Two headlines in the AZ Star caught my attention this morning: “Plan adds state cash for private education” and “Veto-proof majority backs repeal of JTED cuts.” The first one is about Representative Justin Olson’s bill to remove any limits on Empowerment Scholarship Accounts (ESAs.) The second is about the Legislature’s plan to reinstate the $30 million in JTED cuts they made last year. Evidently the Legislature is now saying “my bad” about the 7.5% cut (about $400 per student) to charters and districts with students enrolled in JTED. According to Diane McCarthy at West-MEC, legislators weren’t really aware of what they were doing. “After the fact, some legislators said they didn’t understand what the impact of that (cut) was,” McCarthy said. “There’s a lot of talk about how do we fix it.”
I’m really glad the Legislature has come to its senses and intends to restore the funding, since 96% of Arizona students enrolled in CTE graduate from high school, 21% above those who don’t. Most CTE graduates also go on to post-secondary education and jobs and they score higher on standardized tests. CTE really is a win-win-win as the recent letter to the AZ Legislature signed by 32 business and education entities made clear. What really caught my eye about the JTED article was a quote from Senator Don Shooter who introduced the legislation to repeal the cuts. In response to Senate President Andy Bigg’s accusation that the program has insufficient oversight, Shooter said one key is “transparency.” Thanks for the segue Don.
Don Shooter is correct that transparency leads to more accountability, but evidently he and his fellow GOP legislators don’t understand that concept when it comes to ESAs (basically vouchers by another name.) As of mid-April 2014, approximately $17 million had been handed out through ESAs. That is a lot of money to be handed out without any way to ascertain return on investment. Unlike district school students, ESA recipients are exempted from all state assessments so there is no way to know whether the money was well spent. Although there is a quarterly spending report required from ESA recipients, parents must only provide proof of spending 25% of the funding they receive each year. The money they don’t spend can be saved from year to year and can even be used for college. If the money isn’t spent, does it mean the parent was efficient with their child’s education or does it mean they skimped? Also, the vast majority of ESA funding goes to private schools (92% in 2012) and at least in Arizona, 70% of private schools are religious. I know this has been deemed constitutional because the money is given to parents who then give it to the schools, but sorry if it looks like a rose and smells like a rose…
The ESA program has been expanded little by little, (students: with disabilities, wards of the court or those that were, students of active duty military members or those killed while serving on active duty, those who had attended a D or F school the prior year, siblings of students currently in the program, and students who reside within the boundaries of an Indian reservation) but it has always been the intention of the GOP-led Legislature to open up the program to all. So far, pro-public legislators and those who believe in good stewardship of government dollars have been able to keep the wolves at bay. Make no mistake however; this legislation is much more about privatizing public education than it is about opportunities for disadvantaged children. Proponents say we need to transition from financing schools to funding students. Problem is, when students accept an ESA and leave the district school, they take all the funding with them, but none of the costs of running the school. A certain amount of overhead costs are fairly independent of student count and schools are incapable of rapidly adjusting their operating expenses with each student lost.
School choice is alive and well in Arizona and still a full 85% of Arizona’s students choose district schools. The Legislature can pretend they care about these kids, but the truth is that they have a stranglehold on the necks of our district schools and as they continue to restrict the flow of resources to these schools, our kids are the losers. The more they encourage parents to look for greener grass outside our district schools, the more likely it is that resources will be pulled away from these schools making it harder for them to continue to educate the majority of students who remain.
If the Legislature really cares about Arizona students, why not just support our district schools why not just support what we know works: great teachers, small class sizes, infrastructure that supports learning and curriculum that is rich and challenging. We also know that schools can’t do it on their own. Many of our children face obstacles outside of school that affect their ability to learn inside school.
I am incredibly tired of our children being used as a political football. It is time for all good people to say enough is enough. We must stand up and speak for those who have no voice and no power to save themselves. It will be hard to make Arizona public education the envy of the Nation. But, it is possible and that possibility gives me hope.