Arizona Stories from School: ESA Program: Who Does it Empower?
Well, anyone who reads my blogs probably knows my opinion about school-choice (I think it’s a wolf in sheep’s clothing that is defunding public schools and segregating Arizona kids by race, ethnicity, and SES). There are three paths to school choice today: public, charters, and private school vouchers (referred to as Empowerment Scholarship Accounts, or ESAs, in Arizona). I have accumulated some interesting stories about ESAs in the last few weeks.
First, I will tell you a bit about the ESA program. As defined in Arizona Department of Education’s brochure, an ESA is “An alternative to public school…to provide options for parents to freely choose how and where to educate their children with financial assistance from the state” (p. 1). There are criteria to be eligible, as specified in the brochure, and students receive anywhere from $2,000-30,000 annually to attend a private school of the parents’ choosing. The ESA program began in 2011, and continues to expand today. Instead of paying the cost for a child to attend a public school, the state awards the funds to families for private school tuition. People applying for these scholarships do not even have to prove financial need. There is a comprehensive report about ESAs, completed in 2013, available if you are interested in reading further. Considering that private schools are rated no better and sometimes worse than public schools, it all makes me sad. I think that parents are being misled by ESAs.
Some may remember that the ESA program created quite a stir with the robo-call scandal last year, but these last two weeks the ESA program has been creating quite bit of drama in my local school! The drama began when an ESA Liason gave lots of misinformation to two of my families. In one example, the Liason told a family that a re-evaluation was required by the child’s fifth birthday (when in actuality, re-evaluations are due prior to starting kindergarten). In another example, the Liason told a family that the school district of last attendance was required to do the evaluation (contradicting the ESA website that evaluations are conducted based on private school location). Additionally, the Liason told one family to have us guess about what the eligibility should be instead of conducting an evaluation. (That is not in the best interest of the student at all!) To me, the worst part of all was a comment the Liason made in an email: “If you receive any sort of push back from the school please feel free to give my information to them and they can contact me to clarify their obligation to re-evaluate (student).” It made me feel sad that this person, representing the ESA program, would set an expectation that the family should expect trouble. My team cares a lot about our students—and kids in general. Given the tone of the Liason’s email, it was challenging to clarify truth for the families and (happily) arrange a thorough, professional evaluation for these awesome kids within a reasonable timeline.
The whole experience left me thinking a lot about this ESA program and how it is affecting kids and schools. One topic of concern is that the ESA program is pulling money out of my local school district, giving it to private schools, and then demanding that my school use resources (professional staff) to evaluate kids that private schools cannot evaluate. Given the defunding of public schools, I wonder if public schools will continue to have staff funding to meet these obligations in the future. I think private schools should consider their own solutions for student evaluations with the funding the state provides in the ESA scholarship. Further, I have been thinking about whether private schools are equipped to provide adequate services for children with special needs. I believe that my students are entitled to a Free and Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) that promotes their academic progress. I wonder if some parents are throwing out the “appropriateness” of their child’s education in order to attend a private school that may not offer necessary accommodations and modifications to best serve their child. If appropriateness of services affects the child’s outcomes, then lack of appropriateness concerns me greatly because statistics show that people with disabilities are already over-represented in the prison system. I want my students with disabilities to have adequate services that give them access to grade-level curriculum and opportunities to be successful in the community. And I want their parents to make an informed decision about where that education will take place.
Overall, I believe that parents are entitled to decide where their child goes to school. However, it concerns me that private schools can choose their own curriculum, hire uncertified teachers, and escape many of the accountability measures in place for public schools. For those choosing private, I agree with authors who suggest that private schools are only a benefit if they provide religious education that is not available at a public school. It’s a difficult decision that should be made for each child with careful consideration. As for me and my school, I just hope future ESA Liasons set parent expectations for a smooth collaboration instead of misinforming my families and creating chaos for those left to sort out the process for the kids I love.
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