Arizona’s school vouchers are helping the wealthy and are widening educational opportunity gaps

Gov. Katie Hobbs’ recent proposals to reform Arizona’s Empowerment Scholarship Account school voucher program raise an essential question: Which families are benefitting from the program? Are ESAs offering a lifeline to families in Arizona’s lowest performing districts, allowing them to escape bad schools and giving them access to educational choices usually reserved for those with deeper pockets? Or are they extending the runway for advantaged families who were already paying for private or home schooling?

Since 2022, all Arizona families, regardless of income, can access 90% of the state funding their home district would have received — a median value of $7,409 in quarter 1 of 2024. 

My analysis of the data from the program’s second year demonstrates a troubling pattern: the uptake of ESA vouchers is significantly higher in affluent districts, even as they also boast a high percentage of top-rated public schools. For example, in Cave Creek, an estimated 13% of children are now using vouchers, along with 12% of those in Scottsdale and 10% in Catalina Foothills. Rather than democratizing education, Arizona’s school vouchers are subsidizing its most fortunate families, reinforcing existing disparities rather than mitigating them.

This phenomenon is known in social science as the Matthew Effect: Those with more resources continue to accumulate advantages, while those with less are further marginalized. If the ESA voucher program’s trajectory remains unaltered, it will put enough pressure on the state budget that  programs designed to support low-income Arizonians end up on the chopping block.

Let’s acknowledge that the theoretical hope for ESA vouchers to be a great equalizer hasn’t materialized. Although reasonable people can disagree about how education should be funded, whether ESA vouchers should exist, and how they should be regulated, these discussions should be firmly rooted in data about which families are currently using the program.

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