“To see outside of a dead vision is not an optical illusion.”
- Jeanette Winterson, from Art Objects: Essays on Ecstasy and Effrontery
Arizona Legislative leaders are making a strong push to adopt unlimited Empowerment Scholarship Accounts (ESAs), a means to get state tax money to fund private schools. Mathew Ladner of The Goldwater Institute made the case for unlimited ESAs in his 2012 study, “The way of the future: Education savings accounts for every American family.” The premise is that parents are seemingly pitted against the faceless bureaucrats of the public education system who have little regard for individual students. Conversely, Arizona State University’s Dr. David Garcia made an alternative case in The Teachers College Record in his December 7, 2012 article: Protecting the Choice to Stay: “Education Savings Accounts” and Legislative Priorities. What does this all mean?
ESAs have passed legal muster in the courts (See: Nieuhaus v Huppenthal, 2011a.) since the delegation of the voucher is to the parent, NOT a private institution. The legal case is over. But the Garcia rebuttal argues that public schools are a parental choice, too. And then he simply cites the Arizona constitution, “The legislature shall enact such laws as shall provide for the establishment and maintenance of a general and uniform public school system.” (Ariz. Const. Art. 11, Sec. 1). There is no constitutional mandate that taxpayers must also fund private schools.
Another way of looking at it is that if money were grown on Arizona’s palm trees, everyone could win if the legislature granted full use of ESAs while also securing a general and uniform public education system so that all choices are properly funded.
Let the games begin. 100% funding for general and uniform public education; 100% funding for private/sectarian/religious and other schools, 100% funding for public charter schools and 100% funding for home schoolers. Everyone wins. Sure, that would work. But say hello to massive new taxation. And I mean MASSIVE as in BILLIONS of dollars.
Yet that case is not being made. The case that IS being made is that ESAs will save taxpayers money. Now enter the Joint Legislative Budget Committee (JLBC) which makes its living giving unbiased reports on fiscal impacts of proposed legislation. JLBC findings on the current ESA expansion bills affirms that costs to the state will increase for taxpayers and definitively not result in savings as sponsors claim.
Adding insult to injury, this risk is fueled by a narrative that ignores taxpayer risk in a state that already leads the nation in education choices for parents. In fact, and just as one example, within a two-mile radius of the Phoenix Elementary School District boundary are 50 alternative schools! Does that suggest that parents are lacking choices? Oh, and less than 400 out of 7000 enrolled students opt for an out of district alternative school. Clearly, ESAs are NOT the solution to a lack of parent choices which already exist; in droves.
I’m left with one, simply unavoidable conclusion. Education funding IS the issue! Even a 2.5% additional usage in ESAs in the K-12 system will cost Arizona taxpayers $24.5 million in extra costs, according to the JLBC.
Let’s put it this way; the business and taxpayer case for ESA expansion is simply awful. The parental choice need for ESAs is non-existent since we are already the largest pro-choice state in the nation for educational opportunity. Adding insult to injury, an audit of how state taxpayer dollars are being used for existing ESAs suggests numerous and substantial fraud. And those calling for this expansion have no answer to the simple question, is our refusal to fund respectable teacher salaries so distant on our public policy agenda that nothing else matters?
To see outside of a dead vision is not an optical illusion; unless you find expanded ESAs a path to state budget savings and student achievement; neither of which fogs a cold mirror with the breath of truth.
NOTE: Dick Foreman is president & CEO of ABEC. To contact, please send him an e-mail.