by Matt Beienburg

February 19, 2019

To Save Our Schools Arizona and the Secular Coalition for Arizona:

Families participating in Arizona’s Empowerment Scholarship Account (ESA) program received a warm and welcome reassurance at the Senate Finance Committee hearing on SB 1395, a bill that would alleviate many of the administrative struggles ESA parents have faced in navigating the program’s rules.

In particular, Save Our Schools (SOS) Arizona co-founder Dawn Penich-Thacker declared at Wednesday’s hearing in unequivocal terms (emphasis is mine):

“No one is trying to get rid of the ESA program…I am here speaking as a leader of Save Our Schools Arizona and I am clarifying that we and nobody, no other organization that I know, is trying to get rid of the ESA program. We are not trying to kick out existing families. We are not trying to reduce current eligibility criteria. Those things get said. It is a fear-mongering tactic that I have personally heard. I have personally asked the people saying this not to say it. So again I want to say it in this public setting… No one is trying to end, reduce, or limit the existing ESA program.”

This is fantastic news, and I’m sure nearly every ESA parent and child would share the reaction of the Committee’s Chairman, Senator J.D. Mesnard: “I am thrilled from what I’m hearing that we don’t want to roll it back. That we apparently are OK with the ESA plan design at least as it is today. That is the new common denominator between both sides. I am excited to hear that.”

While I would like to share in the enthusiasm, I am deeply troubled by the accompanying testimony from both SOS and the Secular Coalition that suggest Ms. Penich-Thacker’s assurances may be well-intentioned but undermined by the organizations’ broader statements.

First, while Ms. Penich-Thacker noted in very ironclad terms that “no one is trying to end, reduce, or limit the existing ESA program,” the representative of the Secular Coalition declared that “choice should not come at the expense of public taxpayer dollars…so we urge you to consider amending this bill to exclude…religious education from the program.”

It is difficult to reconcile the assurance that no one—particularly no organization—seeks to reduce or limit the ESA program, when one of the leading organizations present at nearly every ESA bill hearing is explicitly urging that families be excluded from using the ESA program for schools that may be religiously affiliated.

Second, in objecting to a provision regarding ongoing evaluations of special needs ESA students, Ms. Penich-Thacker herself stated: “I am in a military family, but we’ll be done with the military in 3 years. Should my child still receive an ESA in 10 years even though we are no longer an active duty military family or my other child that accommodations are not required? No, there should be evaluations. Taxpayers would expect that.”

My hope is that this reflects an honest misunderstanding of the current ESA eligibility provisions in law, because these provisions in fact make it extremely clear that her children would continue to remain eligible for an ESA after her husband’s military service ends: Under the existing program, any student who is “a previous recipient” or “the sibling of a current or previous ESA recipient” is eligible for the program for their entire K-12 career.

Yet Ms. Penich-Thacker appears to argue that families whose military service concludes partway through their child’s education, for example, should be forced to pull their student out of their private schooling arrangement or find other means of paying the tuition and costs on their own. This would most certainly require a rollback of the program’s eligibility provisions.

Given my objections to the overwhelmingly dishonest portrayal of SB 1395 as an expansion

bill using the exact “fear-mongering tactics” Ms. Penich-Thacker denounced (and indeed there have been, and are, other bills dealing with ESA expansion, but entirely separate from SB 1395), I do not wish to go the same route in accusing either SOS or the Secular Coalition of seeking to deconstruct the ESA program if that is truly not your intent.

However, I do ask: Will you reaffirm Ms. Penich-Thacker’s statement that you would in no way “reduce or limit” the existing ESA program, even for those students whose refuge and academic hope amid backgrounds in the foster care system or failing public schools may come, for example, from a school named for the saints? Is it indeed your position that Arizona families are made better off by the existence of the ESA program at the very least as an outlet for the disadvantaged populations currently served?

Matt Beienburg is the Director of Education Policy at the Goldwater Institute.

Cross-posted from the Arizona Capitol Times.

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