According to David Garcia, an education professor at Arizona State University and candidate for State Superintendent of Public Instruction in 2018, Arizona offers more choices for K-12 education than any other state.
Regardless, Garcia believes students haven’t experienced the benefit of so many options. Despite the fact that for over two decades Arizona parents have been sold the idea that “as long as parents get to choose, that’s enough accountability,” more and more money has been funneled out of public schools to fund institutions and people who are not held to adequate teaching standards.
“Our test scores do not show the state has improved commensurate with the amount of choice we have,” Garcia told a crowd of people — including parents, current and retired teachers, administrators and representatives from local school districts and district governing boards — gathered to take part in an education forum hosted by Democrats of the Red Rocks.
The event took place Thursday, March 2, at the Cottonwood Recreation Center.
“One of the issues facing public education in Arizona is the expansion of Empowerment Scholarship Accounts that transfer money from public schools to private schools and home-schooling,” said Karen McClelland, president of the Democrats of the Red Rocks and a Sedona-Oak Creek School District Governing Board member. “Several bills have already passed committees and are ready to go to the floor for votes and discussion any day now.”
Since their introduction, McClelland has been lobbying against ESAs. Vouchers, as such accounts are commonly known, provide funds to parents who want to take their children out of public school to educate them elsewhere, including home schools and religiously-oriented private schools.
Until 2020, there is an annual cap of 5,500 students allowed to take advantage of ESA funds.
“In 2011, Arizona was the first state in the nation to do something like this,” Darby Jenkins, a governmental relations analyst with the Arizona School Boards Association, said. “It’s grown significantly, [yet] they’re not efficient for the state. They don’t save money .... It’s roughly costing the state $1,000 per student when a child leaves a public school to use an ESA.”
According to Jenkins, the state overcame several legal challenges to ESAs, arguing that providing them did not violate the state constitution because ESA funds do not go directly to religious institutions but are instead dispersed to parents to use as they see fit for their children’s education.
Currently, ESAs are offered to six classes of students:
- Those with special needs. These comprise the largest proportion of students using ESA funds, at approximately 55 percent.
- Those whose parents are active members of the military.
- Those from “D” or “F” rated public schools.
- Those in foster care or adopted from foster care.
- Siblings of students using ESA funds.
- Those American Indians who reside on tribal lands.
According to Garcia, though choice sounds like a positive for families, schools are run as local endeavors, supported by volunteers and invested parents — unlike businesses, to which proponents of choice compare schools, yet which run according to the dictates of markets and demand. “Schools are communities, not businesses,” Garcia said, adding that rural districts are even more impacted because they lack the options provided in urban centers.
Furthermore, Garcia argued that choice makes schools less diverse.
“Choice does a fine job of segregating .... We choose to live with people like us.”
“These bills are written by people who don’t reside in Arizona,” McClelland added. “The ASBA and the Arizona Education Association, among other groups, are opposed to any expansion of vouchers in Arizona.”