Lawmakers expanded the Empowerment Scholarship program, but it will be difficult, if not impossible, to track the increased spending and any improvement in student performance.
Thursday night, shortly before the deciding votes were cast to expand the state’s school-voucher program, state Sen. Debbie Lesko talked optimistically about its future impact.
Allowing more students to tap taxpayer funds for private schooling or other education programs “will just provide one more option for parents to improve education for their child,” said Lesko, R-Peoria and a sponsor of the legislation.
But it will be difficult, if not impossible, to track the increased spending and any academic improvement as the state’s Empowerment Scholarship Account grows from about 5,500 students to 30,000 over the next five years.
The reasons can be found in the level of program oversight by the Arizona Department of Education, as well as the expansion bill itself.
The Education Department’s tracking of money distributed to private schools, as revealed in data provided to The Arizona Republic and azcentral.com last week, is opaque, incomplete and riddled with errors.
And the legislation passed by the Republican-controlled Legislature and signed by Gov. Doug Ducey requires few, if any, private schools receiving the dollars to publicly report standardized tests results — the primary metric used to grade public schools’ performance.
At least one supporter acknowledged the general lack of transparency and accountability for the ESA program, which this year received almost $50 million.
“We don’t know where it’s (the money) going to,” said Rep. Regina Cobb, R-Kingman, who cast one of the deciding votes in favor of expansion. “We have nothing. How do we make decisions as lawmakers, as far as funding a program, when we don’t even know if it’s working?”
Cobb added, “Boy, if you ever get that information, I would like to see it.”
For nearly two years, The Republic sought to obtain some of that information under the Arizona Public Records Law.
As recently as last week, Education Department officials said they would provide a full accounting of ESA spending, with some caveats to account for student privacy.
The data was finally provided to The Republic late Thursday, as lawmakers prepared to give final approval to the ESA expansion.
The data provided to the newspaper:
- Was riddled with errors, including claiming ESA payments to “Amazon,” “Bank of America,” “private scool,” and “East.”
- Omitted dollar figures for all but a fraction of schools.
- Showed the number of ESA students at only a few schools. The department said student privacy could be violated if the number were given for schools with fewer than 10 ESA students.
- Revealed the Education Department was unable or unwilling to distinguish among similar school names, such as “Brophy,” “Brophy Prep,” or “Brophy College Preparatory.” Multiple entries likely resulted in the state withholding figures on ESA funding and recipients at some schools.
Dan Barr, a media lawyer and expert on the state’s public-records law, said he was shocked state officials did not have accurate records readily available. He added that it doesn’t bode well for getting accurate data as the program expands.
“It shows the state doesn’t care very much,” he said.
There are compelling arguments for a more public accounting of ESA spending and student performance.
The program has grown from about 2,400 kids and $30 million last year to 3,360 kids and $49 million this year — and is now set to grow even faster.
But the program remains controversial and there are few facts to inform the debate over its benefits and costs.
Under the program, parents are given debit cards loaded with public money and are required to report to the Education Department how the money is spent. Money that would otherwise go to the public-school district is redirected to private-school tuition or other education expenses.
Critics contend the program will largely benefit religious schools and more affluent families who use ESAs as a subsidy for private schooling.
No independent tracking
Department of Education officials said they could not provide the number of students or total funding to private schools attended by fewer than 10 ESA students. Doing so, they argued, would violate student-privacy laws.
In addition, the data contains multiple entries for nearly all large private schools, making it impossible to accurately determine which schools benefit.
The state’s explanation: It does not independently track parents’ spending of ESA dollars, and relies on the parents themselves to enter information in a reporting system. Misspelled and erroneous school names result in numerous entries for what is likely the same school.
Department of Education spokesman Stefan Swiat said the data is exactly as it was typed into the system by parents.
The Education Department does not have a separate list of private schools that receive ESA money, Swiat said, adding it does not have reason to collect that data. Swiat said it would violate good data practice to combine entries even if they were obviously for the same school — such as “Brophy” and “Brophy Prep” — because they are unsure what the parent intended to type.
Barr, the public-records-law expert, reviewed the data and said he was surprised by officials’ assertion that they could not combine schools with similar entries. In many instances, it was obvious the schools were the same, he said.
“That’s just an asinine position,” Barr said. “I would think they would be embarrassed to take that position.”
He said he was surprised education officials admitted they keep such sloppy data, and was skeptical they could not produce an accurate accounting if, for example, the governor were to request it.
On Friday, when again questioned about the data, Michael Bradley, the chief of staff to state schools Superintendent Diane Douglas, told the newspaper that the department should have combined entries that are obviously similar and that it will try and provide that data at a later date.
Support for transparency?
Everything you need to know about the Empowerment Scholarship Account program in Arizona.
Speaker of the House J.D. Mesnard, R-Chandler, said Friday that the expansion legislation was intended to provide more financial accountability. It requires the state to make public ESA expenditures in the aggregate and to implement guidelines to prevent fraud.
“I would not have any problem, off-hand, releasing the data that the department already has, and that protects student privacy appropriately,” he said. “I guess I’m a little confused off-hand that they don’t have the data to begin with.”
The expansion bill also nodded at requiring more information on ESA student performance by requiring schools that administer standardized tests and have 50 or more ESA students to publicly make available aggregate test scores. Few private schools, however, will meet the criteria requiring them to report test results.
Ron Johnson is the executive director of the Arizona Catholic Conference, which represents four bishops and wields considerable influence at the state Capitol. The conference supported ESA expansion.
“We certainly don’t have a problem letting people know” how many students receive ESAs given the large numbers, he said. “I can see how others might have privacy concerns.”
In the Diocese of Phoenix, he said, 172 elementary-school students out of 8,709 receive ESAs. In high schools, 13 students of the total 4,994 high-school students receive ESAs. Brophy College Preparatory, a Jesuit private school, is not part of the diocese. In Tucson, of the 6,803 students who attend Catholic schools, 377 students receive ESAs, Johnson said.
Asked about ESA transparency, Ducey’s deputy chief of staff, Daniel Scarpinato, said, “We would probably defer to them (Education Department staff) on some of this,” noting Douglas is an elected official.
Democratic Rep. Ken Clark, of Phoenix, is a sharp critic of the ESA program. He said Thursday that the lack of information about which private schools get ESAs is unacceptable.
“This is absurd,” he said. “How are we supposed to know what our tax dollars are going to? Furthermore, these guys (ESA supporters) are running up and down talking about how accountable this program is, but it clearly is not.”
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