Legislators Thumb Nose At Voucher Accountability

February 21, 2016

The nation’s conservative agenda setters have maneuvered Arizona right where they want us on school vouchers.  But even they must be  astonished by what Arizona legislators have, in plain sight, snuck past a docile public.

Make no mistake. Arizona’s voucher law was not written by Arizonans for Arizonans. We are under the spell of a national effort by conservatives that is expertly orchestrated from Washington, D.C., and Arlington, VA.

Arizona’s voucher system is copied Mighty Ed
– with several hugely consequential exceptions – right from the playbook of the American Legislative Exchange Council.  ALEC, as it is better known, draws up “model” legislation backed by conservative legislators and corporate lobbyists.  One of their model laws is for what they call “education savings accounts.”

The bill now under consideration by the Legislature that seeks to make all students in the state eligible for the program is backed by lawmakers who themselves are backed heavily by the American Federation for Children (AFC), which is in the business of supporting school choice in general and vouchers in particular.

AFC showered Arizona legislative candidates with $300,000 in independent expenditures in the 2014 elections.

The beneficiaries included 10 of the 28 legislators who sponsored either the House, Senate or both versions of the universal voucher legislation.  The organization spent nearly $27,000 in support of John Kavanagh, $23,000 for Jill Norgaard, $19,000 for Carlyle Begay, $18,000 for Mark Finchem, $11,000 for Sylvia Allen, $9,000 apiece for Vince Leach and Steve Smith, $6,600 for Steve Montenegro, and $5,300 apiece for Brenda Barton and Robert Thorpe.  All including Begay, a former Democrat, are Republicans.

AFC supported a total of 18 legislative candidates, again all of them Republicans, in 2014. All but one were elected. That by itself pretty much guarantees 17 votes in favor of universal vouchers.

AFC spent another wad of money opposing two other Republicans who were getting in the way. Both lost.

And AFC’s political muscle doesn’t stop there.  For instance, the organization’s Arizona chairperson is state Sen. Debbie Lesko.  AFC lists its organizational “allies” in Arizona as the Goldwater Institute, the Arizona School Choice Trust, and the Arizona School Tuition Organization Association.

They are having a field day pushing through legislation that goes beyond even ALEC’s wildest dreams.

If you closed your eyes for just a moment, you’d swear that the wording of the Arizona statute governing vouchers – ARS 15-2401 through 15-2404 – is identical to ALEC’s model legislation on vouchers.  ALEC calls them Education Savings Accounts.  Arizona calls them Empowerment Scholarship Accounts.  In both cases, the acronym is ESA.

The two pretty much match, provision by provision.  There are, however, three significant exceptions:

  • Arizona seeks to do in this session of the Legislature what even ALEC didn’t have the nerve to suggest – make all students eligible.  ALEC drew the line at students whose families make double what is required to qualify for a subsidized lunch.
  • Arizona beefed up the protections to keep parents from defrauding the state, namely by spending the voucher money on something other than education.
  • Arizona, on the other hand, totally obliterated ALEC’s suggested accountability for private schools and others receiving the public money.

Section 5 of ALEC’s “model” legislation – remember, this is from the most conservative of agenda setters – is labeled “Accountability Standards for Participating Schools.”  It suggests 20 requirements to provide administrative, financial, and academic accountability for the program.

Arizona’s existing voucher law includes ZERO of those provisions. And the proposed expansion of the program does nothing to improve upon that.

The missing pieces might not make too much difference when only 1,300 students, according to AFC’s own figures, have signed up under the more limited eligibility offered today.  But the total absence of accountability, and the credibility it brings, will make a huge difference if and when the program expands to serve 130,000 . . . or 1.3 million . . . students.

Among the Missing: Academic Accountability

One type of accountability missing in Arizona is to track the academic progress of voucher recipients, not individually but in total. ALEC’s model suggests the following measures be taken:

– Students each year take the state achievement tests or nationally norm-referenced tests that measure learning gains in math and language arts.

– The results be provided to the state or an organization chosen by the state, while ensuring compliance with student privacy laws.

– The information be reported in such a way that the state can measure results by grade level, gender, family income level, and race. The state should then report the results to the public.

– The state be informed when each participating student graduates from high school. The state should then report high school graduation rates, college attendance, and college graduation rates.

– The state each year conducts a satisfaction survey of parents whose children are in the program.

ALEC itself concedes the need.  The notes appended to its voucher model contain statements such as “clear and consistent information about the academic performance of participating students will help empower parents and will also provide the public and policymakers with the information they need to evaluate the effectiveness of the program.”

As for assessments of participating students, it reads: “The purpose of administering the tests is to create transparency in participating students’ academic progress and to demonstrate learning gains.”

Significant parts of the Arizona Legislature obviously think private schools shouldn’t be subjected to such requirements even if they are receiving large sums of the public’s money.  There’s almost a childish innocence in their faith that free-market forces will correct all ills.

In fact, we will have no way of knowing whether we are getting our money’s worth and, more importantly, whether kids are getting an education.  When the mantra is school choice, how exactly are parents to make informed decisions when all they have to go on are unchecked – and uncheckable – advertising claims?

Maybe all of the above is not too large a concern at reputable private schools.  It will be, however, with the fly-by-night operations that will be attracted by big dollars and no regulations.

ALEC apparently foresaw exactly that.  One of its proposed accountability provisions requires education providers to provide the state with a surety bond in the amount of the vouchers they receive, just in case they take the money and don’t deliver.  That’s just one more of the protections Arizona decided to skip.

Meanwhile, a complicit media and a complacent public are sleeping right through all of this.