CQ WEEKLY – IN FOCUS
Aug. 4, 2012 – 11:25 a.m.
Arizona Vouchers Put Education to the Test
By Lauren Smith, CQ Staff
This fall, the parents of 230,000 Arizona students can ask the state to deposit the bulk of their child’s share of federal education money into a private bank account. The parents can then use a check card to access the funds for tuition at a private, charter or religious school, or to pay for online classes, tutoring or school supplies.
“Just like you could walk into Walgreens and pay for a prescription with your health savings account card, you can use your education savings card and purchase books, tutors, almost anything education-related,” explains Jonathan Butcher, an education policy expert at the Goldwater Institute.
The Phoenix-based advocacy and research organization — founded in 1988 with the blessing of conservative GOP Sen. Barry Goldwater — helped draft the Arizona school voucher program. Critics point to it as the most aggressive attack on public schools in the country. But Mitt Romney looked to Arizona’s groundbreaking initiative in putting together the education agenda for his Republican presidential campaign.
Parents get 90 percent of the federal funding that a public school would have received to educate their child. Most students would be in line for approximately $3,500 to $5,000 per year, while those with disabilities would receive $5,000 to $30,000.
Arizona’s approach is different from traditional voucher programs, such as one in the District of Columbia, that rely on separate pots of appropriations and don’t directly co-opt federal education program dollars. And unlike any other school voucher program in the country, Arizona’s allows parents to deposit leftover funding not used over the course of a year into an education savings account to help pay for college.
Voucher programs have long been steeped in controversy and are vigorously opposed by teachers’ unions. Appearing in July at the National Education Association’s annual conference in Washington, Vice President
“Let me get straight to the point,” Biden said. “You guys, educators, teachers, you’re under a full blown assault. Gov. Romney and his allies in the Congress, their plan for public education in America is to let states use [federal] Title I dollars to fund private schools.”
Other States Follow
But with prodding and support from conservative activists, several other states have begun implementing new voucher programs — or redesigning and expanding existing ones — similar to Arizona’s.
“For the first time, hundreds of thousands of kids are eligible for lots of choices,” Butcher said. “This is the trend, and lawmakers are going to have to more and more realize that’s what the future is going to look like.”
Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform and a conservative opinion leader, praised the Arizona initiative during a July interview.
Arizona Vouchers Put Education to the Test
“This is where the Republicans at the state level have done rather dramatic reforms,” Norquist said. “Watch Arizona to be the model for all new school choice efforts. I think that’s going to be powerful.”
The centerpiece of Romney’s education agenda is a voucher program modeled in part after Arizona, Louisiana and Indiana — three of the largest and most developed voucher systems in the country.
He wants to redirect the more than $25 billion that the federal government provides each year to school districts to help fund the education of low-income students, through Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, and students with disabilities, through the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA).
“These two programs account for roughly two-thirds of baseline federal spending on K-12 education but have largely failed to achieve their desired results — namely, improved student achievement,” reads Romney’s white paper on education. “We need a new approach, one that expands parental choice by attaching federal funding to the students it is intended to support, rather than dispersing it to districts through complex, politically motivated formulas.”
The idea of “attaching” funding to students echoes the longstanding call by Tennessee Republican Sen.
Romney’s plan would make “Title I and IDEA funds portable so that eligible students can choose which school to attend and bring funding with them.” States would funnel the federal dollars to parents, rather than sending the money to the public school system in which students would otherwise be enrolled.
The funding, from $2,000 to $6,000 annually, could be used to attend a public, charter, parochial or private school, hire tutors, take online courses, or pay for supplies like textbooks. Eligible students remaining in public schools would have the option to use the money to pay for tutoring or digital courses from private providers, rather than receiving services from their district.
In contrast to some voucher programs, students who elect to attend private schools would be required to participate in the state’s testing system.
Romney’s proposal does not include education savings accounts like Arizona, but it’s built on the same principles of its program and those recently established in Indiana and Louisiana. In Indiana, low-income families are eligible to receive vouchers worth from 50 percent to 90 percent of the Title I or IDEA funding per pupil.
While a similar voucher program has operated in New Orleans since 2008, the upcoming school year will mark the first time that students throughout Louisiana will be eligible. To qualify for the voucher, a student must be enrolled in a school designated “C,” “D,” or “F” on the school grading scale and his or her family’s income must not exceed 250 percent of the federal poverty level.
Unlike the charter school movement, which originated as a lynchpin of conservative school choice policy and eventually became palatable to some Democrats, vouchers haven’t gained as much traction. Although 10 states have some sort of voucher system, enrolling approximately 170,000 students, it’s a highly contentious topic.
Democrats push back on the idea because many voucher programs lack strong accountability. If low-income students attend private schools, states and districts often lose the ability to gauge whether they are keeping up academically with their peers.
Arizona Vouchers Put Education to the Test
Teachers unions say that vouchers steal money from public schools that need it the most and boost private schools already flush with cash. Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, has encouraged her union to be more receptive to innovations in education policy, but she frequently says that she is open to any idea except vouchers. She lambasted Romney’s education plan when he unveiled it in May.
“Instead of looking to improve education for all children, he parroted failed voucher and privatization schemes that have not improved student learning,” Weingarten said. “Romney’s proposal to take even more money out of public education and funnel it to private schools is absurd at a time when school budgets already are being slashed to the bone across the country.”
State teachers unions have enjoyed some success in challenging voucher programs through the courts, arguing that taxpayer money going toward religious schools, for example, is unconstitutional. In 2009, the Arizona Supreme Court made just such a ruling, effectively shuttering the state’s voucher program at the time.
Arizona’s current program has already skirted one lawsuit. In January, a county superior court judge ruled the program constitutional because the state deposits the federal dollars in private bank accounts instead of writing checks to private or religious schools. In other words, by allowing parents to access the funds and use them as they see fit, the state itself is not implicated in directing those dollars to one school or another.
Because of that ruling, Butcher said, more states are considering similar savings account or tax credit types of programs in lieu of traditional voucher programs. The Goldwater Institute is helping Iowa and Utah plot how to successfully implement voucher systems, and it is working on ways to make all students eligible for Arizona’s education savings accounts.
“The savings account program, in a lot of ways, it’s light years ahead of where many states are,” Butcher said. “This is the type of reform that could really change the whole system.”
FOR FURTHER READING: D.C. school voucher bill approved, 2011 CQ Weekly, p. 761; ideological battle over vouchers, 2010 CQ Weekly, p. 166.