(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)
Arizona lawmakers passed a broad expansion of the state’s ESA program last week, meaning that we got treated to every anti-choice talking point you can imagine during the debate, some far more dubious than others. One opponent for instance asserted that the ESA program was reminiscent of a very unfortunate history decades ago when officials kidnapped Native American children from reservation lands and forced them to attend schools in Phoenix, breaking their families up. As you might imagine, this level of overconfident paternalism bears a scar to this day. Parental choice would of course bring this history to mind if not for the fact that it is in fact the polar freaking opposite of having some idiotic government official decide where your child was going to go to school whether you like it or not.
But I digress…
Transportation lies more in the realm of worthwhile discussion- parents can only choose between schools within transport range. Private schools engage in a variety of formal and informal transportation efforts- including carpools and buses, but the lack of tightly packed attendance boundaries presents challenges as choice schools tend to draw from large areas for students. Brookings has produced a very helpful study finding that 82% of American families live within five miles of one or more private schools.
So let’s take a real world example. A few years ago I blogged on the University of Notre Dame’s Alliance for Catholic Education program having partnered with a group of South Tucson Catholic schools. South Tucson has many low-income students and a sadly large number of low-rated public schools, but it also has a number of private schools within walking distance. Transportation is not the main issue in South Tucson- the ability of families to cover the modest tuition costs remain the main obstacle.
The complexity of the ESA program eligibility requirements were another obstacle, although one that has been overcome. This is a Powerpoint slide that ACE used to explain how they went about attempting to qualify children for Arizona choice programs under the formerly Byzantine rules of AZESA:
Having said all of this, not every child will have the same proximity to private schools as the kids in South Tucson. We can hope that additional private schools will open to meet demand, and the ESA does provide options outside of attending private schools. I am also hopeful that the Nevada ESA program will be funded this year, and we can see how including transportation as an allowable account expense works out in practice.