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AZ Gov. Hobbs’ Bizarre Attack on ESA Families

January 3, 2024

Today, 70,000 Arizona children are finally getting the education they deserve through the state’s universal Empowerment Scholarship Account (ESA) program, the most expansive program of its kind in the nation. But instead of celebrating those students’ success, Arizona Gov. Katie Hobbs is launching a direct attack on their families and the beginning of a government takeover of private and home-based education.

First, Gov. Hobbs’ plan claims to be “Protecting Rights for Students with Disabilities,” by requiring every private school to provide special education services. This is as insulting as it is disingenuous. For over a decade, the largest constituency of students served by the ESA program were students with disabilities. Literally thousands of children who were underserved by the public school system and fled it have found success through the ESA program, whether via at-home instruction, special education therapies, or tuition assistance at private schools specializing in education for students with physical and/or learning impairments.

Family after family has testified to state lawmakers and members of the state board of education that this program saved the educational lives of their children. As the mother of a child with a speech and language impairment testified to legislators in November 2023, for instance,

“When she was in 5th grade” in a public school, “her reading comprehension was at a first-grade level… all they offered her was a half an hour of therapy per week, and it was online. And that wasn’t enough to meet her needs… Because of ESA, we were able to offer her 12 times the amount of therapy that she was getting [in public school]… In that first year of utilizing ESA, her reading comprehension jumped from 1st grade to 6th grade. The ESA changed her life, and it gave her confidence, and her self-image improved. And the ESA really does what the title says. It empowers students.”

But this is apparently not enough. As with the left’s destructive embrace of “equity” in shutting down gifted education programs across the country (to ensure all students are treated the same), Gov. Hobbs seemingly wants to force every educational provider to scale up its offerings of special education services or else close its doors. How exactly is it that Arizona’s children will benefit when a small school in an economically disadvantaged neighborhood without the capacity to hire the proper dictated cadre of special education teachers is suddenly shuttered?

Second, Gov. Hobbs’ plan claims to be “increasing student safety” through new fingerprint and background check requirements. Yet private educators already employ such safeguards without a layer of bureaucracy (see for instance, the Diocese of Phoenix here, Northwest Christian School here, Trinity Lutheran School here). In fact, it is the public school system—with all of its apparent government mandated safeguards—that produced dozens of classroom teachers disciplined last month for inappropriate behavior tied to alcohol, drug, and/or sexually inappropriate conduct.

Even the leadership of anti-school choice groups such as Save our Schools Arizona have declared, “We fully support the original ESA program,” which has successfully served thousands of the state’s most vulnerable students for over a decade. So, how exactly are we supposed to believe that the ESA program is suddenly too dangerous (now that it is open to all students), but that it has been acceptably safe for the last decade in which special education and foster kids have participated year after year virtually without incident?

Third, Gov. Hobbs’ plan purports to require “accountability for taxpayer dollars.” Yet every family on the ESA program receives thousands of dollars less per child than would be spent on that same child if in the public school system, and every single ESA purchase is already subject to review. ESA families have been maligned by school choice opponents for years—long before the universal expansion—as trying to defraud the state en masse, yet even the state Auditor General confirmed as early as 2020 that ESA misspending rates are extremely low (far lower than other government programs) and that parents have been the ones proactively seeking clarity (particularly under the previous Superintendent of Public Instruction) when navigating the program’s rules about what constitutes an allowable or disallowed purchase.

Fourth, Gov. Hobbs’ policy proposal “Prohibit[s] Price Gouging” by instituting price controls on private school operators. Yet median private school tuition rates in Arizona are roughly half the cost of public school per pupil spending, which is now over $14,000 per student. Moreover, private school tuition rates have risen more slowly than public school spending increases.

Fifth, Gov. Hobbs’ plan claims to ‘Rais[e] Educational Standards” by forcing private schools to hire only teachers that meet state mandated certification requirements. Yet just as Arizona’s charter sector—which significantly outperforms the state’s public district schools at a rate of 3 to 1—is exempt from teacher certification requirements and is able to more nimbly hire teachers for their actual quality rather than number of years they clocked into a costly education degree program, Arizona private schools are able to hire based on merit, not a piece of paper. Moreover, despite the left’s affinity for state-sponsored stickers of achievement, scholars across the political spectrum have found that such requirements do little to improve educational outcomes. As the left-leaning Brookings Institution found in “Identifying Effective Teachers Using Performance on the Job,” for instance:

“Recent evidence demonstrates that teacher certification is a poor predictor of teacher effectiveness…Controlling for baseline characteristics of students and comparing classrooms within schools, there is no statistically significant difference in achievement for students assigned to certified and uncertified teachers… To put it simply, teachers vary considerably in the extent to which they promote student learning, but whether a teacher is certified or not is largely irrelevant to predicting his or her effectiveness.”

Likewise, a U.S. Department of Education – Mathematica Policy Research “Evaluation of Teachers Trained Through Different Routes to Certification” report notes that “The more rigorous studies generally showed that students of AC [alternate route to certification] teachers scored the same or higher than students of TC [traditional route to certification] teachers…When effects have been found, they have typically been described by the authors as small… There was no statistically significant difference in performance between students of AC teachers and those of TC teachers. Average differences in reading and math achievement were not statistically significant.”

Especially in an age in which states (both blue and red) are dropping unnecessary but currently mandatory degree requirements for government jobs—and focusing instead on ability—this approach is exactly backwards.

Sixth, Gov. Hobbs’ plan pledges to “reinstat[e] eligibility requirements” by forcing students to attend public school for 100 days before they are allowed to participate in the ESA program. Placing such an arbitrary obstacle in front of students in no way benefits their educational trajectory, yet this proposal would force families to spend over three months in an environment that doesn’t meet their kids’ needs before they would be allowed an escape hatch. Arizona does not force families to attend an underperforming district school for 100 days before allowing them to switch school districts or to opt for a charter school. This naked attempt to prop up the enrollment of district schools and arbitrarily exclude from the ESA program families that might already have been sacrificing to afford private or homeschool (as the governor’s own family did, at great financial difficulty) amounts to little more than political divisiveness.

Finally, the governor’s proposal of “expanding Auditor General authority” and “establishing program transparency” amount to little more than an attempt to undermine state law and subjugate parents and private school operators to the bureaucratic compliance machinery of public education. Arizona law is extremely clear that families and private schools are not to be micromanaged by the state, nor treated as incapable of pursuing an education that best serves the needs of their child. Every participating family already forfeits the higher funding associated with their student in the public school system in exchange for the opportunity to direct a portion of those dollars to a better education for their children.

Gov. Hobbs policy proposal claims to improve the ESA program for the sake of parents, taxpayers, and students—particularly those with disabilities. But let’s not forget that if the governor had had her way in 2011—when she voted against the original ESA program even for special education students—that thousands of students with special needs would still today be trapped in schools failing to serve their needs. And thousands more from the foster care system, military families, Native American reservations, and now the Arizona student population at large would likewise be locked out of educational support.

The governor’s plan is bad policy, plain and simple—and it would only hurt the very people she claims to want to help.

Matt Beienburg is the Director of Education Policy at the Goldwater Institute. He also serves as Director of the Institute’s Van Sittert Center for Constitutional Advocacy.  



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