Coming to a private school near you, and the home-school down the block: taxpayer-funded ESA money for children whose parents never considered sending their kids to a district or charter school.
Courtesy of a bill Ducey signed a few days ago, the Empowerment Scholarship Accounts, aka Vouchers on Steroids, will soon be available to every child in Arizona. The restrictions on who can apply for an ESA are gone. Rich or poor, in districts and schools with "A" to "F" grades, with or without learning disabilities, every child qualifies. True, a last minute deal to lure in a few reluctant Republican legislators added limits to the number of ESAs which can be given out, topping out at 30,000 by the 2022-23 school year, but the Goldwater Institute had its fingers crossed when it made the deal. The limits will be gone as soon as G.I. and Ducey can figure out a way to get rid of them.
But even without the limits, there's a catch. To get an ESA, a child has to attend a district or charter school for at least 100 days the year before, which means students already in private schools or being home-schooled can't apply for the vouchers. But that catch has an escape clause. Children entering kindergarten can get the voucher money without ever setting foot in a district or charter school.
So why wouldn't parents who plan to have their kindergarteners attend a private school apply for an ESA, which, once they get it, will continue year after year until their children finish high school (or, if there's money left over, until it's all used up paying for college)?
And why wouldn't parents who home-school their children start the ESA ball rolling when their tykes hit four or five, and keep the money rolling in until their children finish high school (or, if there's money left over, until it's all used up paying for college)?
After all, those parents will get a $4,000-a-year voucher at the low end and as much as $20,000, or even more, for children with educational disabilities. Free money! It's all upside, no downside. They'd be fools not to take advantage.
At the beginning of the next school year, no doubt, lots of kindergarteners whose parents never considered sending them to district or charter schools will have ESAs. The year after that, those children will be in first grade, vouchers intact, while a new group of kindergarteners qualify for another batch of ESAs. Keep that process going every year for the next 13 years, and every grade, K through 12, will be filled with those ESA recipients. By then, it's possible that nearly every private school and home-schooled student will be dipping into state funds to help pay for their educations.
So how much new money might that cost the state — not for students who transfer from district or charter schools, but for students who would have been in private schools or home-schooled anyway? My very rough estimate is that it could run between $150 million and $300 million a year by the time next year's kindergarteners are seniors.
Here's how I arrive at those numbers. Right now, about 70,000 Arizona children attend private school or are home schooled. It's probably more than that, but let's use that figure. Some of those students are already getting voucher money either through ESAs—more than 3,000 students—or through Student Tuition Organizations—nobody knows how many STO-assisted students are out there, but the number is in the tens of thousands. That leaves between 40,000 and 50,000 students who are attending private school or being home-schooled with no financial assistance from the state.
If most of those parents receiving no financial assistance decide to take advantage of the ESAs—and why shouldn't they, it's easy money—that could run up to 35,000 students. Each student would get anywhere from $4,200 at the low end to $20,000+ at the high end, so let's use a conservative figure and say the average ESA is $8,000. That would total $280 million a year in taxpayer money for students who never would have attended a district or charter school. Even if my rough estimate is twice as high as it should be, the total would come to $140 million.
We spend too little on education in Arizona. That's a given. Ducey pats himself on the back for backing Prop 123 which adds $325 million a year. But his latest attack on public education could drain between $150-$300 million of that into private schools. And that's not counting the students who transfer from district and charter schools. That's just for students who never would have attended a district or charter school.