February 3, 2020
By Matt Beienburg

“Hey, nevermind the breach of personal information for 7,000 ESA families (including the special needs conditions of their children) accidentally leaked by the Arizona Department of Education to reporters and anti-school choice groups like Save Our Schools Arizona (SOS). We’ve got another bombshell: Families are using an education savings account program…to…gasp…save.”

Credit is owed to the Arizona Capitol Times crew for reporting on the massive data breach that took place under the watch of Superintendent Hoffman’s staff—unlike the state’s larger media megaphone, the Arizona Republic, whose news team has been deafeningly silent after years of hounding the program at the slightest sneeze of any story they could use to paint ESAs in a negative light.  

However, the subsequent insensitivity shown toward the families whose data was leaked by using that very same data to contact them, coupled with the newest line of reporting on ESA family account balances, continues a pattern of antagonism toward the program and those using it to help their children.

The Capitol Times reports that amid the data divulged by the department, reporters found “nine [ESA account balances] accumulating more than $100,000 of taxpayer money over several years.”

Before going any further, let’s consider the math: Nine ESA accounts…out of 7,000. For those with a calculator handy, that comes out to about one tenth of one percent of ESA recipients. That means 99.9% of ESA accounts fall below this threshold. 

But wait, we hear that there are “dozens” of others with balances of $50,000 or more. Well, as the Capitol Times itself acknowledges, “some students with disabilities can receive as much as $40,000 per year” in the ESA program (note: this is still at a lower cost to the state than if those students were enrolled in a public school). So for the families able to save even a portion of that each year, getting to $50,000 over time isn’t exactly a news story. And again, as a point of reference, there are over 2,500 ESA students with severe conditions who trigger the massive funding multipliers under both the public school and ESA funding formulas, so even “dozens” isn’t saying much. 

But leaving the numbers aside, the supposed outrage from anti-ESA groups represents one more piece of manufactured hysteria. Arizona’s Empowerment Scholarship Account program is an education savings account program explicitly designed to allow and incentivize parents to take control of resources devoted to their child, spend it for their education as they see fit, and/or save it not only for learning in K-12, but for up to four years after high school at a public or private university.  

Perhaps SOS and others would prefer to adopt an annual “use it or lose it model”—the same kind that incentivizes government agencies to waste vast sums on unnecessary expenditures at the end of a year. Or perhaps it would be better to subject all of the following—health savings accounts, college savings accounts, personal savings accounts, retirement accounts, and every other vehicle of safeguarding a family’s resources for current and future use—to massive new fees, taxes, and “yearly check-ins” with the public.

Opponents of the ESA program allege that families are “hoarding” funds. I suppose all those families in America saving for college are guilty of hoarding, too.

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

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