A bill has been proposed that would expand Arizona’s voucher system to pay for private schools and make it available to 73 percent of the state’s students. The bill’s sponsor, Representative Debbie Lesko, will discuss her bill with Representative Eric Meyer, who opposes it.
Ted Simons: Good evening. Welcome to "Arizona Horizon." I'm Ted Simons. Tonight, a debate on a bill making nearly three-quarters of Arizona students eligible for vouchers that give public money to pay for private schools. Here now is representative Debbie Lesko, who sponsored the bill, and representative Eric Meyer, opposed to the legislation. Good to have you both here.
Debbie Lesko: thank you for having us.
Ted Simons: what does SB 1237 do?
Debbie Lesko: My bill is HB 2291, but they are called empowerment scholarship accounts. The goal for my legislation is to improve education. To me it doesn't matter where that education takes place, I just want to improve education. My children chose to go and I chose for my children to go to the traditional public schools. Not all children can learn in the same type of environment, so this is an alternative, a good option and a good way to improve education and provide choice.
Ted Simons: A good way to improve education. Valid?
Eric Meyer: Well, no. There's no evidence of that. In fact, we're taking potentially with this expansion 880,000 kids can potentially leave the public schools out of the 1.1 million, take a voucher worth 5,400 and leave the system with absolutely no accountability. We have no idea how the schools that these kids are going to are going to perform. And we have in some case no, sir idea how those dollars are being spent. So we have worked very hard to create standards for the state, and we hold our public schools both district and charter accountable for educating our kids to those standards. There's none of that with these dollars.
Ted Simons: Accountability has been a concern among critics.
Debbie Lesko: I think that is an invalid argument. I just disagree with representative Meyer. Right now universities seek out home schoolers, and home schoolers are not required to have testing. Yes, their grades do very well. They have a low rate of dropping out in the universities. Same with private schools. Private schools in fact 95% of all private schools have testing that they publish to the parents. Of course the main accountability that we want is the parents. The parents should have a choice of where to send the child. I also disagree with representative Meyer on that there's no cases that show improvement of education. Totally inaccurate. In fact if representative Meyer was in the committee hearings he would hear personally from parents that have used these empowerment scholarship accounts and how their child has flourished with the ability to use their money for -- because not all children learn the same way. Not all children do well in public school. So that's why this gives them another alternative. It saves the state money or saves taxpayer money because on average, there are about $5,400in ESA scholarships whereas we spend, what, $8,800 for a typical public school student.
Ted Simons: Respond, please, to the idea of performance and the fact that some kids home schooled, private schooled, otherwise, do very well.
Eric Meyer: Some do but not all. We're talking about taking potentially 880,000 kids and exposing them to an experiment. So that may work, but there's -- there are anecdotal cases. I was in committee. A few parents testified who had special needs kids and their circumstances had improved. But our public schools, we're starving our public schools. Representative Lesko has voted for over $3 billion in cuts to our district schools. Now it does cost the state money. The fact is that the way the Department of Education is funding these, the base level of funding for these accounts is higher than the district level of funding for our schools by about $1,400. So we're now telling parents that they can leave and it's only parents with means that are going to be able to take advantage of these vouchers. Most private schools don't just cost $5,400 to go to. They cost $15,000 and you need to be able to drive your child there. What we're doing with her bill is allowing those parents with means to take our tax dollars that were going into our district schools and leave with them. At taxpayer expense.
Ted Simons: Respond, please.
Debbie Lesko: There's a couple of things I want to say. One is that I have been very involved in my kids' public schools. I have been the fund raising chairman. I have been in the PTA, the booster club. I support public schools. I supported increased funding last year. I support increasing funding for traditional public schools this year. So the last thing that I would do is try to hurt public schools. My kids go to public schools. So I'm not going to hurt something my kids go to. This thing about 880,000 kids, you have to understand there's a cap on the empowerment scholarship account, which is one half of 1% of all of the public school students. So if the public schools are that afraid of competition with one half of one half percent I think they have bigger things to worry about. The other thing I want to talk about is --
Eric Meyer: The cap expires in 2019. Is that not correct?
Debbie Lesko: That is correct.
Eric Meyer: So there will be no cap.
Debbie Lesko: We're in now 2014. That's five years away.
Eric Meyer: Time goes by quickly.
Debbie Lesko: It's one half of 1% of all public school students. That comes out to about 5,000 students a year. Even if we expanded it to every single student in the entire state, it is still capped at about 5,400.
Eric Meyer: Till 2019.
Debbie Lesko: That's five years away.
Eric Meyer: Too soon for me.
Ted Simons: You said the last thing you want to do is hurt public schools yet everyone associated with public schools says it's going to hurt. Is everyone wrong?
Debbie Lesko: You know, the organizations associated with public schools, I understand their opposition. They are trying to protect their public schools. I mean, it's just like if you owned a business you try to protect your business. You don't want any competition. But Arizona has led the way in school choice. The sky has not fallen. Public schools are still getting about $8,800 per student. Do I wish it was more? Of course. But we just went through a huge recession so you know as well as I do that we had to cut funding for education and just about everything else to balance the budget.
Eric Meyer: Just on the 8,800 number, different schools get different amounts of money. The ESA accounts are costing us 13,500 on average per student because the kids you're including special needs kids. When you include that 8,800 for districts let's be honest about ESA. Those are the facts. And we are hurting our district schools. You're absolutely right. We have the most choice and competition in the country but we have not invested in our schools. We have continued to cut education. I was on the Scottsdale School Board for eight years. Every one but one year we made cuts.
Ted Simons: Bottom line is whatever it is, call it any name you want, give it initials, any bill, house or Senate bill you want, if it helps kids get a better education, why not try it?
Eric Meyer: We don't know that it does and there's no -- I have had an amendment to put testing into these accounts and you know that you think that's a hostile amendment and you wouldn't let it on your bill. If it does, let's see if it works. Let's see if the kids meet the same standards that our kids in our district schools meet and make sure we're preparing them for college and the work force. That's the goal. That's what we're doing in our district and charter schools.
Ted Simons: You mentioned Arizona is a leader in choice and has been for years.
Debbie Lesko: We have.
Debbie Lesko: Why aren't our schools any better?
Debbie Lesko: You know, I think our students, some of our students that have experienced choice are doing better. I really do. Kids that are -- on the house lawn today we met with kids that are going to online taking advantage of online schooling. Some of those kids said they really enjoy it because if they can figure out a problem online, they can proceed to the next step, whereas in the traditional public school they told me I had talked to kids that said that if a student that wasn't understanding the problem they would have to stay working on that. This is about choice. It's about giving parents choice, students choice. My goal again is to improve education. To me it doesn't matter where it takes place.
Ted Simons: Quickly, again, if choice has been such a mantra, a focus and Arizona is a leader in choice after all of these years, instead of focusing on public schools we focused on choice to a certain degree, why couldn't schools and students doing better?
Debbie Lesko: I think in some case there are. I put my son in for two years in basis charter school. They are doing an excellent job. Recruiters came to eighth grade to recruit kids in eighth grade when they graduate from 12th grade these kids are excelling. Choice is have very good thing.
Ted Simons: Conversely if public schools are the answer and we need to put more resources into them why do so many people see public education as a failure?
Eric Meyer: I don't know who all those people are. We all got here, our democracy came out of the public education system. We guarantee every child that comes to our school house doors an education. So I would argue that we haven't failed. But what's happened in the past 10 to 20 years here in Arizona is we have stopped investing in our kids. From the time I graduated from chaparral high school to now we have cut funding significantly. If you look at our test scores, our class size, our dropout rate, they have all gone up as we have cut that funding. I would argue that if we want results we need to invest in our teachers and our leaders on our campuses and our children so that they can be successful.
Ted Simons: All right, I think we'll stop it there. Good to have you both here.
Debbie Lesko: Thank you.
Ted Simons: Thanks for joining us.
Eric Meyer: Hope it was lively enough.
Ted Simons: It was lively enough.
Debbie Lesko:Representative, Arizona; Eric Meyer:Representative, Arizona;