February 4, 2021
By Matt Beienburg

Opponents of educational freedom are attacking SB 1452 and its sponsor on the grounds that…

…it would help too many students.

This new billpassed in the Arizona Senate Education Committee this week—would significantly increase access to the state’s Empowerment Scholarship Account (ESA) program.

Yet disappointingly (though perhaps predictably), various pundits have begun complaining that the bill’s provisions for serving students from low-income communities are not sufficiently restrictive and that they grant more families the right to educational freedom than establishment bureaucrats think deserve it. Yet this bill will not only identify and serve thousands of students in need, it will do so using the very same metrics accepted and in use at public schools throughout the country.

SB 1452 extends eligibility for Arizona’s Empowerment Scholarship Account (ESA) program to: “A child who receives Federal Title I services for low-income students under the Every Student Succeeds Act (P.L. 114-95; 129 Stat. 1802) or a child who receives free or reduced-price lunches under the National School Lunch and Child Nutrition Acts.”

In doing so, SB 1452 would serve students in a way that is not only consistent with existing ESA statute, but also in a way that follows the same broadly accepted, federally established approach for supporting low-income students that school districts rely on today.

As stated by the U.S. Department of Education:

Title I, Part A (Title I) of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, as amended by the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESEA) provides financial assistance to local educational agencies for children from low-income families to help ensure that all children meet challenging state academic standards.”

To “provide financial assistance…for children from low-income families” as stated, Title I serves students through two channels, both of which are mirrored in SB 1452.  For some students who attend Title I schools, they receive “targeted assistance”— that is, special services for individual students individually identified based on their academic need (notably, not by an arbitrary income cutoff). 

For other students who come from communities where the concentration of poverty is so extreme, however, the Title I resources are used to provide “schoolwide” support, serving every student at the school, regardless of each individual student’s exact income.

Indeed, as put by U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics:  “Today, 95 percent of children served by Title I receive services in schoolwide programs that serve all children in the school, regardless of whether they are formula eligible or not.”

In other words, the approach adopted by the federal government for its signature program to provide educational support for low-income communities is explicitly designed in a way to address low-income communities without picking individual kids to exclude simply because their family’s income could exceed a specific and arbitrary cutoff threshold by as little as a dollar.

In short then, SB 1452 follows the same approach to serving low-income communities as prescribed by the federal government.

Moreover, it means that, as Senator Boyer observed during the senate education committee hearing, students would not qualify for an ESA under SB 1452 simply on account of attending a Title I school. But if they attend a Title I school where every student receives Title I benefits, then yes, rather logically, they would qualify. 

Now, some have also objected to SB 1452 allowing incoming kindergarteners who are slated to attend a high-poverty “schoolwide” Title I school to also apply for an ESA. This seems like a rather odd complaint, though, considering this provision also mirrors current statute: Under the ESA program today, incoming kindergarteners who fall within eligible categories and communities are expressly allowed into the program. As a particularly helpful parallel, for instance, the ESA program offers eligibility to students attending D- or F-rated public schools, as well as incoming kindergarteners who reside within the attendance boundaries of these schools. SB 1452 would simply apply the same approach to low-income communities at large.

Lastly, while several opponents of the bill have warned of an impending mass scheme of parents who would pull their students out of private school, put them temporarily in a public school to earn ESA eligibility, and then tear them back again, they seem to gloss over the fact that these families would have had the opportunity to do so already. Substitute “Title I school” with “D- or F-rated school” in this hypothetical scenario, and you have something that parents could theoretically already do: Put their student in a public school for a portion of one year, yank them out, and then get ESA benefits each year thereafter. And yet, rather than tens of thousands of students flooding the ESA program via the D and F school eligibility route, there are approximately 500 ESA students from D/F schools across the whole state—meaning that mass exploitation seems more the conjecture of politicians than the actual behavior of parents.

These and other complaints against SB 1452 not only fall short under the magnifying glass, but ultimately are simply rooted in ideological opposition to parental choice and the idea that kids deserve access to the best education available—regardless of its form or provider.

Matt Beienburg is the Director of Education Policy and the Director of the Van Sittert Center for Constitutional Advocacy at the Goldwater Institute.

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