Clearing up misconceptions on Arizona's Empowerment Scholarship Accounts
By Kim Martinez, AFC National Correspondent
The Arizona legislature is considering a bill to expand the Empowerment Scholarship Account program to include all children in the state. This successful program was created in 2011 and has served students with special needs, students assigned to failing schools, those from active duty military families and students living on Native American reservations. There are many myths about ESAs and who the program serves, but today we will refute those misconceptions.
ESAs vs. Vouchers
Arizona’s Empowerment Scholarship Accounts are often erroneously referred to in the media as “vouchers,” they are not. The highest authority in the state, the Arizona Supreme Court, ruled they are not vouchers. Empowerment Scholarship Accounts are privately controlled bank accounts parents can use to access funds for their child’s education. In a voucher program, a parent would be issued just that, a voucher that would go directly to cover tuition at a private school. Using an ESA, parents can choose to spend their funds on various education options and, yes, that includes private school if they so choose. They can also pay for homeschool expenses, online curriculum, education therapies, books and many other expenses. ESAs are much more comprehensive than a voucher program and they allow parents to control their child’s state-funded education dollars.
ESAs just fund wealthy families
ESAs have been accused of being a program meant for wealthy families to subsidize private school tuition. In reality, ESAs are a means to help the most disadvantaged students in the state. The majority of students using ESAs are those with special needs and children who would otherwise attend a D or F rated public school. If you have a family with a child with special needs, and they live in a well-funded district, that doesn’t automatically mean the family is wealthy and can afford a specialized school to help their child with Autism or Down syndrome.
The argument that low-income families are not using ESAs because the funding is not enough to cover the tuition at a private school is erroneous as well. Hundreds of low-income families are successfully using ESAs every day, especially in our tribal communities. There are many private schools that have tuition amounts that are less than ESA funding. And many schools are willing to work with the families to help subsidize any extra tuition costs if there are any. As education advocates reach out into the community to educate parents on how ESAs can benefit their child, more and more low-income families are applying for ESAs every day.
ESAs are decimating public schools
ESAs started in 2012 and currently there are less than 2,400 students in the whole state using the program. That is a mere fraction of one percent of Arizona’s total K-12 population. The truth is that most parents will continue to use their neighborhood public school. ESAs help the small minority of families who have children that need some sort of specialized education that they are not getting at their neighborhood school. If ESA eligibility is expanded to all students in Arizona, through pending legislation this year, the scare tactic is often used that ESAs will decimate and gut public schools. Nevada enacted a universal ESA program this year and ended up with 4,000 applications, around one percent of their total K-12 population. Nevada can be viewed as a case study proving that parents will not pull their child out of their neighborhood public school if their child is thriving. Arizona is expected to have the same results as Nevada if we do in fact expand ESAs as an option for every Arizona student.
The bottom line is that ESAs simply help put every option on the table for Arizona families regardless of income. If expanded, all Arizona parents will have the option to access nearly any type of school or curriculum available in the state. If their child ever faces challenges during their K-12 education, that parent will have the choice to find a different path, which means no child can slip through the cracks as they are educated in Arizona.