I’m not going to discuss whether voucher programs are a good or bad thing; there are enough voices weighing in on that debate. Instead, I want to describe how the Arizona Empowerment Scholarship Account (“ESA”) program actually works, with a focus on children with disabilities.
Here's how it works: assuming a family decides to accept an ESA, they’re entitled to a base level funding amount correlated with the state’s per pupil funding level. Last year, that amount was approximately $5,000. Kids with certain disabilities can get more – up to $26,293. Here’s a list of the disabilities and the funding levels that go with them.
The problem is this: the funding levels bear absolutely no logical relationship to what it might take to educate any particular child. A child with a mild hearing impairment, for example, may be able to attend a small, private school that has very little background noise for well-under the $15,785 (plus the base level funding) allotted for students with hearing impairments. On the other hand, a child with a Specific Learning Disability ("SLD") that affects reading – otherwise known as dyslexia – may need intensive reading intervention from specially trained teachers at one of a handful of specialized private schools for students with learning disabilities. Tuition at these schools usually exceeds $20,000. The funding level for SLD? 10.00. No, that's not a typo. TEN DOLLARS.
The result is that many families of children with disabilities who need ESAs can only benefit from them if they are already wealthy enough to supplement the cost of private tuition, or maybe those who can find a way to home-school. Otherwise, students with disabilities must remain in public school and hope that our state -- which repeatedly ranks near the very bottom in the nation for per pupil funding – can find a way to provide the appropriate education to which these students are entitled by federal law.
Unless Arizona shows it understands the actual needs of students with disabilities well enough to adjust the funding formula to meet them, I, for one, am very skeptical about its ability to educate these kids without federal oversight.