Saturday, April 8, 2017

Arizona Frees Money for Private Schools Buoyed by Trump’s Voucher Push

Gov. Doug Ducey of Arizona has signed into Law sweeping changes in how State Money can be used to Educate Students, making it easier for Parents to enroll their Children in Private schooling at Public Expense.

The Bill, which the State Legislature passed Thursday, makes all 1.1 million Public School Students in Arizona eligible for Money from a Program that until now was available only to some Students, including those with Disabilities and those in Under-Performing Schools.

Under the Law, Parents who withdraw their Children from Public School can use their Child’s share of State Education Funding to pay for Private School Tuition, Home-Schooling Costs, Tutoring and Online Education, as well as for therapies for the Disabled.

Democrats and Teachers Unions vociferously opposed the expansion, which they said would drain Money from already Underfunded Public Schools. But the behind-the-scenes intervention of Ducey, a Republican, helped the Legislation overcome opposition from both sides of the aisle.

The Arizona plan is one of the most ambitious expansions yet of a concept, Portable Public Education Funding, that Trump endorsed on the Presidential Campaign Trail last year, and which his Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, spent decades lobbying for as a Philanthropist.

DeVos, who spent part of last week in Florida promoting that State’s Private School choice programs, praised Arizona for its action. “A big win for students & parents in Arizona tonight with the passage of ed savings accts,” she said on Twitter. “I applaud Gov. @DougDucey for putting kids first.”

State Senator Debbie Lesko, the Sponsor of the Bill, said the Trump Administration’s support for the concept had helped make her Legislation more palatable to lawmakers. “From the national level down, the winds have changed,” she said. “All children are different, and they learn in different educational environments. We shouldn’t force them to be in the same educational model we’ve used for the last 150 years.”

The Law expands the use of Money from the State’s Empowerment Scholarship Accounts program, known as an E.S.A. Florida, Mississippi, and Tennessee have similar programs, but they all restrict Eligibility to Disabled Children. That makes the Arizona expansion the broadest to date.

Unlike traditional Vouchers, in which States pay Private Schools directly, E.S.A.s allow Parents to distribute Public dollars for Educational Expenses.

In 2015, Nevada passed an Empowerment Scholarship Bill that would have allowed any former Public School student access to use an Account, but last year, the State Supreme Court halted the Program, saying its Financing Mechanism would harm Public Schools. The Program is on much firmer Legal ground in Arizona, where the State’s top Court declared the Accounts Constitutional in 2014.

This year, about 3,500 Arizona Students, the majority of whom have Special Needs, are participating in the Program. The average size of an account is $5,700 per year for Children without Disabilities and $19,000 for Children with them. The Funds are distributed via Debit Cards.

According to a 2016 report on the Program from EdChoice, an Advocacy group that supports Private School Choice, 83% of E.S.A. Funds are spent on Private School Tuition, 7% are spent on Tutoring and less than 1% are spent on Online Education. A third of Recipients are using their Accounts to Pay for multiple Educational Services.

In Legislative negotiations, skeptics of the expansion were able to secure several compromises. Although all Public School Students will be eligible to apply for an Account, enrollment in the program will be limited to about 5,500 new Students each year, eligible on a first-come-first-served basis. Total Enrollment will be capped at 30,000 Students in 2022. All Private Schools that accept E.S.A.s will be required to Test account Recipients annually, using a Nationally recognized Standardized Test. But only Schools serving over 50 Scholarship Students will have to Report their Students’ Scores publicly. Unlike Public Schools, they will not have to Report on the Performance of subgroups such as racial Minorities, Low-Income Students, or those learning English.

Advocates for Education savings Accounts say they allow children from Low-Income families to escape failing Public Schools. But an Investigation by The Arizona Republic found that 75% of current E.S.A. Recipients in the State previously attended relatively affluent, high-performing Public Schools.

The Program has been especially popular with the Parents of Disabled Students. “The public school options are not working for those families,” regardless of income, said John Schilling, Chief Operating Officer of the American Federation for Children, a National Advocacy group that lobbied for the Arizona expansion. DeVos is the group’s former board Chairwoman.

An Arizona state Senator who opposed the Bill, Juan Mendez, a Democrat, said the amount of Money in the Accounts was too little for many of his Low-Income Latino constituents to afford a high-quality Private Education. He worries, he said, that Affluent White Parents will use the Accounts to flee Public School systems that are becomingly increasingly Latino each year. “We are facilitating a new type of white flight,” he said. “You don’t even need a moving van anymore to get your kid to another school.”

Over a dozen States considered E.S.A. Bills this year, but such proposals make for heavy Political lifting. Democrats are generally united in opposition, while some Republicans are skeptical because of the impact of the accounts on State Budgets. And Conservative Legislators from Rural Regions often complain that there are few Private Schools to choose from in their areas.

Nevertheless, Advocates for Private School choice hope the Arizona victory will lead to National momentum. Trump is seeking $250 million to Finance Private School choice at the Federal level, through a Tax Credit.

NYC Wins When Everyone Can Vote! Michael H. Drucker
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