Proposition 305 – Expansion of Empowerment Scholarship Accounts Referendum

This post was originally published here.

Background

Empowerment Scholarship Accounts (ESAs) have been part of the school choice landscape in Arizona since the 2011-12 school year when they were originally created to serve students with special needs. Since then, ESAs (also known as vouchers) have been expanded to serve other students. To receive an ESA, parents of eligible children must waive their rights for their child to attend a public district or charter school and in return, they receive financial assistance to provide other options for their child’s education.

Senate Bill 1431 was introduced during the 2017 legislative session to make all Arizona public K-12 students eligible to apply for ESAs. The expansion was to be phased in over four school years, beginning with the 2017-18 school year. Senate Bill 1431 limited the number of new students eligible to receive an each year. In addition, a student whose family is at or below 250 percent of the federal poverty level would receive 100 percent of what the state would have paid for the student to attend a public school, as opposed to the 90 percent given to other students.

Expect More Arizona opposed Senate Bill 1431 because the proposed rapid expansion of ESAs lacks meaningful academic accountability and does not address issues of transparency of taxpayer funding.

Senate Bill 1431 narrowly passed through the Arizona Legislature and was signed into law by Governor Ducey on April 6, 2017.

A grassroots organization called Save Our Schools Arizona successfully stalled implementation of the law by collecting enough signatures to refer the expansion of ESAs to the November 2018 ballot to ask voters whether or not the measure should become law.

The referendum will appear on the ballot as Proposition 305.

What a YES vote means

A “yes” vote on Proposition 305 supports Senate Bill 1431 as it was written, expanding ESA eligibility to all public school students.

What a NO vote means

A “no” vote on Proposition 305 opposes Senate Bill 1431, and would maintain existing ESA eligibility.

Who is currently eligible to receive an ESA?

In addition to students with special needs, other groups now have access to ESAs, including:

  • Students that attend public schools labeled poorly performing (D or F) in the year prior to applying
  • Students whose parent is active military duty or who was killed while serving active duty in the Armed Forces
  • Siblings of current recipients
  • Wards of the court who have been or will be adopted
  • Any child who resides on tribal lands

Students and parents must reside in Arizona and meet one or more other qualifications (learn more here).

How much state funding do ESAs provide?

The amount varies depending on the student. However, students generally receive 90 percent of the amount it would have cost to educate the child at a charter school, whether they attended a charter school previously or not. Charter schools typically receive around $1,200 more per student in state funding than traditional district public schools. Other factors that can influence the amount of funding a student receives is if the student has special needs and their grade level. For example, a student with significant special needs could receive up to $30,000 annually.

How is the funding used?

The funds can be used for private school tuition and fees; tuition and fees for private online learning programs; tutoring services; curriculum; textbooks; or fees for national achievement tests, AP exams or postsecondary admissions; therapies for special needs students; and other approved items.

What are the impacts of the proposed expansion?

During the 2017-18 school year, the program had an estimated 3,300 participants with over $31 million distributed to the recipients, according to the Arizona Department of Education. Of concern is how these dollars are being spent, as highlighted in an Auditor General’s report.

There is no academic accountability with ESAs, which means there is no way to track the quality of the education a child receives or to know how these students are doing. In addition, it is difficult to estimate the full cost of this program to the state general fund, which is a concern.

Expanding ESA eligibility to all K-12 students could increase enrollment and the cost of the program substantially. It is critical that we fully understand the impact this program has on the general fund and the broader education system before moving forward with further expansion.

Resources

Arizona Department of Education – Includes FAQs, information about eligibility, and presentations.
Arizona Revised Statutes – See Chapter 19, Article 1 (§15-2401 through §15-2404) at the bottom of the page.

Our position

Expect More Arizona encourages a NO vote on Proposition 305 for the same reasons we opposed SB 1431. While we are supportive of school choice where it advances an excellent education for every student, we are concerned about the rapid expansion of ESAs as it lacks meaningful academic accountability and does not address issues of transparency of taxpayer funding.

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