Monday, April 3, 2017

'Vouchers on Steroids' ESAs Used Mainly By Affluent Parents

Posted By on Mon, Apr 3, 2017 at 10:30 AM

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Here's the Republicans' ESA pitch: "We just want to give poor children the same opportunity to attend private schools as rich kids have." Here's their real goal: "We want to give rich kids as much taxpayer money to pay for private school tuition as we can." According to a well researched article in the AZ Republic, they're doing a great job of meeting their real goal.

Empowerment Scholarship Accounts—aka Education Savings Accounts, aka Vouchers on Steroids—are a transfer of state funds into accounts for individual students which parents can spend on pretty much any educational expense, so long as the child isn't enrolled in a district or charter school. The way the law is written right now, only some students qualify for ESAs. A bill in front of the legislature would make all 1.1 million of Arizona's public school children eligible.

The AZ Republic article reveals that money from Empowerment Scholarship Accounts goes disproportionately to students from high achieving school districts.
This year, more than 75 percent of the money pulled out of public schools for the Empowerment Scholarship Account program came from districts with an "A" or "B" rating, the analysis showed. By contrast, only 4 percent of the money came from school districts rated "D" or lower.
The top rated districts, those with the highest scores on the state standardized tests, tend to serve students from higher income families, while the lowest rated districts are almost always in low income areas. When 75 percent of the money goes to students from those top rated districts and only 4 percent goes to the lowest rated, it's pretty clear who's taking advantage of the funds.

Here's another jaw-dropping bit of information the article pulls from the data. For students from those "A" and "B" districts, the average amount of the ESA for each student is $15,3000. For the "D" and "F" districts, the average amount is $6,700. Individual kids from the top rated districts are pulling in more than twice as much as kids from the lowest rated districts.

For that to make sense, you have to understand how the ESAs are awarded. Every ESA student gets 90 percent of the state funds that would have gone to that student's district. However, all kids don't bring in the same amount of money. Students with diagnosed learning disabilities get more money for their educations, since it costs more to educate and take care of them. The more serious the disability, the more money the state pays — as much as $25,000 per student, sometimes even more.

That means a large number of the students leaving the top rated districts are claiming significant learning disabilities, while most students from the lower rated districts are leaving with more-or-less what the average student receives. There are a number of possible explanations for the difference, but whatever the reason, it points out who's taking the greatest advantage of the taxpayer funds.

The current bill to open ESAs to everyone is hanging by a thread in the legislature. With 17 Republicans and 13 Democrats in the state senate, it only takes two Republican defections to stop the bill. Republicans who genuinely believe their party's pitch that the main purpose of the ESAs is to make private schools accessible to poor kids should have a hard time voting for the bill based on the information in the article. For the rest of the Republicans who knew from the start this is just another way to give more taxpayer money to the rich and speed the dismantling of our public education system—It's a twofer!—the information in the article will make their Aye votes that much stronger.

For anyone who wants to dig deeper into the subject, the Republic article is chock full of information I haven't discussed here. At the end of the article is a searchable database of every school district and charter school, which includes the number of students getting ESAs, the average award, the percentage of students on free/reduced lunch and the state letter grade.

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