by Brian Washington/Photo by: Sal Falko
The Arizona Court of Appeals has struck a critical blow against students and public schools by ruling that the state’s “empowerment scholarship accounts” do not violate the constitution.
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The program diverts to parents funds that would otherwise have been allocated to public schools, and authorizes them to use the money for private school tuition and fees (among other allowable uses). Enacted in 2011, the program was initially open only to students with disabilities. In 2012, it was expanded to include students transferring from “failing public schools,” students in foster care, and military dependents. This year the program was expanded yet again, this time to include students entering kindergarten, so that over time it will be universally available. The legislature also increased the amount of money available for each student.
Despite rhetoric claiming that vouchers are designed to help low-income students “escape failing public schools,” the Arizona ESA program appears designed to give wealthy families an unneeded subsidy. Recently the pro-voucher Friedman Foundation surveyed 179 families that participate in the program and found that most (65 percent) used the funds to subsidize their private school tuition expenses. There is no income eligibility threshold to participate, and more than one-third of participating families earn in excess of $71,000 annually, and are thus able to spend more on education than the program covers. Eleven percent of respondents reported spending at least $5,000 out of pocket, while three percent reported spending more than $20,000.
Financial impact statements from the Arizona Education Association, which represents more than 20,000 educators across the state, showed program costs are expected to be higher than $7.2 million in the first year and could reach $65 million by its fifth year. Educators also point out that the legislation creating the accounts does not include any accountability measures to ensure that taxpayer’s are getting their money’s worth and students are getting the quality education they deserve.
Andrew F. Morrill, a high school English/Journalism teacher and AEA president, recently said the millions spent on this program would be better invested in public education, “where there are multiple accountability measures in place which help to ensure that taxpayer dollars are being properly spent.”
AEA, along with a coalition of other student and public education activist groups, challenged the program’s constitutionality in court. The court ended up rejecting the group’s argument earlier this month.
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