Ep. 273: Big Ideas — Arizona Mapping with Matt Beienburg

October 5, 2021

In this episode we hear from Matt Beienburg, director of education policy at the Goldwater Institute, and our own director of state research and special projects, Drew Catt. The two co-authored a report titled, “The ESA Opportunity Map: Charting Empowerment Scholarship Account Eligibility for Students in Failing Arizona Public Schools.”

Jason: Hello and welcome back to EdChoice chats. I’m your host, Jason Bedrick director of policy at EdChoice and this is another addition of our big idea series. Today I’m excited to be joined by Matthew Beienburg, the director of education policy at the Goldwater Institute in Arizona, as well as my colleague Drew Catt, EdChoice’s director of state research and special projects. Matt and Drew are the co-authors of a new report titled “The ESA Opportunity Map: Charting Empowerment Scholarship Account Eligibility for Students in Failing Arizona Public Schools” which is the subject of today’s conversation. Gentlemen, welcome to the podcast.

Matt: Thanks for having me on.

Drew: Yeah, always a pleasure Jason.

Jason: Before we dive into the main report that we want to talk about today, it’s worth noting that there are three milestones that Arizona’s ESA program achieved this year. This year marks the 10th anniversary of Arizona’s ESA, which was the first in the nation. Matt, you recently published another report titled “A Decade of Success” that notes two other milestones related to the number 10. So what were those?

Matt: Right, yeah, it was a big year for 10. So 10 years, as you mentioned, the 10 year anniversary of the first ESA program in the country. And we also hit, as we saw, a lot of momentum for ESAs this year across the country, especially in response to the pandemic. 10 states now with ESA programs, and looking just specifically at Arizona, we’ve gone from about a hundred kids the first year to about 10,000 as of this year. So 10 years we’ve seen 10 states and within Arizona alone, 10,000 students. So, a huge increase, the number of kids both in Arizona and then a number of states offering this opportunity to kids around the country.

Jason: That’s fantastic. And Arizona obviously has always been a pioneer in education reform. First state with an ESA, first state with a tax credit scholarship. Maybe give us just a little more background behind Arizona’s ESA. So, you know, how does it work? Who’s eligible, how much funding do students receive, et cetera.

Matt: Right. So the program started again 10 years ago, Goldwater Institute pioneered that. And essentially it’s a program that says, look, if the public school system isn’t a fit for your child, you know, there were other states that in the past had done things like vouchers that said, well we will just give you a check and you can go to a private school. The ESA program, which education savings account, or called in Arizona empowerment scholarship account, essentially says we’re going to take a student centric approach to education, and we’re going to give families control over the education for their students. And so essentially, it says we’re going to give you a piece of what the public schools would’ve spent, educating your kid, we’re going to put that in an account for your student. They can spend that if they want to do private school and tuition, that’s great.

If they want to do homeschooling, a micro school, you know, at home curriculum, special needs therapy, all of these are uses that that family can put that money toward. And right now in Arizona, about a quarter of the students in the state are eligible for it. So there’s different eligibility categories, kids with special needs kids coming from failing public schools, Native American Reservations, kids whose parents are in the military, kids from the foster care system, siblings. So obviously we’re working both in Arizona and elsewhere to, you know, we’d like to see access for students, be able to come from this from all backgrounds. But it’s a program that has again gone from serving just a small number of kids to about 10,000. And so, as we highlight in that report, as you mentioned, the decade of success, just in the last couple years, the program’s grown by about 50%. So you look just from, you know, 2019 pre-pandemic, about 6,500 kids. Now, about 10,000 students, again just rapidly, massively increasing as we’re seeing families look for options. So the ESA program’s been a huge tool and a help for families who are doing that.

Jason: Yeah. I haven’t seen the data for this year, but I remember last summer, the Arizona Department of Education announced that the number of applications in 2020 had tripled versus 2019. So it’ll be interesting to see when they release the data this year, how many students are actually applying and how many are actually participating. One of the major critiques or concerns about the ESA program, what effect is this going to have on the public schools, right? And you hear this all the time. Well, all the best students are going to flee. They’re going to take this money and they’re going to go somewhere else. The public schools are then going to have fewer students, a lot less money, and they’re going to be trying to teach the hardest to teach students. Is that what we’ve seen in Arizona?

Matt: It’s a good question. And the answer is no. So again, that’s another piece that the report actually touches on, which says, all right, we’ve had 10 years of this ESA program in place. How does this track with what our public schools have had? Right? Cause if this is true and the ESA program is, you know, gutting public schools of funding, you think you’d see that. Well, we actually include in that report, a chart that shows over the last 10 years as the ESA program has gone from a hundred to 10,000 kids, that our public schools on average are getting about $1,600 more per year, per pupil, even adjusted for inflation. So essentially showing over the same period that the ESA program has ramped up, public school funding per student in Arizona has also gone up. Correlation doesn’t equal causation but what we’ve seen is this program is actually coinciding with an increase and in Arizona, because the way the funding formula works and similar to other states, every time a kid leaves a public school and goes to an ESA, it actually sends about $600 of state funding back to the public school system.

So the ESA in a sense actively subsidizes the public school system by returning some of those dollars to the public schools, even though they’re not actually still educating those kids. So on a big picture, it actually ends up leaving more dollars available for public school students. So it’s essentially a win-win for those families. And then in the report, we even do a deep dive and say, well, let’s look at a couple of districts just as case studies. You know, we hear, well, again, this is taking money away from school districts, makes it harder for them to budget. So we jump into a couple of examples and basically show look, whether it’s an increasing district, that’s going to be overflowing with kids, ESAs actually help them, you know, give them an option without having to crowd the schools and build new campuses, which, you know, brings down costs and actually says, now there’s more money available for those kids.

Or in some of the districts that are losing kids, you know, the ESAs are taking a very small fraction of that. The districts that are shedding students, Tucson, for example, one of the biggest in Arizona lost about 10,000 students over this period. And about 700 of those went to the ESA. So like one out of every 15 kids, the district is losing, going to an ESA. You know, it’s hard to blame and say, well, the ESA is stealing kids. And really it’s just rescuing a small fraction of the kids that this district is losing.

Jason: Yeah. And our good friend, Matthew Ladner, who’s at the Arizona Charter Schools Association used to be at Goldwater and is an EdChoice fellow, is constantly pointing to the NAEP, the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which has shown over the last two decades that Arizona has been one of, and in some years it has been the fastest improving state on the NAEP. And that’s looking at public school performance. So over the same time period, you actually see massive increases in the availability of school choice in Arizona and improvements in the public school system. All right, turning now to the mapping report, you mentioned that one of the categories of eligibility for the ESA program is students who are in districts that have a district school that received either a D or an F rating on the state’s A through F accountability rating system. The thing is a lot of times parents don’t know what rating their local school received, or even how to find that information. So Drew, could you tell us a little bit of how your mapping project helps to address that challenge?

Drew: Yeah. Thanks, Jason. So I had a great time working on this project with Matt and Goldwater. So we were able to get all of the D and F graded schools. I believe that data was obtained from the Arizona Department of Education. And then with the mapping software that I have, I was able to actually plot all of those schools onto the map. And then I was also able to pull in some federal data sets that have all of the school attendance boundaries. And then Matt, and his team actually went above and beyond and some of the schools that were missing from that federal data set, they were able to collect those from the local schools. And then for any of the ones that were still missing, which were mostly a handful of rural districts, I just put on the district map, if we were unable to obtain the school map.

So on the map itself, you can see in purple, all of the D and F rated public schools, and then you have a layer for the elementary school attendance boundaries. You have a layer for the middle school attendance boundaries, a layer for the high school attendance boundaries, and as I said, the handful of rural districts that didn’t have school specific shape files. And then ,that really was the big part of the mapping project was kind of getting all of that together into one place so that parents could actually see, not just is there a D or F school in my area, but do I live in the specific catchment area of this D or F rated school? Because a lot of parents don’t know, a lot of people just in general don’t know what school attendance boundaries are, let alone what they would look like on a map.

Jason: All right. So a parent comes to the website, which is Goldwaterinstitute.org/esa, and then they’re going to find the mapping project. And so then what do they do?

Drew: Yeah. So they click on the link to go to the interactive map. And again, there are purple graduation caps that kind of lay out where the D and F schools are. And then you’ll see like shaded red around, for the school attendance boundaries. Then you can cycle through for the elementary specific ones, the middle school specific, or the high school specific. And again, the handful of rural districts have district level. And then you’ll also see some green graduation caps. And those are the private schools that are in those areas. As you know Jason, ESAs aren’t just for private schools. So this map is not at all exhaustive. It does not include any co-op options or even any non-brick and mortar private school options that ESA dollars can be used for. So we’re only showcasing the brick and mortar private school options here.

So the private schools themselves would be the green graduation caps and Matt and the folks of Goldwater were able to help source a lot of the contact information for these schools and even tuition level. So for every private school, you don’t only see the school name, but you also see the grade level served, a phone number, a website if they had one, even an email address if they had one and, moreover, they also show what the tuition and fees are for those schools. As you know, the ESA isn’t directly always tied to those tuition and fees, but it is nice to have that information available.

Jason: That’s the sticker price. It’s not necessarily the price that parents are going to pay. But in other words, your mapping project is providing two types of information. On the one hand, it’s saying, are you eligible or not? So you can look in your area and you can see if you fall in one of these zones where all the students in that area are eligible. But sometimes just, you know, knowing great I’m eligible for this program, but I don’t know what my actual options are. So you go that extra mile and say, here are all the private schools in the area, here’s a whole bunch of information about those private schools, you know, here’s their website, contact info tuition rates. But as you noted, there was even more options beyond that. Matt, do you want to talk a little bit about some of the other types of options that you could access with an ESA?

Matt: Sure. Yeah. And thanks Drew for the overview on that. So again, the ESA is meant to say, look, we’re going to empower the student and the family for, you know, essentially for them to kind of choose what educational environment is going to be best. So, as you know, as Drew mentioned, that might be a brick and mortar private school. If the family wants to homeschool, you know, if they want to do a co-op with other families, create one of these learning pods go to a micro-school, any of these options. Again, the census bureau came out during the pandemic and showed basically a doubling in the number of families who are homeschooling, right? And so in a lot of these instances, a family doesn’t even necessarily need to, or be interested in going to a formal private school. If they say, Hey, look, I’m in one of these areas, you know, in south central Phoenix, there’s the Roosevelt school district.

And if you look on the map, most of that area is shaded in red, right? Those attendance boundaries for the schools in this district are almost universally offering this ESA eligibility because you have the majority of the schools in this area being D or F rated. So families in these neighborhoods, right? These are low income, disadvantaged families, and essentially saying, Hey, look, the schools in your area are failing to serve kids, they’re failing to improve their outcomes. Now you have the option to go to a private school. You can look at the map and see, you know, again, as Drew mentioned, some of the tuition rates. Or if you want to take that and say, Hey, look, I’m interested in, you know, educating my students at home or getting together with other families, those are options. And so, yeah, I think it’s an incredibly powerful tool, you know, Drew helped engineer this.

And, you know, essentially again mentioning, as you said, the ESA program, isn’t tied to private school tuition. And yet, we always hear from the other side, well, look again, we talk about how it doesn’t actually harm public school funding as we showed in that other data. But the other thing that we hear from the other side is, well, really all you’re doing is subsidizing kids who don’t need this funding. And it’s only going to pay for kids who can afford to go to an expensive private school. Well, as we actually show, you can, you know, kind of see it individually at the schools. And in the other report you mentioned, we also ran the data to say, what is average tuition in Arizona at private schools?

And if you look at it, the medium tuition, meaning, you know, half of schools charge more, half charge less, it’s about $6,500 for K through eight in Arizona. The median ESA awards about $6,400. Right? So you’re actually talking in terms of kids who are interested in going to a private school or finding one through this mapping project, the ESA program covers, you know, 98 – 100% of those options in half the schools. So we think this is, you know, incredibly useful, incredibly powerful. Families can go on here and see, yes, am I eligible for, you know, something other than a D and F rated school.

Jason: And how many kids are eligible because they are in a district that has a D or an F school?

Matt: Yeah. So there are about 180 schools that are rated D and F in Arizona, out of a little, over 2000. That’s nearly a hundred thousand students. And so under the Arizona law, kids who are in public school, if they are attending a D or F rated school, they automatically qualify. And then again, with this attendance boundary for the mapping tool shows, if you have an incoming kindergarten students, if you’re a family with an incoming kindergartener, who obviously isn’t yet attending public school, but you know, hey look, yeah, the school down the road is failing students, you’re not forced to go to that school. You can say, look, yes, I live within this attendance boundary, I know this school is failing its students, I’m going to directly begin homeschool, I’m looking for private options, you know, what have you. And so again, hugely helpful for those families in particular.

Jason: I should just note that the so-called failing schools model is not the ideal model for eligibility in EdChoice’s view. We think that every single child should have access to an ESA and that your access should not be predicated on the average performance of the school that just happens to be down the street. Especially because you could have a school that’s performing poorly on average, but for a particular child, it might work really, really well. On the flip side, you might have a school that’s A rated, where most of the kids are doing very, very well, but one particular child just might not be the right fit for that school. Why don’t they have the option to go somewhere else? Just because the average kid at that school is doing well. So we think it shouldn’t be based on that. But given that this is what the law is, these are the students who are eligible. It obviously is a huge boom to families to be able to know whether or not their child is eligible based on where they live.

Matt in closing, do you have any advice for policy makers about the ESA program?

Matt: Yeah. And I’ll just add, you know, we a hundred percent agree that, you know, we would like to see opportunity for all students. West Virginia, they just came out this year and passed a program that is open to all the kids there, you know, working with the Cardinal Institute and the folks to say, look, we think every student should have access to it. And absolutely. And so, as you said, this mapping tool, this project is to say, given that there currently, you know, is limited eligibility, we want to make sure that the families who are eligible have access to that information and know that they do qualify. And then in terms of, you know, refinements to the program, again, Arizona first in the nation, over that 10 years, the legislature has continued to help, you know, refine, improve, build out and strengthen that. And so what we’ve seen for example, over the last couple of years, providing more assistance for parents, right?

Because as a new nascent program that has government administrators, right? And not always being given the highest customer service when parents are asking questions, Arizona has, you know, managed to help strengthen that program. And so one of the things that they did is provide essentially an extra guardrail for parents, so that if the agency that’s administering the program, you know, isn’t making the right decisions, isn’t following the law correctly, parents now have recourse to go to a different agency and say, Hey, you know, the law says I’m allowed to do this, the agency is trying to obstruct and keep me from doing it. And now giving the parents the tools to appeal those processes. Right? And so we get into some of those things in the decade of success report that you mentioned, but basically saying, making sure that parents have support, that they have, you know, options to go through providing consistency.

And, you know, one of the resources that’s come out, that’s still being worked on is to say let’s document the expenditures that have been made in the past so that parents can see this sort of purchase was made by another family. This is allowed, I can make sure to do it. Essentially again, just giving guardrails and giving guidance to parents so that they’re not dependent on, you know, sort of government agency bureaucrats to try and navigate that. So we’ve seen a lot of progress on front, still a lot more to go. But again, I think that, you know, Arizona’s program has been hugely successful, excited to see that same model expanding to other states and other students.

Jason: Yeah. And we’re excited to see parents get access to this tool. Again, families can go to Goldwaterinstitute.org/esa, and they can get access to this tool and they will be able to find whether or not they are eligible that way. You can also check your eligibility at edchoice.org, go to our program page for Arizona’s ESA, and you can look at some of the other categories of eligibility and see if you’re eligible that way. My guests today have been Matthew Beienburg, the Director of Education Policy at the Goldwater Institute in Arizona, as well as Drew Catt, the Director of State Research and Special Projects at EdChoice. Their new report is “The ESA Opportunity Map: Charting Empowerment Scholarship Account Eligibility for Students in Failing Arizona Public Schools.” And Matt’s separate report that we mentioned was “A Decade of Success: How Arizona’s Empowerment Scholarship Accounts Have Saved Students and Inspired a National Movement.” Thank you gentlemen for joining.

Matt: Thanks very much, Jason. Great to be on.

Drew: Yeah. Thanks so much, Jason. It was great to work on with you, Matt. Thanks for the opportunity. And thanks for caring so much about the future of education in Arizona.

Matt: Thanks a lot, guys.

Jason: This has been another edition of EdChoice chats. If you have any ideas for authors, you’d like us to interview for the big idea series, please send them to media@edchoice.org and be sure to subscribe to our podcast. Follow us on social media at EdChoice. And don’t forget to sign up for our emails on our website, EdChoice.org. Thank you. We’ll catch you next time.