Arizona’s school voucher program, known as the Empowerment Scholarship Account program, is a scam for the wealthy according to this new analysis.
The Arizona Republic reports, Arizona taxpayer-funded vouchers benefiting students in more-affluent areas:
As Arizona’s school-voucher program has expanded rapidly in the past year, students using taxpayer aid to transfer from public to private schools are abandoning higher-performing districts in more-affluent areas, according to an Arizona Republic analysis.
This year, more than 75 percent of the money pulled out of public schools for the Empowerment Scholarship Account program came from districts with an “A” or “B” rating, the analysis showed. By contrast, only 4 percent of the money came from school districts rated “D” or lower.
The findings undercut a key contention of the lawmakers and advocacy groups pressing to expand the state’s ESA program: that financially disadvantaged families from struggling schools reap the benefit of expanded school choice.
Critics, meanwhile, argue the program is largely being used by more-affluent families to subsidize their private-school tuition bills. The ESA program allows parents to take 90 percent of the money that would have gone to their school district and put it toward private school, home schooling and other educational programs.
The Empowerment Scholarship Account program funding grew to approximately $49 million this year, from about $30 million last year, according to February data from the Arizona Department of Education, which oversees the program. Republicans in the Legislature are advancing bills that would expand the program from the 3,360 students currently using it to all 1.1 million Arizona public school students after four years.
The expansion legislation would require third-graders through 12th-graders who are not disabled to take standardized tests and that the results of those tests would be reported to the students’ parents. Student achievement of ESA recipients is not tracked by the state.
The bills have won approval in committees in the House of Representatives and Senate. On Wednesday, Senate President Steve Yarbrough said he was hopeful the legislation would advance [especially since he would personally benefit financially from it]. Bill sponsor Sen Debbie Lesko, R-Peoria, said she “was very optimistic that this bill will be signed into law.”
However, some lawmakers, already wary of full expansion, said The Republic’s findings raise questions about whether the timing is right to offer it to all Arizona students since so few disadvantaged families currently use it.
“I have concerns, based on those numbers,” said Rep. T.J. Shope, R- Coolidge, of the findings that few students from poor-performing schools are using the program. “I would hope that those numbers would be a little higher.”
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The Republic’s analysis shows money disproportionately coming from wealthier and better-performing school districts.
According to the analysis:
- Students leaving “A”- and “B”-rated districts had an average award of about $15,300.
- For schools rated “D” or lower, the average award was only about $6,700.
The higher awards indicate students leaving better-rated schools have more disabilities, said Stefan Swiat, spokesman for the Arizona Department of Education. Any award over $7,800 indicates significant student disability.
A similar effect was found by looking at students leaving districts based on the percentage of students on free- or reduced-price lunch, a good proxy for income levels in the area:
- In districts where the percent of students on free lunch is below 60 percent, the average award is $16,500.
- In districts where the percent of students on free lunch is above 60 percent, the average award is $9,100.
The lower average award from poorer-performing and socioeconomically disadvantaged schools means that disabled students are not leaving those schools at the same rate as better-performing schools, the analysis found.
The Republic analysis found that as the number of students on free- and reduced-price lunch at a school increased, the average award for those districts decreased.
Lesko acknowledged the reason the award could be higher in wealthier and better-performing districts is because many of the students leaving those schools are disabled.
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Asked why disabled students wouldn’t also be leaving less-affluent and poorer-performing districts, Lesko said she didn’t have a comment.
According to the Arizona Department of Education, 58 percent of students in the ESA programs have special needs, 13 percent are from military families, 11 percent are from “D” and “F” schools, 7 percent are adopted or former foster children, 6 percent came from an Indian reservation and 4.5 percent were siblings of children in the ESA program.
Shope said he wants to know how the state markets the program in neighborhoods with “D” or “F” schools to ensure it’s as visible as at better-performing schools.
“This is fascinating,” he said of The Republic’s findings. “I want to make sure those same kind of efforts are being duplicated in areas that are under-served, be they low income, or be they disproportionately high numbers of immigrant populations.”
Republican Sen. Sonny Borrelli of Lake Havasu City said he is concerned too few low-income students are benefiting from a program that was billed by supporters as a way to help the state’s most disadvantaged students escape public schools that didn’t meet their needs.
“I’m all for it to help out the lower-income schools or areas, to get them that leg up,” Borrelli said. But, he added, the state shouldn’t pay for wealthy parents to send their children to private school.
“I’m wealthy, and I want to send my kid to a private school, that’s my choice,” he said.
Asked if he supports legislation to expand the ESA program to all public school kids, Borrelli said: “At this point, I’m not sold on it.”
Borrelli is one of a handful of Senate Republican to express doubts about the proposal, raising questions about whether it has the votes to pass the chamber, where the GOP has 17 members to Democrats’ 13.
The Republic first published in 2016 an analysis of districts most affected by the ESA exodus and their academic performance and demographic makeup.
The Republic has created a database of the ESA awards by district in 2017 so parents and administrators can see the numbers themselves.
Patrick Wolf, professor and 21st Century Chair in School Choice at the University of Arkansas, said Arizona’s model fits what school-choice advocates have pushed across the country: First, open the program to disabled students and then expand it.
“This is the story of private school-choice initiatives across the country. They typically start with a highly targeted program that is limited to very low income kids, kids with special needs, foster kids, some really specialized population for whom school choice is much more imperative.” Wolf said. “Then once they are established and operating, the advocates seek to expand it … to a broader population of students.”
Where lawmakers stand
It’s unclear whether the Legislature has the political will to enact a full expansion of the Empowerment Scholarship Account program.
Sen. Bob Worsley, a Mesa Republican who is viewed as a swing vote on the issue, refused to discuss his position.
“I am working to get a hard cap where it is today and accountability,” he wrote in a text message. “They will not get my vote for ESAs without those concessions.”
Lesko said she was open to including some accountability measures in the bill but wouldn’t say what they are.
Sen. Frank Pratt, R-Casa Grande, called the newspaper’s findings concerning. Pratt said he has “issues” with the expansion legislation but would not specify his concerns.
“I would be more supportive if there was a little bit of a change in the bill,” he said. “I’m just concerned that we’re moving too quickly.”
Rep. Randall Friese, D-Tucson, noted the original intent of the ESA program was to help disabled students, not to subsidize private-school expenses.
“There will be a point where it breaks the back of public schools,” he said.
Friese learned from The Republic how much is being diverted from school districts to private schools and other educational programs.
“It’s nice to see that the data is showing how these monies are being spent,” he said. “I’m afraid that it’s probably being used by well-to-do families to supplement their private school tuition.”
The Republic’s E.J. Montini writes, School voucher scam … exposed:
The legislators who want to expand Arizona’s school voucher program in order to take more money from poor families and give it to wealthy families have some explaining to do.
In fact, thanks to the exhaustive reporting of The Arizona Republic’s Rob O’Dell and Yvonne Wingett Sanchez, they already have some explaining to do.
The state’s voucher program, known as the Empowerment Scholarship Account program, is a scam.
It’s been sold to taxpayers as a way for the families of kids in poor or underperforming districts to get money from the state and use it for a quality private education.
Except, as the Republic’s reporters found in examining records 75 percent of the money taken public schools for the Empowerment Scholarship Account program came from districts with an “A” or “B” rating, while only 4 percent came from school districts rated “D” or lower.
What is the possible explanation for such a thing?
Debbi Burdick, superintendent of the Cave Creek School District, said, “We do have many families of affluence in this area who are knowledgeable about the scholarships and would use it to augment the cost of a private education.”
When limited to a specific group with specific needs the program worked. Expansion has opened it up to those who DON’T need it, but can take advantage, while only pretending to help the poor. For families of limited means a voucher for $5,000 won’t cover enough of the costs for them to attend most private schools. That’s not a problem for families who already have means.
There are bills in the Legislature that would expand the program, making it available after four years to all 1.1 million Arizona public school students.
Robin Hood in reverse, taking from the poor to give to the rich.
Contact your state legislators and tell them to oppose bills to expand Arizona’s Empowerment Scholarship Account program. It is a fraud.