Holub: School vouchers aren't evil; they're actually good for public education

I’m a public school teacher. I taught for 20 years, in traditional district schools, and I currently teach online for a public charter school and for Pima Community College. I believe in public education. I believe all students should be able to access the best education possible for them. I believe in educating kids in the way that works best for them.

But even though I’m a public school teacher, my son does not attend public school. Instead, he’s one of the 73,729 (ADE number as of 1/25/2024) students using an Empowerment Scholarship Account from the Arizona Department of Education for educational resources.

ESAs are an amazing resource for a lot of kids. Amid the noise surrounding how much ESAs are costing the state, and questions about oversight and accountability, the actual stories of the actual kids who benefit from the program can get lost. While I can’t tell the stories of all 73,729 kids, I can tell the stories of a few.

Because school vouchers aren’t evil.

In fact, for these thousands of Arizona kids, they are the best way to access education. It’s money well-spent.

Before you slam me with vitriol, please engage in a little imaginative exploration with me. An exercise in empathy, if you will.

Imagine you’re a super-sensitive kid. Loud and high-pitched sounds hurt your ears. Rough textures create rashes on your skin. Lots of visual stimuli send you into near total nervous system shutdown to the point you’re actually screaming for relief.

Now imagine you’re in a typical public school classroom. There are 24 other kids or more in the room with you. It’s hot, or maybe it’s too cold. Lots of sounds. The chairs are sticky. The teacher is talking but you can’t really focus on her because the kid next to you is tapping his pencil and the girl across from you is kicking her shoes back and forth back and forth back and forth and there’s a bird outside that is chirping really loudly, really high pitched, it’s really hurting your ears and there’s a really weird smell coming from someone somewhere, something, you’re not sure, so you’re chewing your pencil to try to calm the chaos and soothe yourself and next thing you know the pencil’s in pieces everywhere and wait, why is the teacher yelling right now? What’s happening?

Sound overwhelming even to you, as an adult? That’s about five minutes out of every day my son was in a classroom.

Even when he was in preschool, he hated going. Most morning he’d refuse to even let me put him in the car seat. Once we got past that hurdle, he’d refuse to get out of the car. I’d carry him in screaming and kicking.

The teachers would tell me to just leave him, that he’d get over it, that he was “fine” once I left.

He wasn’t fine.

Once he got too big for me to carry him in, he stopped going to school on any kind of regular basis. At least he wouldn’t go to his school — instead he’d tag along with me to the small progressive public charter school where I taught 12th grade English. He’s sat through so many of my lessons that he can identify examples of irony better than many adults, and he absolutely dominated my students in Kahoot games (it’s totally not fair, I know).

Finally I had the realization that if I didn’t want to work in a totally traditional district school environment, why would my kid want to be in one either? So I transferred him to a small public charter school. I thought the smaller environment would be less overwhelming.

It wasn’t.

Twitter’s pre-Elon algorithm somehow fed me Dr. Naomi Fisher and her work. Dr. Fisher is a UK-based child psychologist who has written books about how the traditional school system, especially the UK’s, doesn’t work for all kids, especially neurodivergent kids. Kids with ADHD, autism; kids who process the world in different ways.

She has an essay where she likens going to school to riding a roller coaster. Some people love roller coasters and gladly hop on them. Some people get physically ill on roller coasters and avoid them at all costs. Imagine if you get sick on roller coasters, and someone said to you, “just go on, you’ll be fine once it gets started” or “just keep gradually exposing yourself to the roller coaster; you’ll eventually learn to love it!” You’d still refuse to go on, because you know you won’t be fine. You don’t want to make yourself sick. Some kids, like my son, feel just as sick going into a classroom as they might on a roller coaster if they’re the kind of person who gets sick on roller coasters (he is, actually— perhaps this Venn diagram might be just two completely overlapping circles, but no one’s done a real study on that as far as I know).

I started to completely rethink what “going to school” might look like for my son. I wanted it to not be a roller coaster.

We tried a couple other public school options before I finally withdrew him entirely from public school and applied for an ESA in November of 2023.

There aren’t hours requirements or attendance requirements for him to meet. He doesn’t officially have access to an IEP or 504, but to be perfectly honest, the things he needs accommodations around are the very things that the state requires. Removing those requirements removes the need for accommodations.

And that’s how the ESA program is an amazing resource for kids like my son. Ironically, the removal of the state-mandated requirements allows for a much more open and enriching learning environment. Instead of forcing a round kid into a square hole, the ESA program can help families create a wider, more comfortable shape that their kid can expand into.

Janet Brewer, a Tucson-area educator and parent, used the same idiom to explain how ESA funding and homeschooling works better for her 13-year-old.

“It was just not right to force a round peg into a square hole,” Brewer told me. Her son “was so problematic for teachers because he couldn’t sit still. He got suspended several times, just because he was a talkative, busy little boy. I realized that school was not set up for him, that school didn’t work for him at all.”

Even after trying a couple different public schools, Brewer’s son was constantly being called into the office and she was constantly being called to pick him up. “He just caused too much chaos in the classroom,” Brewer said.

John Ward, director of the ESA program for the Arizona Department of Education, said that 49% of current ESA enrollments are students like my son and Brewer’s son who have spent some time in the public school system.

“I have heard many, many stories from parents who are not opposed to public schools in any way,” he said. But the public schools just weren’t a good fit for many reasons.

Since using ESA funds, my son has been whizzing through online curriculum he chose. It’s all what he’s interested in, what meets his skill levels and needs. He reads whatever books he wants. He can work on his music class while his pet rat or bearded dragon sits on his shoulder (he required that I mention the bearded dragon, Chungus, who sadly passed away in October). He’s in a Outschool LEGO Club. We don’t have to deal with shaming attempts on the part of well-meaning educators who are beholden to ADE’s public school requirements. I myself have been that educator, calling home constantly, sending emails, thinking I was helping. I know a lot better now.

Brewer and her son are having the same experience of feeling a lot less stress. 

“He knows what he has to get done, he can take whatever time he needs, he can sleep in; it’s just working better all the way around for him,” she said. “We don’t have the stress of having to deal with an unhappy teacher or principal, and he doesn’t have the negativity of dealing with ‘I’m in trouble.’ This is just so much less stress for him, and he can pursue things he already enjoys.”

One educator who runs a small ESA-funded microschool in Maricopa told me about several students she’s had. She asked that her name be withheld for the privacy of her students. 

“All the kids who come to me after leaving the public school system have 1 major thing in common. All of them have broken spirits: all of them feel they are stupid and will never amount to anything and have no idea how they will ever afford to live when they eventually become adults,” she said. “Their parents have been told their students aren’t intelligent, their behavior is unacceptable. They are the bottom rung on test scores, and with recent changes in reading requirements, they are looking down an eternity of being stuck in 3rd grade because they can’t move on without proving they can read on a test.”

She has helped students who were so shut down and overwhelmed in a public school classroom that they suffered incontinence and ran away. One student was kicked out of their school for stimming behaviors that are common among neurodivergent people. 

“My small ESA-based class is the last hope of many parents. It is where they send their kids when they give up,” she said.

“My son uses the ESA for a one-on-one teacher here in Tucson,” said Tucsonan Penny Simpson. “I am not anti-public school, but I am very much anti-public school for him. We tried. Believe me, I would love it if public school would actually have been appropriate for him, but it is not. We have lived in three states. He has been in public school in all of them. It doesn’t work. He needs one-to-one instruction. That is the only thing that has worked.”

Three of Kim Olson Windish’s four children were ESA recipients. 

“I too spent too many (20+) years in public education as a teacher and principal,” she told me. “My husband and I decided that I should leave the profession when my 3rd kiddo was going to begin kindergarten. He started to have seizures at age 3 and we had them under control by the age of 5. I could not enroll him in public school and disclose his medical history in good faith, trusting that the school would give him a fair shot. I had seen far too much.” Her son recently turned 17. 

Added Windish, “ESA has allowed him to fully explore his passion for aviation..

Hobbs’ recommendation that students be required to have attended public school for 100 days before applying for an ESA flat-out isn’t fair to kids who cannot function in a traditional public school environment. Would you tell someone who had a serious health problem to struggle for 100 days before providing support? Would you tell someone in an abusive relationship to stay for 100 days before providing a way to leave?

ESA Director Ward pointed out that the 100-day requirement would be disruptive for students whose parents may already know they would benefit from a more personalized experience, especially students who are starting kindergarten. 

“Students thrive on having a routine and that undermines it,” he said.

You may have heard the controversy around how LEGOs are an ESA-approved item. People were appalled that the Department of Education could be paying for expensive LEGO sets for kids. 

If you were one of those people, I ask you to pause for a moment and ask yourself: What is the fundamental purpose of educational funding? Do you think it should only be used for paper, pencils, and workbooks? If you do, then perhaps it’s been a few decades since you’ve actually been in a classroom. 

What if the public schools could also spend their money on things like expensive LEGO sets for kids to assemble? They actually could. They maybe just don’t see that as valuable because ADE also requires state-mandated testing that doesn’t assess a kid’s ability to put together an intricate several-hundred piece puzzle. Or there isn’t enough funding left over at the end of the day for things like LEGOs. But what if there was enough? What if all Arizona students had MORE funding, not less? ESA funding is showing us how successful different approaches to funding education can be.

Accessing ESA funding is not as easy as the naysayers would have you believe. It’s not just that the state cuts you a check and you can run to the casino. To get something approved for purchase with ESA funds, you have to submit a request through an approved vendor, submit a reimbursement request with documentation, and/or provide curriculum if it’s not already something on the approved list in the handbook.

“The statue lays out very clearly what are allowable expenses. Purchases we approve are consistent with the statute,” said Ward.

If you’re paying a tutor or a school or a program, they have to have met eligibility requirements and fill out documentation as well. Then, after putting in a request for a purchase, or reimbursement, you wait. This past winter, ADE was understaffed and approvals for purchases were taking weeks, if not months.

Penny Simpson put it this way: “The ESA is a complete pain in my ass. I have been out over $8,000 at times waiting on reimbursements. We have had to find and work with three different teachers before our current (who is awesome). It is not easy but it is better. ESA is just about the only reason we still live in Arizona and I would wager money that if it didn’t exist and we had to work with the district on an IEP we would be costing the state a lot more.”

“The implication that every dollar spent is new spending is not true,” Ward said. ESAs provide students 90% of the funding that would normally follow the student were they to attend a public school. Ward added, “It is a savings to the state.”

I quit my job as a full-time English teacher and am barely scraping by financially so it’s not like I’m homeschooling my kid because I don’t have to worry about money or work and I have some kind of religious agenda. It’s just what works best for my individual kid. And as an experienced public school teacher, I know things can and should be better for all kids, including mine.

What would really work better is a system of public education that acknowledges neurodivergence and structures the school environment and schedule in a radically different way, but that’s a whole other essay. I’m actually working on starting a microschool for kids like my son.

At the end of the day, if you believe that all kids deserve a right to a free and appropriate public education, ESAs are just another way to make that happen for many kids who need a different kind of support. It’s an outside-the-box way of providing public education for kids who just don’t fit into the traditional public school box.