The Empire Strikes Back in 2014

April 18, 2014

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Score another 2014 win for the bad guys, who defeated an attempt to expand the Arizona ESA program to high-poverty areas of the state yesterday.

The debate on the floor revealed that we choice advocates have a lot of work to do. A pernicious and false idea that came up is one that we are guilty of helping to spread- that we “already have school choice in Arizona.”  Arizona scores relatively well on choice when compared to most other states. We have inter-and intradistrict choice, one of the strongest charter school laws, tuition tax credits and the ESA program.  Arizona is parental choice nirvana, right?


A few years ago I tried to help a woman who lived in south Phoenix find a different school for her children, two of whom had been sent to the hospital as the result of brutal attacks by fellow students.  I put her in touch with a person who has helped parents in her situation for many years.  It was an eye-opening experience.

Let’s start with open enrollment.  This mother found the doors shut in her face.  Let’s just say that it seemed that the fancier districts were not overly interested in kids from south Phoenix and leave it at that.

What about charter schools?  Even South Phoenix charter schools with lousy academics, but where you might hope your daughter might avoid getting a pencil stabbed through the back of her neck, had long waiting lists.  The Great Hearts charter schools alone had a wait list of 10,000 kids last year.

Well you can always apply for a tax credit scholarship.  Except…scholarship groups have thousands more applicants than they can possibly help.

For this mother, it almost may as well been 1993- the year before Arizona passed its charter school law.

The ESA expansion that failed yesterday would have made students living in areas like south Phoenix and south Tucson eligible to participate in the ESA program. The expansion would not have cured the world’s pain nor dried every crying eye, but it could have provided a lifeline to thousands of families like the one described above.

It would be easy to be angry at the people who voted against this expansion, but the truth is that people like me need to look in the mirror and ask how we can do a better job of explaining why this is so important.


WSJ on ESA and Jordan Visser

April 17, 2014

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

The Wall Street Journal has a news story on the Arizona Empowerment Accounts program today. Notice especially the intellectual incoherence of the Scottsdale official trying to explain how it hurts the finances of the district to lose special needs students:

School districts say that even though state funding doesn’t cover the costs of special-needs students, they don’t necessarily save that money if a student leaves the district. The Scottsdale district says it pays about $10 million to $12 million more than it gets from the state and federal government to educate its special-needs students.

“If every student with special needs left, then maybe we would save that $12 million, but at the same time, it’s pretty implausible,” said Daniel O’Brien, chief financial officer of the Scottsdale district. He added that the schools would still have students with all kinds of other needs who may not qualify for ESAs, and they would still need to educate those students.

Did you follow that?  Scottsdale says that they use $10m to $12m in general education funds above and beyond what it receives in state and federal funding for special needs children.  I certainly agree that it is utterly implausible that all special needs students will choose to leave the Scottsdale district, but that whole line of thought misses the most important point: if a child leaves with their “inadequate funding” then you have no cause to cry about it.  You still have the $10m to $12m in the bank- now you just have more options with what to do with some of it- you might want to spend more on your remaining special needs kids, you may want to do a slightly smaller transfer from general ed to special ed, but either way the district wins.

Notice also that 90% of what the Scottsdale Unified would have received for Jordan Visser seems to be serving his needs quite well.

For the past three years, Ms. Visser has educated her son, Jordan, who has cerebral palsy, at their Scottsdale, Ariz., home. He has a packed schedule of one-on-one instructional sessions with a specialist, physical-education classes, music lessons, horse-riding therapy and other programs—all of which she pays for through a state-funded program informally known as the “education debit card.”


There are in Fact “Dinosaurs” on this “Dinosaur Tour”

April 15, 2014


(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

A local Arizona political news service, the Yellow Sheet Report  just happened to stumble across an obscure spreadsheet and discovered that parents have not spent all the money in the ESA program.  Tim Ogle, executive director of the Arizona School Boards Association, told the Yellow Sheet “Now we have these individuals whose education is not being accounted for by the state, and also you’ve got over $2 million of public money unaccounted for, so both educational lack of oversight and financial lack of oversight [exist], and that’s why the empowerment account idea is so flawed philosophically.”  

The Yellow Sheet did note that parents have a number of options in how to spend ESA funds, including rolling funds over from year to year.  The blurb even noted that in the end if you graduate from high-school and fail to spend the funds in a timely fashion on higher education expenses, that the funds revert back to the state. Why they persisted to write about this story at this point might have something to do with an admiration for Mr. Ogle, or his point of view, or might have something to do with the fact that there are only a few days left in the session with some ESA bills still under consideration. Or some combination thereof.  I’m just not sure. In any case, these funds are hardly “unaccounted for” in any sense. They simply have not been spent yet.

Rather than some sort of deep, dark secret uncovered by a sleuthing alphabet souper, Lindsey Burke openly discussed the use of funds in a Friedman Foundation study in August of 2013.  Alphanauts don’t read FF stuff as much as they should, so I’ll try to help out.  The study linked to above has a section called Do Parents Consider Opportunity Costs with ESA Funds? on Page 13. Burke wrote:

Enabling families to save unspent Empowerment Scholarship Account funds provides a powerful financial accountability feature. Whereas traditional school vouchers must be spent in their entirety, ESAs foster demand-side pressure for education providers to offer more cost-efficient educational services by creating an incentive for parents to shop for education services based in part on cost. During the first quarter of Fiscal Year 2013 (the 2012-13 school year), 244 students were awarded ESAs. Of those, 115 students were active ESA participants from the 2011-12 school year, and 187 were active during the first quarter of Fiscal Year 2013, bringing total student ESA enrollment to 302 during the first quarter of the 2012-13 school year. Arizona awarded $1,302,863 to ESA recipients during the first quarter of 2013, of which parents spent $964,991 and saved $337,871. The ADE notes that $1,239,057 will be distributed to participating families during the second quarter of 2013, and estimates total ESA spending to be just short of $5.2 million for the year.

During Fiscal Year 2012, $671,012 in ESA funds remained unspent; during the first quarter of Fiscal Year 2013, approximately $337,871 in ESA funds was unspent. This suggests families are saving and rolling over a significant portion of the ESA funds, in anticipation of either near-term or long-term future education-related expenses.

The law allows parents to save funds in two different ways- first by making a contribution to a Coverdell Savings Account, which can be invested and earn interest under federal guidelines. Second, parents can roll unused funds over, and use them for the child’s K-12 or higher education expenses.  All the allowable uses of ESA funds relate to either K-12 or higher education, all funds are accessed through a use-restricted debit card, and all receipts have been monitored and approved by the Arizona Department of Education officials.  If a parent makes an inappropriate purchase with funds, they can be required to refund the money, find themselves kicked out of the program, or referred to the authorities for criminal prosecution. As mentioned earlier, unused funds eventually revert back to the state.  The program had technical challenges to allowing parents to invest funds in a college savings account program in the first year, but those were eventually overcome, and the amount rolled over from year to year declined.

So if parents “saving” in their “Education Savings Account” is some sort of faux pas, then the fund balances run by Arizona school districts represent an epic level crime against humanity.  The AZ Superintendent of Public Instruction puts out a handy financial report every year, and if you are really nerdy and find the second volume online you’ll find hundreds of millions of dollars of unspent funds in school district accounts.  It appears for instance that the Tucson Unified District received $522 m in the year covered, only spent $507m, and had $80m or so sitting in the bank.

!!!Quelle Horreur!!!

Tucson received $522m in revenue and only spent $126m on teacher salaries.  Plus the reading scores down there deserve to be put on trial in the Hague. Now that I think about it, the state’s preschool program famously had piled up $400 million in the bank before they started furiously buying billboards to tell everyone how great they were when state lawmakers proposed using the money to keep the state’s lights turned on during the housing meltdown. Hmmm, but wait must stay focused could….write….about…this…for…hours!

Policymakers designed the ESA program to allow parents to save money for future education expenses, whether K-12 or higher education related. It’s silly to cry foul when they do so.




MS Governor Phil Bryant makes a powerful case for Special Education Choice

March 31, 2014

Governor Bryant 2

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Down the stretch they come in Mississippi, and Governor Phil Bryant weighs in with a powerful case for reform. The bill will pass or die in the next two days, so stay tuned….

Say It All Together Now Class: TESTING ≠ ACCOUNTABILITY

March 28, 2014

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

So I tuned into the Fordham Foundation podcast yesterday, only to find that Fordham is stubbornly holding onto a misapprehension that their own research ought to have disabused them of long ago, namely that standardized testing equates to “accountability.”

This came up in a discussion of the Arizona ESA court ruling.  Broad misunderstandings of the program were on display, especially regarding the term “accountability.”

Sigh. Let’s start with the basics. The dictionary defines the word accountability as:

the quality or state of being accountable; especially :  an obligation or willingness to accept responsibility or to account for one’s actions.

Standardized testing is widespread in education, but “accountability” is scarce indeed.  So in my state more or less every public school student takes the AIMS test, but you would struggle to find anyone who is held “accountable” for the results.  Forty percent of 4th graders in Arizona scored below basic on the 2013 NAEP reading test, but good luck finding a policymaker, superintendent, teacher or parent who was held “accountable.”  Strangely enough, no one accepted responsibility for this sad state of affairs, making this a very unique form of accountability one where no one  is ever held responsible.

So what Mike and Michelle seem to actually be talking about is academic transparency to the public.  Arizona’s ESA program is indeed lacking in any form of academic transparency to the public.  There are a variety of forms this could take, some much more sensible than others, and Arizona policymakers would do well to pick one of them.  If they don’t pick one of the reasonable models, one must assume that an unreasonable model will be imposed sooner or later.  I’ve testified on a number of occasions at the Arizona legislature that policymakers should embrace transparency in the program. I will keep on doing it in the future.

Now let’s discuss the difference between faux and vrai accountability.

Kathy Visser, the mother of Jordan Visser, an ESA student featured in the above video, testified before the Arizona legislature regarding accountability recently.  She more or less noted that for all this shallow talk of “accountability” in this particular hearing (holding the same flawed understanding of the term displayed by Fordham) that there is in fact accountability in the ESA program. Everyone who educates Jordan is directly accountable to her.

Good luck getting that level of accountability in the public school system.

I followed up with Ms. Visser in a subsequent conversation. She experienced a number of difficulties in the public school system that are sadly common for special needs families. She had an open enrollment request denied without explanation with a public school official going so far as to hang up the phone on her. She consulted a specialized attorney who helps special needs families, but found the $15,000 retainer financially out of reach.  Fortunately the attorney told her about the ESA program.

Ms. Visser first tried a private school for Jordan.  She related that Jordan did not have a terrible experience in the private school, but that she decided to try the customized education approach with private tutors and therapists featured in the video above. Ms. Visser agreed that with a school voucher like the McKay Scholarship Program, she would have been able to hold the public schools accountable for the services they provided Jordan.  With an ESA, she can hold all providers accountable private schools, tutors, therapists, you name it.

That my friends is true accountability, you know, the kind where people actually get held responsible for their results.   Not the largely phony kind of accountability where states administer dummied down academic exams with massive item exposure, dropping cut scores, and all sorts of statistical games and tricks and other problems that I have read about in Fordham reports with most states obscuring things further behind fuzzy labels whose scale almost no one understands.

The type of “accountability” that Fordham is talking about however has proven to be baloney in most states for decades now.  Even in states with the most useful testing systems, like Massachusetts and Florida, you won’t find any parents wielding the type of authority exercised by Kathy Visser. It’s long past time for us to recognize the difference between genuine accountability and mere bullshit accountability.

UPDATE: In the interest of fairness please note that Mike did say he supports the ESA program in the podcast and expressed that we should let this experiment play out.  My point is not to claim that the ESA program is perfect (it isn’t) but rather that our notions of what constitutes “accountability” badly need a reboot.

Arizona ESA Prevails in Court

March 21, 2014

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

The Arizona Supreme Court has refused to hear the appeal of the Empowerment Scholarship Accounts program, allowing an outstanding Appellate Court decision to stand as binding precedent.

Congratulations to the crack legal eagles at the Goldwater Institute and the Institute for Justice and the State of Arizona for winning the case. It has been a great blessing to work with so many dedicated lawmakers, colleagues, parents and donors in Arizona and across the country that helped to bring this program to life.

To Senator Blaine, the Know Nothings, the KKK and anyone else involved in writing bigoted anti-Catholic language into the Arizona Constitution eat your hearts out. This is a small but crucial victory in a larger struggle against your disgusting legacy.

Most of all congratulations to the participating parents. Their stories can bring even the stoic to tears.  The program upon which your family depends is safe from court assault now. Thank you for your unyielding support!

Education Savings Accounts in the News

February 25, 2014

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

The Clarion-Ledger endorsed ESAs for Special Education children in Mississippi in a powerful editorial today:

In 1997, The Clarion-Ledger published an award-winning series of stories highlighting the problems facing special-needs students in Mississippi.

Among its findings: Parents had to battle public schools to get federally mandated services for their children; the state had few qualified teachers to provide an appropriate education to disabled students; and just 17 percent of special-needs children graduated high school.

On Feb. 2, the newspaper published another series on special education that found little has changed.

Nearly two decades later, parents of special-needs kids still battle school districts. Teachers and administrators still lack training. And despite six new state superintendents, countless different strategies and billions of dollars in federal funding since that first series ran, Mississippi’s special-needs graduation rate has risen just 6 percentage points.

Less than one in four students with disabilities leave high school with a diploma in Mississippi. It’s the worst special-needs graduation rate in the nation. Most states graduate 50 percent or more.


We support public schools, but we cannot support the systemic failure of certain students over the course of several decades without any signal from MDE that something will change.

For that reason, we believe SB 2325 and HB 765 offer a reasonable solution to a longstanding problem and the first glimmer of hope for thousands of parents.


Meanwhile NPR interviewed Oklahoma Rep. Jason Nelson on his ESA proposal. Money quote:

Q: If the students who are left in public schools are the least likely to succeed, doesn’t it almost guarantee those schools won’t do well?

I’ve got two children in public school. I’ve not yet talked to any parent that sees their child as a funding unit for the public school system. None of us see our kids that way. It’s silly to make an argument like that: “Your child needs to come to this school because they’re a funding unit and we need to have that.”

The people who are leaving are the people that aren’t getting their needs met. If you’re happy, then you’re going to stay. If the school’s not working for your child for whatever reason, you should have no obligation to stay.


Please Return to Your Seats and Fasten Your Seat Belts…

February 17, 2014

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

I have a new guest post on RedefinED today showing that everything in Florida will be fine as the children of the Baby Boomers have children and the Baby Boomers retire. So long that is if they find a way to reformat Medicaid to keep it affordable, create 1.4 million new school spaces and somehow avoid a major drag on economic growth as the percentage of working age people declines.   

You know, just a few minor things here and there. 

Elephants are Afraid of Mice, Giant Public School Establishments are Terrified of Small Choice Programs

February 16, 2014

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

We had a bit of a fauxtroversy here in Arizona last week as some quarters got riled up over Superintendent of Public Instruction John Huppenthal’s decision to record a message for parents whose children attend D/F rated Arizona schools about the Empowerment Scholarship Account program.  Superintendent Huppenthal serves as the legally designated administrator of the ESA program- it is quite a shock that he might work with private groups to raise awareness of the program.  Quelle horreur!  This is surely going to lead to the destruction of public education in Arizona right?

Elephants are afraid of mice

Well, no actually not so much.  More on the NBC news show Sunday Square Off:

Mississippi Senate and House Pass ESA Bills

February 13, 2014

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Both the Mississippi Senate and House passed ESA legislation for children with disabilities today. Check the FF for details, bills now head to conference. Congrats to Mississippi’s choice champions…not counting chickens yet but….can’t……….resist……..


Mississippi may be first to pass a new private choice bill in 2014. If so, who will be next?


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