Water Skiing, Chicken Coops & Home Gyms: ESA Vouchers Fund Endless String of Questionable Purchases

Water Skiing, Chicken Coops & Home Gyms: ESA Vouchers Fund Endless String of Questionable Purchases

Universal ESA vouchers are picking Arizona schools to the bone – all in service of ludicrous purchases, fly-by-night schools, unvetted vendors, dangerous curricula and indoctrination academies.

Last week, the Governor’s office thoroughly outlined the dire economic ramifications of ESA vouchers: a projected cost to taxpayers of $943 million next year. This astronomical cost will put universal ESA vouchers on track to create a $320 million shortfall, likely leading to further budget cuts for public schools, public safety, roads, and healthcare as the state attempts to balance its starving budget. However, Arizona’s Republican lawmakers who pushed this voucher fiasco have zero appetite to fix the disaster they created and are intent on protecting the program, no matter the consequences. 

So how exactly will this near $1 billion in taxpayer dollars be spent? Because the Arizona Dept. of Education (ADE) skirts all transparency, it’s hard to have a comprehensive view. But reports show a cornucopia of irresponsible, non-educational purchases like water skiing lessons in Missouri and at-home rock walls, a cottage industry of unregulated schools and vendors, and dangerous curricula espousing Christian nationalist and white supremacist theories — all with practically zero oversight or guardrails.

Arizona Vouchers Fund Extravagant & Irresponsible Purchases

Because Arizona public schools are funded 48th in the nation, teachers struggle to fund basic classroom supplies. Schools must jump through extreme hoops, including major PTO fundraising and massive grant applications, to provide basic extracurriculars and field trips. Even so, every single purchase through a district school must follow the law and be transparent to taxpayers. 

Conversely, the ESA voucher program has few restrictions on what parents can purchase and zero financial transparency for taxpayers who are footing the bill. 

To receive reimbursement for purchases from the state, ESA voucher users need only submit a receipt of a “curriculum” – which can be self-written, downloaded from the Internet, or sourced from ChatGPT and do not need to correlate to state standards – and voila, the purchase is approved. Because the state law was written with hardly any restrictions as long as purchases can be justified as “educational,” the ADE is approving funding for unlimited summer camps, sports lessons, bounce memberships, gymnastics, martial arts, music lessons, horseback riding, aquarium visits, and even waterpark tickets – all purchases that public school families must pay for out of their own pocket. The discrepancy here cannot be overstated, since many public school families foot the bill for thousands of dollars a year in extracurriculars.

Water Skiing, Chicken Coops & Home Gyms: ESA Vouchers Fund Endless String of Questionable PurchasesSchool privatizers argue these purchases are justified using the “if you see it in a public school, you should be able to purchase it with a voucher” rule. But this is a logical fallacy: public schools use taxpayer dollars efficiently, buying equipment and supplies that are used for years and shared among hundreds of students. For example, a thousand-dollar piano purchased for a high school choir class might be used by hundreds of kids a year for decades, benefiting thousands of students. However, buying a single piano for a single living room is a different ball game — and an incredibly inefficient use of taxpayer funds. 

In business terms, public schools rely on basic economies of scale – local schools and school districts can increase efficiency by buying in large quantities and splitting pooled costs amongst thousands of students. Even so, because of the chronic underfunding of public education, teachers are often forced to furnish their classrooms out of their own pocket. So while the ADE approves extras like home gyms, rock climbing walls, Apple pens, and trampolines for homeschool families, public school teachers must rely on endless Donors Choose lists, class supply lists, and Amazon wishlists to stock their classrooms with basic supplies like tissue paper and whiteboard markers. 

Fly-By-Night Schools and Unvetted Vendors

Water Skiing, Chicken Coops & Home Gyms: ESA Vouchers Fund Endless String of Questionable PurchasesLast week, Attorney General Mayes warned parents of potential fraud in ESA voucher-funded schools. There is real cause for alarm, as universal voucher expansion has caused a massive flow of dollars from our public schools to newly created, unregulated pop-up private schools. According to Mayes, these ESA schools are free to pick and choose what students they admit and can legally discriminate with regard to religion, sexuality, and income. There have already been reports of this occurring – earlier this year, two fathers felt unsafe and unwelcome after their daughter’s private school discovered they were gay, with one staff member telling them their daughter would not have been admitted had the school known her dads were gay. Further, these schools do not have to provide special education services, accommodate disabilities, or serve English language learners.

Under the ADE’s newly passed ESA Voucher Handbook, the ESA voucher program has zero accountability to ensure private schools, tutors or vendors are safe or qualified to teach. As long as instructors hold high school diplomas, they are considered accredited and approved by the ADE. The previous administration required tutors to hold at least a bachelor’s degree in their subject area – but Superintendent Horne stripped away those requirements. In addition, there are no safety requirements or background checks for private school teachers, tutors, or vendors receiving taxpayer-funded ESA voucher dollars, and no systems in place to deal with reports of bad actors, even when major issues are witnessed. For instance, earlier this year, an ESA voucher vendor was arrested for eight felony child sex crimes; his karate studio remains listed as an approved vendor.Water Skiing, Chicken Coops & Home Gyms: ESA Vouchers Fund Endless String of Questionable Purchases

Vouchers Fund Dangerous Curricula & Indoctrination Academies

ESA vouchers are also used to purchase radical, far-right curricula. There are multiple examples of white supremacist and Christian Nationalist curricula purchased with ESA voucher funds for Arizona homeschool students and private schools, including the DeSantis favorite Hillsdale College “1776” curriculum designed to counteract the 1619 project and compares progressivism to fascism. A recent survey found that one-third of private schools in the US use similar curricula from Abeka, Bob Jones U, and Accelerated Christian Education. These curricula teach biased, distorted versions of history and science that are not based in fact. 

  • Here is how an Accelerated Christian Education textbook describes the aftermath of the Civil War: “The South suffered greatly both from the war and the period of reconstruction that followed but ‘de land ob cotton’ rose from the ashes to become the bible belt, a part of the country that has continued to stand firm on the fundamentals of Christian faith.” 
  • A world history textbook from Bob Jones U has an entire section dedicated to furthering Islamophobic rhetoric titled “Islam and murder.” 
  • An Abeka 11th-grade history textbook finds a cold-blooded, economic analysis of slavery that altogether omits the tragic human suffering involved, simply stating that “slaves seemed to be better investments than indentured servants.” 

Water Skiing, Chicken Coops & Home Gyms: ESA Vouchers Fund Endless String of Questionable PurchasesIn Ohio, which also lacks curriculum requirements for homeschooled students, the State Department of Education recently discovered a white supremacist homeschooling network that shares Nazi-related resources, including tracing quotes from Hitler as homework. But under Ohio’s state law, the education agency had no authority to do anything about it. There is nothing in place to prevent a similar network from emerging in Arizona — and quite frankly, given the black box that is the ESA voucher program, we’d have no idea if it were already happening.

Arizona is already the home of far-right provocateur Charlie Kirk’s Turning Point Academies, voucher-funded schools dedicated to “advancing all types of faith-based, conservative values education with special emphasis on seeding ‘5C Schools:’ Christian, classical, conservative, church-based and cost-affordable.” Turning Point, originally a student organization focused on free enterprise, has sharply pivoted to overt Christian Nationalism. Their self-proclaimed mission is to “restore America’s biblical values” and “empower Christians to change the trajectory of our nation.” These newly formed schools are not focused on educating children: they intend to use them as pawns in a culture war to advance their extreme values.

The Voucher Grift: Enough is Enough

Water Skiing, Chicken Coops & Home Gyms: ESA Vouchers Fund Endless String of Questionable PurchasesWhile ESA vouchers drain nearly $1 billion away from local public schools, our taxpayer dollars are being utterly mismanaged and spent on deeply questionable purchases. 

Arizona state lawmakers on both sides of the aisle must read the writing on the wall and step up to protect Arizona’s kids and our state’s future. ESA vouchers will bankrupt Arizona this school year – and for what? Sub-par, unaccredited, non-educational expenditures that do nothing to further our students’ education. Now is the time to take decisive action to clean up the ESA voucher scam and invest in what truly matters: Arizona’s local community schools and the 92% of families who choose them.

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