Thursday, February 13, 2014

Who is Being "Empowered"?

I pointed out in an earlier posting that the attack on public education in the state of Arizona is relentless. As many as 40% of the school-age children in the state have exercised "choice," either in the form of charter school enrollment, cyber-charter, home schooling, or open enrollment.

The latest attack on traditional public education is making its way through the Arizona Legislature. "Traditional public education" can now be seen to mean schools run by experienced administrators trained in schools and colleges of education and staffed by certified teachers, and schools that offer a comprehensive curriculum supported by counselors, nurses, and teachers with training in meeting the needs of handicapped children. The very thought of traditional education raises hackles on the (red)necks of legislators in this state.

For a couple years now, Arizona has had a law on the books called the Empowerment Scholarship Account. The "scholarship" is cash given to a student's family who wish to enroll that student in a private school. The amount of the "scholarship" is approximately $2,000 – hardly enough to make a dent in tuition to Phoenix Country Day, but an amount welcomed by any of hundreds of religious schools. As the enabling legislation was originally passed, the following criteria were used to select recipients: Reside in the state of Arizona; A child with a disability; A child of an active duty military parent; A child who is a ward of the juvenile court and is residing in prospective permanent placement foster care; A child who is a ward of the juvenile court and who achieved permanency through adoption; A child who attended a letter grade “D” or “F” public school the prior school year. The tug at the heart strings is apparent. "We only mean to help those poor disabled, adopted kids whose dads are fighting in Afghanistan," the legislators must have been thinking.

But now comes House Bill 2291. HB 2291 would expand eligibility for Empowerment Scholarships to any family whose child is eligible for free-and-reduced lunch or whose family's income is within 15% of the free-and-reduced lunch cut-off. And the income criterion would grow 15% each year beyond 2014-15.

In 2012, 300 families received nearly $2,000 each in a state funded bank account which they could spend for tuition at any private school. The number of families receiving this state tax money in 2013 jumped to more than 700. If HB 2291 becomes law, it is estimated that 4,500 families will be eligible for the money. The limit of the law, to be reached in 2019, would fund 5,500 families and cost the state roughly $40,000,000 in public education funds that would be diverted to private schools.

The state's Superintendent of Public Instruction can be seen pushing the program on a web video. He informs parents that the scholarships empower them to purchase "private educational services on the free market." Apparently, this video was not enough advertising for the backers of Empowerment Scholarships, because the State Superintendent made thousands of robo-calls to parents of school children on February 11 and 12 hawking the program. The robo-calls direct listeners to a web page that pushes the program; the web page is on the web site of the Goldwater Institute. The calls were funded by the Arizona Alliance for School Choice, as part of a quarter-million dollar program promoting choice options in the state. A spokesperson for the Alliance said, "It is not strange at all for him to be the voice on the phone informing parents about a program that runs out of his department." Apparently the Superintendent disagrees because today he is frantically issuing apologies for the calls.

P.S. The Alliance for School Choice was originally based in Phoenix but now operates out of Washington D.C. The organization is funded by private individuals and foundations. Their pay-outs to state-level school choice groups are available on their IRS Form 990 form. But they are not required to list the source of their income. Apparently, transparency is only for traditional public schools.

Gene V Glass
University of Colorado Boulder
Arizona State University

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