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Arizona taxpayer-funded vouchers benefiting students in more-affluent areas

Arizona’s school voucher program has expanded by more than 50 percent since last year, and students are continuing to exit wealthier and better-performing school districts to go to private schools.


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Arizona taxpayer-funded vouchers benefiting students in more-affluent areas

Rob O'Dell and Yvonne Wingett Sanchez, The Republic | Published 7:49 a.m. MT March 30, 2017 | Updated 1:23 p.m. MT March 30, 2017
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Everything you need to know about the Empowerment Scholarship Account program in Arizona. Wochit

This year, more than 75 percent of the money pulled out of public schools for the ESA program came from districts with an "A" or "B" rating, the analysis showed.(Photo: Mark Henle/The Republic)


As Arizona’s school-voucher program has expanded rapidly in the past year, students using taxpayer aid to transfer from public to private schools are abandoning higher-performing districts in more-affluent areas, according to an Arizona Republic analysis.

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 findings undercut a key contention of the lawmakers and advocacy groups pressing to expand the state's ESA program: that financially disadvantaged families from struggling schools reap the benefit of expanded school choice.

DATABASE:Search Arizona ESA awards in your district

Critics, meanwhile, argue the program is largely being used by more-affluent families to subsidize their private-school tuition bills. The ESA program allows parents to take 90 percent of the money that would have gone to their school district and put it toward private school, home schooling and other educational programs.

The Empowerment Scholarship Account program funding grew to approximately $49 million this year, from about $30 million last year, according to February data from the Arizona Department of Education, which oversees the program. Republicans in the Legislature are advancing bills that would expand the program from the 3,360 students currently using it to all 1.1 million Arizona public school students after four years.

The expansion legislation would require third-graders through 12th-graders who are not disabled to take standardized tests and that the results of those tests would be reported to the students' parents. Student achievement of ESA recipients is not tracked by the state.

The bills have won approval in committees in the House of Representatives and Senate. On Wednesday, Senate President Steve Yarbrough said he was hopeful the legislation would advance. Bill sponsor Sen Debbie Lesko, R-Peoria, said she "was very optimistic that this bill will be signed into law."

MONTINI: 'So, moron, why shouldn't I get a school voucher?' OK, I'll tell you

However, some lawmakers, already wary of full expansion, said The Republic’s findings raise questions about whether the timing is right to offer it to all Arizona students since so few disadvantaged families currently use it.

“I have concerns, based on those numbers,” said Rep. T.J. Shope, R- Coolidge, of the findings that few students from poor-performing schools are using the program. “I would hope that those numbers would be a little higher.”

Money disproportionately coming from wealthier districts

The state Legislature created the ESA program in 2011 to assist children with learning difficulties. A year later, they expanded it to students from poor-performing schools or districts to participate.

PREVIOUSLY:  Voucher expansion afoot despite $102K of misspent funds 

All things equal, children at "D"-rated districts or lower should be over-represented in the ESA program because they're able to enroll without meeting any other requirement.

Students at schools rated "A," "B," or "C," meanwhile, must fit one of the following categories to qualify for an empowerment scholarship: have a disability,

 be a former foster child, the child of a military family, the sibling of a student in the ESA program or live on an Indian reservation.

But The Republic’s analysis shows money disproportionately coming from wealthier and better-performing school districts.

According to the analysis:

  • Students leaving "A"- and "B"-rated districts had an average award of about $15,300.
  • For schools rated "D" or lower, the average award was only about $6,700.

The higher awards indicate students leaving better-rated schools have more disabilities, said Stefan Swiat, spokesman for the Arizona Department of Education. Any award over $7,800 indicates significant student disability.

A similar effect was found by looking at students leaving districts based on the percentage of students on free- or reduced-price lunch, a good proxy for income levels in the area:

  • In districts where the percent of students on free lunch is below 60 percent, the average award is $16,500. 
  • In districts where the percent of students on free lunch is above 60 percent, the average award is $9,100.

ROBERTS:Fast-tracked school voucher bill is now at a dead stop

The lower average award from poorer-performing and socioeconomically disadvantaged schools means that disabled students are not leaving those schools at the same rate as better-performing schools, the analysis found.

The Republic analysis found that as the number of students on free- and reduced-price lunch at a school increased, the average award for those districts decreased.

Lesko acknowledged the reason the award could be higher in wealthier and better-performing districts is because many of the students leaving those schools are disabled.


State Sen. Debbie Lesko, R-Peoria. (Photo: Nick Oza/The Republic)

"Right now, as you know, the majority of the children that take advantage of ESAs are special-needs students," Lesko said. "Perhaps that's the reason that your analysis came out the way that it does. Now when I expand it so that all students are eligible, I am assuming we are going to see a different outcome than you have come up with."

Asked why disabled students wouldn't also be leaving less-affluent and poorer-performing districts, Lesko said she didn't have a comment.

According to the Arizona Department of Education, 58 percent of students in the ESA programs have special needs, 13 percent are from military families, 11 percent are from "D" and "F" schools, 7 percent are adopted or former foster children, 6 percent came from an Indian reservation and 4.5 percent were siblings of children in the ESA program.

Shope said he wants to know how the state markets the program in neighborhoods with "D" or "F" schools to ensure it's as visible as at better-performing schools.

“This is fascinating,” he said of The Republic's findings. “I want to make sure those same kind of efforts are being duplicated in areas that are under-served, be they low income, or be they disproportionately high numbers of immigrant populations.”

Republican Sen. Sonny Borrelli of Lake Havasu City said he is concerned too few low-income students are benefiting from a program that was billed by supporters as a way to help the state’s most disadvantaged students escape public schools that didn’t meet their needs.

“I’m all for it to help out the lower-income schools or areas, to get them that leg up,” Borrelli said. But, he added, the state shouldn’t pay for wealthy parents to send their children to private school.

“I’m wealthy, and I want to send my kid to a private school, that’s my choice,” he said.

Asked if he supports legislation to expand the ESA program to all public school kids, Borrelli said: “At this point, I’m not sold on it.”

MORE:Bill sponsor rethinks voucher money for college-savings plans

Borrelli is one of a handful of Senate Republican to express doubts about the proposal, raising questions about whether it has the votes to pass the chamber, where the GOP has 17 members to Democrats' 13.

FacebookTwitterGoogle+LinkedInEducation bills in Arizona for 2017> Fullscreen


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Here are 10 bills to watch this legislative season.
Here are 10 bills to watch this legislative season.  Tom Tingle/The Republic>FullscreenMandatory recess for all: House Bill 2082 would require
Mandatory recess for all: House Bill 2082 would require all Arizona district and charter schools to give their students in kindergarten through fifth grade at least 50 minutes of free-play recess time each day. Schools could decide how they want to allocate that time. However, they would not be allowed to withhold recess time from students as punishment without notifying parents first.  David Kadlubowski/The Republic>FullscreenCap on tuition increases: Senate Bill 1061 would limit
Cap on tuition increases: Senate Bill 1061 would limit tuition increases at Arizona State University, University of Arizona and Northern Arizona University to no more than 2 percent a year.  Michael Schennum/The Republic>FullscreenExpanding school vouchers: SB 1431 would expand the
Expanding school vouchers: SB 1431 would expand the state's Empowerment Scholarship Accounts program, a voucher-type system that allows eligible students to take 90 percent of the per-pupil funding schools receive to use toward private-school tuition. All Arizona public-school students would be eligible for so-called vouchers by 2020. The bill mandates students who are ESA recipients be tested for academic achievement.  Mark Henle/The Republic>FullscreenRepealing ban on ethnic studies: SB 1126 would repeal
Repealing ban on ethnic studies: SB 1126 would repeal a 2011 law that prohibits district and charter schools from teaching classes in kindergarten through 12th grade that "promote the overthrow of the U.S. government, promote resentment toward a race or class of people, are designed primarily for students of a particular ethnic group or advocate ethnic solidarity." Schools that don't abide by that law risk losing some state money.  Getty Images/iStockphoto>FullscreenSunscreen allowed at school: HB 2134 would require
Sunscreen allowed at school: HB 2134 would require public school districts, charter schools and children's camps to allow kids to carry and apply sunscreen while at school.  Thinkstock>FullscreenPromoting early intervention for dyslexia: Under HB
Promoting early intervention for dyslexia: Under HB 2202, the state Department of Education would be required to develop a handbook for schools on how to identify and teach students who are dyslexic.  Getty Images/iStockphoto>FullscreenRequired checklist for going to college: HB 2361 would
Required checklist for going to college: HB 2361 would require each district and charter high school to include a checklist on all students' report cards that shows their progress in meeting the admissions requirements for the state's three public universities: ASU, UA and NAU. The bill also would require schools to "communicate information" to students on the financial-aid process.  The Republic>FullscreenFree college testing for high-school students: HB 2210
Free college testing for high-school students: HB 2210 would require the state Board of Education to approve a standardized college entrance exam (i.e. the SAT or ACT) for all 11th-grade district and charter school students to take at no cost to them. The state board would also be required to make available for 12th-grade students the college exam and career readiness assessments that test work skills.  Getty Images/iStockphoto>FullscreenOverhaul university governing board system: HB 2359
Overhaul university governing board system: HB 2359 would restructure the board and add three governing bodies, one for each university.  Tom Tingle/The Republic>FullscreenHow employable are college graduates? HB 2283 would
How employable are college graduates? HB 2283 would require community colleges and state universities to tell students and parents how employable they will be based on their chosen program of study.  Getty Images/iStockphoto>FullscreenPrioritize police in schools: Senate Bill 1099 would
Prioritize police in schools: Senate Bill 1099 would prioritize funding for police officers on K-12 school campuses. Schools would be required to track incidents in which law enforcement responded to the campus and criminal activity on or around campus. These stats would be used to prioritize assigning officers to schools with higher numbers of incidents.  Carlos Chavez/The Republic>FullscreenStudent journalist protections: Senate Bill 1384 would
Student journalist protections: Senate Bill 1384 would provide protections for student journalists and their advisers at high schools, community colleges and universities.  David Wallace/The Republic>Fullscreen

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    School districts react

    The wealthy Cave Creek School District, northeast of Phoenix, saw more children leave with empowerment scholarships, relative to its size, than any other district. The nearly $500,000 in ESA awards from the district ranked 23rd in the state, far higher than its 49th ranking for enrollment.

    Debbi Burdick, superintendent of the Cave Creek School District, said she was unaware of the numbers until she spoke with The Republic. The newspaper first published in 2016 an analysis of districts most affected by the ESA exodus and their academic performance and demographic makeup.

    “This is news to me,” Burdick said. “I wasn’t aware that so many students are leaving to go to private school.”

    She said the reason Cave Creek’s numbers might be higher other districts its size is that many Cave Creek parents know about the program and have the financial means to use it. In many cases, the ESA awards don't cover the full cost of private schools, meaning a family would need additional resources to attend a private school even with an ESA.

    “We do have many families of affluence in this area who are knowledgeable about the scholarships and would use it to augment the cost of a private education,” Burdick said.

    >“When you have $2.5 million walking out the door, you get hurt, which results in going into classrooms and seeing broken-down desks, dilapidated furniture, and ultimately forces us out to the community to ask for an override or a bond.”

    Gabriel Trujillo of the Tucson Unified School District, which ranked second in ESA awards

    The average award for the 25 students that left Cave Creek was $19,000, indicating many of the students who left are disabled.

    Burdick said that surprised her because many parents move into the Cave Creek district because of its special-education programs. Even though there is open enrollment, there is a waiting list for many Cave Creek special-education programs, so parents move into the district to ensure their child has a spot, she said.

    Burdick said she will form a working group to determine why the number is so high and see how the district may want to respond.

    The Tucson Unified School District has the highest number statewide: 305 students left. The nearly $2.5 million in ESA awards ranked second.

    The financial loss means less money for classroom aides, desks, books, electronics and projectors, said Gabriel Trujillo, the district's interim superintendent.

    “When you have $2.5 million walking out the door, you get hurt,” he said, “Which results in going into classrooms and seeing broken-down desks, dilapidated furniture, and ultimately forces us out to the community to ask for an override or a bond.”

    RELATED:School-voucher expansion could cost Arizona $24M a year or more

    Trujillo said the “best way to neutralize the effect of the vouchers” on the district is to “provide a better product,” so families don’t leave.

    In Chandler, which ranked sixth in the state with nearly $2.1 million in ESA awards for 117 students, the nearly $18,000 average annual award "suggests that the vast majority of students who take advantage of ESA do so based on its original purpose in 2011," which is for disabled students, said Matt Strom, assistant superintendent of K-12 educational services for Chandler Unified.

    He said the district was not aware the impact was that large, and officials are concerned further expansion would move beyond the program's original purpose and could affect the solvency of the state's general fund.

    The Republic has created a database of the ESA awards by district in 2017 so parents and administrators can see the numbers themselves.

    Pattern of expansion

    Molly Stewart, a research associate with the Indiana-based Center for Evaluation and Education Policy, is studying Arizona’s ESA program and similar programs in other states.

    She said the advocates' approach reflects the fact that initially taxpayers were less willing to give money to private institutions.

    “The rationale of targeting low-income students was to make it politically feasible for some people,” Stewart said. “When you make it available to everyone, you’re still going to have a lot of inequity because you’re going to have higher-income students who are going to be able to use their ESA, plus whatever money they want to put on top of that.”

    Patrick Wolf, professor and 21st Century Chair in School Choice at the University of Arkansas, said ESAs are particularly attractive for parents of students with disabilities because “those are the kids who you really want to customize their education.”

    He said the reason Arizona ESA students are coming from higher-performing districts could be their parents know more about the program. He said it's also possible parents are pulling their children from lower-performing schools in those better-performing and wealthier districts.

    Asked whether financial resources and transportation options for parents are a factor in the disparity between higher-performing and wealthier schools and the lower-performing and less-affluent schools, Wolf said he was hesitant to speculate without individual student data.

    He said Arizona’s model fits what school-choice advocates have pushed across the country: First, open the program to disabled students and then expand it.

    "This is the story of private school-choice initiatives across the country. They typically start with a highly targeted program that is limited to very low income kids, kids with special needs, foster kids, some really specialized population for whom school choice is much more imperative.” Wolf said. “Then once they are established and operating, the advocates seek to expand it ... to a broader population of students."

    Where lawmakers stand

    It's unclear whether the Legislature has the political will to enact a full expansion of the Empowerment Scholarship Account program.

    Sen. Bob Worsley, a Mesa Republican who is viewed as a swing vote on the issue, refused to discuss his position.

    “I am working to get a hard cap where it is today and accountability,” he wrote in a text message. “They will not get my vote for ESAs without those concessions.”

    Lesko said she was open to including some accountability measures in the bill but wouldn't say what they are.

    Sen. Frank Pratt, R-Casa Grande, called the newspaper’s findings concerning. Pratt said he has “issues” with the expansion legislation but would not specify his concerns.

    “I would be more supportive if there was a little bit of a change in the bill,” he said. “I’m just concerned that we’re moving too quickly.”

    Rep. Randall Friese, D-Tucson, noted the original intent of the ESA program was to help disabled students, not to subsidize private-school expenses.

    “There will be a point where it breaks the back of public schools,” he said.

    Friese learned from The Republic how much is being diverted from school districts to private schools and other educational programs.

    “It’s nice to see that the data is showing how these monies are being spent,” he said. “I’m afraid that it’s probably being used by well-to-do families to supplement their private school tuition.”

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