Opinion: It Doesn't Pass the Smell Test Featured

The Governor’s 2024 ESA Plan Gets the AZ Watchdog Smell Test

Big Idea 

  • Arizona Governor Katie Hobbs plans to increase accountability and transparency in Arizona's Empowerment Scholarship Account (ESA)
  • The Arizona School Bord Watchdogs exists to ensure that parents and taxpayers may band together
  • Below, the AZ Watchdogs go through each of Katie Hobbs' points
  • AZSBW finds that private schools and the growing population of homeschooled students outperform public schools across every metric
  •

Arizona Governor, Katie Hobbs, announced her 2024 plan to increase accountability and transparency in Arizona’s Empowerment Scholarship Account (ESA) program for the upcoming legislative session. The Arizona School Board Watchdogs (AZSBW) ears perked up at this, considering the governor's 2023 plan was to completely repeal the ESA program in budget talks, a proposal that fortunately failed.

The Arizona School Board Watchdogs exists to ensure that parents and taxpayers may band together, share information, become informed, speak truth to power, and engage in concerted action. It’s our view that the governor's latest plan is contrary to being in the best interest of the taxpayers. Instead, it's just a fresh attempt to appease influential mega-donors like Planned Parenthood and the AEA Fund for Public Education, who have persistently lobbied to abolish a parent's right to choose their child’s educational opportunities with the ESA program.

The Watchdogs have laid out each of Katie Hobbs's points below and gave them a meticulous "smell test." Unsurprisingly, some points turned out to be less aromatic than others. We hope that this information will not only contribute to your understanding of present issues but also motivate you to actively engage with legislators who might see any merit in what seems to be a direct assault on private schools.

Hobbs - Increasing Student Safety: just like public schools, educators at private schools that receive taxpayer dollars will be required to pass a fingerprint background check in order to provide instruction to ESA students. This common-sense measure ensures a safe learning environment for every student.

AZ Watchdogs - Setting aside the common-sense approach that is already adopted by numerous private schools, my focus shifts to student safety amidst the growing reports of teacher misconduct. The Arizona State Board of Education's Teacher Discipline Search reveals a troubling trend hundreds of teachers losing their teaching credentials due to serious offences each year. It's noteworthy that this number was based solely on my search of individuals whose names included the letter "A."

Hobbs - Protecting Rights for Students with Disabilities: Require private schools to provide accommodations and services in accordance with an ESA student’s Individualized Learning Plan or Section 504 Plan.

AZ Watchdogs - Originally, the ESA program was made available to students with disabilities whose requirements couldn't be fulfilled within the public school system. Examining the Superintendent's Annual Report for the fiscal year 2021–2022 reveals that Arizona received a substantial $2,360,392,292.00 from the Federal Government for Special Education Expenditures, constituting nearly 20% of the State's overall education revenue. The question is: How can private schools effectively meet equivalent standards without the support of such Federal funds?

According to A.R.S. § 15-765, a school district may contract with another school, if unable to provide satisfactory education and services through its facilities and personnel by the rules prescribed by the state board of education in section A.R.S. § 15-213. If public schools cannot accommodate students with disabilities, they have the option to contract with schools that do. If Hobbs goes through with this mandate, then private schools should also be allowed to engage in such partnerships.

Hobbs - Requiring Accountability for Taxpayer Dollars: End spending on luxury expenses like ski passes and luxury car driving lessons, and require manual approval of purchases over $500 to ensure purchases are utilized for an academic purpose.

AZ Watchdogs – Such exaggerated rhetoric! In the 2023 – 2024 ESA Handbook, the approved and nonapproved expenditures are quite clear. On page 57, you’ll find:

“To protect the ESA program and taxpayer dollars, the Department pursues all misspending and disallowed expenditures. Additionally, the Department has a zero-tolerance policy on substantial misuse of funds with the intent to defraud. These cases are automatically referred to the State Board to approve a referral to the Attorney General’s Fraud Unit. Spending any ESA funds disallowed under the ESA contract, state law, administrative rule, program policies, or ESA Parent Handbook may result in account suspension and require repayment.”

Hobbs - Expanding Auditor General Authority: Create audit authority for the Auditor General to monitor and report on how ESA voucher money is spent by private schools. This critical oversight mirrors practices at public schools.

AZ Watchdogs - A.R.S. § 15-2403 titled Arizona empowerment scholarship accounts; administration; appeals; audit; rules; policy handbook already covers the audit process for ALL ESA account holders. Why single out private schools to the Auditor General? If the Governor invested the same level of time and effort in addressing the challenges within our failing public school system as she dedicates to criticizing private schools and the ESA program, there could be a substantial turnaround in Arizona’s educational crisis.

Hobbs - Prohibiting Price Gouging: Stop private schools receiving taxpayer dollars from hiking the cost of tuition and fees at a rate higher than inflation.

AZ Watchdogs - As per the Private School Review website, Arizona’s annual average tuition cost for private elementary schools stands at $9,947, while private high schools average $13,728. In contrast, the cost to Arizona taxpayers for one public school student has reached $14,673 per year. This raises the question: who is truly price gouging the taxpayers?


 Source: Annual Reports of the Superintendent of Public Instruction; Joint Legislative Budget Committee All Funding Reports for FY 2001 – 2024.
Adjusted for inflation using Bureau of Labor Statistics CPI figures, in constant 2023 dollars. Courtesy of the Goldwater Institute.

Hobbs - Raising Educational Standards: Require private schools receiving taxpayer dollars to have minimum education requirements for classroom educators that provide instruction to ESA students.

AZ Watchdogs – Private schools consistently meet and exceed the minimum education requirements. In a recent US News article, it was reported that: 

“The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), which is often referred to as “the nation’s report card,” assessed both public and private school students in subjects such as math, reading, science, and writing. The most recent NAEP data shows what other research has found: Private school students score better in almost all subjects.

For example, eighth-grade private school students averaged about 20 points higher than public school or charter students on the NAEP reading test in 2022. Fourth-grade private school students had nearly the same advantage in average scores. On college entry tests such as the SAT, NAIS found that students in private schools consistently outperformed their public school peers in all subject areas.”

Hobbs - Establishing Program Transparency: Require the Department of Education to disclose the parental and student rights that are relinquished when leaving the public school system for the ESA voucher program and report graduation and chronic absenteeism rates.

AZ Watchdogs - The Arizona Parents Bill of Rights is etched into Arizona Law whether their child goes to private or public school. And I’ll remind the governor to disclose that after Arizona schools and their mismanaged pandemic, the number of chronically absent students in our public schools has almost doubled.


Source: Helios Chronic Absenteeism in Arizona:  A Description of K–8 Trends 2017–2021

Hobbs - Reinstating Eligibility Requirements: students participating in the universal ESA voucher program must have attended a public school for 100 days at any point in their education prior to becoming eligible for the ESA voucher program.

AZ Watchdogs – So you know, that significant benchmark number for public schools to have a student in class for 100 days, gives schools a payday of $14,673.00 in taxpayer education funds. In contrast, if the student participates in the ESA program instead, the expenditure is lower by half, amounting to just $7,000.00 of taxpayer money. From a taxpayer perspective, I prefer the ESA price tag, and it gets my vote.

In conclusion, AZSBW finds that private schools and the growing population of homeschooled students outperform public schools across every metric. Furthermore, the heightened emphasis on children's mental health rather than academics within public schools has coincided with a 30 year all time low in ACT scores. This decline is so significant that major universities and colleges are now bypassing the requirement of SAT or ACT scores for fall 2024 admissions.

In light of these disturbing outcomes, we are strongly opposed to burdening our private schools with the same bureaucratic hurdles responsible for the inefficiency of our public schools. It’s not just ill-advised, it’s downright foolish. The documented success of private schools in delivering educational excellence is attributed to the absence of government interference, and it is imperative that it remains that way.

We commend state legislators like Sen. Jake Hoffman, who correctly labeled Hobb’s plan as ESA's and private school’s "death by a thousand cuts." To all our legislators, we urge you to declare this bill "dead on arrival."

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed are those of the writer, and do not necessarily represent CopperState News. Opposing opinions are welcome. Submitted content must include at least one image 800 pixels wide by 530 pixels high. All content may be edited for grammar, spelling and readability.

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Last modified on Friday, 16 February 2024 15:29
Published in Azeducation.news
Michele Hamer

Chairman and Co-Founder of AZSBW