‘Keep Katie’s hands off of my future’

Arizona ESA families rallied at the state capitol Monday to oppose Gov. Katie Hobbs’ proposals to “reform” the Empowerment Scholarship Account program. Lawmakers who spoke at the event pronounced the Hobbs proposals “dead on arrival” to the cheers of parents and students at the event.

“The governor’s proposal will drastically impact special-needs families and low-income families by forcing current ESA families to go back to public school for 100 days of attendance,” said Jenny Clark, President of the pro-ESA group Love Your School. “It’s an attempt to turn private schools into public schools with hyper-regulation.”

Perhaps the sentiment of the families could be summed up on a student’s sign that read:

Keep Katie’s Hands Off of My Future

A few hours later, Hobbs made it clear in her State of the State address that she does not intend to keep her hands off the ESA program:

We have seen a steady stream of news coverage around unacceptable and sometimes downright outrageous use of taxpayer money under this program, including water park admissions, ski passes, and luxury car driving lessons.

It is our responsibility as stewards of this state to put in place guardrails to ensure taxpayer dollars dedicated to education are used properly. Without these guardrails, waste, fraud, and abuse take root and thrive.

We can deliver common sense solutions like ending the luxury spending, keeping our children safe by requiring background checks for educators, and expanding the authority of the auditor general. Additionally, let’s require recipients to have attended a public school for at least one hundred days, a reasonable standard that would save our state a quarter billion dollars.

My message to parents across Arizona, whether your family takes part in this program or not: Now is the time to advocate for accountability and for transparency, not a blank check. If we fail to do so, the current projected price tag of one billion dollars is only the start.

Hobbs’ comments display a deep misunderstanding of the Empowerment Scholarship Account program. Lawmakers structured the program as a contract between a family and the state, with mutual obligations and benefits. Once signed, ESA funds are no more “taxpayer dollars” than the salaries paid to state employees. No one in Arizona is the least bit concerned with “luxury purchases” made by state employees, nor should we be; they are none of our business. Parents are bound by their contract to follow program rules; thus, the Arizona Department of Education decides which purchases are within the boundaries of the statute. Most of the ESA purchases opponents complain about were made during the tenure of the previous head of the Arizona Department of Education. Former state Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman, a Democrat, did not support the ESA program, but she made a good faith effort to follow the statute.

Taxpayers provide ESA students with approximately 50% of the funds that a child would receive in a district and get more flexibility in the spending of those funds. Far from “lacking accountability,” the ESA program hugely enhances the most meaningful form of accountability: an exit option. No one can know for certain why Stanford University scholars found Arizona students had the fastest rate of K-8 academic growth. The state’s pervasive choice however is a much more plausible explanation than highly proficient technocracy emanating from state bureaucracies and unknown to other states.

Arizona private schools already perform background checks, and state statute already requires them to do so. Mandating 100 days of public-school attendance would cost taxpayers billions of dollars, as it would double fund students if they landed in public school enrollment counts. It would also prove cruelly disruptive to students and schools to force thousands to leave the ESA program and enroll in a public school to be eligible to re-enroll in the ESA program.

Last year, Hobbs called for an outright repeal of the ESA program. This year she has made a disingenuous set of proposals designed to achieve a similar purpose. Arizona’s ESA families and lawmakers seem ready to fight. Stay tuned for further developments.

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BY Matthew Ladner

Matthew Ladner is executive editor of NextSteps. He has written numerous studies on school choice, charter schools and special education reform, and his articles have appeared in Education Next; the Catholic Education: A Journal of Inquiry and Practice; and the British Journal of Political Science. He is a graduate of the University of Texas at Austin and received a master's degree and a Ph.D. in political science from the University of Houston. He lives in Phoenix with his wife and three children.