by David Safier
That headline must be a joke, right? Paying parents to take their children out of school? Unfortunately, the headline's for real. It’s an incentive built into Arizona's Empowerment Scholarship Accounts (ESA)— aka Educational Savings Accounts, aka (according to me) Vouchers on Steroids. ESAs were created by the Goldwater Institute, passed into law in 2011 and expanded in 2013; they're up for another expansion this legislative session. Encouraging parents to take their kids out of school isn’t an ESA bug; as they say in the tech world, it’s a feature. Almost a third of parents used the money to homeschool their kids.
The ESA concept is pretty simple. A “savings account” is set up by the state for a qualified child who opts out of the public school system. The parent or guardian draws on that account to pay for the child’s education. Anything left over at the end of the school year rolls over to the next year.
So far it sounds like just another work-around (see, Tuition Tax Credits) to make vouchers legal in Arizona where the constitution forbids the use of public money for religious instruction (something like 70% of Arizona’s private schools are religious). ESAs give the money to parents rather than the school, and somehow that makes it legit. But when you look further into the legislation, things start getting weird.
Along with paying for tuition, ESA money can be used to pay for books, educational therapies, tutoring, curriculum, online classes and standardized test fees. In other words, pretty much anything that sounds educational. The base ESA amount is $5,300 a year, which barely covers tuition at the lowest priced private schools. For the mid- and high-priced schools, it doesn’t come close. Really, there’s only one way to take advantage of all those other perks. You have to take your child out of school. Then, if you want, you can shop around for curriculum, maybe pay for a little tutoring, maybe buy an online class or two. The savvy educational shopper can make that $5,300 go a long way if there’s no tuition to pay.
And here’s the beauty part for a parent who really knows how to skimp on a child’s education. What you don’t spend one year, you roll over to the next year, and the next, and the next. Pretty soon you’ve saved enough to pay for one of those high priced private schools. Or if you keep your kid out of school all through the K-12 years, you can take all that money you’ve saved up and use it to pay for college tuition. Really, that’s in the law. ESA money can be used for college tuition and fees.
That perverse incentive for parents to yank their kids out of school sounds like an unintended consequence of the law, but it’s not. In a recent report, the Goldwater Institute crows that between 27% and 33% of parents who set up ESAs during the 2012-2013 school year homeschooled their children. And those parents weren’t the traditional homeschool folks. By law, their children had to attend public school the year before.
Homeschooling is legal in Arizona, and parents who use it understand they get no money from the state. Now, for the first time, Arizona's conservative legislators are encouraging a new batch of parents to homeschool their children by giving them a cash incentive. “C’mon, try it out. We’ll pay you!”