Arizona established the nation’s first ESA program, the Empowerment Scholarship Accounts, in 2011, giving families with special-needs children access to the money allocated for their public school education to use on educational alternatives. In April 2017, Gov. Doug Ducey signed into law a bill to expand the ESA program to make every Arizona student eligible by 2021.
Save Our Schools, a group of anti-choice advocates, announced in August 2017 it had collected enough signatures to put the issue of expanding the ESA program on the November 2018 ballot. The signatures were in the process of being validated as of early September. ESA supporters filed a lawsuit challenging the petition’s wording and signature-collection methods.
“The expansion of the Empowerment Scholarship Account program was supposed to go into effect in August but was put on hold pending the outcome of the referendum effort,” AZCentral.com reported in September. “Barring a loss in court, it will remain on hold until November 2018.”
‘Same Worn-Out Arguments’
Michael Schaus, communications director for the Nevada Policy Research Institute, says the Save Our Schools people’s narratives are false and long-refuted.
“Of course, as is expected, when parents are given the freedom of choice, the public school monopolists begin to panic,” Schaus said. “We’re hearing the same worn-out arguments from Arizona’s ESA opponents that we’ve heard in other states. They cry that ‘public schools will be defunded,’ ‘only rich families will take advantage of the program,’ and that public school budgets—not increased options for all parents and students—should be the ‘priority.’ But these are straw man arguments. In reality, they are campaigning against the ability of parents to find the educational environment that best suits their child, trying instead to keep captive to the education establishment as many families as possible.”
Influence of Teachers Unions
Jonathan Butcher, a senior policy analyst with The Heritage Foundation, says government school employees are behind the effort to thwart the ESA program.
“The Arizona teachers union and school boards association have longstanding goals to block ESAs entirely and send students back to district schools,” Butcher said. “This year, Gov. Doug Ducey signed an expansion to the accounts that will, over the course of four years, give every Arizona public school child the option of applying for an account. This was a huge victory for families. But the union and other special interest groups are designed to organize opposition to parental options in education.”
Butcher says the facts don’t support the Save Our Schools members’ arguments.
“They claim private schools are too expensive and ESAs won’t cover the cost, when in fact research shows that the median private school tuition in Arizona is $5,000, which is approximately the amount of an ESA award for a mainstream student,” Butcher said. “Children with special needs receive larger awards. They say ESAs will drain money from public schools, when state fiscal analysts report that children with special needs save the state $1,400 [per child per year] when they use an ESA.
“Every child should have the chance to succeed, and ESAs allow families to challenge their student, if that’s what families see their child needs,” Butcher said. “For children [for whom] the district school isn’t a good fit, families can find something else immediately with an ESA, without having to wait for a school turnaround plan or a new principal.”
Bureaucracies vs. Children
Schaus says the focus of education should be children, not money or power.
“Anti-choice activists like to cry about budgets, funding, and politics, but they ignore the most important part of the entire discussion: the children,” Schaus said. “At the end of the day, children are not funding mechanisms for public school bureaucracies. They are individuals, and thus deserve individual approaches to education.
“As such, we should be focused on ensuring each and every Arizona child has the opportunity to pursue the education that best suits their needs,” Schaus said. “By expanding ESA eligibility, Arizona has taken a massive step toward achieving that very goal. It’s no wonder, then, that the former monopolists are fighting such reforms in every way they can.”
Tori Hart ([email protected]) writes from Wilmette, Illinois.