Position Paper: Arizona Education Vouchers
Alliance4Action Education Action Team
July 15, 2017
Issue: Should Arizona provide vouchers (Empowerment Scholarship Accounts—ESAs) to be used towards private and religious school tuition and expenses?
Our Position: We believe Arizona should eliminate all education vouchers.
The Arizona legislature recently passed bill 1431 which expands eligibility for Empowerment Scholarship Accounts (ESAs), i.e., vouchers, to all students. Previously, there were eight eligibility categories for vouchers including students from low income families, special needs students and children living on tribal lands. As of the Fall, 2016, only 0.28% of Arizona students received vouchers to attend private or parochial schools.
Under the voucher expansion bill, there is a current-year cap of 5,500 vouchers per year which will be expanded to 30,000 by 2022. However, the Goldwater Institute has vowed to get the cap lifted, allowing 1.1 million Arizona students to receive vouchers.
Each basic voucher for mainstream (not disabled) students is worth about $4,400. The funds for these ESAs/vouchers are taken from the state’s general fund. Depending on the number of private school students who sign up for kindergarten without ever going to public school, expansion of the Empowerment Scholarship Account program could divert from the state’s general fund as much as $35 million a year in 2020-2021, according to the Joint Legislative Budget Committee. (https://apps.azleg.gov/BillStatus/GetDocumentPdf/448680) By 2030, the potential costs to state taxpayers could be as much as $75 to $125 million a year, depending on how many private school students apply for ESAs. (per an Arizona Republic analysis of JLBC data, February, 2017.)
The ESA money is given to parents on a debit card. The parents can use the money to pay for their child’s educational related expenses, including private and religious school tuition and expenses related to home schooling. Also, the debit card can be used to pay for books, tutors, certain supplies, educational therapies, uniforms, etc.
Voucher expansion threatens the very existence of our public school system. Arizona is already near the bottom of all states on funding for public school education. Ninety-four percent of Arizona students attend public schools, yet the legislature insists on undermining public education. Millions of dollars of taxpayer money which is intended for public education will be siphoned off to pay for private schooling, leaving public education in even worse financial straits. Teacher salaries are among the lowest in the country which contributes to a high teacher turnover rate and many unfilled positions. Many students are taught by uncertified and unqualified personnel. School facilities are in disrepair due to the lack of maintenance funding. Deeper reductions of public school funding cannot be tolerated.
· Vouchers are taxpayer dollars that are allocated to the general fund for public education but are being diverted to private, parochial and home schooling. Theoretically, because the money is following the child, there should be no negative funding impact on public schools. However, there are fixed costs in running a school that do not transfer with each child. These fixed costs are approximately 19% which include such items as the number of required teachers, utilities, transportation costs, facility repair and maintenance, etc. These costs can’t be reduced on a one for one basis proportional to the attrition of students. The remaining students bear the brunt of the burden in the form of lower teacher salaries, higher class size, outdated books and technology, poorly maintained school buildings, older buses, etc. If there were to be an exodus from public schools to private schools, eventually the fixed costs to run those schools could force school closures and consolidations.
· Vouchers are drawing students mostly from higher performing public schools. Although lawmakers and voucher advocates contend that vouchers allow students from under-performing schools to reap the benefits of expanded school choice, the reality has been that, thus far, more than 75% of ESAs have been allocated to students who came from districts with an “A” or “B” rating. Only 4% of the vouchers were for students in “D” or lower rated public school districts.
· Private schools are not easily accessible to lower income and special needs students. Although ESAs were initially intended for low income and disabled students, these two populations are the least able to take advantage of them. Besides the barriers created by the financial issues cited above, private schools generally do not provide transportation, generally do not offer free or reduced lunches, and most do not have the staff or expertise to educate severely disabled students. (Only about 3 percent of the money is designated specifically for special-needs students.) Private and religious schools are not required to admit all students and often require entrance examinations which screen out children who exhibit learning or behavior problems.
· ESA expansion will cost taxpayers more money. An expansion of the Empowerment Scholarship Account program will cost taxpayers an additional $24 million annually and potentially many millions more. (http://www.azcentral.com/story/news/politics/arizona-education/2017/02/17/arizona-school-voucher-expansion-costs/97965256/ ) According to the Arizona Central’s article, an analysis by the Arizona School Boards Association (ASBA) of the fiscal impact of ESA expansion reached a similar conclusion. The ASBA study found “ESAs cost the state nearly $1,100 more per elementary student who leaves public school with an ESA, and nearly $1,300 for high school students who leave public schools and go to private school with an ESA.” ESAs cost more because they are funded at charter-school levels, which are higher than public school levels, and “there have been large cuts in recent years to additional assistance to public schools.”
· Vouchers do not improve academic outcome. According to a Washington Post article, there are no examples of any statewide [voucher] program producing overall positive academic results. (https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/education/school-voucher-recipients-first-lose-academic-ground-later-catch-up-to-peers-studies-find/2017/06/26/d99f94b8-5a0f-11e7-a9f6-7c3296387341_story.html?utm_term=.b3290b817728). Vouchers do not solve any problems basic to our educational system, such as the generally lower academic achievement of disadvantaged students. Furthermore, in contrast to public schools, private, religious and home schools have no state accountability requirements and are not held to any state or federal standards.
· ESAs will contribute to a dual system of segregated schools. With the expansion of ESAs, Arizona schools will become a two-tiered system divided by race, ethnicity, wealth, disability and religion. Schools catering to ESA students will be whiter and wealthier and will have fewer disabled students while public schools will have an over-representation of children of color, children from lower economic households, and children with disabilities. ESAs are available to students who attend “qualified schools,” which are defined as “a nongovernmental primary or secondary school or a preschool for pupils with disabilities that is located in this state and that does not discriminate on the basis of race, color or national origin.” Note that the law excludes discrimination based on sex, religion and disability. The protection for race, color and national origin has no enforcement mechanisms, so is of limited value. Also, enforcement would be difficult because the law "does not permit any government agency to exercise control or supervision over any nonpublic school or home school" and authorities would have to prove “the law is necessary and does not impose any undue burden on qualified schools.” Effectively, ESA students have no civil rights protections under either state or federal law if they attend a “qualified school” that does not accept state or federal funding.
· ESAs divert public funds to religious schools. Although the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that this diversion of public money, channeled through parents rather than paid directly to religious institutions, is constitutional, many still consider this a violation of the constitutional principle of the separation of church and state. Furthermore, the use of public funds in this manner facilitates discrimination and segregation based on religion.
· Oversight and accountability is lacking. Resources to audit how ESA money is used are limited and there have been many reports of misuse. According to an AZ Central article, “some parents transferred all of their scholarship money into a 529 college-savings account and then left the program — preventing the state from recouping the funds. Others pocketed the money and sent their kids to public schools. Some purchased books or other materials using their state-issued debit cards and then immediately returned them. The refunded money was put on gift cards, allowing parents to spend it with no scrutiny.” (http://www.azcentral.com/story/news/local/arizona-education/2017/06/22/oversight-arizona-esa-school-voucher-program-almost-sham/407961001/). The state also has not been able to produce required annual audits and has no records of how much ESA money individual private schools have received.
Vouchers, as implemented in Arizona (ESAs), are diverting significant amounts of taxpayer money from public education to fund private, religious and home schooling education. As voucher expansion progresses, public school funding will continue to decline while the proportion of high needs students in public schools will increase. The many negatives of vouchers include: subsidizing the wealthy at the expense of the poor; increased segregation with no civil rights protections; increased cost to taxpayers; lack of evidence for academic superiority; lack of accountability; and lingering constitutional questions about separation of church and state.
Position Paper: Arizona Education Tax Credits
Alliance4Action Education Action Team
Revised, July 15, 2017
Issue: Should Arizona give tax credits to corporations and individuals for donations and expenses related to education?
Our Position: We believe Arizona should eliminate all education tax credits.
Arizona taxpayers may also be reimbursed for contributions or for paying fees to public and charter schools for support of extracurricular activities or character education programs, such as the cost of after school clubs, band and athletic uniforms, lab equipment and some pre-college entrance testing.
· The credits reduce the amount of state funds available for public schools. Tax credits differ from deductions to taxable income in that they are dollar for dollar reductions in the amount of state tax owed. In other words, tax credits directly reduce the amount of money going into the state’s general fund— thus decreasing the amount of money potentially available for funding public schools. Arizona is 48th in the country on per pupil state funding. The educational related credits for individual taxpayers cost the state $135 million in 2014 and, additionally, corporate tax breaks exceeded $39 million. In 2008, paid only the minimum $50 in corporate taxes and with a 20% increase in cap allowed every year, the program is causing significant impact to the general fund.The recently enacted voucher expansion bill will drain the general fund even further.
In summary, every dollar that is donated to schools under the state’s various educational tax credit programs is a dollar that an individual or a corporation does not pay into the state’s general fund which pays for public education. Public money is literally being shifted from public schools to private and religious schools. Public money for essential needs of public and charter schools, such as for salaries and maintenance, is being siphoned off the general fund. Arizona’s constitution specifically mandates a system of public education that is as free as possible and open to all, prohibits sectarian education in public schools and requires that tax money be used to adequately fund public schools, including proper maintenance of all state educational institutions. Clearly, the state’s system of tax credits is undermining public education and violates the intent of the state’s constitution.
COLLEGE DEBT MANAGEMENT
ISSUE: College debt is an issue for about 70% of graduates from four year private and public colleges. It impacts 40 million Americans and is now $1.3 trillion dollars. Since Betsy DeVos has become the Secretary of Education, there has been movement away from studentprotections put in place by previous administrations. The result may make it even more difficult and costly for young people to repay their loans.
OUR POSITION: College education is an important prerequisite for attaining a career in most fields of work. According to the U.S. Department of Education, college costs have increased from $8,911 in 1975 to $21, 003 in 2014. The U. S. Department of Labor reports that average salaries have increased only from $47,281 to $53,850 during that same time frame. We can anticipate greater debt as this cycle continues. Several states have moved toward free public two year college for their residents. In the absence of that possibility, we recommend that previous protections for people with education debt be reinstituted.
BACKGROUND: Several protections had been in place for federal education loans until recently. In 2015, fees were eliminated for those people who started paying off their debt immediately. That has now been overturned by the current Secretary of Education. College debt for those who had incurred it prior to 2010 was capped at no more than a 16% collection fee. Borrowers were also able to apply for “forgiveness” of their debt if they could prove that they were misled by their college about the loans or the actual education program. They could also receive “forgiveness” of their debt if they could prove the educational institution violated certain state laws, particularly consumer protection laws. Although debtors may still apply for these protections, they are no longer guaranteed.Until June 21, 2017 The Federal Student Aid Department of the Department of Education worked with nine contractors to handle the provision of student loans. On June 21, Secretary Devos appointed A. Wayne Johnson to be the Chief Operating Officer of Student Aid. Mr. Johnson is the founder and former CEO of Reunion Financial Services. This company originates and refinances student loans. He holds a PhD in Higher Education Leadership. As a result, of no longer using nine contractors, there will be a $130 million saving on collecting. ( It is of interest that his work at Reunion Financial Services was not included in the press release about his appointment). No further information was given as to how the Student Aid Office will be managed, but it appears that all loans will come from one provider- a provider with an obvious conflict of interest. This may be a good way for us to save $130 million on collecting debt but the lack of choice may result in higher interest rates or fees.
These policy changes are taking place every day. They are done legally by the directives of the Secretary of Education. Just as we see a movement toward privatization of education, we may be experiencing that same trend in other areas that are related to education. We need to stay vigilant.SUMMARY: Student debt is a serious problem, not just in terms of the financial cost but also the cost to young graduates who are just establishing themselves in a career. We applaud states that have taken a stand and made free public college available for their residents.
We must support bringing back the previous protections for borrowers as well as monitor what’s happening in the Student Aid Department. We need to watch changes that are being made at the Department of Education that may have a negative impact on students who must borrow money to attend college.
CHARTER SCHOOL ACCOUNTABILITY
ISSUE: There is a great deal of misunderstanding about charter schools. Many assume that they operate as a traditional public school system. They do receive public funding but operate independently of the established school system. Sometimes they are privately owned. They are not subject to the same standards of accountability that apply to public schools. There are conflicting views about how successful they have been at educating students. Arizona has more charter schools than any other state and President Trump has called for a $168 million dollar expansion of charter schools. It is imperative to have adequate information to be able to determine effectiveness before expansion.
OUR POSITION: All publicly funded education institutions must be held to the same standards of accountability that apply to public schools. This accountability includes equity, financial reporting and transparency.
Governance: Public Schools are governed by an elected board. The board members are from the community in which the school operates. They hold regular meetings that are open to the public and are accountable to the community.
Charter schools are not held accountable to the community. They are approved by holding a joint charter with another entity and the Arizona State Board of Charter Schools. The other entity may be a for-profit corporation or a non-profit organization. Charter schools are accountable for upholding their contract.
Equity/Diversity: Public schools are required to accept all school age children who apply for enrollment. Charter schools may have a “target” area for enrollment and a cap on the number of students they enroll. Unlike public schools, charter schools are not required to provide special education services, nor do they offer transportation to and from school. The burden of providing school transportation is greater for lower income families, resulting in fewer children from such families being able to attend charter schools. The result is often a student body that doesn’t represent the diversity of socioeconomic income and ethnicity in Arizona.
Financial Reporting: Charter schools are required to submit an annual budget and an end of year financial report to the Arizona State Board of Charter Schools. They can also request waivers from financial regulations and procurement rules. These reports do not detail expenditures in any detail. Public schools report expenditures monthly at public board meetings.
One consequence of the lack of fiscal transparency and accountability of charter schools is that it is not possible to compare public and charter schools in many areas, but particularly in the area of administrative costs. The format for reporting costs is different for public schools. The definitions for reporting differ.
Charter schools are not required to report teacher and administrative staff expenses. Public schools separate these expenses in fiscal reporting. An audit of charter school expenditures in 2016 found that less than half of the 411 charter schools spent more money in the classroom than on administrative costs. This audit also found that 220 of the 411 charter schools spent more on management and facilities costs combined than on classroom instruction.
Of course when for- profit entities are concerned, there is even more reason to be concerned with administrative costs.
SUMMARY: The philosophy of school choice continues to expand. Charter Schools are a popular option. The public and particularly parents need to be informed about the positives and negatives of each option as they make choices regarding the education of their children. This task becomes challenging when there are not uniform systems for collecting data.
Our recommendations include:
· Require charter schools to submit financial data to the Auditor General’s Office where public schools also report;
· Charter management companies need to be transparent in reporting administrative and classroom instruction expenses;
· Develop a process to inform parents about how charter schools are governed.