Empowerment Scholarship Accounts

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The Arizona Senate has approved a bill that will eventually allow all students to receive taxpayer help to go to private schools. Opponents say it will end public education in Arizona. Senator Debbie Lesko sponsored the Empowerment Scholarship Accounts bill, and will discuss it along with Senator Steve Farley, who opposes the measure.

Ted Simons: Coming up next on "Arizona Horizon," a debate on a plan to greatly expand use of public funds for private school tuition and we'll learn a new way to connect stem programs across Arizona schools. Those stories next on "Arizona Horizon."

Video: "Arizona Horizon" is made possible by contributions from the friends of Arizona PBS. Members of your PBS station. Thank you.

Ted Simons: Good evening. Welcome to "Arizona Horizon." I'm Ted Simons. A private prison in Kingman damaged by rioting last year is nearly full again. State Department of corrections will add the final 360 inmates later this month. This after $2 million in repairs are completed. Some 1200 inmates were originally moved as Governor Ducey fired the private company running the prison and hired another. And former state lawmaker Laura Knaperek died this morning after a four-year fight with cancer. She represented Tempe for ten years in the house. In 2014 she helped lead a successful effort to pass the right to try ballot measure which makes it easier for terminally ill patients to access experimental treatments. The Arizona Senate recently approved a bill that would eventually allow all Arizona students to receive taxpayer help to go to private schools. The measure faces critics in the house who question the ramifications and the timing of the plan. Tonight, we hear from both sides of the issue. Joining us is Senator Debbie Lesko and Senator Steve Farley, who opposes the legislation. Thanks for being here.

Steve Farley: Great to be here.

Ted Simons: Let's get it going. Why is this good for Arizona?

Debbie Lesko: Well, I think this is a great school choice bill. So what it does is it allows parents whose children don't really fit into the traditional school district to get 90% of what that child would have received from the public schools if they had attended the public school, and use it for educational purposes. So they could use it for private schools, they could use it for online schools, for educational tutoring, and so it's capped at one half of 1% of all of the students that go to public schools here in Arizona and so we're talking about giving choice to parents. That's why I'm supporting it.

Ted Simons: You're supporting lifting that cap.

Debbie Lesko: Well, no, the cap is in place until 2019.

Ted Simons: Right, but after 2019, boom goes the cap.

Debbie Lesko: Well, that can always change but right now as of now what we're doing is expanding this eligibility to all students over a period of three years. So we're phasing it in over three years so that parents can choose what type of school they want to send their child to.

Ted Simons: Why is this bad?

Steve Farley: As you pointed out the end of that phase-in there is no cap. All 1.1 million Arizona students are eligible to take this money, around $5300 per student, from their neighborhood public district school and take it wherever they want to, into a private school, an online school, charter school or home school with very little accountability. We should respect the choice of the parents of the 82% of Arizona students who currently choose to sends their kids to a public district school.

Ted Simons: The idea big step forward for school choice. Valid?

Steve Farley: It's a big step forward for the destruction of the public education system, which is the most important tool we have ever developed to lift people from poverty. Here in Arizona we want have one of the highest poverty rates in the country.

Ted Simons: There are people saying this will be the end of public education as we know it in Arizona.

Debbie Lesko: Well, that's just silliness. The arguments being used are the same arguments that were used 20 years ago with the introduction of charter schools. That is that somehow we're going to destroy the traditional public school. All of my three children went to the traditional district public schools. I support traditional district public schools. I also support charter schools, private schools, online schools, home schooling. To me what's important is improving the education of the child. It doesn't matter to me where that takes place. So in this program, the student would have had to switch. They would have had to switch from a public school from the year before and then go towards an ESA, an Empowerment Scholarship Account. We spend on average about $9096 per student per year is the average in the state of Arizona from the total funding. Yet with the Empowerment Scholarship Account, it's 53 or $5400 a year. That's a savings to the taxpayer of about $4,000 per student per year.

Ted Simons: Do you agree with those numbers?

Steve Farley: Actually the 9,000 figure includes federal and local funds. The actual state figure is about $3500 per student that's being sent to our K-12 schools.

Ted Simons: Are you saying this would not save the state money?

Steve Farley: It would not save the state money. What happens when the money comes out of the schools there's less money for the kids who choose to stay or don't have any choice because their parents are deciding for them or they don't have any parents. You end up with a school starved of resources. We have cut 23% per pupil over the last eight years, the highest in the nation over that time. We need to reinvigorate our schools for everybody, not devastate them and turn them into a ghetto for those who can't afford to go anywhere else.

Debbie Lesko: Those are strong words and a little bit of rhetoric. We usually debate, but this is not going to devastate anything. In fact as I said, my children went to traditional public schools. I was very involved in the public schools, so I would never do anything to decimate the schools. But we're talking about certain children who just don't fit in a certain environment. So it gives those parents opportunities for another choice. We had a parent testify. Their child was autistic. The child was in the traditional district public school prior to this program. They couldn't speak; they couldn't learn, let alone speak. But when they were able to use the Empowerment Scholarship Account, they took their child and they put him in a private school designed for autistic children. That child not only got to be able to speak, but thrived and learned. That is the type of thing that we're trying to help. Again, there is a cap on this you can only grow it about 5,000 students per year compared to a million students in the public school system.

Steve Farley: Again that cap goes away in three years and for every story of one kid helped for disabled students there are many more left in a public school that has less resources.

Debbie Lesko: I would say certainly you don't oppose charter schools now, do you? The same argument has been used on charter schools but somehow you're taking away money from the traditional district schools and giving them to the charter schools. But you're not saying that the district school should keep the money even if the child isn't there, are you?

Steve Farley: They are going to be hurt by this as much as the district schools. The Arizona Republic did an expose that showed how much each was losing with the current system. There are seven of the valley school district. $10 million has been lost in the last year just to the 579 students currently taking part in this program. If you multiply that statewide it will be massive impact.

Ted Simons: Talk about that Arizona Republic report. That raised eyebrows. This thing was mostly used by high income parents more than low income parents and taking kids out of better performing schools as opposed to poor performing schools. That seems at odds with what this thing was designed to do.

Debbie Lesko: Certainly we designed it so that it qualifies for all children no matter their economic status. I don't know why those statistics came out that way, but I will point out that last year I had legislation to expand the ESA eligibility to students in low income schools, and Senator Farley opposed that one too.

Steve Farley: It's interesting. I wanted to point out a study that came out from Louisiana where they have a voucher system expanded to everybody. In the first year after kids switched to a private school with the voucher their level of achievement on the standardized tests went down. It's absolutely unclear whether or not this is actually going to improve achievement at the same time as it takes money away from public schools.

Ted Simons: Respond to the idea we heard similar arguments prior to charter schools, similar kind of arguments prior to open enrollment. The sky has supposedly fallen a couple times here. Why should people take these concerns seriously?

Steve Farley: Open enrollment means the ability to enroll in another district school. Charter schools is another public school. These are private, unaccountable, in some cases home schools. A woman has been indicted for using these funds to pay for a big screen TV, I-Pads and an abortion.

Debbie Lesko: And she was caught.

Steve Farley: Because once you open that up to hundreds more, I have talked with officials at the Department of Education, they are struggling trying to keep up with the accountability with these programs now. If you have, say, four kids and you end up with $20,000 a year on a debit card and you run into difficulties in your household it will be a massive temptation to use that for something besides the education taxpayers expect it to be used for.

Ted Simons: What about the argument that private schools aren't even a realistic option for some families. Maybe the private school doesn't want the kid, the parents don't have transportation, can't afford the tuition. The overriding concern is this is a boon for well to do parents putting their kids in expensive schools as opposed to helping low income kids get out of poor performing schools?

Debbie Lesko: First of all it's open to everyone. It is open to no matter what income you have. It's specifically prohibits children that are already in private schools. They cannot apply for Empowerment Scholarship Accounts. So again, the child has to move, switch from a public school and then go into the Empowerment Scholarship Accounts. Again, I was willing and able to help specifically low income students in low income schools with the EPP Powerment Scholarship Accounts but the same arguments are made by Senator Farley and others back then. So -- [speaking simultaneously] If you're truly concerned about these low income people, I was willing to help. I'm willing to help again.

Steve Farley: Not every child has a parent that makes good chases for that child. That's why we have almost 21,000 kids taken from their homes by DCS this year. So what you allow the kids that do have parents to make those choices to leave, then you leave a lot fewer kids who don't have a choice to be in a classroom with much fewer resources that has fewer textbooks, fewer teachers, fewer computers, and much larger class size and we end up with a system that's failing a huge section of our population.

Ted Simons: Wrap up question here for you. Bottom line. School choice is the right thing to do.

Steve Farley: Currently our parents are choosing charter schools and district schools. Only 4% are choosing private schools. The solution isn't to devastate the choice that parents are currently making in order to help the 4%.

Ted Simons: And bottom line for you, diverting tax money to private schools is not the right thing to do.

Debbie Lesko: It absolutely is the right thing to do is to increase school choice and parental choice. So that's what this bill does. It's not going to devastate public schools as the opponents say. It's going to give parents more choice for their children and improve the education of their children.

Ted Simons: We need to stop it right there. Good to have you both.

Steve Farley: Thanks for having us.

Debbie Lesko :Senator,Steve Farley:Senator

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