by Matt Beienburg
The Arizona Republic has spared little ink in painting charter schools and Empowerment Scholarship Accounts (ESAs) as the great bogeymen of K-12 education in Arizona. Rather than reporting on the academic success of Arizona’s charter school sector and the personal stories of thousands of parents whose kids have received special education services and other care through an ESA, The Republic has apparently found it more ideologically satisfying to ally itself against all forms of parental choice in Arizona.
Most recently, for example, The Republic’s October 25 exposé on ESA usage cast a damning light on the program. Unfortunately, it’s The Republic’s analysis, not the ESA program, that needs to be drawn into the light.
The Republic’s story makes two key assertions: 1) that ESAs are disproportionately used by and serve the wealthy, and 2) that kids from rich areas get bigger ESA awards than more disadvantaged peers.
Both assertions are false.
In particular, the paper opened its story by claiming:
“Arizona students who use public money to go to private schools are still disproportionately leaving wealthier and higher-performing school districts….Nearly 70 percent of the money from the voucher-like Empowerment Scholarship Accounts is being used by students leaving A- or B-rated districts to attend private schools.”
This is hugely misleading on several grounds: First, about 70 percent of the state’s K-12 population attends schools in A and B-rated districts, so you’d expect that number in the ESA program. But you’d have to read 34 paragraphs down in the Republic analysis to find even a veiled reference to this slightly noteworthy bit of context.
Second, students from A and B districts actually make up less than 70 percent of the students receiving an ESA, despite being 70 percent of the overall K-12 population. This is because students who left mediocre C districts, or failing D and F districts are over-represented in the ESA program. (Now, as the Republic correctly points out, students from D & F schools or districts can qualify for an ESA without meeting additional eligibility criteria, so this is exactly what we would anticipate.)
So how does The Republic promote that 70 percent ESA number? By using a misleading, but subtle switch between talking about students in one sentence, and dollars in the next. Look back at the opening excerpt from The Republic’s story: It proclaims that “students are disproportionately leaving wealthier and higher performing school districts,” but then backs that up in the next sentence by stating that “nearly 70 percent of the money” for ESAs comes from those places. The distinction matters because the actual number of ESA students coming from A and B districts is closer to 60 percent (about 10 percent lower than the share of A and B district students in the general population).
Not only that, but students coming from A and B districts aren’t even necessarily coming from A and B schools. Many well rated districts like Scottsdale have lower-income areas serving more minority and disadvantaged populations. But under The Republic’s analysis, for example, a student from Yavapai Elementary School, where 75 percent of students qualify for free and reduced-price lunch, would get counted among the wealthy just because this C-rated school falls on the outskirts of the Scottsdale Unified School District.
So what about the money claims?
The Republic seems to delight in announcing that “just like findings in 2017 and 2016, The Republic again found ESA awards from students exiting higher-performing and wealthier schools are much larger: an average of $15,000 per pupil from A and B schools, compared with an average of $8,000 for D and F schools.”
To its credit, The Republic at least acknowledges that ESA award amounts are impacted by special education status. But it makes no attempt to meaningfully clarify that the supposed disparity in award amounts is entirely the result of the extra funding that students who are blind, deaf, or have other severe special needs receive.
In fact, the program data used by The Republic shows the average ESA award amount for non-special needs students from A and B districts is about $5,300, identical to the $5,300 average for non-special needs students from C, D, and F districts. Likewise, awards for severe special needs average over $23,000 across district ratings.
So what does the data actually tell us?
First, even wealthy districts are often failing to provide the care parents deem best for their special needs children, prompting them to seek an ESA.
Second, in addition to the thousands of students statewide who are receiving much larger ESA award amounts for their disabilities, families of nearly 1,500 ESA students from C, D, and F districts (lower-resource districts by The Republic’s own measure) are finding ways to pay private school tuition or pursue other educational avenues with the help of the $5,300 or so they’re receiving from an ESA.
So much for the argument that ESAs are too meager a subsidy to help anyone but the rich.
True, the ESA program’s not a magic bullet, but The Republic would do well to stop maligning it as a poison pill. The Republic’s readers, and the parents of the 5,000 children benefitting from the program, would probably appreciate it.
Matt Beienburg is the Director of Education Policy at the Goldwater Institute.