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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

Do parents know best? ESAs go for robots, rabbits, roping lessons

Kateri Greene and four older siblings take taekwondo for physical education using ESA funds. Photo: Becky Greene

If a homeschooled child learns to code a toy robot, care for a pet rabbit or take cowboy roping lessons, is that an educational expense? to What about jumping on a backyard trampoline for phys ed? A SeaWorld visit for biology?

Arizona parents who don't use public schools can use $7,000 in state funds for "a huge array of school services," reports Linda Jacobson on The 74. Critics want to limit their choices, saying kayaking, horseback riding or a coop for the family's chickens aren't really educational expenses.

More than 46,000 Arizona students now use an Empowerment Scholarship Account (ESA), known as an education savings account in other states.

"With passage of a new program just last month in Iowa, there are now nine states with ESAs and at least six more considering them," writes Jacobson. Earlier programs were limited to students with disabilities, low-income families and other groups. Arizona and Iowa are open to all, and a Florida proposal also would be unrestricted. While Republicans champion "family empowerment," she writes, many Democrats see ESAs "as a Trojan horse for the dismantling of public education."

Lura Capalongan, who is homeschooling her kindergartner Lexi, said Arizona’s ESA has allowed her to more than double what she spends on curriculum and materials — items like a small robot that teaches coding and a kit to build a simple scooter.
. . . she hopes to use ESA funds to help pay for the care of her daughter Lexi’s rabbit — items like a hutch, a litter box and nail clippers. Lexi joined an animal club similar to 4-H and is studying the rabbit’s anatomy and nutrition.
. . . Becky Greene, a Mesa parent, has five children, ages 7 to 17, using ESAs. For physical education, they all take taekwondo. She was able to afford a $200 Time-Life series on aviation for her oldest son, a “military history buff,” and a book on the chemical reactions involved in cooking for another son interested in culinary arts.

Newly elected Democratic Gov. Katie Hobbs hopes to roll back ESAs to fewer families, but Republicans control the state legislature.

ESA families "agree to provide instruction in the same content areas as public schools," writes Jacobson. Parents don't need to submit a curriculum for some materials, such as board games, puzzles and blocks the parent handbook advises. Others require state approval. "To justify buying a chicken coop for a science lesson, one parent posted a chicken-raising guide."

Teachers are advertising their services to ESA families on Facebook, writes Jacobson. "Teachers for core subjects need to have at least a bachelor’s degree, but for specific classes like art, drama or dance, a two-year degree or a credential is acceptable."

Is sword casting an educational expense? An instructor in the Facebook group promised to teach sword-casting students “archaeology, physics, history and metallurgy.” Texas Republican Sen. Mayes Middleton has introduced a $10,000-per-student ESA bill that would give families total flexibility on how to spend the money, writes Jacobson. "In New Hampshire, by contrast, the state applies some 'Yankee frugality' to its program and rejects requests for purchases that could be used by multiple family members, like a kayak or trampoline."

Parents should have wide latitude to spend ESA money, and teachers should get money to fund special projects too, writes Mike Goldstein. "The number one enemy of K–12 is boredom."

Public school teachers go on Donors Choose to fund activities, including the same ones the ESA story considers "boondoggles," he writes. Coach Smith, at Noble High School in Oklahoma wants kayaks, Mrs. Bustos at Lundy Elementary in Texas is asking for a trampoline, Mr. Pierce in Oklahoma wants to teach roping and Mr. Simmers in Alaska hopes to buy ice skating trainers. There are five pages of teachers seeking funds for chicken coops, Goldstein writes, including Mrs. LaCour in Arizona, and her “Chick It Out” project.

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