Brookings Falsely Discredits Arizona ESA Program in New Report

Earlier in the current month, I highlighted a critical flaw in a recent report from the Brookings Institution linked here, which claimed that Arizona families engaged in the state’s K–12 education savings accounts (ESA) policy are predominantly wealthy.

The Brookings researchers had neglected to factor in Arizona’s well-received and long-standing tax-credit scholarship (TCS) policy, which interacts with Arizona’s ESA policy and largely benefits low-income families. Examining both policies together presents a significantly different perspective on the beneficiaries of education choice policies in Arizona.

The authors, Jon Valant and Nicholas Zerbino, have responded to my critique and various other critiques and contrary analyses, dismissing them as “baseless, misleading, or just kind of odd.” While others can defend their work, their response to my critique lacks persuasiveness. Once again, they fail to provide readers with essential information about how Arizona’s ESA and TCS programs function.

As highlighted earlier, low-income families have the opportunity to receive tax-credit scholarships that cover more tuition than the standard ESA. Since the TCS and ESA programs operate together and participation in one excludes participation in the other, studying their effects in isolation is impossible.

The Brookings researchers admit the existence of TCS programs alongside the ESA, implying that the omission could compromise their analysis if the TCS programs were substantial. They argue that the TCS programs are “small” compared to a large and growing universal ESA program. They also note that “most TCS dollars are going to recipients above 185% of the federal poverty level—the threshold for reduced-price lunch eligibility.” To visually represent this, they provide a chart that, although helpful, is somewhat misleading:

Figure 3
Source: Brookings.edu

The Brookings researchers ultimately argue that my critique does not provide “context that meaningfully changes the interpretation of our data.”

However, their data presentation misleads readers in two ways. Firstly, it incorrectly separates the TCS programs (which function as a single program), and secondly, it fails to differentiate spending on students with special needs, predominantly within the ESA program. These misrepresentations inaccurately diminish the scale of the TCS programs relative to the ESA, especially for families whose children do not require special education.

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