Academic accountability: How do ESAs measure up?
Sections    Friday March 24th, 2023

Academic accountability: How do ESAs measure up?

Hand Completing A Multiple Choice Exam.

As legislators seek to dramatically expand Arizona’s program to provide state funds for private schools and other personal education needs, public school advocates are pushing back on a host of policy issues related to the state’s Empowerment Scholarship Account program, including its lack of state-level academic accountability.

They question how well ESA students are doing and why the state isn’t keeping track of their progress as it does for students who attend public district and charter schools.

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Under the ESA program, parents whose child is accepted into the program receive 90 percent of the state formula funding that child would have been funded for at a charter school. The money can be spent on a variety of things, including tuition and fees at a private school, an online learning program, educational therapies, or services and tutoring.

Initially designed for children with special needs, lawmakers expanded the program to include children of an active duty military parent or guardian; children placed in foster care who have been adopted; children who attend a public school with a state grade of D or F; siblings of students who are participating or have participated in ESAs; children who reside on Native American lands; and children of military personnel killed in the line of duty.

Currently, 4,102 students receive ESAs at a cost to the state of $37 million in 2017 and $99.7 million since the program was introduced in 2011.

“Private school choice is not the answer to Arizona’s education problems. We can’t afford it. District schools get support from the property taxpayer. ESA students don’t,” said Chris Kotterman, director of governmental relations for Arizona School Boards Association. “The state doesn’t have enough money in the general fund to pay for 100,000 ESAs. Is the Legislature prepared to raise taxes for private school choice? They’re going to have to answer that if they keep going.”

Related story:
Part 1: What are Arizona’s Empowerment Scholarship Accounts?
Part 3: After six years, ESA program still vexed by financial accountability


Geoff Esposito, director of policy and programs for Expect More Arizona, said most other states with similar programs require some sort of state or national test for participating students and that those scores be reported to the state. Arizona does not.

The Arizona Department of Education, which administers the program, has no authority to request or require information about the academic progress of ESA students from private or home-schooled children. What’s more, ADE has no records of how many students drop out of the program and return to public schools or how many have graduated from high school.

“The implicit assumption behind all of this is that any private school is better than every public school, and that’s just manifestly not true,” Kotterman said.

Recognizing that the ESA program has cleared legal hurdles and efforts to expand it are underway, Esposito said, “I think it’s critical to have meaningful academic accountability. How do we know if we’re doing right by our students? How can we accurately judge the quality of the program if we have no idea how kids are actually doing? Are they getting a better education than they would otherwise?”

Arizona’s ESA program was born from a joint initiative by the Institute for Justice, a group that pushes school vouchers nationwide, and The Goldwater Institute, another group that favors privatization of public resources dedicated to public education. The program was crafted to get around state constitutions, like Arizona’s, that prohibit public funds from directly aiding private religious schools. After the program was found valid by Arizona courts, a national push by the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council began offering draft bill language to legislators in states around the country interested in passing the voucher-like program.

While ALEC’s draft “The Educational Savings Account Act” included numerous academic accountability standards, the legislation introduced and passed in Arizona in 2011 did not include any of them.

The national draft legislation required that students take state achievement tests or norm-referenced national tests to measure learning gains in math and language arts each year, that those scores be reported to the state or an organization chosen by the state in such a way that the results can be aggregated by grade level, income, family gender and race, that progress toward high school graduation, graduation rates and college attendance and graduation rates be provided to the state and that parents are surveyed each year on their satisfaction and their opinion of its effectiveness.

While these measures are required in other states including Florida, Tennessee and Nevada, none of these state-level academic-accountability measures are required for Arizona ESA recipients.

Senate Bill 1281 introduced last month by Arizona State Rep. Steve Smith, R-District 11, would require that the Arizona Department of Education may request, not must request, confirmation of an ESA student’s progress toward graduation from high school or the completion of a GED, but does not require it. The bill had its second Senate reading on Jan. 30.

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Arizona Senate President Pro Tempore Debbie Lesko, R-Dist. 21 of Peoria, spearheaded Arizona’s ESA program in 2011, introducing the bill that created the program, and regularly has submitted legislation to expand the number of recipients. This year she introduced Senate Bill 1431 that would make ESAs available to all Arizona’s now 1.1 million students by the 2020-2021 school year. The cap written into the existing law, which limits ESA expansion to 0.5 percent of all Arizona students or 5,000 students each year, expires in 2020.

“The question isn’t whether parents should be able to choose private schools. The question is whether or not it’s appropriate for the state to pay for students to go to them when it hasn’t met its basic obligations to the public school system,” Kotterman said. “When we have teachers in this state who make under $30,000 per year to start, I would say it hasn’t.”

Lesko says she supports adding a requirement to track how well ESA students are doing academically. Her expansion bill, however, would require only that private schools report test results to parents, not the State Department of Education.

“I personally think we should have academic accountability for Empowerment Scholarship Accounts because that is the best way, in my opinion, to expand the program,” Lesko said. “We need to prove that it’s working. I think the best way is to have accountability, just as we have accountability for district schools. I do personally think that we should ask for accountability for Empowerment Scholarship Accounts as well.”

Lesko said she belongs to a school choice working group that has discussed academic accountability in the past, but the issue hasn’t moved forward “because some key legislators didn’t want to do that at the time for different reasons.”

“I think quite a number people in that group would be supportive of accountability,” she said. “Most of the private schools I’ve talked to already do testing. They use test results and academic results to attract new students to their schools.”

Jonathan Butcher, education director for The Goldwater Institute, notes that a majority of ESA students, roughly 58 percent, have special needs and their progress is generally subject to an alternative assessment and not traditional standardized tests. Butcher, who is also a member of the ADE Steering Committee for Empowerment Scholarship Accounts, said private schools in Arizona use standardized tests annually to know how their students doing.

“Family and teachers at those schools are going see those results and determine what that child needs,” Butcher said.

In an ESA study Butcher conducted about a year ago, he stated: “Parents are responsible for making sure their children are succeeding and directing their children’s future if a child is not. If policymakers feel they must consider testing mandates at all, they should require a third-party researcher to collect nationally norm-referenced test results from participating students and report periodically on those results. In this way, the test will not dictate how and what schools choose to teach.”

Butcher also stated that “lawmakers should avoid mandating that students take a uniform statewide test as those tests are often not in sync with private-school and customized curricula.”

In contrast to Butcher’s beliefs, ALEC’s Educational Savings Account model bill states that clear and consistent information about the academic performance of students using ESAs “will help empower parents and will also provide the public and policymakers with the information they need to evaluate the effectiveness of the program.”

“All participating students should be required annually to take either the state achievement tests or nationally norm-referenced tests that demonstrate learning gains in math and language arts,” The Educational Savings Account Act states. “Most private schools already administer such norm-referenced tests so this provision should not be seen as burdensome.”

Most public education advocates would like ESA expansion halted and state-level accountability measures added to current ESAs.

Expect More Arizona’s Esposito suggested that academic accountability is something the Legislature and the governor should consider, especially if there are additional proposals to expand ESAs.

“It’s going to be critical to understand the impact it’s already having,” Esposito said. “Lots of other states are doing it and there are a lot of other models that can be followed. We can learn from other states’ best practices.”

For example, in other states, private tutoring services paid for through ESAs must be provided by tutors accredited by a regional or national accrediting organization, according to The Educational Savings Account Act. That is not required under Arizona’s ESA law.

Also, the model bill states that a state department of education can bar a participating school or educational provider from the program if they have routinely failed to comply with the accountability standards mentioned earlier or failed to provide the student with the educational services funded by the ESA and can notify students and their parents of this decision as quickly as possible. That is not mentioned in Arizona’s ESAs.

State Rep. Lela Alston, D-Phoenix, a former teacher, said she is not happy about the lack of accountability in Arizona’s ESA program for two reasons.

“Number one, and probably the most important, our students are not guaranteed what they need to advance academically because there is no accountability,” Alston said. Her second reason is not knowing whether tax dollars are being spent appropriately.

“I don’t think we should be doing it at all (providing ESAs), except in the case for special needs,” Alston said. “Public schools provide pretty good to excellent services to special ed students. Many students do go outside district schools for special ed services if child’s needs require that.”

Alston said she spoke to a woman recently who tried a couple of charter schools for her grandchild with special needs. “I told her, ‘Why don’t you put him in public schools if charters are failing him?’ They did put the child in public schools and are thrilled with services they are getting. She told me, ‘That was a great idea. Why didn’t I think of it?’”

This is the second article in a series on Empowerment Scholarship Accounts.

Part 1: What are Arizona’s Empowerment Scholarship Accounts?