Demystifying Arizona's Empowerment Scholarship Account Program

By Carrie Jung
Published: Wednesday, February 15, 2017 - 7:23am
Updated: Wednesday, February 15, 2017 - 2:27pm
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(Photo by Carrie Jung - KJZZ)
Bianca Carrasco with her mom, Ramona Carrasco, at Pleasantview Christian Elementary.
Arizona Education Association
Joe Thomas is the president of the Arizona Education Association which conduct a survey that found that 8 in 10 educators say schools should only reopen when it's safe.

It’s 3:30 p.m. at Pleasantview Christian Elementary, which means it’s go time for this class of kindergartners. One of the first out the door is Bianca Carrasco.

"Are you ready to go?," Bianca's mom, Ramona Carrasco asked. "Yes!" Bianca said in return.   

Pleasantview is a small private parochial school in south Phoenix. And Ramona Carrasco said it’s a good fit for her daughter, who has Down syndrome.

"It’s a beautiful thing for her," she said. "All the kids know Bianca. They all push her to be better and to be involved in all the games and things."

Carrasco originally enrolled Bianca in public school but was unhappy with her experience there. She wanted Bianca to have more time in a mainstream classroom than her district school was providing. The only downside with this school she said is the 20-mile drive to get to south Phoenix from Litchfield Park.

Under most circumstances, tuition at Pleasantview is around $5,000. But for Carrasco the cost was covered by the state because she applied for funding through something known as an Empowerment Scholarship Account (ESA).

"You are allowed to receive funds from state aid to go to private schools," explained Stefan Swiat, a spokesman for the Arizona Department of Education. The funding system is similar to how the state handles charter school funding, which get 90 percent of what the state would spend to educate a child in a public school. Except with the ESA’s they actually receive Bank of America debit cards to spend in a variety of different ways.

Those different ways can include school tuition and, for kids with special needs, that can also go to things like speech therapy and teacher’s aids. In layman’s terms, this ESA program is essentially Arizona’s voucher system.

It was enacted in 2011 but has changed a bit from the original idea lawmakers had in mind. It was first open to just kids with disabilities. In the beginning, lawmakers also had to find a way to deal with what’s called the gift clause in the Arizona Constitution.

That’s the part of the Arizona constitution that limits public payments to private parties. So how do ESA’s get around that and the regulations around sending public funding to a religious institution? It all circles back to that debit card, because the state is technically giving parents the money.

Under current Arizona law, several types of students qualify now, including kids with disabilities and their siblings, kids with a guardian in the military and kids who go to underperforming public schools. 

Not everyone in the education system is excited about the program, though. 

"What we’ve seen is millions of dollars drained from our public schools and we have the lowest paid teachers in the nation," said Joe Thomas, a public school teacher and the president of the Arizona Education Association.

He said this program, much like the state’s other school choice options, divert money away from public schools because school funding follows the student. According to the Arizona Department of Education about $99 million has been spent on ESA’s since 2011.

"One of the great things about public schools is public schools have budgets and the budgets are public. And you can see where every dollar goes," Thomas said. "Vouchers that go to private schools, we have no idea, those are private entities."

About 3,500 kids are using the program this school year. But some Arizona lawmakers are hoping to expand the program soon by making most public school students eligible by 2020.

Sen. Debbie Lesko sponsored one of the bills. She disagreed with Thomas and argued SB 1431 and ESA’s, in general, just expand parents’ school choice options.

"They’re capped at 5,500 students out of 1.1 million students," Lesko said. "So really, I really think this is a total over reaction by some people that this is going to hurt public schools."

That cap, as Lesko mentioned, is scheduled to “self destruct" in 2020 though. SB 1431 hasn’t been scheduled for a full Senate vote yet. A concurrent bill is also moving through the House.

The governor’s office is not weighing in yet on whether the bill would be signed if passed.

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