Monday, March 28, 2016

Arizona's ESA (aka Voucher on Steroids) Bill Diminished But Still Strong. McCain Tries to Put the Feds in the ESA Loop

Posted By on Mon, Mar 28, 2016 at 9:00 AM

  • Illustration from photo
The latest Empowerment Scholarship Account (aka Vouchers on steroids) bill looked like it was going to be delayed for another year. The Senate passed it, but the House balked. Something about everyone getting a voucher—"You get a private school voucher! You get a private school voucher! You get a private school voucher!"—seemed a bit much to some. Helping millionaires pay for their private schools crossed the line with enough House Republicans to kill it.

But never fear. The bill is back in a diminished form. It now includes every student on free or reduced lunch, which means if you're a family of four and make more than $44,863, no voucher for you. There are already other ways for students to qualify in the earlier versions of the law: those with physical or educational handicaps, ELL students, Native Americans, children of military families, students who attended a D or F-rated school, things like that. But no new vouchers for people whose income is above the free/reduced lunch level in the new bill.

If the diminished bill becomes law, I honestly don't think it's going to make a dramatic difference in the short term. Giving families with little income something like $5,000 a year to spend on education doesn't amount to much. Some students will transfer to religious private schools which have low tuition, but if you're thinking of "private school" as some kind of high achieving prep school, those are mostly way, way out of the $5,000 a year price range. If the bill passes, a few families will bail from publicly funded schools, but unless they're looking for a religious education, they'll do just as well at a nearby district or charter school.

The only reason Sen. Debbie Lesko, the sponsor of the bill, reintroduced it is to take her one step closer to her dream of universal vouchers. Every time you get the GOP elephant's privatization trunk a little further into the education tent, you get closer to cramming the entire animal inside and pushing everything else out. If she gets the new bill through, this time next year she's sure to put a new bill forward that completes the job.

On the federal front, John McCain knows he's going to have a tough primary fight, so he's going full Pander Bear with a bill to woo the Native American vote. It's the Native American Education Opportunity Act, which would give ESA accounts to Native Americans living on Indian reservations. If you were paying attention earlier, you saw that Native Americans are already included in the Arizona ESAs, but there's a difference. McCain's bill would give students 90 percent of what the Bureau of Indian Education spends, which is $10,000 per student or more, significantly higher than the run-of-the-mill Arizona ESA. But even if this becomes law—and I'd say it's a long shot—I don't see it having a significant effect on reservation education.

Vast distances separate students on the reservation, which means lots of long distance busing. That eats up a big chunk of the extra BIE money. When the schools are far from cities, you have to find a way to lure non-reservation teachers there, which can mean costly extra financial perks. To create a private school with a 100 or more ESA kids would be a major enterprise. How many people are going to try?

Here's an interesting bit of information, if it's true, and I'm pretty sure it is based on research I did. There aren't a lot of charter schools on Arizona reservations, but they often spend about as much as the BIE schools: $10,000 or more per student. Many reservation students are ELL students or they're assessed as having learning problems, which means more money for those students, and the charters on reservations get federal dollars on top of state dollars. So if charters are already spending more than $10,000 per student, and the BIE schools spend a similar amount, what new will the "invisible hand of the private school marketplace" bring to the table? In my opinion, not much.

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