Opinion

BEIENBURG: Arizona Proves Students Succeed By Leaving Failed Public Schools

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Matt Beienburg Goldwater Institute

The men and women of America’s armed services have pledged — and often sacrificed — their lives to protect our freedoms. Yet just a single state, Arizona, has decided these heroes deserve their own freedom when it comes to their children’s education.

Also known as “Empowerment Scholarship Accounts,” Arizona’s education savings account (ESA) program takes a portion of what the state would spend covering the cost of a student’s education in a K-12 public school and instead deposits that money into a personalized account. Children with special needs or in foster care, students in failing schools, and those in military families are among those able to use them. Families can use the funds for tutoring, educational therapies, private school tuition, curriculum materials and other teaching tools.

More than 800 children from military families found freedom and flexibility through this program in fiscal 2019, with each grade school student receiving an average of $6,100 toward their educational needs (while generating substantial taxpayer savings compared to the roughly $10,100 cost that taxpayers normally shoulder for every Arizona public school pupil).

So great is the need for ESAs among military families that their children now make up the single largest share of the program’s participants outside of special needs students. 

In total, Arizona’s ESAs now serve more than 6,400 students from all eligible groups, including children from Native American reservations, kids from the foster care system and failing schools, children with special needs, and those with active duty or fallen military parents.

Many of these families have shared their stories, including ESA mother Kathy Visser, who testified to Arizona legislators this spring that as a “former public school teacher, army veteran, special needs mom, and now an ESA parent … having access to this incredible program has literally saved my special needs son and my family.”

Despite an outpouring of such sentiments from families who are now using ESAs, the program is in the crosshairs of teachers’ unions and political activists who have waged a ferocious media campaign arguing that ESAs are draining public schools of students and funding.

For all the apocalyptic predictions that ESAs will empty public schools of their students, Arizona’s program has proven remarkably modest, with fewer than 3 percent of eligible students opting to participate. (To put this in perspective, more than 15 times that many students opt out of their local public school simply to attend a different public school.)

Ironically, despite the claims of financial harm to the public school system, new data from Arizona shows that its ESA program actually increases available per pupil public school revenues by redistributing state and federal dollars back to remaining public school students each time a student leaves the public school system for a private option. From state sources alone, ESAs redirect over $600 per participant back to remaining public school students for teacher pay and other operational uses.

Arizona also tapped $3 million in savings from its ESA program this year to overhaul the state’s 20-year old IT system that’s used to calculate the payments to every single public school in the state, which will benefit more than 1.1 million public school students.

Moreover, Arizona’s ESAs have reduced budget pressures on its public schools by serving one of the most high-need, high-cost populations — students with severe disabilities. Districts say they can serve them only by redirecting funds from other students’ instruction. Thanks to the ESA program, families of these students receive over $25,000 a year to customize learning environments for their children, while districts no longer struggle to comply with federal regulations in an attempt to serve them. 

While ESA opponents — with cover and encouragement from media outlets — have painted the program as a hotbed of fraud and abuse, it turns out that roughly 99 percent of ESA funds have been used correctly, far surpassing the same measure within the National School Lunch program, for example, which has clocked in as low as 84 percent.

It’s time for legislators to fight on behalf of students, rather than for the unions who have forsaken them for political pet projects. It’s time to stand with the families of our armed forces, the children of disadvantaged communities, and parents across the country yearning for choice and opportunity in the education of their kids.

Matt Beienburg is the director of education policy at the nonprofit Goldwater Institute. He is the author of the group’s new report, “The Public School Benefits of Education Savings Accounts: The Impact of ESAs in Arizona.”


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