Across the Nation, Red States Reject ESA Voucher Scams
The rollout of the Arizona legislature’s ill-conceived universal ESA voucher program has been an unmitigated disaster that threatens to bankrupt the state. The cost of the voucher program will exceed $500 million this year and continue growing as more and more private school and homeschool families take the entitlement. At the current rate, the combined cost of ESA and STO vouchers will exceed $1 billion by 2025.
We aren’t the only ones watching Arizona’s universal ESA voucher expansion in horror. Across the nation, lawmakers in other states are looking to us as they consider voucher programs… and they don’t like what they see. Despite the colossal efforts — and dollars — of the Betsy DeVos-backed American Federation for Children, state legislatures with Republican majorities are outright rejecting voucher programs. Arizona’s Republican lawmakers must face the facts: the universal ESA voucher expansion is a completely unfixable disaster.
In February, Idaho’s Senate Republicans overwhelmingly rejected a proposed ESA voucher expansion, citing concerns about the lack of accountability and the nebulous price tag. In what is becoming a hallmark of ESA voucher programs, the law would explicitly prohibit the state from implementing any oversight over private schools, preventing the state from requiring financial transparency or protecting students against faith-based discrimination.
Republicans opposed to the program in the Idaho House Education Committee said that they received five times more emails against ESA vouchers than they did in support, noting that a vote in favor of the program would be a vote against the wishes of their district. If Arizona Republicans had listened to their constituents in 2022 like Idaho Republicans did this year, Arizona could have avoided the voucher mess we are in now. In 2018, Arizona voters resoundingly rejected ESA vouchers by a 2-1 margin.
Like Arizona’s voucher program, Idaho’s expanded vouchers would have included zero income limits or requirements for previously attending public school. In other words, a wealthy family with children already enrolled in private or home school would get $6,000 of taxpayer money per child per year. That money would be directly subtracted from the funding for public schools that the students had never attended in the first place. As one lawmaker put it, “It’s actually against my conservative, Republican perspective to hand this money out with no accountability.”
Sixteen rural Georgia Republicans joined Democrats to defeat a proposed voucher bill, despite behind-the-scenes horse-trading from Gov. Brian Kemp and personal lobbying from Betsy DeVos. This is not the first time the American Federation for Children has attempted to push the voucher scam in Georgia. Last year, their attempt failed after AFC was caught sending deceitful mailers attacking Republicans opposed to universal ESA vouchers – just like in Arizona, where AFC spent $570,000 in 2022 alone.
Rural Georgia lawmakers pointed out that many of their districts don’t have private schools and that improving public education should be the priority. Like Idaho, many rural Georgia counties do not have private schools. One lawmaker correctly diagnosed the real solution, telling his colleagues: “Let’s look at the whole system. If we aren’t doing the right job in the school system, we need to look at the whole process.”
The defeat was a major blow to Gov. Kemp, who had threatened primary challengers for the Republicans who didn’t support the bill. Those lawmakers weren’t worried, however, with one stating that the “feedback following the vote [against vouchers] from my district has been overwhelmingly positive.”
Last week in the Texas State House, 24 Republicans joined Democrats to signal their opposition to ESA vouchers, approving an amendment to the state’s biennial budget bill barring the use of state funds on school voucher programs. Like Georgia, rural Republican lawmakers were concerned about the destructive impacts of a voucher program on local public schools.
Texas Governor Greg Abbott made the purpose of his proposed universal voucher expansion clear with a statewide tour touting the ESA plan. Notably, Abbott has only visited Christian private schools whose attendees could already afford private tuition. Many of the schools Abbott visited have discriminatory admissions practices (like those accepting ESA vouchers in Arizona).
Of particular note is the opposition from high school football coaches and fans, who warn that a universal voucher program in Texas could effectively “turn off… Friday night lights.” Advocates for public schools understand that neighborhood schools provide their communities with so much more than just academics — something that elite private academies simply do not.
In a repeat of 2021, Kansas has once again killed a proposed school voucher bill. Twenty Republicans crossed the aisle to join Democrats in opposition, citing the estimated price tag — as high as $215 million — and the fact that 63 out of the state’s 105 counties do not even have private schooling options.
The bill included no academic oversight, and (like Arizona’s ESA voucher program) there were no restrictions on spending state funds on Bibles or other religious materials. To some, this was a feature, not a flaw: one lawmaker in support of the program proudly stated that “Catholic schools are a gift to the state of Kansas.” For now, those “gifts” will remain free of taxpayer dollars.
When Will AZ Lawmakers Wake Up?
Republicans across the nation are waking up to what we knew all along — universal ESA voucher schemes are simply untenable. Lawmakers and special interests never intended for these programs to benefit every student – only the families who could already afford expensive private schools. Universal voucher programs serve only one purpose: to dismantle public education.
Enough is enough. Arizona lawmakers must follow the lead of their peers across the county and roll back the universal ESA voucher scam before it bankrupts our state.