Arizona Voucher Program Grows by 400%, Stripping $300 Million from AZ Public Schools
Due to last-minute legislative deceit, decades of pressure from special interests, and persistent, deliberate defunding of public education, Arizona now has the largest private school voucher program in the nation.
Ducey’s Worst-in-the-Nation ESA Voucher Scheme
Governor Ducey and the Arizona Legislature passed universal school vouchers earlier this year as part of a so-called “grand bargain” around K12 funding, ignoring dire warnings from public school advocates about the devastating consequences of the expansion. Even so-called “moderate” Republican lawmakers insisted the program be thinly utilized and would have little impact on public school funding, teacher pay, and student resources. But Save Our Schools Arizona saw the writing on the wall – and now, sadly, Arizona’s 1.1 million public school students will bear the brunt.
$210 Million Hit to Public Schools in 3 Months
Just two months into the new law, nearly 30,000 applications have been filed for new universal ESA vouchers, totaling an immediate $210 million hit to the state general fund (and therefore Arizona’s public schools). With over 5,000 applications currently in review, the total will inevitably reach over $245 million this quarter. This cost dwarfs the JLBC (Joint Legislative Budget Committee) legislative budget analysis, which vastly underestimated a $33 million impact for the entire 2022-23 school year. Applications continue to pour in, the vast majority from families whose children already attend private school or homeschool. It is likely that the whole ESA voucher program will cost the state well over $500 million total this school year, and reach $1 billion in a few short years.
It’s Not School Choice – It’s a Government Handout for the Wealthy
As we warned lawmakers last May and June, 85,000 students attend private schools or homeschools in Arizona. It was always glaringly likely that most of these families would gladly take a $7,000 ESA voucher per child—essentially a coupon from AZ taxpayers with few strings attached . Current data released by the AZ Dept of Education shows that 80% of universal ESA voucher applications are from families looking to subsidize their current private school tuition or homeschool costs – NOT students leaving public schools.
Grifters, Fraudsters, and Waste – Oh My
Arizona lawmakers refused to add a cap to the universal voucher expansion (HB2853), so there is zero limit to how much funding can be stripped from Arizona’s public schools and siphoned to unaccountable, unregulated private schools. Even worse, the legislature failed to account for these hundreds of millions by appropriating additional funding for the program, meaning the funds must be stripped from the education general fund despite the fact that most families are not leaving public schools.
Arizona’s universal voucher expansion was passed with zero academic accountability, so we can’t know whether students are learning, what teachers are teaching, and whether voucher schools are performing at the same level as public district schools — or comparably much worse, as is documented in other states.
With universal ESA vouchers, Arizona lawmakers slopped together a free-for-all taxpayer grab game with no guardrails and no rules. Private schools and homeschools have no mandates on what they teach or how they teach it; they are legally allowed to teach any curriculum they wish, regardless of whether it is grounded in truth. And since the legislature intentionally set up irresponsibly lax accountability for the program, we will be watching for instances of fraud and abuse.
We Must Act Now
For over 20 years, Arizona’s public schools have been under siege. Organized opponents of public education have slashed budgets and undermined our free and accessible community education system, all in a deliberate, calculated attempt to enable greed and private interests. The disinvestment in Arizona’s public schools has been far from accidental; the trajectory has been relatively swift and shockingly destructive to our children, schools, and communities. Indeed, special interest groups and lobbyists identified Arizona early on as a prime target for privatization and created a petri dish for testing ways to undermine public education as a common social and economic good. Betsy DeVos’s American Federation for Children, for one, has spent millions on Arizona elections, buying itself the legislature it needed to pass the nation’s first universal voucher program.
Arizona is the cautionary tale of what can (and will) go wrong as school privatization spreads through the states. We now have an opportunity to roll back this threat, to require accountability and transparency, and to ensure our elected lawmakers prioritize and fully fund our public schools. But we must watch closely, spread the word, and advocate fiercely for Arizona’s children. Otherwise, we won’t have public schools to fight for.