Yesterday, the Arizona House Education Committee moved the state one step closer to fully privatized K-12 education with their passage of HB 2174 (empowerment scholarship accounts; grandchildren) on a 4-3 vote. This bill expands eligibility of Empowerment Scholarship Accounts (ESAs) or “vouchers” to grandchildren being raised by their grandparents. An amendment was adopted that removed the requirement that the grandchild meets the free and reduced price lunch eligibility requirements.
This removal of the requirement for the grandchild to meet the free and reduced price lunch eligibility requirements is significant. Let’s face it. The overall intention of this American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) promoted legislation is to provide for K-12 education via vouchers (taxpayer dollars intended for public education) given to parents to pay for private schools. The Arizona Legislature has been moving us down this road for several years.
In 2009, the Arizona Supreme Court found two similar school voucher programs violated the Arizona Constitution’s ban on aid for religious or private schools. The Goldwater Institute however, which had first proposed the idea in 2005, offered educational savings accounts as an alternative. In April 2011, Governor Brewer approved SB 15523 authorizing Arizona Empowerment Accounts (first state to do this) to give parents of eligible special-education students the opportunity to receive ESAs. Funds could be used for curriculum, testing, private school tuition, tutors, special needs services or therapies, or even seed money for college. According to the Arizona Department of Education, parents spent a total of $198,764 in scholarship funds in the first quarter of fiscal 2012. About 92 percent went to private schools.
The Arizona School Boards Association, the Arizona Education Association, and others filed a lawsuit, claiming the program unconstitutional. The Goldwater Institute, the Arizona Attorney General’s office, and the Institute for Justice defended the program. In January 2012, a Superior Court Judge ruled the savings accounts were constitutional. Her opinion was: “The exercise of parental choice among education options makes the program constitutional.” Education advocates continued to appeal this decision, but in October 2013, the Arizona Court of Appeals also ruled in favor of the accounts.”
In 2012, Gov. Jan Brewer signed HB 2622, expanding the program to include children from failing schools, children in active-duty military families, and children adopted from the state foster care system.2 These families began applying for accounts in 2013, and students began using the accounts in the 2013–14 school year. The legislature also expanded the program in 2013 to include incoming kindergarten students that meet the existing eligibility criteria, and increased the funding amount for each account award.3 More than 200,000 Arizona children are now eligible, or 1 in 5 public school students. New applicants must have attended a public school for at least 100 days in the prior school year.
The education profiteers won’t be happy until the public school districts are sucked dry of funding and private school and for-profit charter operators maximize profits on the backs of taxpayers. Shifting money from our public district schools to private schools and charters will not by and large pull disadvantaged children out of their situations and fix America’s education problems. Rather, it will continue to drive the highest level of segregation since the mid-1960s and ensure the advantaged continue to succeed and the disadvantaged fall further behind. Can’t help but wonder what the new Arizona College and Career Ready Standards and the accompanying AZ-Merits test will do to school performance grades and widening eligibility for these vouchers. Know this…I’ll be watching.