The fight for public education is about to go national.
Arizona has been at the front line of this battle since 2011 when the state created Empowerment Scholarship Accounts (ESA), giving parents vouchers and allowing them to choose which school their children will attend. The ESA program made Arizona one of the leaders in the school choice movement.
Last week, state Treasurer Kimberly Yee told a Washington, D.C., audience that included Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and White House Senior Counselor Kellyanne Conway that it’s time for the federal government to follow Arizona’s lead. Yee called for the Trump administration to invest $5 billion in the Education Freedom Scholarship program, which would grant a dollar-for-dollar tax credit for people or businesses that make donations to state-approved scholarship funds for K-12 students.
Many Republicans, especially those who carry the conservative label, favor school choice over public education.
Gov. Doug Ducey strongly supported legislation in 2016 to massively expand Arizona’s ESA program.
Currently, about 30,000 K-12 students qualify for ESAs and Gov. Ducey supported increasing the eligibility to 1.1 million, almost the entire student population in the state.
Supporters argue that parents should have the freedom to choose where their children go to school. The Arizona program uses state funds for the ESA vouchers that parents use to afford tuition at the school of their choice.
Public school supporters say the movement is not about freedom, it’s about reducing the overall amount of money states share with school districts and further reducing the political influence of education advocates.
Arizona’s experience with school choice has had mixed results. Some private and charter schools that serve ESA students can boast education outcomes that are evidence of the program’s success.
Lack of accountability for how ESA funds are spent and statistics that show the students being served are from affluent, white families show a different side. Gov. Ducey has acknowledged that more oversight of ESAs is needed to discourage parents and schools from the improper spending of public funds, but nothing is being done to address the situation.
In rural communities, the erosion of state revenues to support public schools is quickly putting students at a disadvantage. Officials are forced to cut curriculum choices and reduce spending on facilities to keep up with the cost of education.
Before federal officials jump on Arizona’s ESAs as the model for all schools, we urge them to carefully consider the shortfalls of the program.
School choice has serious downsides.