by Matt Beienburg

February 22, 2019

Restoring eligibility to families that already belonged to the disadvantaged populations served by Arizona’s Empowerment Scholarship Account (ESA) program is not an expansion—certainly not as opponents of the ESA program mean to convey the word. Suggesting otherwise, while perhaps satisfying and politically expedient, is cynical and misleading.

In the wake of discredited national media narratives over Jussie Smollett and the students of Covington Catholic School in the last month alone (the former now facing felony charges for filing a false police report, and the latter now pursuing legal charges against the Washington Post over its coverage), I would plead with our state’s local news outlets to distinguish themselves by holding to a higher level of journalistic integrity—beginning with their coverage of Arizona’s ESAs and the ongoing legislative debates surrounding the program—particularly SB 1395.

Senator Sylvia Allen sponsored SB 1395 to address administrative challenges in the ESA program, as echoed by the wave of ESA families who testified at the Senate Finance Committee hearing about their struggles to navigate and comply with the program’s rules, many of which have been changed on them from one year to the next by the Arizona Department of Education (ADE) with little, if any, notification.

But while Sen. Allen explicitly separated SB 1395’s reforms from a concurrently filed expansion bill (SB 1396) to allow the proposals to be treated individually, Arizona’s newspaper outlets have been almost dizzying in their embrace of the talking points of Save Our Schools (SOS) Arizona and Democratic lawmakers opposed to the ESA program. As the logic goes, Arizona voters rejected Prop. 305 (which would have expanded ESA program eligibility to all students statewide), so anything that can be tied to “expansion” in even the mildest terms threatens to violate the voters’ will. 

Headline Exhibit A: “Senate Panel OKs new school voucher bill, despite recent rejection by Arizona voters.” Headline Exhibit B:  “New Efforts to Expand Arizona Education Voucher Program Advance at Legislature.” Nevermind that the bill’s purpose and primary impact would be to improve the operation of the program—there’s a whiff of expansion, and that must be highlighted above all else.

The Arizona Mirror then touted this week that the fiscal impact estimates of SB 1395 “concluded what was obvious to everyone but the GOP backers of the bill: It expands enrollment and will thus cost the state more money.” (Before pointing out the Mirror’s decision to shrug off the context of the bill’s provisions, I wonder whether the Mirror and others would also characterize the roughly 1,000 additional students joining the program each year as an “expansion” being snuck past voters against their will?)

So for those whose only conduit to the bill’s Senate hearing was through the filter of correspondents, I’d like to make very clear what this alleged usurpation of the voters’ will actually entails:

Underlying the charge against SB 1395 is the claim that the bill allows kids to use an ESA if they reside near a D or F rated school, rather than actually attending one, as required by law now. 

But what has been mentioned in precisely zero of the news stories on this issue is that these students had already been eligible for an ESA and had only lost that eligibility due to inconsistent language in the program’s statute. Their eligibility is being restored, not expanded.

Before the current frenzy, most readers probably never stopped to wonder whether the D or F rating that qualifies a student for an ESA refers to the student’s neighborhood public school they’d be assigned to based on their zip code, or whether it means whichever school the student ends up attending, even if it might be miles further away from their home. 

Well, right now, the answer depends on and actually changes based on what grade the student is in. For a kindergartener, the relevant rating is based only on where they live, and the rating applies only to the nearest school. But for a second-grader it’s based on the where they attend, and the rating can apply to either a school or school district. Maybe that seems convoluted, and that’s exactly the problem. SB 1395 is intended to eliminate the disparity in the language.   

So let me address the charge that—regardless of the merit or intent of the reform—this still constitutes expansion: As I stated in my testimony at the bill’s Committee hearing, yes, a student could become eligible under SB 1395, but that student would have already originally been eligible as a kindergartener and lost the eligibility just because they had tried attending a public school further from their neighborhood, rather than immediately turning to an ESA or languishing in the D or F rated public school down the street.

So, no, it is not a new student who was never eligible. If that family had wanted to put the student into an ESA in kindergarten, they could have done so. But because they tried making it work in public school and sent their child to a campus someplace further away and then realized that approach still wasn’t working for them, they’d be out of luck and discover that they’d been shut out from the ESA program, even though they continue to reside in the exact same place, near the exact same failing school as before.

So yes, it is true, that for the sliver of families who live near a D or F rated school (less than about 10 percent of students) AND who moved to that neighborhood after their kids were kindergarteners (surely the vast minority of that 10 percent) AND who had moved away from a higher-performing neighborhood where they wouldn’t have qualified as a kindergartener in the first place, AND who then enrolled in a public school outside their new neighborhood school, AND then decided they wanted to get an ESA after spending at least 1 year in that public school…yes, they would constitute a new population who was never previously eligible for an ESA. But this tortured hypothetical is not grounds for labeling SB 1395 as an expansion bill.

Again, this is not about expansion or bringing in a new class of students who qualify; this is about eliminating confusion, frustration, and needless complexity in the program.

As I recently wrote elsewhere, there are indeed ESA expansion bills that have been introduced this session, and those are appropriate grounds for a spirited debate over the future of the program. But to claim that supporters of SB 1395 are somehow “disingenuous” because the facts on the ground don’t fit into the headlines of the day is beneath the journalistic decorum Arizonans deserve.

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

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