Ted Simons: The Arizona Court of Appeals recently denied a request to block Arizona's education savings account program. The ruling is expected to be appealed. What are empowerment scholarship accounts? And are they go for Arizona? Here to debate the question is Clint Bolick, lead attorney at the Goldwater Institute, and Don Peters, an attorney representing the Arizona Education Association.
Clint Bolick: Great to be here.
Ted Simons: Let's define terms here. These are called empowerment scholarship accounts. What are we talking about?
Clint Bolick: It's a very new idea built on the recognition that no two students learn the same. Basically for students who are eligible, who opt out of the public schools, the state places a certain percentage of their education fund into an education savings account, which can be used for any educational purpose, from private school tuition to tutoring to distance learning, even community college tuition. If they don't use all of their funds they can save it for college. This opens up a huge range of options for kids, particularly disabled kids and kids who are attending poor-performing public schools.
Ted Simons: How do you define this particular issue?
Don Peters: As a very old idea in new packaging. It is true that they have marketed this thing very well, and there are supposedly many choices for scholarship recipients. But to get a scholarship a parent has to promise three things. They promise they will educate the child. They have to promise that they will not enroll the child in a public school, and that they will not home school the child. What's left? They have to use the money for private education in the overwhelming number of cases. 90% of the funds are going to pay tuition at private and religious schools. It's built into the program, that's what this is all about. It's doing the same thing as the program invalidated by the courts a few years ago, just with different packaging.
Ted Simons: Why is this good for Arizona?
Clint Bolick: It's good because we have an educational system built on a 19th Century model. And it's the 21st century. We have educational technology now that makes the best teachers available to millions of kids. And one size fits all simply has not proved to be very effective. Our nation's education system is in a world of trouble, and Arizona's is among the bottom in the American system. So making options available, individualized options including home schooling, which in fact is an option under this program.
Ted Simons: Why is this bad for Arizona?
Don Peters: Before we ever get to education policy, part of the money is going to pay for religious education. Most private schools in Arizona are religious. Well, since the days of Jefferson and Madison, most Americans have thought that tax dollars shouldn't be used to educate children in particular religions. No hostility to religious education, but it's not something the public should be funding. It drains money from schools that are chronically underfunded anyway. There's nothing a private school can do, that couldn't be done for every child in the state through the public schools. That's what the legislature ought to be focused on, is maintaining and improving the public schools.
Ted Simons: Does the Arizona Constitution not ban public money for religious worship, religious instruction? And does this money not go to private and/or parochial schools?
Clint Bolick: It does if the parents choose to spend it there. They have an entire range of options. In fact, when Don was asked in the battle over school vouchers in the Supreme Court a few years ago, by the justice, what if you expand the options for kids and it doesn't just include private schools. Don said, then that would be permissible. We have a program that does make those choices available.
Ted Simons: Makes those choices available? That is what this program does?
Don Peters: First of all, the exchange of oral arguments talking about, the way the justice understood the question and I understood it are quite different from the way Clint understands it, but that doesn't matter. After you're through making the promises, your choice is which private school to go to, if they will take you. And also they don't have to and they may not admit you.
That's simply not true, Ted. We have the program in operation. And although a number of kids do use it for private school tuition, a number of kids do not. And they hire tutors, they do distance learning and so forth. The program as it operates applies -- and in fact, you can now buy services directly from public schools, you can go to community college. Public, as well as private choices are included in this.
Ted Simons: Okay. Why not allow for more options, especially for kids who are in poor performing schools or kids who have disabilities, that a private or parochial school might be better suited to cater to?
Don Peters: Well, Arizona already has a great deal of school choice. We have charter schools, we have open enrollment. There are many things a student can do if a particular public school isn't working for them. Part of the problem is, we need to focus on all the children in the public schools, and find solutions that work for everybody, not just giving a few children an escape hatch here. This kind of deflects the attention from where it should be. If there's something the private school can do, let's make it happen in the public schools, if there's a good reason to do it.
Ted Simons: This is not specifically parents choosing schools, it's private schools that can and do choose kids. It is somewhat elitist in that fashion.
Clint Bolick: Not at all. The education savings account would not remotely pay for the kind of elite private schools that are very selective. We're talking in many instances about inner city schools. We're talking about schools that are highly specialized for disabled students where the public schools have failed to meet their needs. They now have an opportunity to go to a school that in many instances will save their lives. There are a number of severely disabled kids, kids with severe autism, who were shackled in schools that were -- where they literally weren't speaking. Now they are joining the rest of society, they were able to function. That is a miracle, this is a good thing. This is not -- not disserving the interests of public education. It is fulfilling them.
Don Peters: Can I respond to that?
Ted Simons: Sure.
Don Peters: First of all, with regard to disabled children, under existing law, if your public school can't meet your needs, the public schools are required to use the private schools as contractors. If a private school can do something that a special ed kid needs done and the public school can't. That's already covered. It's very difficult to be the parent of a disabled child, but any notion that this program is about disabled children got left in the dust long ago. The Goldwater Institute has said they would like to make these scholarships available to every child in the state. That in the end would essentially get rid of the public school system. I don't know who would be left except the kids not admitted by the private schools for whatever reasons. I think what you would see is a significantly more segregated school system. Kids being segregated ethnically, religiously, and racially. As a practical matter, that's the future we would see if they got their wish.
Clint Bolick: We haven't seen any single school choice system anywhere in the country, quite the contrary. We're seeing that kids who did not have choices before now have them. And Don's discussion about what disabled kids can do right now, that's a huge legal process, which in many instances the public schools fight tooth and nail. If you're smart enough and rich enough to hire a lawyer, you can get out. Parents of disabled kids, parents of kids in failing public schools, shouldn't have to go through that legal process to get their kids a good education. Not five years from now, today.
Ted Simons: Back to one of the original inferences here in the discussion. Why doesn't the Goldwater Institute put its energy and discussion into improving the public school for all kids, as opposed to those who are eligible for these "vouchers" to private and parochial schools?
Clint Bolick: They are not vouchers, but I'll put that aside for a moment. We do. We put a tremendous amount of money into improving community schools. We are huge champions of charter schools. Within the public schools, now that they are graded A to F, which was a Goldwater Institute idea, parents know how good or how bad their school is. Now with increased competition we're seeing that public schools are improving.
Ted Simons: Back to an earlier inference on this side The idea that you're giving more choices out there, some would argue more choice, more competition, better results. Valid?
Don Peters: Well, no. You're not giving more choices in reality. When you can't use the public schools and you have to educate your child, you go to the private schools. Typically, that's going to eat up all the money provided by these things. In the first period of operation out of 190,000 some odd spent in scholarship money, 180,000 some odd were spent for religious and private schools. It's all marketing. Sounds like mom and the flag and apple pie. But it's really an illusion designed to try to get this thing through the courts. That's why it was packaged this way.
Ted Simons: How do you respond to that?
Clint Bolick: It's simply not true. Initially most of the kids in the program were disabled kids. In most instances they are going need a facility to go to school. Now that the program is expanding to kids in failing public schools, you're going to see a lot more distance learning, a lot more use of these things.
Ted Simons: Bottom line For all Arizona school children, those involved, those not, is this a good thing for all of those children?
Clint Bolick: Absolutely. We should care less about where children are being educated and care mainly and only about whether they are getting educated. If they can't get educated well in a traditional public school, then they should have the opportunity to find options.
Ted Simons: For all Arizona schoolchildren and for those -- if one kid is helped by this, is it not worth it?
Don Peters: We should be getting that kid the help that kid needs through public schools. The people who drafted the Constitution of the State of Arizona had a clear vision. There needed to be a strong public school system and the legislature needed to work through it there. There are divisions presenting the division of funds to private schools. They are supposed to keep their eye on the ball, all of the children, improving things for all of them.
Clint Bolick: Ted, thanks for having us. Thanks, Don.