it a simple matter of just moving money around. Ensuring our public schools have what they need would take a concerted effort and great political will. Reminds me of a quote by James Freeman Clark: “a politician thinks of the net election, a statesman [leader] of the next generation.”