More questions than answers on school vouchers as a legislative oversight committee wraps up

Many questions about how Arizona’s school voucher system will impact funding for public schools and the larger state budget remain unanswered after the likely final meeting of a temporary legislative oversight committee. 

But parents who receive government funding to send their children to private schools or homeschool them through the state’s Empowerment Scholarship Account program are passionate as ever about how the program benefits their kids. 

The voucher program has existed since 2011, when it was originally created to help special education students. It was later expanded incrementally to include students attending public schools with failing grades, or those in military or foster families. But the legislature dramatically expanded the program last year to make ESA vouchers available to all K-12 students in Arizona. 

The 2024 state budget was based on an assumption that 68,380 students would take part in the expanded program at a total cost of $625 million. 

But the program has exceeded both estimates, with 70,173 students currently enrolled and an expected cost of around $780 million before the fiscal year ends next summer. 

The program has also received scrutiny from Democrats, who have criticized it for bankrolling ski resort passes, luxury car driving lessons and pianos, among other expenses recently revealed in an ABC15 investigation. The program has few accountability measures in place, and an Arizona Department of Education spokesman justified those purchases as likely meeting an educational need. 

Public schools receive around $12,000 in funding per student, while the average ESA recipient gets around $9,000, which would seem as though the program should provide significant savings to the state. But only a fraction of the funding that goes to public schools comes from the state, at a maximum of $6,700 per student, with the rest coming from various places, including a large part from local property taxes. 

One of the most glaring questions still unanswered is how many new ESA students were already homeschooled or attended a private school prior to receiving a voucher and how many are coming from public schools. Knowing how many of the students in the program have never attended a public school and whose ESA payments are a new cost to the state is important to measure the savings. 

But that number is unknown to Alan McGuire, an independent economist who has worked with the Arizona government for around 40 years, who spoke to committee members on Nov. 14 about the program’s possible financial impact.

While proponents tout a savings to the state for voucher students, since they aren’t attending a government funded school, that isn’t always the case. 

School funding formulas are notoriously complicated, but Patrick Moran, an education budget analyst for the Joint Legislative Budget Committee, explained that any potential savings to the state’s general fund when a student moves to a private school voucher depends whether the student receives any supplemental funding for things like special needs or being an English Language Learner, as well as whether they previously attended a district or charter school. 

Legislative budget analysts said that all students with no supplemental state funding who move from a district school to a voucher cost the state more money — between $700 and $6,900, depending on whether the school district is funded mostly through state money or local property taxes. Charter school students who take vouchers, meanwhile, save the state between $800 and $900. 

District and charter school students who receive supplemental funding and move to vouchers do typically save the state money, analysts said.

Both McGuire and Moran agreed that, without better data on where students attended school before entering the program, it is impossible to say for sure if it will ultimately save the state money by decreasing the cost of funding public schools. 

John Ward, the executive director of the ESA program, later told the committee that around 40% of students in ESAs this year came from public schools, an increase from 30% last year. But he did not elaborate on why those numbers apparently weren’t made available to McGuire and Moran. 

Ward also touted the program’s accountability measures, which critics have scoffed at, saying that all parent purchases through the ESA program are reviewed and approved by staff. He added that his team was working on an online public data dashboard to help keep the public informed about the program. 

Ward praised his team for the program’s quick upscaling from 13,422 students before the universal expansion to more than 70,100, now in the program’s second year. 

McGuire told the committee that he believes enrollment in the program will continue to increase, but at a slower pace than during the past year. 

Rep. Nancy Gutierrez, D-Tucson, asked McGuire how he could be sure that growth in the program would slow down when there were still parents out there paying full price for their children to attend private schools. 

“Why wouldn’t they take advantage of free voucher money?” she asked. 

McGuire answered that there were plenty of people out there who simply didn’t want the government to have their personal information and that was enough of a disincentive for some people to apply. 

The vast majority of the more than 30 members of the public who spoke during the Nov. 14 meeting were parents of ESA recipients who have special learning needs and who expressed thankfulness for the program and said that their children were not learning or thriving in public schools. The vouchers were available to special education students long before the universal expansion. 

Linda Crosby shared that her daughter only made it to college because of the opportunities afforded to her through the ESA program. Nora was in fifth grade and reading at a first grade level before Crosby pulled her out of a public school and funded multiple speech and language therapies with her ESA account. 

Many other parents and students shared similar stories about improvements in their academic achievements and happiness after switching from public schools to homeschooling. 

House Speaker Ben Toma, a Peoria Republican who chaired the committee, closed out the meeting with a promise to continue supporting the ESA program, advising parents who utilize it not to listen to the detractors. Toma sponsored the universal ESA expansion bill in 2022.

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