In a party-line vote on Wednesday, the Arizona Senate approved a bill to expand the state’s K-12 school choice scholarships: the Arizona Equal Opportunity Education Act.
SB1657 expands Empowerment Scholarship Account (ESA) program eligibility by allowing more classifications of students to participate. That includes those with: disabilities identified by public school systems in other states; a parent that is a veteran, first responder, or full-time health professional; income that qualifies for federal free and reduced-price lunch programs; a household that receives benefits from Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or Section 8 Public Housing Assistance; participation in federal Title I services for low-income students under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA); residence in the attendance boundary of a school that qualifies for schoolwide Title I Program funding under ESSA or whose governing board submitted a plan to the School Facilities Oversight Board within the last two years requesting additional construction or funding due to exceeding existing capacity; or current or past participation in the Education Recovery Benefit Program, Open for Learning Recovery Benefit Program, or any successor state grant program. It also would entitle participating children to access Classroom Site Fund (CSF) dollars.
Additionally, permissible ESA expenditures would include public transportation services; educational devices such as calculators, laptops, telescopes, microscopes, and printers; and consumable educational supplies like paper, pens, and markers. The legislation also ensures that school districts cover expenses for independent educational evaluation from qualified examiners obtained by parents, like psychiatrists.
American Federation for Children (AFC) Arizona State Director Steve Smith asserted on “The Conservative Circus” that the legislation marked the largest expansion of school choice in state history. Smith cited polling numbers that 78 percent of minorities in Arizona support school choice.
“I’m still trying to figure out why Democrats voted against this,” remarked Smith. “We’re talking about the kids that need the help the most, the Democrats — who I’m told over and over again are always helping the downtrodden — continue to vote no.”
State Senator Paul Boyer (R-Glendale), the bill sponsor, argued in last week’s Senate Education Committee that opposition to the bill concerning a reduction in public school spending was reducing children to dollar signs. He cited that Arizona has invested over $8.6 billion into public education since 2016, and that the state set an all-time record with its latest per-pupil spending: well over $14,000.
“I can’t tell a parent, ‘Sorry, we haven’t done enough on the funding side,’ when we really have. And at one point we have to say, we have to let every child who wants to go to the school of their choice, they should have that opportunity, too,” said Boyer.
Boyer insisted that the greater issue at hand was allowing parents to choose the best educational options for their child.
As AZ Free News reported, the legislation earned the backing of NFL Alumni Association chaplain and Phoenix-based pastor Drew Anderson; he credited school choice for his escape from the school-to-prison pipeline. Anderson insisted that school choice defined a “civil rights movement of our era.”
NFL Alumni Association chaplain and Phoenix-based pastor Drew Anderson addressed the Senate Education Committee in favor of a bill to expand Arizona’s school choice system, SB1657, calling school choice the “civil rights movement of our era” and condemning the modern K-12 public school system as “educational slavery.” He insisted that the current education system fails the black and brown community.
“There is nothing more important to humanity right now than school choice,” said Anderson. “In 1865, it was an unpopular decision for a lot of legislators to get together to end a system that was as American as apple pie,” said Anderson. “But here we are in 2022, asking a group of legislators once again to make an unpopular decision, which is to end educational slavery.”
SB1657 would expand eligibility for Arizona’s school choice system, the Empowerment Scholarship Account (ESA) program, by allowing students with: disabilities identified by public school systems in other states; a parent that is a veteran, first responder, or full-time health professional; income that qualifies for federal free and reduced-price lunch programs; a household that receives benefits from Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or Section 8 Public Housing Assistance; participation in federal Title I services for low-income students under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA); residence in the attendance boundary of a school that qualifies for schoolwide Title I Program funding under ESSA or whose governing board submitted a plan to the School Facilities Oversight Board within the last two years requesting additional construction or funding due to exceeding existing capacity; or current or past participation in the Education Recovery Benefit Program, Open for Learning Recovery Benefit Program, or any successor state grant program.
The Senate Education Committee passed the bill along party lines, 5-3. Even Anderson’s testimony on how the current education system fails the children of his community, and how school choice initiatives helped him escape a life of crime, poverty, and even early death wasn’t enough to persuade the three committee Democrats.
State Senator Paul Boyer (R-Glendale), the bill’s sponsor, explained that voters overwhelmingly showed bipartisan support for school choice expansion.
“I just have to mention this — and I don’t normally talk about voters in the chamber — but it’s been brought up twice now,” stated Boyer. “I have a poll from last year, Signal, considered the most accurate pollster by the New York Times. Once voters heard the description of this particular bill last year, they supported this. Seventy percent support. That was last year. This year, again when the particulars of this program were described, 74 percent. It’s an increase of four percent just this year, with strong majorities among Republicans, Democrats, and Independents. This is simply what the public wants and what the parents want.”
During his testimony, Anderson challenged the rhetoric that systems needed to end and funding needed to increase or be left untouched, pointing out that the current system of public funding trapping and hurting minority children was steeped in financial self-interest. He said that the school-to-prison pipeline was the elephant in the room.
“We have school districts who sit and complain about losing funding while all these black and brown kids are going to prison. Nobody complains about public funds going to private prisons to incarcerate black souls, but everybody wants to complain about public funds going to educate black minds,” asserted Anderson. “Why is it okay for public dollars to go to private prisons, but it’s not okay for public dollars to go to private schools?”
Anderson argued further that the $31,000 spent by the state on each prisoner could be mitigated by allowing the $15,000 it would take to offer a student school choice.
“We need a lifeline in the black community right now,” said Anderson. “In 1864 we were chained to plantations, but in 2022 we’re chained to failing schools.”
Boyer asked if Anderson had personally seen ESAs help minority children. Anderson revealed that he had, and was also one of those children who benefited from school choice. The pastor described how he was able to avoid being recruited for selling crack cocaine because he received a scholarship to attend an elite private school in Chicago, Illinois — one that his mother couldn’t dream of affording, though she worked three jobs. Anderson recounted how that education set him on a path to playing for the NFL and eventually earning enough money to ensure his mother didn’t have to work again. Anderson added that of his five childhood friends, three were in prison and two were dead by the time he graduated high school.
“I’m not here because of what I heard. I’m here because of what an ESA did for me,” explained Anderson. “We talk all the time about funds, we talk all the time about test scores. You know what we need to talk about? These private schools that are offering our black and brown kids a 98 percent graduation rate and a 90 percent continuation rate. I’m not worried about an AzMerit score. To hell with that! What I’m worried about is, if I send my kid to Brophy [Preparatory School], 98 percent of those kids are graduating. If I send my kid to Brophy, 90-odd percent of those kids are going to college. Men lie, women lie, but numbers don’t.”
Senator Theresa Hatathalie (D-Coal Mine Canyon) expressed concern that there weren’t accountability measures for the academic progress of ESA students. Boyer reiterated what Anderson pointed out: that private schools have better graduation rates and other indicators of success than public schools have shown.
Anderson brought up data that the graduation rates at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) were higher for students coming from private schools than those from public schools. He said that it wasn’t just about the success metrics, but safety. Anderson described how, just that morning, he witnessed eight black elementary school children exposing themselves to danger because they had to walk to their public school in South Phoenix before daybreak.
“If you’re going to a school where 98 percent of the people are graduating, there’s no other proof, there’s no other test you could give somebody to say the school is succeeding,” said Anderson. “I’ve never watched the news and it says, ‘Harvard graduates rob Circle K, details at six.’ That’s not what you see. But what you do see is, ‘South Mountain High School dropout mugs lady, details at six.’ So instead of test scores, why don’t we worry about graduation rates and continuation rates? If black and brown kids are going to college, that means they’re not going to penitentiaries.”