One out of every five Arizona students in public schools becomes eligible today to apply for public money to attend private schools this fall under an expansion of a controversial voucher-type program.
The program, Empowerment Scholarship Accounts, allows parents to receive a debit card from the state preloaded with money to pay for educational expenses, such as private-school tuition, with state funds.
A recent change in state law expands the program to include children at the state’s lowest-performing public schools.
If schools receive a D or F letter grade from the state, their students can apply for the scholarships, estimated to be worth an average of $3,000 to $3,500 for the 2013-14 school year.
Also eligible are children of active-duty military and children in foster care who have been adopted or are being adopted. The original law provided scholarships only for disabled students.
The additions are likely to be popular with parents who are looking for other options for educating their children. But public-education groups are already suing the state over the scholarships. They contend the program is bad public policy because it takes money from public schools and gives it to private schools that don’t have the same state-mandated academic requirements.
State and school officials say that it’s hard to say how many families may apply for the scholarships and that any estimates are guesses.
The state has about 1million students in public schools. Until now, only about 125,000 students with special-education needs had been eligible for the scholarships; 302 use them this school year, or less than 1 percent of eligible students.
State officials say about 90,000 students in Arizona attend schools that received D or F letter grades and could be eligible for a scholarship. About 14 percent of schools, or 272, received D’s or F’s. Letter grades are based mainly on how much growth a school’s students showed on a state-mandated test in math, reading and writing.
The idea behind offering scholarships to children at poorly performing schools is to provide parents with more options if they want to move their children to better schools.
The additions to the Arizona law boost eligibility to more than 200,000 students this fall. State officials predict that fewer than 1,000 will apply, or as many as 6 percent of eligible students, which would be roughly 12,000.
“I would not predict a mass exodus (from public schools),” said John Huppenthal, Arizona’s superintendent of public instruction. But he added that as word-of-mouth spreads, “I think it will start picking up pretty quickly.”
Huppenthal, a former Republican state legislator, is a proponent of school choice and oversees the Arizona Department of Education, the agency that administers the scholarships under state law.
Private-school groups plan to publicize the program through workshops this spring.
“I think there will be tremendous interest, but the dollar value is pretty low, so that will be the challenge,” said Sydney Hay, executive director of Arizona’s Council for American Private Education, a group that advocates for private schools. Tuition at some private schools can run more than $10,000 a year.
Arizona’s scholarship program is a type of voucher because parents can withdraw their children from public schools and apply that public money toward private schools. The program also allows parents to spend money on educational expenses besides private school. They can purchase tutoring, curricula, online classes and even pay for tuition at the state’s public colleges.
Aaron and Heather Totman of Glendale are using scholarship money this year for their 12-year-old son, Ellis, who has autism. Their son previously enrolled at a public school. But the family felt he needed a smaller classroom and more individual services.
“I was getting reports about my son getting into tiffs with other students and being made fun of,” Aaron said. “As a parent, that just breaks your heart. I don’t want to deal with that. I want a place where my son can thrive.”
The family put the scholarship money toward a private school for students with special needs.
Students with special-education needs receive more state money on average than those who don’t require special services. Even so, the scholarship doesn’t cover all the costs. The Totmans still have to pay $5,000 of their own money toward the school’s $22,000 yearly tuition.
Then, there is the commute to the Scottsdale school to consider. The Totmans must provide their own transportation. From Glendale, it’s a 52-mile round trip. Carpooling with other families helps.
Despite the expense, the personal attention their son receives is worth it, the Trotmans believe. “He’s in a much better place,” Aaron said.
Besides Arizona, 11 other states and the District of Columbia have voucher programs. Many of them started in the past decade. The idea, though, has been around more than 100 years, since Maine and Vermont began allowing students in rural areas without public schools nearby to use state money to attend private schools.
Wisconsin started the country’s first modern school-voucher program in 1990 for low-income families in the Milwaukee Public Schools. A few years ago, the state removed the cap on the number of families who could enroll. Vouchers also were expanded to the nearby city of Racine.
Indiana launched the nation’s first statewide voucher program in 2011 for low-income students. This school year, 9,324 students enrolled, more than double the first year.
Although voucher programs vary by state, there are some common themes. States usually limit vouchers to specific groups such as students with disabilities or from low-income families. A few states allow vouchers for students in schools labeled as failing. Families usually have to try public schools first to get vouchers to pay for private school.
Arizona’s voucher program is part of a larger school-choice movement that has been under way since the 1990s. Championed by Republicans, the goals of the movement are to give parents more options and increase academic achievement.
The 1990s saw the introduction of charter schools, which are public schools that are independently run. That same decade, the state passed an open-enrollment law, allowing students to apply for admission to any public school as long as space is available.
The school-choice movement has its critics, including some school-district officials who oppose voucher-type programs because public money is going to the private sector.
Supporters of vouchers contend that allowing more choice increases competition among schools. This leads to better student achievement and lower education costs, they say.
The Goldwater Institute, a conservative watchdog group, has been a big supporter of Arizona’s program. Jonathan Butcher, the institute’s education director, said the scholarships give parents more options for educating their children. Some students do very well in their neighborhood public school, he said. Others don’t.
“I feel like we’ve expected public schools to be all things to all people, and frankly, that’s not really fair to public schools. Let public schools focus on what they do well,” he said.
Vouchers are unpopular, though, with many public-school officials. In Arizona, public-education groups have sued the state, saying the scholarship program violates the state Constitution because public money is flowing to private schools.
Last year, a Maricopa County Superior Court judge ruled that the scholarships did not violate the law because the money is first going to parents, who can decide where to spend the funds. The ruling has been appealed.
Critics, including Tim Ogle, executive director of the Arizona School Boards Association, say the program has no accountability for educational quality. For example, he said, unlike students in public schools, students in private schools aren’t required to take state tests that measure their achievement.
Private schools can set special admission requirements, he said, unlike public schools. So, while the school-choice movement is supposed to be about parents getting more choices, the schools are really the ones choosing the students, he said.
“You have created an elitist environment using taxpayer money,” he said.
Public-school officials also worry that allowing vouchers for specific groups of students is the first step in eventually letting everyone use them. This could create an unpredictable financial nightmare for school districts.
Ogle said that although school-district officials are generally confident in the education their schools provide, there is concern about the possible budget impact if children leave for private schools. State school funding is based on student-enrollment numbers.
Supporters of the program predict the numbers leaving public schools will be modest, at least in the first year.
“It’s going to take some time for parents to get used to the idea,” said Butcher, of the Goldwater Institute. “Parents have been used to sending their child to school down the street. It’s a real shift for a parents to think, ‘Wow, we don’t have to send the child to the school down the street if we don’t want to.’”
Reach the reporter at anne.ryman @arizonarepublic.com.