Commentary on Arizona School Choice

Matt Beienburg:

Most recently, for example, The Republic’s October 25 exposé on ESA usage cast a damning light on the program. Unfortunately, it’s The Republic’s analysis, not the ESA program, that needs to be drawn into the light.

The Republic’s story makes two key assertions: 1) that ESAs are disproportionately used by and serve the wealthy, and 2) that kids from rich areas get bigger ESA awards than more disadvantaged peers.

Both assertions are false.

In particular, the paper opened its story by claiming:

“Arizona students who use public money to go to private schools are still disproportionately leaving wealthier and higher-performing school districts….Nearly 70 percent of the money from the voucher-like Empowerment Scholarship Accounts is being used by students leaving A- or B-rated districts to attend private schools.”

This is hugely misleading on several grounds: First, about 70 percent of the state’s K-12 population attends schools in A and B-rated districts, so you’d expect that number in the ESA program. But you’d have to read 34 paragraphs down in the Republic analysis to find even a veiled reference to this slightly noteworthy bit of context.

Second, students from A and B districts actually make up less than 70 percent of the students receiving an ESA, despite being 70 percent of the overall K-12 population. This is because students who left mediocre C districts, or failing D and F districts are over-represented in the ESA program. (Now, as the Republic correctly points out, students from D & F schools or districts can qualify for an ESA without meeting additional eligibility criteria, so this is exactly what we would anticipate.)