A recently released Goldwater Institute Policy Report – A Vision for Education and the Future of Learning – concluded that “Arizona’s Empowerment Scholarship Accounts are more effective than state-managed student databases at facilitating school, course, and extracurricular choices and school funding.” Known as ESAs, this is the program that Arizona’s Superintendent of Instruction, John Huppenthal advertised to 25,000 parents using robocalls a few weeks ago, defending his action with a statement saying that these grants save the state money (the state retains 10% of what it normally contributes for each child to the School District and deposits the other 90% to savings account for the parents to spend for qualifying costs).
A 2013 article in the Capitol Times, noting that Arizona generally ranks near the bottom (compared with all other states) in per-pupil spending, stated that “according to a recent Census Bureau report … per-pupil spending in 2011 ranked ahead of only Oklahoma, Idaho and Utah (and) that state funds made up a smaller portion of (total) Arizona school revenue than in most other states. Schools in Arizona got 36.6 percent of their funds from the state, compared to an average of 44.4 percent in other states.”
According to the Goldwater Institute report: “the base education savings account award (in Arizona) has been approximately $3,200, while total per student spending has been around $9,233”. So, the average District loses around $5778 per ESA student (the award amount plus 10% retained by the state, plus the federal share) without being able to counterbalance the loss with cuts in salaries and fixed costs. So, yes Huppenthal was correct in saying ESA’s save the state money — about $320 per student while costing the local education agencies about $5775 for each student receiving a grant.
Thus, as a state expands ESA-type programs, its districts will become less and less able to keep their schools open; more schools will close and more students — whose parents can’t handle the responsibilities of the ESA program – will end up being sent to charters schools where the per pupil costs already exceed the total per student spending.
Now, barely 10 days after publishing this report, the Goldwater Institute has shown up with an amendment to HB 2291 to extend coverage of the ESA program to all students in “Title 1” schools, or approximately three quarters of all students, a move to which all Arizona Teachers of the Year have come out against.  Capwiz, the source of this information, reports these educators as saying: “(this) amendment lays bare the intentions of proponents of school vouchers. This is a naked, unashamed and unmasked attack on public education. All pretense has been removed. As public school educators we stand together in shock, but no longer in silence.”
All these distinguished educators are further quoted as saying:
Public school educators are not categorically opposed to school choice. We are opposed to school choice masquerading as a euphemism for school preference, enabling a few to benefit while leaving others behind. We urge the legislature and the Governor to resist the Goldwater Institute’s plan to decimate public schools. This proposal won’t improve education; this proposal would only heighten the increasing division between the haves and the have-nots of Arizona rather than allocating the necessary resources to ensure the success of all children in our state.
So, where will the additional funds come from as the ESA program expands and will that additional expense be worth it to taxpayers (that is, what benefits will accrue to the citizens of Arizona)? This proposed expansion seems a bit outrageous, but let’s look at what the Goldwater Report projects as the benefits of expanding the ESA program.
The report posits that “the future of learning must be based on four pillars:
- Every student should be eligible to choose the best school or set of classes from different schools and learning centers;
- Students should have access to self-paced instructional tools;
- Education funding should be student- and parent-directed and based on student outcomes;
- Students should be able to combine the credits earned in classes … to complete their course of study.”
Further, the author states that: “going to school need not be associated with anyone of them” (that is, the students can use their ESA grants to go anywhere they want for their education).
All very noble goals but the ‘sticker’ is the one regarding “education funding;” what are the hidden costs of expanding the program? Who is going to pay for growth of “learning centers?” The same hedge-fund backed companies that have invested in our Charter Schools, of course, and what about other costs such as:
- Training for local teachers to support student “access to self-paced instructional tools”;
- Changes needed in the state’s information system to enable tracking students’ credits for presentation to post-secondary schools to which students might apply for admission and/or scholarships;
- Systems for accrediting these learning centers to ensure that students get value for their investments; and
- Appropriate systems for preventing fraud and abuse (like experienced with the federal student loan programs when students are accepted into programs they have virtually no chance in completing).
Traditionally, districts paid the major share of school costs. Only in recent years has the state expanded its role and its share of education costs. This proposed ESA expansion would pull the rug out from under local control of schools. Without support for growing local independent learning centers (run by qualified local teachers), this diversion of public funds from brick-and-mortar schools would amount to a disastrous conversion of our public education system to a private system controlled by a handful of conglomerates such as what happened to our newspaper and TV broadcasting systems. The results would be similar to those that could be expected from giving each citizen coupons to use in local casinos: the same number of broke and uneducated citizens but now burdened with gambling addictions. It is outrageous that the state can make such changes without offering any study to the public that projects the costs and benefits of such profound changes.
The article admits that “school choice will not level the playing field for all students.” It ignores the fact that the same obstacles that prevent children from poor and racially oppressed families from succeeding in public schools would likely hinder these families from accessing appropriate “learning centers;” such families would also be less likely to be able to assist their children in selecting learning objectives and selecting the courses that would help them attain those objectives.
How could it be, we ask, that at a time when it is common for any substantial changes in industry or in federal programs to be accompanied by official cost-benefit (or at least cost-effectiveness) studies, that this state can get away with plans to privatize a major part of its public education system without any projections as to what this will cost its taxpayers and parents?
Poverty remains the number one obstacle to improving overall education outcomes no matter how one slices the learning system. Creating a system like this piecemeal without a well thought-out plan that allows for growth of local learning centers, integration of existing personnel (teachers) into running the new systems, evaluation and accrediting of courses, and prevention of fraud and abuse would just be another step towards total breakdown of the state’s education system.
Hopefully our Legislature will realize that passing HB2291 with this amendment would virtually destroy the state’s K-12 public education system.
 AZ Teachers of the Year Stand Together Against HB 2291. http://www.capwiz.com/nea/az/issues/alert/?alertid=63122586