Brookings Report Criticized for Fundamental Errors Leading to Fatal Consequences

An updated study conducted by the Brookings Institution suggests that families in Arizona participating in the K–12 education savings accounts program have higher levels of wealth. However, the analysis in this report is fundamentally flawed and lacks credibility.

In 2011, the Empowerment Scholarship Account (ESA) program was established in Arizona, allowing families to select the most suitable educational setting for their children. ESAs can be used for private school fees, tutoring, textbooks, homeschooling materials, online classes, therapy for special needs, and more.

Initially designed for students with special needs, the ESA program has been expanded multiple times in the past decade. In 2022, Governor Doug Ducey expanded the program to include all K–12 students in Arizona.

The absence of income data on families enrolled in the ESA program by the Arizona Department of Education led the Brookings researchers to rely on zip codes as an indicator of the socioeconomic status of ESA participants. The report uses poverty rates, median household income, and education levels in the zip codes of ESA participants to estimate their socio-economic status.

According to Brookings, ESA participants are typically located in regions of Arizona with lower poverty rates, higher median incomes, and better educational levels. The report concludes that families in affluent communities are most likely to access ESA funds, while those in economically disadvantaged areas have lower participation rates. However, the report fails to show progress in addressing disparities in school access based on student socio-economic status.

The key issue with the Brookings analysis lies in its omissions. The report fails to mention Arizona’s pre-existing tax-credit scholarships, which operate alongside ESAs. Additionally, the report overlooks the fact that a section of the scholarship policy is means-tested, allowing low- and middle-income families to receive higher funding compared to ESAs.

Contrary to the common belief, low-income families can benefit more from means-tested scholarships than the standard ESA, which provides approximately $7,400 per year for a non-special needs student.

Arizona families are eligible for means-tested scholarships if their annual income is below 342.25% of the federal poverty line, equivalent to $102,675 for a four-person household in 2023–24. This threshold is lower than the combined income of the average school teacher married to the median firefighter in Arizona.

While roughly two-thirds of Arizona families qualify for means-tested scholarships, the awards are primarily based on financial need. Last year, nearly 30,000 scholarships were distributed by 44 Arizona school tuition organizations, compared to approximately 71,500 ESA recipients this year.

The Brookings researchers raise questions about the lower participation rate of low-income families in the ESA program and propose several explanations, including lack of awareness, transportation issues, financial constraints due to high private school tuition, and personal preferences for local public schools.

The researchers overlook the impact of the tax-credit scholarship policy, which plays a significant role. Since students cannot simultaneously enroll in both programs, it is reasonable for low-income families seeking private school education to opt for tax-credit scholarships rather than ESAs.

Although Brookings intended to evaluate the ESA program in Arizona, their failure to consider the holistic education choice policies, especially the tax-credit scholarships, undermines the analysis. The synergy between the two programs makes it essential to assess their combined effect on school access disparities based on socio-economic status.

An analogy is drawn to illustrate the critical oversight in the Brookings report—the absence of tax-credit scholarships impacts the thoroughness of the analysis. Evaluating Arizona’s education choice policies without including the long-established tax-credit scholarship program hinders a comprehensive evaluation of progress in addressing educational inequities.

Jason Bedrick, a Research Fellow at The Heritage Foundation’s Center for Education Policy, contributed to this post.

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