Remarkably, I learned at last week’s Senate Finance Committee hearing that there are some people who still don’t know Save Our Schools Arizona’s stance on the Empowerment Scholarship Account voucher program. As an educator, I’m accustomed to repeating myself over and over again day after day for years on end, so I’m more than happy to apply that skill here.
First though, one thing that was welcome news to us is that everyone from the Goldwater Institute, the Center for Arizona Policy, Sen. Sylvia Allen, R-Snowflake, Sen. J.D. Mesnard, R-Chandler, and members of the Senate Finance Committee seem to finally understand that ESA voucher expansion is not what Arizona wants. This was evidenced by supporters’ adamant testimonies that Senate Bill 1395 was not intended to expand the program and that any language implying expansion would happily be removed. Intended or not, the JLBC’s fiscal note for SB1395 determined the bill would, indeed, expand the program and cost the state an additional $1.7 million over the next three years alone.
Save Our Schools Arizona knows that after decades of the state underfunding public schools, some Arizona families have turned to the ESA voucher program for their special needs children because some special ed/resource departments are simply too cash-strapped and under-staffed to meet their child’s unique needs. We know that approximately 4,000 students in the ESA program feel that way while more than 100,000 students with special needs choose to attend our public schools. We believe all of those students are unique, entitled to a suitable education, and worthy of our attention.
We are well aware that after all these years of underfunding, there are starving (so-called) D and F schools and dramatically underfunded schools located on our Native American reservations. Several hundred students in these areas have opted to try ESA vouchers, at least temporarily. So when I say that SOS Arizona is not trying to kick out families or scuttle the existing ESA voucher program, I say it with all of that awareness baked in.
I want to make sure another concept is clear: You can accept a thing and still not think it’s perfect. You can accept a thing and simultaneously not want more or too much of it. In-laws and Easter Peeps come to mind. You can accept a thing and recognize that it could be better through real reforms providing taxpayers with actual safeguards and proof that their money is being spent responsibly, not toothless faux-reforms designed to fit on a campaign mailer and not much else. You can – and should, as we do – recognize the majority of ESA voucher families who do everything by the book, have no fear of additional transparency, and don’t need special interests undermining their program by giving opponents additional, valid ammunition to use against it.
Regarding SB1395, SOS Arizona is simultaneously saying we’re not trying to get rid of the existing ESA voucher program, and that proposals that entitle recipients to buy ANYTHING THEY WANT with tax dollars so long as they consider it “supplemental” or a “matter of privacy” are not an improvement. We are saying that a student may have needs at age 4 that he doesn’t at 22, and that the taxpayers funding his therapies, tutoring and personal services deserve to have the state evaluate his changing needs and fund his ESA voucher accordingly, just as district and charter students are evaluated every year and have their services and funding adjusted accordingly. We are saying if you live a few miles away from a D-rated school but send your children to Gilbert Classical Academy through open enrollment, or to one of the BASIS schools, you shouldn’t suddenly become entitled to ESA vouchers. Arizona children should all be able to get a good education without taxpayers having to look the other way, no matter where they go to school.
For SOS Arizona, this isn’t about meeting performance objectives or making progress on a billionaire donor’s national agenda. We’re local volunteers who engage voters on education funding and tax dollar accountability. It is possible to simultaneously advocate for a quality education for all children and for a sensible accounting of our tax dollars. We, like the majority of Arizona voters, understand this.
This is exactly what SOS Arizona has been saying since May 2017 when we formed to oppose ESA voucher expansion. Anyone who has been paying attention knows that nothing about our stance or message has changed. Arizona children deserve a top-notch education and Arizona taxpayers deserve to know exactly how their dollars are making that happen. No exceptions, no prioritizing of one choice above others, no loopholes – quality education and full transparency. Both are possible, both are necessary, and a strong future for our state demands that we refuse to settle for anything less.
Dawn Penich-Thacker, Ph.D. is the cofounder of Save our Schools Arizona and the organization’s spokesperson.