AZ School Vouchers – Taking from the poor?  Or worse?

If so, it is trying to go on steroids!

Empowerment Scholarship Accounts (ESA’s) is a program created by the state in 2011 to subsidize tuition for disabled children who wished to attend a more-suitable private school.  A noble mission which I completely support!  Along the way, it has been extended to students of poor-performing public schools who wish to attend one of superior quality, as well as the children of some native Americans and military personnel.  That is still a noble intent.

Now, with the obvious instigation of some national influencers, the conservatives within the Arizona legislature and the Governor have enacted a new law to extend the program to any student that wishes to participate.  The program is now capped at 30,000 students but all indications are that they wish to extend it to all students.  These subsidies range from $4,400 to $5,500 per year depending on whether the child wishes to leave a public or charter school, respectively.  Also, for example, if the child is from a family with an income below 250% of the poverty level, the subsidy will be 100% of the above.  If the family income is above that level, the subsidy will be 90% of the above.

Those subsidies are money that will be subtracted from the funding of the public schools.  The worry is that this will deplete the funding for the public schools which are already starving.  The other worry is that the students utilizing the subsidies will not likely be trying to escape substandard schools.  Experience thus far (as reported by the Arizona Republic) suggests that the program is largely used by children of well-to-do families that would otherwise be attending high-quality public schools as they are in affluent districts.  Their reports indicate that “More than 75% of the ESA money came from districts with A or B ratings, which are frequently located in more-affluent areas.  Only 4 % came from districts with a rating of D or lower”.  Realistically, those children may already be attending private schools as those are families that can afford the tuition and this program would merely reduce their private-school costs.  On the other hand, the subsidies only cover perhaps half of the tuition bill at a private school.  So, children of lower and middle-class families are functionally locked out of the program as they can’t afford the remaining balance of the tuition.  Is this designed to actually be Robin Hood in reverse?

It would appear that the subsidy funds provided to the families are ripe for fraud and there is very little appetite for auditing or enforcement.  The funds are distributed in the form of debit cards so the opportunities are obvious.  Aside from sodas at the convenience store, the Arizona Republic reports that “ESA money may also have been used to pay for an abortion, a top state official has said”.

It appears that this ESA expansion is the brainchild of out-of-state (and some in-state) school choice groups while the Arizona Governor and portions of the Legislature are carrying their torch.  However, this has stirred adrenaline of left-leaning legislators and, more importantly, a group of citizens that are rallying an effort to stop the program.

“Save our Schools” is a group of citizens with no political history that has formed specifically to stop the ESA expansion.  Bless their hearts, they have gotten 111,000 petition signatures in an effort to put the issue on the ballot and let the voters decide on the fate of the matter.  How dare they challenge the establishment??

As one would anticipate, this has spurred the ire of people who control the state and it appears that they are preparing to fight back.  These people are beginning a public relations campaign to sway the voting public.  You can bet that they will also launch any legal challenge possible.  Reports are that the signature reviews (which are in progress) are being witnessed by more observers and in a way without precedent (not to imply that dirty tricks are being played in the counting rooms).  The Arizona Republic reports that the Legislature may even cancel the law which would make the citizen efforts evaporate and then later reinstate the law.  Now, that would be dirty, but don’t be surprised.

I have always advocated school choice.  It is a severe abuse to sentence a child to an abysmal future because society has not provided the “opportunity” for an education that allows a child to be all he/she can be.  What we provide most Arizona children with today, and label it education, is shameful.  If providing superior alternatives (like charter schools) to all children who aspire exceptionalism gets us there, then fantastic.  However, I suspect that the result of this ESA expansion will merely be a means for children of well-to-do families to get a price break on private schooling.  Meanwhile, less-fortunate children, who may have far more potential and inspiration, will be trapped in poor-quality public education and be doomed.  The poor public schools that they attend will become even poorer as they are drained by this ESA expansion.

I am all for drastically reforming public education and letting the market make bad education performers go away.  But, the use of ESA vouchers beyond benefiting disabled children is the wrong approach.

On a brighter note, thankfully this is still a country where these devoted and engaged citizens have a chance at beating the establishment.  God bless America!