The program would allow parents to take the tax money destined for public schools and direct it to private schools
Every Arizona public-school student could get state money to attend private schools by 2020 under a vast expansion of a school-voucher program lawmakers are attempting to fast-track.
The legislation would phase in expansion of the Empowerment Scholarship Account program, which currently serves about 2,200 schoolchildren, to allow within a few years all of the state’s 1.1 million public schoolchildren to qualify.
House Appropriations Chairman Justin Olson, R-Mesa, and other supporters say the expansion would allow more parents to tailor school choices to their children’s needs. But critics argue the program is already siphoning desperately needed funds from public schools and could decimate them if it’s expanded. The program would allow parents to take the tax money that would otherwise go to their area public schools and direct it to private schools, homeschooling, therapies or college savings.
The legislation is being pushed in companion bills, House Bill 2482 and Senate Bill 1279, to expedite passage.
The program began five years ago to provide broader educational opportunities for children with disabilities. It has since expanded to include children whose parents are in the military, those who live on Native American reservations, siblings of program participants and those who attend low-performing schools.
The phase-in would begin next year, when any child in kindergarten through fifth grade attending public schools would qualify for the ESA program. In 2018, eligibility would expand through eighth grade, and the following year, any child through 12th grade would be eligible. Any student entering kindergarten after 2016 would be eligible for an ESA.
The program caps enrollment at about 5,500 new students each year; however, those caps expire Dec. 31, 2019, just as the program would expand to cover all public-school students in the state.
The Senate Education Committee passed the bill on a 5-2 vote Thursday after an amendment by Sen. David Bradley, D-Tucson, that would have required ESA students to take statewide assessment tests was voted down.
“My attempt was to bring some accountability to this,” said Bradley, who voted against the bill. “It doesn’t take a lot of genius to see if this were to continue to proliferate, there’s going to be folks left behind.”
The House Ways and Means Committee approved the bill earlier this week in a 5-3 vote. The bill now moves to the floor of both chambers.
Prop. 123 on May 17 ballot
The latest push to expand the ESA program comes as Gov. Doug Ducey, Republicans and school-advocacy groups are campaigning for Proposition 123, which would provide a $3.5 billion infusion into the public-education system by accelerating distributions from the state’s land-trust fund. The initiative will be voted on in a May 17 special election.
Ducey is an ardent supporter of school choice and typically does not comment on legislation before it reaches his desk. If the proposal makes it to his office, it could complicate his efforts to successfully pitch Prop. 123 while straining relationships with school-choice advocates who are some of his biggest supporters.
Charter schools are considered public schools under the law, so the ESA accounts couldn’t be used to attend charters. Students could jump from a charter school to attend a private school with an ESA, however.
Ramona Carrasco, a mother of three, one with Down syndrome, said the ESA program has been a lifeline for parents like her. It helped her find the best learning environment for her daughter Byanca, who has grown more independent.
“Immediately, I knew it was what I was looking for — a better education for my Byanca, better therapies,” through programs using water, music and horses, said Carrasco, who now spreads the word about the program through the American Federation for Children. “Thanks to the ESA scholarship, I now have the power and opportunity to choose my (daughter’s) right education. I believe that all parents have the right to choose what’s right for their kids.”
Julie Horwin, who is the grandmother of two private-school students, told lawmakers expansion would create a separate publicly funded school system at the expense of the one that already exists.
“This program means that we are paying for two separate school systems with public funds,” Horwin told a House committee. “It bothers me that we are using public funds to pay for private schools.”
Since the ESA program began in 2011, the state has paid about $36 million in taxpayer-generated funds, said Department of Education officials, who oversee the program. And as the ESA program has grown, so, too has divisiveness over how far to expand it.
About 77,000 Arizona school kids attended K-12 private schools in 2014, according to American Community Survey data from the U.S. census.
‘It’s an attack on all fronts on schools’
Sen. Steve Farley, D-Tucson, said the goal of the bill is to dismantle public education in Arizona, which he said was always the endgame in creating ESAs. He cited small-government activist Grover Norquist’s famous saying that government should shrink to the size at which it can be drowned in the bathtub.
“This is the bill that drowns our public-education system in the bathtub,” Farley said. “It’s an attack on all fronts on schools.”
Families who participate in the ESA program are given debit cards to spend the money on education-related purchases such as private-school tuition, educational therapies, homeschooling curriculum, online classes, community-college tuition and other items. Families can also set aside up to $2,000 of those funds for college each year.
Aiden Fleming, deputy director of policy development and government relations for the Department of Education, and other department officials have expressed concern over inadequate funding to oversee the program. Fleming said education officials are working with lawmakers, adding: “We will do what the Legislature says, but we will raise the alarm if we don’t have the resources to carry out the provisions of the law.”
The department’s concerns were bolstered last year after authorities, and later, a grand jury, accused a woman of misspending her son’s ESA money on electronics at Walmart.com, including a high-definition television, a smartphone and two computer tablets. The Chandler woman also spent $410 of her sons’ ESA funds at a family-planning center. A top education official said based on department research, the funds, “in the guise of using it for health care for education of the child, paid for an abortion.”
Bill sponsor Debbie Lesko, R-Peoria, said the instances of fraud are small, noting that fraud occurs by employees of public schools as well. She said those who oppose school choice have been using the same talking points for 20 years — that public education would be ruined — to fight against charter schools, open enrollment and now ESAs.
Under the program, students get as little as an estimated $3,000 per year, but that amount can increase to as much as $31,000 for students with significant special needs. The average this year is $12,000, education officials said.
Forcing school districts to compete
At a hearing Tuesday, Olson and other supporters of expansion said the legislation is an “appropriate approach” because of how difficult it is to understand rules governing who qualifies.
Supporters said the program forces public-school districts to compete to keep their students. Others made the case for broadening ESAs to help low-income families.
But opponents said the proposal could lead to the state picking up the tuition tab for kids who may already intend on going to private schools and deprive the public-school system of funds.
The Arizona School Administrators Association, represented by lobbyist Mark Barnes, opposes ESA programs without eligibility requirements in part because it would make it too difficult for schools to plan and to predict student enrollment and budgets.
And, he said, “I don’t see under this sort of structure, how the state does not end up paying for a portion of the tuition for students that were going to attend private school anyway.”
Barnes and others suggested families could enroll their children in kindergarten for a year, and gain eligibility for a voucher. “That, just from a fiscal perspective, concerns us.”
One exchange between Barnes and Rep. Bruce Wheeler, D-Tucson, who opposes the legislation, put a fine point on the argument.
“So, if I earn $1 million a year, I could take advantage of the ESA program,” Wheeler asked Barnes.
He responded, “I think with the way this is written, just like you could participate in Medicare as a millionaire, you could participate in this.”