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The Inconvenient Truths About Empowerment Scholarship Awards

September 30, 2022

By Michele Hamer |

If you’re confused about the Arizona Empowerment Scholarship Account (ESA) program expansion to all Arizona K-12 students, you’re not alone. The recent passing of HB 2853, gives parents and guardians who opt out of the public-school option, a portion of taxpayer funds to use for tutoring, private school tuition, home schooling, and special-needs therapies. Much of the confusion comes from advocates for and against this expansion by complicating the issue with opposing scenarios.

I believe both sides of the debate must begin under the auspices of Arizona law. Specifically, the Parents’ Bill of Rights, which states: “All parental rights are reserved to a parent of a minor child without obstruction or interference from this state, including the right to direct the education, upbringing, moral or religious training and make all health care decisions for their minor child.”

Opponents to Arizona’s ESA program expansion, like Save Our Schools and teachers’ unions, who have tried and failed to get enough signatures to stop HB 2853, feel parents are unqualified and can’t be trusted with these taxpayer funds to direct the education of their children. The Democrats of Greater Tucson take that mistrust of parents to a heinous level in a recent post. They write “With no accountability protocols, this creates an opportunity for extremist-xenophobic-homophobic-white nationalist-MAGA groups to develop their own little Hitler Youth Academies to indoctrinate impressionable minors.”  The four false cheering points of the anti-ESA crowd can be easily debunked with facts:

  1. ESAs don’t siphon funds away from public schools: The inconvenient truth as explained by the Goldwater Institute is the “ESA program now gives back nearly $1,000 per child to the public school system each time a student switches to an ESA from a public school. This is because ESA students forfeit their funding from several pots of state taxpayer funded money (such as the ‘Classroom Site Fund’ and ‘Prop 123’ add-on revenues) when they leave their district or charter school, and all of that money gets redistributed back to the public school system instead. (For instance, for the 2022-2023 school year alone, the Classroom Site Fund raised $945 million dollars, with every one of Arizona’s 1.1 million public school students getting almost $900 each from it. ESA students, on the other hand, completely give up their claim to those dollars and instead send them back to their public-school peers, who end up with more money per pupil than they had before.” Read more here.

  2. ESAs do have monetary accountability and transparency: According to the Arizona Department of Education’s 2022/2023 ESA Handbook, when an Account Holder enters into an ESA contract with the Department, the Account Holder is required to report all expenses made with ESA funds. To maintain ESA program eligibility, debit card receipts must be submitted in the quarter that the transaction occurred. Complete invoices or receipts must be included when submitting expenses or making payments in the “Class Wallet” platform. All required credentials must be included when submitting debit card receipts or reimbursements.

  3. Parents can’t spend the ESA money on anything they want: The Arizona Department of Education’s 2022/2023 ESA Handbook is quite clear on their “Spending and Program Requirements” in Chapter 2. There are twenty-one out of seventy pages in this handbook explaining what is approved and unapproved spending. For instance, if your child needs a computer for online classes, you would think that is an approved expenditure, but it’s not.

  4. ESAs have academic accountability and transparency: I find the teachers’ union claim to the contrary laughable after the Arizona Department of Education’s recent release of the state’s assessment data. Overall, only 41% of students passed the English component, and a mere 33% passed the math portion. Where is the accountability for this disaster?

The biggest inconvenient truth is that home-schooled and private school students outperform public school students on state standardized tests and college entrance exams. As the number of homeschooled children in the United States grows, the statistics of student outcome cannot be ignored. According to Think Impact, homeschooled students score between 80% and 90% regardless of their parents’ level of education. On average, homeschooling one child costs the parent(s) between $700 and $1,800.

Business Wire, a Berkshire Hathaway company, reports a Back to School Survey shows 47% of parents are considering dropping school and going to homeschooling. Results from the EdChoice survey in 2020 showed that the top reasons parents had considered homeschooling before the COVID-19 shut down included freedom in exploring their child’s interests; safety concerns about schools; schools did not meet the needs of the children; and parents wanted to mold their children as per their own practices and beliefs.

Private schools have a long history of superior academic outcomes to public schools according to the National Center of Educational Assessment, but here’s another inconvenient truth the opponents of school choice via ESAs aren’t telling you; private schools deliver better family life outcomes than students who attend public schools. (See Figure 1)

Our education system has become a bloated, bureaucratic mess that is desperately trying to hang on to power over our children that is not legally theirs to have. Schools have one job, and that is to give our children a great academic education and they are failing. Compared to other nations, the United States fell to 24th in high school literacy in 2012 and continues to decline.

Parents, guardians, and concerned citizens are on the front lines, exposing the inconvenient truths regarding problems in our schools. We need to give them our support. I don’t believe the teachers’ unions, Save Our Schools, and their media cohorts are going to give up after their first defeat to stop ESA expansion.

Please contact your state representatives and tell them to uphold Arizona law which gives our parents the right to direct the education of their children.

Michele Hamer is a candidate for the Prescott Unified School District Governing Board. You can find out more about her campaign here.

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