Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Empowerment Scholarship Account Money Misspent

Posted By on Wed, Oct 31, 2018 at 1:20 PM

click to enlarge COURTESY OF BIGSTOCK
  • Courtesy of BigStock
Here's another one of those great stories in the Arizona Republic I don't think we'll be seeing in the Star. Add it to the Republic's terrific investigative reporting on corruption and profiteering in charter schools, and southern Arizona is missing out on some important education news. That is a damn shame.

Empowerment Scholarship Accounts (aka Education Savings Accounts, aka Vouchers on Steroids) are a backdoor voucher program which gives debit cards to parents to spend on their children's educations so long as the children don't attend a district or charter school. When parents get the money, they're told it can only be spent on education. "We'll be watching you, so don't use the money for other things," they're told. But actually, no one is watching.

In fiscal year 2018, $700,000 was misspent by ESA parents according to an audit released by the Department of Education. The items include obviously non-educational purchases like beauty supplies, sports apparel and computer tech support. Very little of that money has been paid back to the state.

It's the kind of story the "good government" folks at the Goldwater Institute might want to cover. I say that because G.I. recently published a report on fraud in school districts. The report came fast on the heels of the Republic stories about people making millions on charters, so I'm guessing it was written to counter the bad press — G.I. loves charters almost as much as it loves vouchers — by saying, "Hey look, school districts do it too!" However, something tells me, pointing out voucher-related fraud isn't the kind of deflection G.I. is planning any time soon.

G.I.'s dollar figure makes the fraud in school districts look like a pretty big deal. The Auditor General said it totaled $26 million. That's a lot of money.

Except that it's spread out over 20 years, which means it's not all that much money after all.

Let's do some math to see how big the school district fraud really is. Divide the $26 million into 20 yearly pieces, and you get $1.3 million a year spread across the entire state. That amounts to something like five-hundredths of one percent — written numerically, that's 0.0005 — of Arizona's yearly school budget, or less than a buck-and-a-half per student per year.

Looking at it that way, well, fraud is never good, but a buck-fifty per student isn't really such a big deal.

Since we're doing math here, let's look at how much the misspent ESA money comes to. Estimating about 3,500 hundred ESA students in 2018 — not an exact figure, but a nice, round number that's reasonably close — it comes to $200 per student. That's a whole lot more than a buck-fifty.

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