Parents want answers on how ESA money is spent

Parents whose children go to public schools and those whose kids attend private schools through Arizona’s universal school voucher program want more transparency about how the program uses tax money to pay student tuition at private schools. 

The Empowerment Scholarship Account program has existed since 2011, originally created to help special education students, those attending public schools with failing grades, or those in military or foster families. But the legislature expanded the program last year to make ESA vouchers available to all K-12 students in Arizona. 

The expansion of the program caused outrage among public education advocates, especially after its estimated cost of $65 million ballooned to an approximate $900 million over the next year, due to a spike in enrollment in the program. 

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The Arizona Legislature on Wednesday hosted the first meeting of its study committee on ESA governance and oversight, and during the public comment portion of the meeting there was clear agreement from most of those who spoke whether they oppose vouchers or support them: They want more information on who is using ESAs and how they’re spending the money. 

“I demand that you be accountable for where my tax money is going,” ESA critic Patricia Marsh told the committee, adding that she believes the program should hold private schools accountable for student success or failure and that there should be income caps. 

Alan Maguire, an independent economist who has worked with the Arizona government for around 40 years, spoke to the committee about the program’s administration and its possible future. But for many who listened, the most notable thing about his presentation was the information that he couldn’t find or that isn’t available. 

While the state can make some general predictions about future enrollment in the program, based on things like birth rates, migration into Arizona and trends of more students moving away from public schools to attend private and charter schools, further information necessary to make more precise predictions is lacking. 

Maguire said he couldn’t find numbers for how many students are currently enrolled in private K-12 schools in the state, since private schools aren’t required to report those numbers. He also didn’t have access to information about the incomes of those using ESAs, to determine if they’re primarily benefiting students from wealthy families who attended private schools prior to the expansion. 

In the first two weeks that the program was taking applications last year, roughly three of every four students who sought school voucher funding had never set foot in an Arizona public school.

In addition, Maguire said that it would be difficult to determine how many students used ESAs to leave the public school system but then later returned to it. 

Enrollment in the program is limited by the number of private school seats available in the state, Maguire said, adding that many of those schools already have waiting lists. But it’s possible that an uptick in enrollment, driven by ESA expansion, could increase demand to the point that private schools begin to expand to accommodate new students. 

It’s typical that, when a new program expands, there’s a big spike in participation and then enrollment slows and stabilizes, he said. Macguire expects that to happen for the ESA program within the next six months to three years. 

But the good news, according to Macguire, is that the state has real-time data showing how many students are currently enrolled in the program. He expects that enrollment in the program will slow down now that the school year has begun, and that new enrollment will slow even more at the start of the new calendar year, simply because it’s more difficult for both children and parents to change schools in the middle of the school year. 

There are currently 66,765 students receiving ESA vouchers, according to the Department of Education, and around 50,000 of those are universal enrollees, according to Committee Chairman Ben Toma. The department predicted that around 52,500 would enroll through the universal program this year. 

Jeff Blake, superintendent of Phoenix Christian Preparatory School, told the committee that enrollment at his school had increased by 19% this year, and that now about 25% of students at the school use vouchers, including those it was already serving through the previous version of the program for special education students. He said that about 55% of students at the school qualify for free and reduced lunch. 

The school is now working with a philanthropic firm to raise money to redesign its campus to better serve a bigger population. 

Raquel Mamani, a special education teacher in a public middle school, mother of teen twins and a member of Save Our Schools Arizona, said that she learned about school choice a long time ago when a private school accepted her daughter as a student but would not accept her son because he had learning disabilities. 

Because of this experience, when it comes to school choice in her view, it means the school gets to choose, not the parent. She added that she knows parents of special education students in the ESA program who can’t find schools that will take their children. Mamani believes that, if private schools accept public funding through the voucher program, they should have the same student testing and teacher certification requirements as public schools.

Private schools in Arizona have no requirements for student testing and their teachers do not have to be certified. 

She described the ESA program as “off the rails” and said it “needs to be fixed.”

Kathy Bolt, a parent of a student who has used the voucher program since 2017, said that she would like to see teachers who work at schools who serve voucher students to be required to undergo background checks and fingerprinting, just like public school teachers. 

“I want my student to be safe and I want the program to be accountable,” she said. 

Marcia Stewart, a mother of three boys who were enrolled in the public education system, said that two of her sons were rejected by three private schools because their grades weren’t good enough. 

“I would like to see you guys work on accountability,” she said, adding that she doesn’t understand why millionaires could potentially receive public money to fund their child’s private school education. 

Larry Thomas, who described himself as a “single issue guy,” said he doesn’t want to see his tax dollars funding religious institutions. 

“For me, this is a big no-no,” he told the committee. “They shouldn’t be using my tax dollars to support their religious indoctrination.”

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