The current, aggressive push to expand Empowerment Scholarship Accounts (ESAs) does nothing to address the systemic education challenges we face in Arizona.
It is a dangerous attack on our public education systems and our state’s economic future. As a business community, our priority is to ensure that all students have access to a top-quality school that meets students’ needs and interests.
Arizona leaders should focus on effectively funding public education and supporting innovative programs that improve academic outcomes.
The time is now. Public education is the single most powerful economic development tool we have as a state.
ESAs were originally designed to serve a small population of students – they were never meant to replace public education or to serve all students.
A full expansion of ESAs is nothing more than a boutique scheme to address a non-existent need for private school subsidies.
While being marketed as a solution for low-income students and students of color – the students whom data tells us need the most wide-scale, institutional support – SB1452 is the most offensive of the private school voucher bills proposed this session. The bill would make roughly 700,000 Arizona students eligible for ESAs – a 280% increase in a single move. This is nothing more than a bold attempt to privatize education.
There’s a lot wrong with this bill, but the worst is the fact that rather than focus on supporting low-income students of color, many of whom are already eligible, SB1452 will make many more middle- and high-income white students eligible for taxpayer-subsidized vouchers, exploiting the impoverished communities in favor of further subsidizing the tiny fraction (as few as approximately 5%) of Arizona families choosing to home-school, private and parochial schools.
Greater Phoenix Leadership, Southern Arizona Leadership Council and Northern Arizona Leadership Alliance, representing more than 200 CEOs across Arizona, have made it clear that they are against the expansion of vouchers in Arizona and have voiced support for our public education systems, from early childhood to higher education. Business leaders and voters are like-minded – we have consistently come together for public education with a focus on equity and access. Instead of proposing unsustainable ways to make 70% of students eligible for private school vouchers, we need to make the public schools better, stronger and more successful.
What our state needs is crystal clear – an equitable, fully funded, high-quality public education system that serves all students across Arizona, no matter the zip code or income level. We have fallen too far behind and the only way we catch up – the only way we move the needle and bring Arizona to a competitive, robust and morally conscionable state – is to focus on the public education funding formula. Programs like private school vouchers have a long history of excluding and segregating our communities rather than including and supporting them. ESAs don’t get us where we need to be.
We need to put our heads together – across the business, education and political realms – and finally execute big changes to the funding formula and other mechanisms that have proven inefficient and worse, inequitable. Now is the time to focus on what moves all our students forward – working together to properly fund the schools serving 95% of Arizona students.
Jim Swanson is president and CEO of Kitchell Corporation. John Graham is chairman and CEO of Sunbelt Holdings. They chair the Greater Phoenix Leadership Education Standing Committee.