Proposition 305 Delayed the Modernization of the Arizona Empowerment Scholarship Program

October 30, 2018

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

The Arizona Auditor General has performed an update on their review of the Arizona Department of Education’s administration of the Empowerment Scholarship Account program. Back in 2016, the Auditor General found a number of deficiencies in the Department’s oversight of the program. Two years later, they find…many of the same shortcomings. Given the proximity of a public vote on ESA eligibility and administrative modernization, this is basically like pouring a bucket of chum in shark infested waters. Overreaction is guaranteed, despite the fact that the funds discussed represent less than 1% of the total. The greatest irony here is that the bill that the Save Our Schools group placed on the ballot (thus either delaying or killing depending upon the will of the voters) took robust steps to improve the administration of the program.

ESAs are complex programs to administer, and bless their hearts the Arizona Department of Education volunteered to be the first to try. The Arizona Republic’s story on the Auditor General update includes push-back from the outgoing Superintendent of Public Instruction Diane Douglas on the Auditor General update:

State schools Superintendent, Diane Douglas said the misspending of the voucher money is the result of decisions by the Republican-controlled Legislature to deny her department money needed to properly administer the program. Douglas said lawmakers resist properly funding oversight because they want a private entity to oversee it.

“If you’re not willing to put the resources into the oversight, then it doesn’t happen appropriately,” Douglas told The Arizona Republic on Monday. 

She said her staff has “done a phenomenal job with the lack of resources.”

She criticized the audit for glossing over the Legislature’s failure to properly fund oversight.

That’s a story but not a credible one. From the outset, the Arizona Empowerment Scholarship Program has included fees for management companies as an allowable expense for accounts. While the Arizona Department of Education had no experience in managing multi-vendor accounts, there are in fact multiple private firms which have gone up and down the learning curve of managing (for instance) health savings accounts. Other states with ESA programs have contracted with these firms in order to build digital platforms so that both administrators and parents can view accounts and account transactions in real-time. They’ve also developed methodologies to prevent misspending of account funds from occurring. They do this for a very modest fee. These platforms also collect user reviews to help inform the decisions of other parents- which is the only plausible way to hold, for instance, an occupational therapist or online education provider accountable for performance.

What was requested of the department repeatedly and I know this because I myself personally all but begged them to do this on multiple occasions- was to have them hire one of these firms so as to radically improve the administration of the program. The parents would have received superior program that was easier to use, misuse of funds could be dramatically curtailed, and transparency improved. Everyone wins, and you can see this underway in Florida, where the main Gardiner Scholarship administrator (Step Up for Students) has contracted with SAP Ariba to create such a platform.

I interpreted the feedback I received as “Nah man- hold my beer! We’ve GOT THIS!” No wait I think what I was actually told was “the Superintendent is suspicious of outside vendors” which translated in practice to approximately the same outcome. In any case since then the Department’s administration of the program has looked something like:

Notice that this is not a bureaucratic turf issue. The avenue allowed left the Department of Education in charge of the program. Any outside vendor would have reported directly to them, and they could tell them what to do and hire/fire them at will within the normal confines of state contracting. The great advantage here is that these firms have decades of experience in navigating these waters and there are multiple players in the space that could compete if the state created an RFP.

The complaint about under funding of administration also rings hollow because as previous reporting from the Republic established the Department failed to spend the resources allocated for program administration by leaving funded FTE spots open. If you don’t spend the funds appropriated for you, then you don’t get to complain that you needed more funds. And by the way, the private firms with plentiful experience in managing account based program could have been funded for a very modest fee by the account holders, and would have not needed to subtract from the funds the department didn’t in any case fully spend.

Oh but it gets better.

Arizona SB 1431 from the 2017 session included a large number of items to improve the administration of the program and to increase transparency. You can read a list of these items here. In evident despair of the Department modernizing the program administration, the legislature (wisely imo) included these provisions:

Directs ADE to post on its website information and data that are updated monthly regarding ESAs that includes the following:

a)info on all purchases and expenditures made with ESA monies that does not violate the personal privacy of any student or family and that includes only aggregate date;

b)the number of enrolled students disaggregated by eligibility; and

c)any other information or data that may be pertinent to promoting transparency and accountability of the ESA program.

and…

Requires, rather than allows, the Treasurer to contract with private financial management firms to manage ESAs and directs ADE to cooperate with the Treasurer and the contracted firm.

The collection of signatures against SB 1431 by the Save Our Schools group at minimum delayed the modernization of the program in the form of Prop. 305. If the yes vote prevails, SB 1431 will take effect, whereas if no prevails it’s back to the drawing board. The polls on this provision have been mixed, and at the time of this writing it seems the proposition could go either way. Regardless of what happens at the ballot, it remains abundantly clear that program administration must be modernized.

Just as a reminder, this is the same Arizona Department of Education which mis-allocated $85,000,000 in federal title I and IDEA funds, giving some schools too much while short-changing other schools. The “blame the legislature” trick also doesn’t work here as the positions that allocate funding are funded by Uncle Sam (like every other state) but one doesn’t read stories about Montana, Oregon or (fill in the blank here) managing to make a mess of these sorts of things.

Note that the response to this has never been nor should it be “If the Department can’t administer Title I we should just get rid of it!!!!” but I’m fairly confident that I could go on to twitter right now to find this argument being made with hypocritical gusto. In fact I fear I could find this double standard being applied by the very people who delayed the modernization of the program. It’s a neat trick to prevent the implementation of solutions while continuing to complain about the problems. Let’s see what happens next.

 

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The Republic is shocked SHOCKED to learn that there is PLURALISM in this democracy!

December 8, 2017

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

The Arizona Republic requested a FOIA for emails between the Arizona Department of Education and the Goldwater Institute concerning the ESA program. In those emails they found…a giant nothing-burger. I am a Goldwater alumnus and participated fully in the creation of the original ESA program. This opens me to charges of bias, but it certainly makes me familiar with the subject at hand. I don’t believe there is any bias in the case I will lay out below. That case is as follows: it is utterly routine for agencies to interact with stakeholder groups from all sides on all issues-including (dun! Dun! DUN!!!!!) the Goldwater Institute. Requesting the emails of a single group hardly begins to paint a remotely full picture of what goes on, and this article fails to make a case even within the confines of a narrow perspective provided by the emails of the single group.

You’ll have to read the article and navigate a great many assurances that there is something coming in the nothing-burger before you get to the end and are left with basically nothing. But along the way you get treated to gems like:

Special interests often write concepts for legislation or offer drafted bills and then lobby lawmakers to pass them. But Goldwater’s attempts to exert control over the Empowerment Scholarship Account program, from idea to implementation, was highly unusual if not unprecedented, experts say.

“This is almost an iron grip-level of influence from the beginning of the process on,” said Thomas Holyoke, an associate professor of political science at California State University-Fresno, who studies interest groups and lobbying.

Dr. Holyoke might need to go outside a bit more often. Let’s start with some basic facts. Arizona is a pluralistic democracy. Anyone and everyone in Arizona is completely free at any time to write emails to elected officials or agency officials. This happens non-stop and will continue to do so (God willing) for as long as Arizona exists. It is in fact one of the reasons agencies have email systems, but they also receive letters, phone calls, and various other forms of communication. They often meet with people in person. It is the gambling that goes on in the casino of American democracy, and everyone is invited to play.

I can assure you that ESA opponents have also been in frequent communication with the Arizona Department of Education officials as well, as have lots of other groups and people on this and lots of other issues. If one is inclined to create conspiracy stories, you don’t need to request emails.

Here I’ll do it now just for fun and to show how easy it is to do: one of the officials who helped oversee the administration of the ESA program was the son of a former President of the Arizona Education Association and currently lobbies for the Arizona School Boards Association. Another left the Arizona Department of Education to lobby for the Arizona Education Association. Perhaps all of those administrative problems that the Republic has documented over the years are like on purpose man! Maybe the Goldwater Institute was emailing the department because THE MAN doesn’t like kids having the ability to control their own education!!!

It’s like a CONSPIRACY!!!!

Just to be clear I don’t have a problem with either of these individuals- happy to have a drink with one or both of them on occasion when they are tolerant enough to hang out with Dr. Evil at a social event. And for the record, I don’t think that the Arizona Empowerment Scholarship Program has been the victim of conspiratorial administrative sand-bagging. The administration of the program has challenges to be sure. This however is true of many things in a Department that, for instance, sends Title I and IDEA funds to the wrong schools, and has had the state’s student data system in years past crash for months at a time. It’s true that there have been issues with ESA program administration, deeply infuriating ones in fact, but this is basically true of a great many things and is unfortunately par for the course.

Previous reporting from the Republic has shown that the Arizona Department of Education has not spent even close to the full amount appropriated for program administration in prior years. The Republic has documented administrative shortcomings, and recounts some of this in the current article. If the Goldwater Institute wielded all-powerful “iron grip” influence, do we imagine that the Department would leave resources lying around and serious problems with program administration unaddressed? After all, what they want is for the program to work smoothly. Parents who sign an agreement with the state only to find the state fails to fund their accounts on time for instance tend to get angry. Bully for Jonathan Butcher for trying to go to bat for them.

In short I’m having a hard time spotting a conspiracy in this, either in motive, methods or outcomes.

 

 

 

 

 

 


Recall Challenge for Arizona ESA expansion

August 10, 2017

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Anti-choice activists delivered 111,540 petition signatures to the Arizona Secretary of State’s Office two days ago in advance of the deadline in order to subject SB 1431 (2017 ESA expansion) to a vote of the public. Whether or not this will result in the number of legally required valid signatures remains unclear- judging from the previous history of validity rates it is very likely to be close either way. It will take weeks before we have a final answer. Only the expansion of the program, rather than the program itself, faces uncertainty. The program will continue to operate for the students eligible under the previous law without interruption.

What “Save Our Schools” group has done is both impressive and misguided. The chattering classes in Arizona, including me, were broadly skeptical regarding their chances. Gathering signatures out in the summer Arizona heat is an indicator of real passion. Their fury however were deeply misplaced. The real victims here are the hundreds of parents who had submitted an application to the Department of Education to participate and the larger number who had planned to apply.

Last Friday at a public Arizona Talks debate, Zeus Rodriguez made the point that the question of whether to have parental choice and the question of how much to spend on public schools are entirely separate decisions. Choice opponents seem to fail to appreciate that school funding decisions are reached democratically (both directly and indirectly) and that districts remain (by far) the best funded option both in absolute and on a per student basis. The fixation on the ESA program as a boogeyman is especially odd. Approximately 3,500 students participated in the AZESA program last year- we have multiple individual high schools with more students. Whether you examine numbers of students or dollars invested, the absurdity of blaming private choice for every district grievance becomes clear:

and in terms of dollars:

Funding for K-12 education is guaranteed in the Arizona Constitution and this provision enjoys the broad support of the public. It is under no threat from anyone as far as I can tell. The history of the last 22 years demonstrates that even the district portion of public education has more kids and more money than when parental choice experiments began. Fast growing states do not in other words face a zero sum game. Had Arizona choice supporters been out to “destroy public education” in the state the two charts above demonstrate that this imaginary effort would have to be judged a spectacular failure.

Fortunately, our real project is entirely different.

The evidence supporting the real project (improving variety, diversity and performance) is much stronger. Arizona has more choice options than any other state, and alone among all states made statistically significant progress on all six NAEP exams for the entire period that we can track all exams (2009-2015). When you net out significant declines from increases the typical state saw one significant increase during this period.  Arizona students made more progress on math 2009 and 2013 as 4th/8th graders, and then did it again between 2011 and 2015. This of course does not prove that choice caused the improvement, but when you take a close look at the gains, it is very difficult indeed to argue that they have hurt:

Stay tuned to see what happens next. My sympathies lie entirely with the families who just had an opportunity yanked away just before the start of the school year.

 

 


Arizona Students with Disabilities thrive during choice era

May 16, 2017

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

I had the chance to meet some of the folks from Raise Your Hand Texas a few years ago, and they seemed entirely delightful and respectable people. I’m afraid however that they have rushed off to form a judgement about the subject of education freedom from students with disabilities without examining the available evidence. We have statistical analyses of the impact of such programs on student outcomes for children with disabilities, surveys of parental satisfaction for participating parents, etc. but in the end this comes down to a gut check: do you believe choice for children with disabilities should be limited to those who can pay for it themselves or hire high-priced attorneys? Or do you believe that everyone can benefit from giving all children with disabilities the opportunity to seek education solutions with their share of funds?

Put me down in the latter category. If you put yourself in the former category, please feel free to explain how Arizona children with disabilities managed to show such strong gains during a period when they were being “oppressed” by not one but two different private choice programs for children with disabilities. You don’t have to trust me- go look up the numbers yourself.

As you can see, a large number of states (including Texas) either made zero progress or else saw declining scores for students with disabilities during this period. None of the states with functioning private choice programs for children with disabilities made it into the “Zero or less” club. Oddly enough several states with such programs operating during this period made it into the top 10, including Arizona, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Georgia and Indiana. Others with long-standing programs-including Florida and Utah- had more modest gains during this period but high overall scores in 2015 (NAEP science scores only go back to 2009 in the current framework).

None of this demonstrates that private choice programs drive academic improvement for students with disabilities remaining in public schools. Far more thorough studies make that case. The opposite proposition that such programs harm the academic progress of children remaining in districts- can survive neither a cursory examination of evidence nor formal statistical evaluation.

It is deeply misguided for Raise Your Hand Texas to attempt to “protect” Texas children with disabilities from more diverse schooling options, the ability to hire certified academic tutors and therapists, assistive technologies etc. Given a 12 year long effort on the part of the Texas Education Agency and 1,054 Texas school districts to undermine the intent of IDEA, I’m inclined to think that these children could use some protection from the public schooling system-as in the option to leave. As for the question of whether participating students have things to gain, you should listen to parents directly involved:


Robb: Free Your Mind

April 17, 2017

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Arizona Republic columnist Bob Robb provided an insightful summary of the choice debate overall while commenting on the ESA expansion fight here in the Cactus Patch, but with broad applicability:

….the debate about vouchers isn’t really about money. The argument that vouchers drain district schools of resources has always been a diversion.

Instead, the debate is rooted in different views of the role of government in educating children.

The government, through the coercive power of taxation, establishes a central pool of resources for the education of students.

Voucher supporters believe that the pool should be used to provide the best educational opportunity for each child as determined by their parents. A proportionate share of the common pool should be available irrespective of whether that choice is a district, charter or private school. The focus should be on what is best for each child individually.

Voucher opponents believe that some children should be used by the government as sociological chess pieces. Their access to the common pool should be limited to the schools voucher opponents believe they should be attending, even if their parents believe it is suboptimal.

As Morpheus put it “What is the Matrix? Control.”

In other words, some people view children primarily as funding units for a system that employs a large number of adults. The other side views students as human beings with a huge diversity of needs and aspirations, a large number of which will not be met in a 19th Century Prussian factory model of service provision with a monopoly on the common pool funds. We have very helpfully moved away from this in Arizona, but each new step seems to elicit a fresh burst of misguided outrage. Robb used the term chess pieces, I prefer “funding units” but “copper tops” might be the most apt term:

 

 

 


Governor Doug Ducey signs AZ Empowerment Scholarship Account expansion

April 7, 2017

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Arizona Governor Doug Ducey signed the expansion of the ESA program into law, becoming the first Governor to deliver on a sizable expansion of parental choice during the 2017 legislative sessions. The torch has been passed to a new generation of governors.

The other states are invited to hop on in-the water is fine!


Arizona Legislature Sends ESA expansion to tribal lands bill to Governor

April 2, 2015

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Arizona Senator Carlyle Begay succeeded today in passing SB 1332, which will expand eligibility to the Empowerment Scholarship Accounts program to all children living on tribal lands. Senator Begay bravely faced a great deal of hostility from his own party on this issue, but correctly noted in committee testimony that the state ought to be seeking every possible way to get better results in Arizona’s tribal schools, and there was no reason to expect a mass exodus.

NAEP backs this position up completely:

Az American Indian NAEP

Congratulations to Senator Begay for leading on an important and difficult issue for the children in his district.  Congrats also for the Arizona choice coalition that worked very hard through an especially trying legislative session.

UPDATE: Senator Begay stated the following in a recent column“Serving in the Arizona State Legislature is not a popularity contest, nor is it a platform for grandstanding. I am here to serve my district, serve my state and uphold the progressive values that keep me moving forward.”

Two additional Democrats in the Arizona Senate joined Senator Begay in voting for final passage.

!!BOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOM!!