Private school students flock to expanded school voucher scheme

In the first two weeks after applications opened for the expanded Empowerment Scholarship Account program, about three out of four students who applied for school check funding had never set foot in a Arizona public school.

This represents a major departure from the way AES, as they are commonly called, were designed. The selling point was that they allowed public school students who were struggling or had special educational needs that were not being met in a district school to pay for education that met their needs, even in a private school.

But with some 75% of new applicants to the voucher program having never attended a public school before, the predictions of Democrats and public school advocates who have criticized the proposal appear to be coming true: the state will subsidize tuition for students already attending private schools expensive.

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And it comes at the expense of Arizona public schools. According to Save Our Schools Arizona, which opposes ESA expansion and is work to block the law so voters can decide his fate in 2024.

“More than 75% of these applications come from families who have never even enrolled in public schools and therefore have no public funding allocated to their children. The reality is that these voucher seekers will take hundreds of millions of dollars from Arizona’s one million public school students for a government grant to pay for their private tuition,” said Beth Lewis, director of the organization, in a written statement.

Schools receive funds based on their average daily enrollment rates, and students who have never attended are not considered in the formula. Private schools, however, derive their funding from tuition and the average cost to attend one in Arizona is $10,320.

Before the ESA program was expanded to include all families in Arizona, eligibility depended on prior enrollment in a public school and specific criteria, including being part of a foster or military family, attending a school classified D or F or have special educational needs.

Kathy Hoffman, the state’s superintendent of public instruction, said the decision to remove criteria requirements goes against the original intent of the voucher program, which was to support students in need of additional help.

“The ESA program was intended to provide more options for children with special needs or unique circumstances, such as military families. With the candidates’ current status, it doesn’t achieve those goals — instead, it’s just a taxpayer-funded coupon for the wealthy,” Hoffman, a Democrat, said at the Arizona Mirror in an emailed statement.

Marisol Garcia, president of the Arizona Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union, said the expansion is straining both public schools and taxpayer pockets. As much as 40% of public school funding in Arizona comes from local property taxes.

“These are families who have already committed to paying for their own private school option and are now using taxpayer dollars to offset their decisions,” she said.

Of most concern, Garcia said, is that private schools aren’t required to be transparent like public schools are. The public votes for school board members and schools hold hearings and create reports to provide updates on student growth and budget allocations. Public school districts are required to make teacher salaries public, and programs and books are available to interested parents.

Private schools have no such requirements. And Republican lawmakers ensured there was no responsibility built into the ESA program to ensure that voucher money leads to better education for students.

“All taxpayers should be concerned. Thousands of families are receiving money and we will never know how it is spent. taxpayers,” she said.

For Tom Horne, the Republican candidate for state superintendent, increasing the pool of voucher applicants means supporting parents.

“It’s up to the parents to choose. If district schools do better, they will choose district schools,” he said.

decades of underfunding in Arizona since the Great Recession of 2008 left struggling public schools to staff their classrooms or provide their students with adequate resources.

Horne added that competition from other schools is healthy and will encourage public schools to improve their performance.

“Competition is good for everyone. And that is why the United States prospered and the Soviet Union did not prosper,” he said. “Competition with charter schools has been very good for the school district I served on the board of in terms of quality improvement.”

Horne served on the Paradise Valley School Board for 24 years, including 10 as chair. Withdrawing money from public schools in the form of vouchers isn’t as harmful as most think, he said, because schools “lose revenue, but they also lose education-related expenses. of these students.

Lewis, who has been a teacher for 12 years, says Horne’s view is incorrect and outdated. Schools have fixed costs that remain regardless of student enrolment, including payment for buildings, air conditioning, furniture, and buses.

“All these things are not going to change if 10% of the students leave. None of these costs change. But if 10% of students leave, schools are absolutely going to have to fire teachers and have booming classes and take away resources for kids,” she said.

Vouchers, Lewis said, are just additional drains on needed funding. As a publicly funded system, schools cannot afford the increased external consumption that universal expansion promises. A report of the joint committee on the legislative budget found that up to 50,000 private school students could be eligible under the expansion, as well as up to 35,000 homeschooled students.

Save Our Schools Arizona is spearheading a referendum challenge to the voucher program’s universal expansion element, which goes into effect Sept. 24. Lewis said he was on track to collect the 118,823 signatures required to put him on the November 2024 ballot for voter approval. If that happens, the challenge will pause the Universal Expansion until that public vote, though the rest of the voucher program would remain intact.

The organization supports the ESA voucher program as it used to, when it helped students who met specific criteria, such as special educational needs. Universal expansion threatens to undo that goal, Lewis said.

“Students with special needs are eligible for the voucher. They have access to the voucher if they need it. But when students who don’t have special needs take money to go to private schools, it cuts students with special needs out of public schools,” she said.

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