Marilyn is one of the winners under Arizona's unique scholarship program, and her son is flourishing at private school. "He has become an individual who will make a difference in this world, with all the knowledge he is receiving," she beams.
Maritza, another Arizona mother, hasn't been so lucky. Her son remains trapped in a public school that's failing him.
"I'm a single mom of two boys and I cannot afford a better education or rent in an area with a better school," Maritza reports. "My son gets bored and is unchallenged in his current school." Maritza believes that a scholarship is the only way she will be able to transfer her son out of his current school.
Policymakers have long sought to understand the impact of tuition scholarships on low-income families. They need only talk to Marilyn... and then to Maritza.
Ten years ago, Arizona School Choice Trust began awarding privately funded scholarships to low-income families. Today, thanks to growth made possible by Arizona's scholarship tax credit program, ASCT is helping 572 children attend private school. But for every lucky parent like Marilyn, there are four parents like Maritza: 2,000 children are on ASCT's waiting list for scholarships.
In October, I surveyed all parents in ASCT's program: the 572 on scholarship, and the 2,000 on the waiting list. The results are presented in a new study from the Goldwater Institute.
The surveys revealed a simple but important lesson: Parents able to choose their children's schools were more satisfied with their schools than parents who lacked choice. This held true, not just for the families using scholarships for private schools, but also for families offered the limited choice of sending their children to charter schools.
When parents were asked to grade their overall satisfaction with their children's schools, the median grade given by private school parents was an "A," while the grades given by charter school and traditional public schools parents were "B" and "C" respectively. The distribution was striking: More than 80 percent of private school parents gave their children's schools an "A," whereas less than 20 percent of charter and public school parents awarded the same grade to their schools.
Often, differences in satisfaction can simply reflect differences in price. It would be no surprise, for example, for a Lexus owner to be happier with his car than a Ford Pinto owner. Yet this was not the case for Arizona schools: the private tuition at schools attended by scholarship recipients was about $3,000 a year--far less costly than the $5,000 Arizona spends to educate a child in an average public school.
The average scholarship family's annual household income was $29,000 in 2002, far lower than the $41,500 median income in Arizona. That means scholarship parents often make significant sacrifices for their children, such as covering the $1,500 average tuition co-payment that comes with an ASCT scholarship. But the scholarship makes all the difference.
Only 14 percent of parents reported that they would be able to continue enrolling in private school without assistance. "Without the scholarship," Marilyn says, "I would not be able to send my child to this school that has benefited him tremendously."
More than 90 percent of all families surveyed support new school choice programs for Arizona, either expansion of the scholarship tax credit program to allow corporate donations or creation of a system of scholarship vouchers.
For Maritza and the 2,000 other families on the waiting list, a change in policy may be their only hope.
Fifty-six percent of families on the waiting list report spending three or more years on the list, and 14 percent have been waiting for more than five years.
In other words, kindergarteners who applied for a scholarship in 1998 could be in fifth grade now--and still lack the means to attend a better school. How much longer should those children wait?
December 31 is the deadline for making an annual scholarship tax credit donation. Each Arizona taxpayer can make a difference in a child's life by donating to one of Arizona's 47 scholarship tuition organizations. And we should let our elected representatives know that we won't be satisfied until all families are given a choice and a chance.
--Dan Lips is president of Arizona Dream Foundation and an associate scholar with the Goldwater Institute.