All weekend, opponents of school choice in Arizona were promising an “explosive” report from the local ABC affiliate about the state’s Empowerment Scholarship Account (ESA) program. Right after Monday Night Football, we all found out the shocking truth: parents are using ESA funds to purchase—hold onto your seats!—educational products and services.
Yes, you read that right. That’s the “scandal” that Save Our Schools Arizona (SOS) has been breathlessly touting.
All K-12 students in Arizona are now eligible for an ESA. Families can use ESA funds on a wide variety of educational products and services, including tuition, tutoring, curricular expenses, online courses, special-needs therapy, and more.
A typical child enrolled in the ESA program receives about $7,300, or about half of the roughly $15,000 spent per pupil, on average, at Arizona public schools. Students with special needs can receive significantly more funding, depending on their particular disability.
According to ABC15, “State law requires families to use a portion of the ESA monies for reading, grammar, math, social studies and science, but the rest can be spent on anything educational.”
Anything educational! Can you imagine?!
The ESA program’s level of fiscal accountability is practically unrivaled. The most recent review of the ESA program by Arizona Auditor General found that out of 168,020 approved transactions, there was only a single “successful transaction at an unapproved merchant totaling $30.”
In other words, the ESA program’s rate of improper payments to unapproved merchants was only 0.001 percent. By contrast, over the past four years, the rates of improper payments for the National School Lunch Program and School Breakfast Program were 16 percent and 23 percent, respectively.
But for SOS, the “scandal” is what ESA parents can buy.
Last year, according to the data analyzed by ABC15, Arizona ESA parents spent about two-thirds of the total $304 million in ESA funds on private-school tuition. Nearly half of that ($91 million) was spent at “specialty schools that focus on kids with disabilities,” particularly autism. Another $53 million was spent on school supplies.
SOS doesn’t like any of that, but it’s the last $50 million on “educational activities and vendors” that really has them breaking out the smelling salts. For example, public funds went to buy things like “hula hoops, color-coded piano keyboards, comfortable seating for reading, folklórico shoes for special dance lessons, K’Nex kits, VR headsets, gardening supplies, and more.”
Oh no, wait! Sorry! That was the millions of dollars allocated by Arizona’s former Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman, a Democrat, to fund projects in public school classrooms. SOS has no qualms with those purchases. (And, for the record, neither do I.)
No, it’s only the purchases made by ESA families that scandalize SOS and other choice deniers. Can you believe that some of the 62,0000+ ESA families spent $1.2 million on martial arts instruction? Or $350,000 for “ninja warrior training centers, trampoline parks, and climbing gyms”? Or $2 million in music expenses, like pianos or piano lessons?
“The public-school kids have no resources and are really, really struggling, and then these families can use vouchers to pay for jiu-jitsu while the rest of us pay out of pocket,” huffed Beth Lewis, the executive director of SOS.
But wait, don’t public schools provide music lessons and physical education? Why yes, they do.
Indeed, some Arizona public schools even provide martial arts instruction and piano lessons. Tucson Unified Public Schools even offer instruction in “band, orchestra, guitar, piano, steel drums, mariachi, Taiko drumming and more.” They also offer dance lessons, including “folklórico, modern and ballroom dance” and “jazz, tap and ballet.”
These are all clearly educational activities that foster the healthy development of children in mind, body, and spirit. That’s equally true of children attending traditional public schools or who are using ESAs.
So then what’s bothering SOS? In her ABC15 interview, Beth Lewis said the quiet part out loud:
“I, as a working mom, cannot drive my kids around to swimming practice in the morning, and horseback riding in the afternoon, and then teach them some math, and then bring them to a tutoring center to do some writing.”
In other words, Lewis chooses a traditional public school as a one-stop-shop for all her children’s educational needs, but she can’t stand that other families are choosing differently for their children, so she has appointed herself as the Handicapper General to put a stop to it. It’s FOMO as public policy.
Meanwhile, ESA parents are just trying to give their children the education that they deserve.
“Not all children fit within the box of public education,” said Leila Woodard, the mother of a 7-year-old boy with autism and other disabilities, to ABC15. Her child “had been kicked out of a couple of schools; they couldn’t accommodate his needs.” Now she’s running a “homeschool pod” for her son and four friends, and using their ESA funds on tutors and classroom supplies.
“I think we’re seeing a lot of people very happy with the program and how it’s helping their children,” Woodard told ABC15. “The families that I’ve talked to are all using it correctly, in my opinion, and doing amazing things.”
Families interested in providing their children with the opportunities Lewis and SOS don’t want them to have can apply for an Empowerment Scholarship Account at the Arizona Department of Education website, and learn more about the education options in their area via Love Your School.
Jason Bedrick is a Research Fellow in the Center for Education Policy at The Heritage Foundation, where he focuses on policies that promote education freedom and choice, religious liberty, classical education, and restoring the primary role of families in education