Scholarship program is vouchers on steroids - Northwest Chatter - Explorer

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Scholarship program is vouchers on steroids

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Dave Safier

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How’s this for an idea? Pay parents to keep their kids home from school. And how about this? Encourage parents to skimp on their children’s educations by promising to pay part of the cost of college.

You get all that and more from Arizona’s Empowerment Scholarship Accounts (ESA), though “vouchers on steroids” is a better name for the program. Our Republican-majority legislature voted it into law in 2011, and they keep expanding it to include more and more students, with another possible expansion this year.

Vouchers -- where taxpayers pay for private school tuition -- are a bad idea. That’s my opinion, of course, but the majority of people across the country agree. Voters have never passed a voucher proposition, ever. Even in a very conservative Utah, vouchers went down to defeat in a 2007 referendum 62 percent to 38 percent. Both of Arizona’s voucher laws, Tuition Tax Credits and the more recent Empowerment Scholarship Accounts, have been put into law by the legislature. If the question were put to the voters, we might not have either program.

Empowerment Scholarship Accounts are an odd and dangerous hybrid of private school vouchers and home schooling. They mesh the school privatization movement, which wants more students in charter and private schools, with the de-schooling movement that wants to move children out of schools altogether. What both movements have in common is a desire to weaken our system of public schools.

When parents choose to set up ESAs for their children, taxpayer money is set aside in individual, state-controlled “savings accounts” -- about $5,000 a year, though if a child has learning disabilities or special needs, that figure can rise to $20,000 or more. The money can be used to pay for private school tuition, of course. That’s the traditional voucher part of the ESA. But the program also wanders into de-schooling territory.

With ESAs, parents can take their children out of school entirely if they wish. The money in the account can be used to pay for a long list of non-school educational items, including curriculum materials, tutors, online learning programs and tests like the SAT. It amounts to a do-it-yourself education where parents pick from a cafeteria list of non-school options and hope for the best.

So let’s say a parent decides to skip the school option entirely and use the money for other services, then ends up with a balance at the end of the year. What happens? The leftover funds roll over to the next year. Each year, any unused money is added to the pot. A frugal parent can pile up a serious chunk of change over the years. What if a child finishes with K-12 schooling and there’s still money in the account? Whatever’s left can be used to pay for college tuition and textbooks.

I can see the dollar signs in parents’ eyes. “Wow, free college money? Let’s see. If I keep my child home and handle most of the education duties myself, using a little of the ESA money to buy some supplies, tutoring and testing, why, in twelve years, I’ll have thousands of dollars in a college fund. Yes! I’ll do it!”

Some parents already opt to homeschool their children, sometimes for better, sometimes for worse, but they don’t do it for financial reasons. For the state to encourage more parents to take their children out of school by bribing them with the possibility of a college fund paid for by taxpayers is irresponsible to say the least. It could actually be dangerous, jeopardizing the child’s education and welfare.

Standard taxpayer-funded vouchers are a bad idea for a host of reasons. Empowerment Scholarship Accounts are even worse. Yet if the legislature has its way, over half of Arizona children will be eligible for ESAs next year with more added every year, until all private and home schooling will be paid for with taxpayer money.

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Dave Safier

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