by David Safier
Let's see if we can follow the bouncing Huppenthal. Our Ed Supe has bounded hither and thither trying to clarify how much money should go to students using the vouchers-on-steroids Empowerment Scholarship Accounts (ESA). It's not easy to follow where he's been or where he's going, but I'm gonna give it a try.
There's one sure guide we can use to help us follow his meaderings. Hupp loves him some vouchers. He's been all for moving money from public schools to private schools since his days in the state Senate.
Here's the short version. The ESA law says students from charter schools get more voucher money than students from district schools. But Hupp decided on his own to give the ex-district kids the larger amount too. Except then he disagreed with himself and said no, he didn't do it. However, new legislation was supposed to get rid of the funding discrepancy. Except that it didn't. So now Hupp is planning to raise the voucher funding level on his own, law or no law, because, he says, the law really says the funding should be equal, and even if it doesn't, the current funding isn't fair.
Here's the longer, slower, more detailed version of the story.
The folks who created the original ESA legislation wanted to make it easier to sell to voucher skeptics. So, when they wrote the original bill, the vouchers were only for special needs kids, and who's against giving special needs kids all the help they can get? Also, they specified that each child would get only 90 percent of what it would cost the state to send that child to public school. That way, they could argue the vouchers were actually saving the state money.
The problem is, the state kicks in more money for students going to charter schools than district schools. (To be clear, this doesn't mean charters get more funding per student than districts. That's another, more complex discussion.) The base amount from the state for school districts is between $3,500 and $5,000 per child. Charters can get as much as $2,000 more. If all the vouchers were for the larger amount, opponents could say, rightly, "The state is spending 40 percent more to send kids to private school than they spend to send the same kids to public school." That would have been a tough argument for the voucher proponents to combat.
If you think about it, it makes no sense for the voucher amount to be different for kids who came from charters and district schools. I'm sure the people who wrote the bill knew that. But if they wanted to say the ESAs save the state money, they either had to go with the lower, school district amount for everyone or create the inequitable two tier system they ended up with.
The language in the legislation is clear. Kids who went to district schools get one amount of money for vouchers. Kids who went to charter schools get considerably more.
Once the new voucher program was the law of the land in Arizona — once the elephant's voucher trunk had worked its way inside the education tent — the next step was to get the rest of the voucher elephant inside. How? First, you gradually increase the number of kids eligible for the vouchers, which is exactly what Republican legislators have done over the past few years. This year, they made a mistake and overreached, creating a cockeyed plan that would have made over half of Arizona's population eligible. They had to pull that bill.
Second, you put in language that gives all voucher kids the amount that now goes to kids who had been in charters.
Here's where things start getting weird (if they weren't weird already). Hupp said, "Oh, I'm doing that already. I've been giving everyone the charter school amount. That's what I think the law says." If Hupp is telling the truth about the way he read the law, I have a remedial reading class I'd like to send him to. The language is at least 95 percent clear and maybe — maybe — 5 percent ambiguous, if you don't read English very well, that is. More likely, he decided to pretend he read the law that way.
Then, a little while later Hupp said — I'm not making this up — what he said before wasn't true. He really hadn't been giving kids who came from school districts the same amount he was giving to charter kids, even though he said earlier that he was. The denial was convenient, because a new piece of legislation added language, which Hupp requested, making sure everyone got the higher amount, so it would be a done deal without his getting involved in the argument.
Except that the language equalizing the funding was removed from the bill at the last minute. Oops.
Which leads to Hupp's latest pronouncement. He said, from now on he's going to give all students the larger voucher amount, which means voucher kids who previously went to district schools will get a funding increase of as much as 40 percent. Because, he claims, that's what the legislation said in the first place — or can be interpreted as saying. And besides, it's a matter of fairness.
Hupp may switch positions once again. But until then, he's saying, basically, "I don't give a damn what the law says. I don't give a damn that the lege was too chicken to change it. I'm gonna spend as much on the vouchers as I feel like, 'cause I love me some vouchers."