A couple of nights ago, I was talking with a news editor who asked me about the effect of the voucher expansion on homeschoolers. He said when he homeschooled his child, he saw it as his responsibility to bear those costs. He wondered with the new expansion, if homeschoolers would now get taxpayer dollars to teach their child at home. I told him homeschoolers were always eligible for Empowerment Scholarship Accounts (ESAs), or vouchers (I prefer to call them what they really are), but their child needed to be in one of the eligible categories such as: having a disability, from a D or F rated school, living on tribal land, dependents of military, wards of the state, etc. With the latest expansion of eligibility though, all categories of children are eligible for the vouchers. He surmised it wouldn’t take long to reach that cap, given there are some 20,000 homeschooled children in Arizona.
It is difficult to find clear data about the number of homeschoolers but a general estimate is from three to four percent of the school-age population. Given that, we are looking at 30,000 to 40,0000 students in Arizona. Another source I found from 2011 quoted the number at 22,500, so in the interest of being conservative, let’s go with 25,000. To the news editor’s point, if all 25,000 estimated homeschoolers took vouchers, that would deplete Arizona’s general fund by $110 million in taxpayer dollars which are then not available for district education or other critical programs and services. And this new outlay would not be offset by any reduced costs on the part of the state since previously, parents were footing this bill. At three to four percent though, homeschoolers are just a fraction of those who could take the vouchers and run.
Fortunately, there are currently a couple of speed bumps to slow the depletion. The first one is the cap of 5,500 ESAs that may be awarded each per year. Of course, before the Governor even signed the latest expansion bill, Goldwater Institute leadership had already notified their major donors they would get the cap lifted.
The second speed bump is the by-grade phase-in of eligibility. For 2017–2018, the only additional children eligible are those who attend or are eligible to attend public schools in kindergarten (at least four but under seven years of age) or grades one, six, and nine. The following year, the law adds grades two, seven and ten to the mix. The year after than, grades three, eight, and eleven are added. Then in the 2020–2021 school year, all children who currently attend or are eligible to attend a public school in K–12 are eligible to receive a voucher.
If the Goldwater Institute is successful in removing the cap next legislative session though, (or maybe still this session in a “strike everything” bill), the floodgates will be wide open for the grades specified to be added each year. There is after all, a tremendous amount of support for that end as evidenced by Betsy DeVos’ tweet to Governor Ducey congratulating him on the eve of his signing the bill. She wrote, “A big win for students & parents in Arizona tonight with the passage of ed savings accts. I applaud Gov. @DougDucey for putting kids first.” Keep in mind that this is the same Betsy DeVos, that as the head of the American Federation for Children, oversaw an investment of over $750,000 since 2011 into Arizona legislative races for pro-school choice and voucher candidates.
We in Arizona though, know that our Governor hasn’t really put over 80 percent of our kids first. Instead, the self-acclaimed “education governor” has time and again shortchanged our kids. Like with his 2018 spending plan that would provide a 2% pay raise over five years for teachers giving them only about $182 (0.4%) more in the first year. Like with his no-details “plan” to streamline teacher certification requirements to help with the critical teacher shortage, as if less qualified teachers will help our students. Like with his plan to provide $10 million for full-day kindergarten funding at public schools where more than 90% of students are eligible for free or reduced lunch. Unfortunately, for district schools, the entire district must meet the 90% threshold, but for charters, only a single school. In Southern Arizona, only two districts – Nogales Unified and Santa Cruz Valley Unified – qualify. Even Sunnyside Unified School District, at 86 percent of its students on free/reduced lunch, doesn’t qualify. And, like when he negotiated a deal to pay the schools 70% of what they were owed with money that was already theirs and promised that would just be the beginning. As David Safier points out in the Tucson Weekly, the $325 million per year Prop. 123 is bringing in (again, money the schools were already owed, not a plus up), could easily be wiped out by “his latest attack on public education which could drain $150-$300 million” via vouchers.
The most important moral of this story is that elections do have consequences and one of those consequences is now the systemic dismantling of our system of public (district) education. You know, the system that takes all comers, the only system with locally elected governing boards who must operate in a transparent manner and are totally accountable to parents and taxpayers, and, the system which after adjusting for student poverty levels, produces better results.
The only real solution to save our district schools and the one million plus students they provide for, is to elect different lawmakers. To do that, each of us must take personal responsibility to do our part and then some. No longer can any of us leave the work to someone else. Not if we want better for our kids, our communities, and our country. As the Jewish religious leader Hillel originally said sometime around 50 BCE, “If not now, when? If not me, who?”