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Fact: ESAs Help Native American Families

February 27, 2020

February 27, 2020
By Jason Bedrick and Matt Beienburg

In his 2020 State of the State Address, Governor Doug Ducey highlighted how Arizona has been a national trailblazer when it comes to providing families with a wide variety of educational choices and opportunities. “This is truly something that makes Arizona unique,” Ducey declared, “it’s the Arizona Way.”

In that spirit, the Governor detailed his plan to address how a technicality in the state’s Empowerment Scholarship Account (ESA) program was preventing certain Navajo families from providing their children with a quality education:

Like every other Arizona parent Savannah James is dedicated to ensuring her child, Bethany, receives a quality education. She selected a school near their home on the Navajo Nation.

For years, Hilltop school served Bethany well. Imagine their surprise when they received a letter from the heavy hand of government declaring the school was out of bounds, and demanding repayment of funds from their education savings account.

What did Savannah’s family do wrong? Although the school they had chosen for their daughter was within Navajo boundaries, it was just under a mile outside of Arizona. Their assigned district school in Window Rock was persistently failing despite spending more than $16,000 per pupil in 2018—over $6,000 more per pupil than the state average. At Hilltop, Savannah’s family was paying less than $3,000 in tuition to receive a higher quality education.

Despite having been given permission by the previous administration at the Arizona Department of Education to use ESA funds to enroll Savannah at Hilltop, the new administration demanded not only that they stop, but that they pay back her tuition. As Gov. Ducey put it, “This is an example of government losing sight of the people it’s supposed to serve. Savannah and Bethany are here today, and we have a message for them: We won’t stand for it. Help is on the way.”

That help comes in the form of Senate Bill 1224, sponsored by Senator Sylvia Allen (R-Snowflake), which would allow Native Americans to use ESA funds at schools located within two miles of tribal boundaries.

Unfortunately, various groups are fighting to force these low-income, Native American families back into the failing district schools. In a recent newsletter, for example, the anti-ESA group Save Our Schools Arizona (SOS) raised a litany of objections to the bill, spreading numerous falsehoods along the way. Here’s a factcheck of SOS’s claims:

SOS Claim: “We now have this year’s first ESA voucher expansion. Senate Bill 1224 aims to expand ESA vouchers across state lines, which would make Arizona the first state in the nation to allow tax dollars to pay for private, religious schools in other states.”

Factcheck Rating: False.

In just two sentences, SOS managed to pack in a mess of deception and falsehood.

  1. A bogus expansion narrative: SB 1224 does not make a single additional student eligible for an ESA. Nor does it cost Arizona taxpayers a single additional penny for any of the families using an ESA. It merely ensures that Native American ESA students—who must still be Arizona residents to qualify for the program—can continue to attend the school of their choice.

  2. Manufactured hysteria about crossing state lines: Under current law, families can already use ESAs to purchase a wide variety of educational products and services—including online instruction—across state lines. SB 1224 would simply ensure that Native American students can similarly use their ESAs to pay for private school tuition at schools located in an adjacent state, a practice that was already permitted under the previous ADE administration.

    Moreover, public funds crossing state borders to provide Arizona students with an education is nothing new. Public schools already regularly purchase textbooks, whiteboards, software, curricular materials, and supplies that were produced in other states and other countries. Thousands of Arizona students—including public school students—receive instruction online from providers based in other states, yet SOS does not appear to have any problem with that.

  3. Outright Falsehood: Arizona’s ESA is NOT the first school choice program to allow choice across state borders. Even setting aside online instruction, Arizona is far from the first state to allow students to pay for private school tuition across state lines, contrary to the claims made by SOS. Here are just a few of many examples:
  • New Hampshire’s tax-credit scholarship statute (enacted in 2012) allows scholarship students to attend “a public or private school located in another state which has been approved by the state education agency of the state in which the school is located.”
  • Mississippi’s education savings account statute (enacted 2015) defines “eligible school” as “a nonpublic school that has enrolled a participating student” that “must be accredited by a state or regional accrediting agency.” Being located in Mississippi is not required.
  • Minnesota’s individual-use tax credit for education statute (enacted in 1997) allows families to pay for a wide variety of educational expenditures, including across state borders. The statute also allows families to pay for transportation to public or private schools located in any neighboring state.
  • The town tuitioning programs in Vermont and Maine (enacted in 1869 and 1873, respectively) allow families living in districts that do not operate a public school to “send their children to public or non-sectarian private schools in other areas of the state, or even outside the state, using funds provided by the child’s home district.”

SOS Claim: “The existing ESA voucher program costs the state of Arizona more than $110 million per year in state funding redirected from Arizona district and charter schools to fund Arizona private education.”

Factcheck Rating: Deceptive.

  1. Funding Half Truth: SOS conveniently omits the fact that the cost of the ESA program is still less thanwhat public schools would have charged taxpayers to educate the same students, meaning that $110 million price tag would be higher if these kids had stayed in public schools. ESA families received an average award of $6,148 for non-special needs students in FY 2019, requiring substantially less in taxpayer funding than Arizona’s $10,290 public school average per pupil spending the same year. And for the special needs ESA students receiving over $25,000 a year, those amounts are still less than the equivalent taxpayer costs for their education in a public school.

  2. Harming district schools? Moreover, while SOS and other suggest ESAs drain funds from public schools, ESAs actually increase per pupil public school funding by redistributing state and federal dollars back to remaining public school students each time a student exits the public school system for an ESA. From state sources alone (such as the Classroom Site Fund), ESAs redirect over $600 per participant back to remaining public school students for teacher pay and other operational uses. In FY 2019, this translated to over $4.2 million going back to public schools.

Taken together, the claims from SOS and others reveal an ignorance of facts and a gross paternalism toward Native American families—families whom SOS thinks it fitting to dictate what schools they should have an opportunity to send their students to.

Jason Bedrick is Director of Policy at EdChoice. Matt Beienburg is the Director of Education Policy at the Goldwater Institute.



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