by David Safier
There's a new voucher bill in town, SB1553. It's sitting on Brewer's desk waiting to be signed. Howie Fischer gets it half right in his description of the bill in today's Star. What he writes is correct but incomplete. Michelle Reese in the East Valley Trib digs deeper into the intricacies of the bill, partially describing a feature making the conservative educational rounds, known as "unbundling education."
First, SB1553 is a work-around to reinstate vouchers in spite of a state Supreme Court decision which decided an earlier voucher law was unconstitutional because the state was providing funds for religious education. (The earlier vouchers and these are limited to students with learning disabilities, though conservatives hope to expand them to all students. If I remember correctly, the earlier law included foster children as well, who don't seem to be mentioned this time.) This time, the law sets up "educational savings accounts" the parents spend themselves. Get it? The state isn't spending the money, the parent are, so there's no violation of the religion clause in the state Constitutition.
As the Immortal Bard [kinda] put it, A voucher by any other name still smells.
But SB1553 goes far beyond creating the same old voucher in a new bottle. It's part of a brand new conservative deschooling effort. The current term of art is "unbundling education." In SB 1553, it's referred to as "education empowerment accounts."
The bill allows parents to spend money on anything the state deems educational. That isn't limited to private school tuition. It can be spent for "educational therapies," tutoring, curriculum, online learning programs, AP tests, SAT and ACT tests, and — this is a biggee — costs of college tuition and textbooks.
Here is how I understand the bill — and realize, this is my first pass at a complex piece of legislation. Parents can spend the money in this "empowerment account" for any educational purpose the state deems proper. Anything not spent is rolled over, even to pay for future college tuition and textbooks. So, for instance, starting with elementary school, parents can home school their children and use their "empowerment accounts" to buy whatever curriculum, tutoring, etc., they feel they need. Once the children's K-12 education is completed, whatever is left in the account can be used to pay for college tuition and texts. If they don't like the idea of home schooling, they can send their kids to on-the-cheap private schools or a hodgepodge of educational companies and save the remainder for college. The law doesn't just allow this kind of home schooling or cafeteria-style education. It encourages it by offering the incentive of savings for college.
Some people reading this may be drooling over the idea of creating a college savings account for their children from state education funding. But this bill, and the possibility of it expanding beyond students with learning disabilities to all students, is part of the dangerous conservative notion of increasing educational opportunity for the privileged while reducing the funding and quality of public schools until they are dumping grounds for the leftovers — the low income, low educated population conservatives don't want to "waste" money on — a permanent, third-world style underclass.
The unbundling, "empowerment accounts" idea is so new and complicated, it's more than I can possibly cover in one post. Consider this a first taste in what promises to be a long discussion. But two items need to be mentioned before I finish.
First, the bill includes the idea of "private financial management firms to manage Arizona Empowerment Scholarship Accounts." Steve Yarbrough must be drooling over the idea of expanding his School Tuition Organization (STO) into this new layer of bureaucracy to make another pile of money by "managing" the new accounts.
Second, this bill encourages the creation of a fly-by-night tutoring industry taking government funds to "educate" students on the cheap. I foresee McDonalds-style tutoring corporations setting up crummy little satellite offices scattered around the state with slick brochures using terms like "college prep" and "Harvard quality" and offering little in the way of actual education or enrichment.
This piece of legislation flew in way, way under the radar. I'm hoping Brewer will veto it so people have more time to look at it before it's presented again. If she signs it, it's probably destined for a court challenge.