Spoiler Alert: I am really glad I didn’t drive to Phoenix today for the House Ways and Means Committee meeting during which they considered HB 2842, Empowerment Scholarship Accounts (ESAs); Expansion; Phase-In. I’m glad I stayed home because I’m sure my presence would have made no difference. Instead, I watched live streaming of the meeting and gleaned from the testimony that ESAs are lacking in accountability and transparency and serve the few at the expense of the majority.
The first “against” speaker I viewed was Ms. Stacey Morley from the Arizona Education Association. She talked about how when the full cap is reached, 5,500 students could have accepted ESAs at a cost of $13M to the state. Tory Anderson, from the Secular Coalition of Arizona expressed her organization’s opposition to any use of taxpayer dollars to fund religious schools. An AZ Department of Education representative said DOE is neutral on the bill, but wants to ensure they get their full 5% portion of the ESA funds for ensuring accountability. These funds are prescribed by law, but haven’t always been fully included in the budget. He talked about the importance of adequate oversight and referred to the 700 to 1 ratio currently in place for program liaisons that work with families to provide that oversight. As high as that number is, he wanted to ensure further budget cuts don’t make the challenge even tougher.
Mike Barnes, from the Arizona Superintendent’s Association talked about how ESAs make it very difficult for districts to determine their potential enrollment and therefore the impact on their budget. He said he doesn’t see how under this structure, the state doesn’t end paying for students that were going to attend private school anyway. He mentioned that the funds given in an ESA equal about $5,200 which is $600 more than is given to a district, but $600 less than what a charter costs. Representative Bruce Wheeler asked him if we knew how many of those students who take ESA have parents that make in excess of $100K. He said he did not.
The next speaker was Julie Horwin, a grandparent of two children who attend private schools. I assumed she was going to advocate for ESAs but that was not the case. She opened by saying that ESAs mean we are paying with two separate school systems with public funds. She then relayed a story of a private school principal who is paid $40K per year and found out that his board members each get paid $150K per year with public monies. She finished by saying that this bill will not help the greater majority of our students.
Janice Palmer from the Arizona School Boards Association (ASBA) said school choice is robust and noted that ASBA was the first school boards association to participate in National School Choice Week. She said the bill is disconcerting because in a competitive environment, it is important to be fair. Parents she said, definitely need to have the largest voice in their children’s education but when public dollars are involved, taxpayers also need to be part of the equation. Finally, she noted that this is not a zero sum game. If we choose to press ahead with the expansion of ESAs, but refuse to increase taxes, other programs will suffer to cover the additional expenses to the state budget.
The “for” speakers were three parents or grandparents of special needs children and Michael Hunter from the Goldwater Institute. Those who spoke regarding the value of ESAs for their special needs students were eloquent and convincing. There could be no doubt that the ESA program has provided them options they might not have otherwise had. But, the option for special needs students already exists in the law the expansion of HB 2842 is well beyond just them, but ultimately for all students in Arizona. Michael Hunter of the Goldwater Institute pointed out that changes like this are always met with resistance. First, there was open enrollment and then charter schools, both which were touted by opponents as being detrimental to district schools. He said that instead of looking at the impact on district schools, we should look at each family’s situation. Representative Reginald Bolding went back and forth with him a couple of times trying to pin him down (with little avail) about the difference in accountability and transparency, especially with regard to academic standards, but in the end Bolding was left to make his points on his own.
When the committee members voted, only Representative Bruce Wheeler and Reginald Bolding explained their votes. Wheeler called it subsidization of the rich and voted no and Bolling said he just wanted to ensure we have good schools for all our students and he was worried that individuals who might benefit from the program wouldn’t know about it. In the end, the vote was not surprisingly, along party lines and the measure passed (5-3-1.) The vote was predictable, but still depressing. I am convinced it will do nothing to improve education in Arizona and will do very little to help those who most need it. The Senate Education Committee meets this Thursday, February 4th at 9:00 am in Senate Hearing Room 1 and will be considering SB 1279, also about ESA expansion. If you are registered in the Request to Speak system, please make a request to speak on this bill and if not, please email or call your legislators to let them know you do not support it. Anyway you look at it, ESAs are vouchers and, they are siphoning valuable taxpayer dollars to private (to include religious) schools. Register your concerns and let your voice be heard. In this case, the needs of the many, must take precedence over the needs of the few.