Private school students flock to expanded school voucher program

In the first two weeks since applications for the expanded Empowerment Scholarship Account program opened, roughly three of every four students who sought school voucher funding had never set foot in an Arizona public school.

That represents a major departure from how ESAs, as they’re typically called, were designed. The selling point was that they allowed students in struggling public schools or who had special education needs that weren’t being met in a district school to pay for the education that met their needs, even at a private school.

But with some 75% of new applicants to the school voucher program having never attended a public school before, the predictions of Democrats and public school advocates who criticized the proposal appear to be coming true: The state will be subsidizing tuition for students who already attend pricey private schools. 

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And that happens at the expense of Arizona public schools. The 6,773 new ESA applications received since Aug. 19, when the online portal for the universal expansion became active, will cost the state as much as $47,411,000, according to Save Our Schools Arizona, which opposes the ESA expansion and is working to block the law so voters can decide its fate in 2024. 

“Over 75% of these applications are coming from families who have never even enrolled in public schools, and therefore have no public funding allocated to their children. The reality is that these voucher applicants will be taking hundreds of millions of dollars from Arizona’s 1 million public school students for a government subsidy to pay for their private schooling,” Beth Lewis, the organization’s director, said in a written statement. 

Schools are allocated funds based on their rates of average daily membership and students who have never attended aren’t accounted for in the formula. Private schools, however, get their funding from tuition and the average cost to attend one in Arizona is $10,320

Before the ESA program was expanded to include all Arizona families, eligibility hinged on previous enrollment in a public school and specific criteria, including being part of a foster or military family, attending a D or F rated school, or having special education needs.

Kathy Hoffman, the state superintendent of public instruction, said the decision to do away with the criteria requirements went against the voucher program’s original intent, which was to support students in need of extra help. 

“The ESA program was intended to provide more options for children with special needs or unique circumstances, like military families. With the current status of applicants, it is not achieving those goals – instead, it is just a taxpayer funded coupon for the wealthy,” Hoffman, a Democrat, told the Arizona Mirror in an emailed statement. 

Marisol Garcia, president of the Arizona Education Association, the state’s largest teacher’s union, said the expansion is a drain on both public schools and taxpayer pockets. As much as 40% of public school funding in Arizona comes from local property taxes

“These are families who already committed to paying for their own private school option and now are using taxpayer money to offset their decisions,” she said

Most concerning, Garcia said, is that private schools are not required to be transparent like public schools are. The public votes for school board members and schools hold hearings and create reports to provide updates on student growth and budget allocations. Public school districts are required to make teacher salaries publicly available and curriculum and books are accessible to interested parents. 

Private schools have no such requirements. And Republican lawmakers ensured there was no accountability built into the ESA program to ensure the voucher money is leading to better education for students.

“Every taxpayer should be concerned. Thousands of families are given money and we will never know how it’s spent. There’s no transparency to know if it’s really been a wise investment of my taxpayer money,” she said. 

For Tom Horne, the Republican candidate for state superintendent, increasing the pool of applicants for vouchers means supporting parents. 

“It’s up to the parents to choose. If district schools do better, they’ll choose district schools,” he said. 

Decades of underfunding in Arizona since the Great Recession of 2008 have left public schools struggling to staff their classrooms or provide their students with adequate resources. 

Horne added that competition from other schools is healthy and will encourage public schools to step up their performances. 

“Competition is good for everybody. And that’s the reason the United States prospered and the Soviet Union did not prosper,” he said. “Competition with charter schools was very good for the school district I served on the board of in terms of improving quality.” 

Horne served on the Paradise Valley school board for 24 years, 10 of them spent as president. Taking money away from public schools in the form of vouchers is not as harmful as most think, he said, because schools “lose revenue, but they also lose the expense of educating those pupils.” 

Lewis, who has been a teacher for 12 years, says Horne’s view is incorrect and outdated. Schools have fixed costs that remain regardless of student enrollment, including paying for buildings, air conditioning, furniture and buses. 

“All of those things aren’t going to change if 10% of students leave. None of those costs change. But if 10% of students leave, schools are absolutely going to have to lay off teachers and have ballooning class sizes and take away resources for kids,” she said. 

Vouchers, Lewis said, only represent extra drains on needed funding. As a publicly funded system, schools can’t afford the increased outside consumption that universal expansion promises. A report from the Joint Legislative Budget Committee found that as many as 50,000 private school students could be eligible under the expansion, as well as up to 35,000 homeschooled students. 

Save Our Schools Arizona is spearheading a referendum challenge to the universal expansion piece of the voucher program, which goes into effect September 24. Lewis said it’s on track to collect the required 118, 823 signatures required to put it on the November 2024 ballot for voter approval. If that happens, the challenge will put the universal expansion on pause until that public vote, although the rest of the voucher program would remain intact. 

The organization supports the ESA voucher program as it previously was, when it helped students who met specific criteria, such as special education needs. The universal expansion threatens to nullify that purpose, Lewis said. 

“Students with special needs are eligible for the voucher. They have access to the voucher should they need it. But when students who don’t have special needs are taking money to go to private schools, that robs students with special needs in public schools,” she said. 

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