by David Safier
Anyone who's surprised by this turn of events hasn't been paying attention. The generic name for the program is "Education Savings Accounts." Saving up ESA money isn't a bug; it's a feature.
The Capitol Times has the story. Parents who are using the ESAs have accumulated $2.5 million in unspent money over the past three years, meaning one dollar out of every five the state has given to parents to be used for their children's educations has yet to be spent. The Dept. of Ed. disputes the numbers — not because the Cap Times got it wrong, but because the Dept. of Ed. gave out bad numbers. However, the corrected numbers haven't been released, so it's reasonable to assume it's still a big number.
Let's look at why all that money, however much it amounts to, is going unspent. One reason is, some parents get a very large chunk of change every year. The amount is 90% of what the state would give to a public school (district or charter) to educate the child. For most kids, that's a little more than $5,000 a year. But children with special needs have considerably more allotted for their educations, as much as $20,000 a year. In the original ESA legislation, most of the children who qualified were children with special needs, meaning lots of kids had far more than $5,000 deposited in their accounts each year. Parents could choose a private school charging less than they were given and have money left over.
Or parents could choose not to send their children to school at all, which is the second reason they might end up with a surplus at the end of the year. The ESA law says parents can spend the money on private school tuition, but they don't have to. Instead, they can spend it on educational materials, online courses, tutors and testing. So if they decide to home school their kids, they've got between $5,000 and $20,000 a year to spend on, whatever — though it has to be an educational "whatever." Anything they don't spend rolls over to the next year.
That's right. Arizona is now giving parents a monetary incentive to home school their children — actually, a couple of incentives. By keeping their children out of school, parents can save up a whole bunch of money for some later educational use during their children's K-12 years. Or, and this is the biggie, they can use what they don't spend on K-12 education for college tuition and supplies. That last option gives parents a mighty big incentive to scrimp on their children's education. Every penny they don't spend is a dollar saved to pay for college tuition.
(Question: What happens if parents use the ESA program for a few years and accumulate a surplus, then decide to send their kids to public schools the next year. Can they keep that surplus for later use? Logic says they should forfeit anything left in the account if they leave the program, but I'm not sure if that's how it works. If anyone knows the answer, let me know.)
As I write this, the state senate has approved an expansion of the number of children who qualify for ESAs. The Republicans' stated goal is to have a universal voucher program. If this bill passes and gets Brewer's signature, it puts them about half way there.