While Page-area residents are unlikely to be directly affected by it, Governor Doug Ducey’s expansion of the Arizona Empowerment Scholarship Account may have other lasting effects on public schools, some education leaders claim.
After moving through both the Republican-led house and senate earlier this month, Ducey approved the bill, which expands ESA to allow virtually all K-12 age kids to apply for state-funded aid to attend private schools. The previous limitations on the program allowed only 3,500 kids per year who met certain eligibility requirements to apply.
The vouchers offered through ESA can be used to cover the costs for things like textbooks, tutoring and tuition fees. For special needs kids, monies can go toward specialized curriculum, assistive technology purchases and braille translation services.
However, there is a cap both on how many students can receive financial assistance, and how much money is distributed per pupil. For the upcoming 2017-18 school year, students in kindergarten, first, sixth and ninth grades can now apply for aid.
Students who were previously eligible for aid across all grade levels can still apply. This includes children with active military parents or guardians, children in failing schools or districts and children living on Native American reservations. Vouchers for non-special needs children range from $3,500 to $7,800, with an average single award of $5,700, according to information from the Arizona Department of Education. For special needs students, the range increases to $3,000 to $33,500, with an average of $17,000 per recipient.
By 2020, all grade levels will be eligible for aid, regardless of circumstance, with a cap of 30,000 students per year allowed. The Arizona Department of Education reports that the old cap of 3,500 students per year was rarely met, and question how many more families the expansion will entice to send their kids to private schools. The new 30,000 figure was added to the bill late into its cycle through the house and senate — previous iterations of the law allowed an unlimited cap.
Roughly 1.1 million kids are currently served in public schools across the state, while 65,000 attend private facilities. Of the 478 private schools in Arizona, more than half (57 percent) are religiously affiliated.
Perceived effects on
Opponents of ESA expansion, which include an outspoken cohort of Arizona Teacher of the Year award recipients who publically proclaimed teachers and public schools “got played” by lawmakers who passed the bill, assert it will siphon funding from public schools.
In a report by the Arizona Republic, one unnamed teacher opined that because the average cost of private schools still outpaces the potential reward received by non-disabled students under ESA, many low-income households are still unable to take advantage of the program.
And because the program uses the same earmarked taxpayer money for education, it is essentially and often money that would normally go to a local public school that a parent can choose to instead fund his or her child for private schooling.
According to the AZDE and Private School Review, the average tuition rate for Arizona private schools is roughly $10,600 per year. Average rates for private Arizona high schools are more than $17,000 per year, and $6,600 for elementary schools. The average single award for non-disabled students is $5,700.
Other public education officials say this will only increase the wealth and ethnic diversity gap between public and private schools, claiming because Arizona public schools have been so chronically underfunded, more families with higher incomes will leave public districts.
In 2016, the Tucson Unified School District reported it had lost 305 students to private schools in 2015 and 2016 after the program received a major expansion — an amount equivalent to $2.5 million in state funding.
While architects of the bill have claimed the impetus to expand ESA eligibility to all students was to give increased choice and accessibility to disadvantaged families, only time will tell as program steadily becomes available to all Arizona families.
Meanwhile, proponents of the expansion say extending the program to 10 times its size while the current cap isn’t even being met shows there won’t be the mass exodus of wealthy students some are worried about.
They also claim because the majority of kids who benefited from ESA are special needs students who require significantly more funding, providing them with opportunities to attend a private school could actually save public districts money.