FACT CHECK: No, ESA Vouchers Do Not Save the State Money!

FACT CHECK: No, ESA Vouchers Do Not Save the State Money!

Last week, the Arizona Department of Education issued an astronomical updated estimate projecting universal ESA vouchers will cost the state $900 million in 2024 alone. These still unbudgeted, ballooning costs will starve public schools by diverting funds and bankrupt the state.

Based on these projections, every single one of Arizona’s nearly 3,000 public schools will lose out on $300,000 in desperately needed dollars that could fund teacher raises, additional counselors and aides, resources, and extracurriculars. 

Lawmakers and pro-privatization special interests are spreading rampant disinformation about the ESA voucher program. Let’s debunk some of these myths.

Fact Check

Claim: “ESA vouchers save Arizona money.”

The Truth: Each ESA voucher costs Arizona money.

Even the minimum universal ESA voucher is $424 more than district public schools receive for each elementary and middle school student and $540 more for each high schooler. The impact of this loss cannot be overstated: $900 million drained from public education means every one of Arizona’s public schools loses out on $300,000 in desperately needed dollars that will likely result in schools being forced to lay off teachers and slash suddenly unaffordable fixed costs such as fixing broken-down A/C and buses. Supt. Horne has cavalierly stated he is perfectly willing to even push for school closures

Claim: “The money follows the child.”

The Truth: Most of this $900 million goes to families that have already chosen private options.

3 out of 4 ESA voucher recipients were already in private school or homeschool and were not receiving state funding. Each of these students is an entirely new cost to taxpayers, and each ESA voucher represents a subtraction from the state budget used to fund public schools — with no identified revenue source for the state to cover those costs.

What’s more, less than half of Arizona’s estimated 60,000 private school students and 40,000 home-schooled students are currently taking an ESA voucher. Of the 57,000 ESA voucher applications so far, roughly 42,000 come from families already sending their children to private schools and homeschool. This leaves at least 58,000 private school and homeschool students still eligible for a voucher. (These numbers are estimated because Horne’s ADE has no standardized reporting system to officially track these students.) If all of these students apply, another $500 million in taxpayer subsidies will be drained from the general fund as a brand-new cost — and a huge hole in our state’s budget.

Claim: “Families are fleeing public schools.”

The Truth: Public school enrollment is steady.

If universal ESA vouchers were causing students to leave public school en masse, we would expect a dramatic drop in enrollment — but the data simply does not back that up. A comparison of Arizona’s 2021-22 public school enrollment with 2022-23 enrollment shows little change. The vast majority – 92% – of Arizona families choose public schools.

Claim: “Vouchers give students from low-income families a choice.”

The Truth: Vouchers don’t cover the costs of most private schools.

Arizona’s average private school tuition is $9,756 for elementary schools and $15,165 for high schools. This is thousands more than the funding an average ESA voucher provides – meaning vouchers can only be used by those who can afford the difference. Most voucher recipients hail from the wealthiest zip codes in the state, such as Paradise Valley, Scottsdale, and Deer Valley. School districts in these areas run entirely on local property taxes, not state tax monies. For each student in these districts that takes an ESA voucher, the cost comes from state taxpayer dollars, not these local sources; this results in a direct cost to the general fund. And what’s more, private schools can and do say no to students, denying enrollment for any reason they wish, even openly and legally discriminating. It’s not “school choice”; it’s the school’s choice, and that’s no choice at all.

Claim: “Parents are the accountability.”

The Truth: No accountability or transparency for taxpayers — or parents.

Unlike the detailed accounting for public schools that accounts for every taxpayer dollar down to the last penny, ESA vouchers mean taxpayers have no way to know ​​how their money is being spent, or what (or whether) children are learning. Voucher-funded private schools have no requirements for accreditation, registration, licensing, approval, teacher certification, or special education and are not required to assess or report academic achievement. 

Home education spending is similarly lax; as long as an item can be tied to a “curriculum,” which is ill-defined and open to interpretation, it meets the definition of an allowable expense. The ESA voucher program doesn’t require parents to spend these tax dollars on core curriculum. Many parents use their ESA vouchers for extravagant purchases like laptops, expensive espresso machines, and bounce houses. In February, the Arizona Department of Education boasted that they’d approved over 111,000 expenses in one day with no receipts, assuming a full 24 hours of work equals approximately ten expenses every second. These approved expenditures are not available for public scrutiny.

Claim: “Arizona will always fund education.”

The Truth: When times get tough, public schools see cuts first.

Finding new revenue is a heavy political lift, especially in this toxic hyperpartisan environment: the Arizona Constitution requires a two-thirds supermajority vote from both chambers of the legislature to increase taxes. The only other solution is to cut spending. Last time the state had to come up with $900 million, despite massive public protests, lawmakers slashed funding for our public schools. 

Our State Leaders Must Take a Stand

ADE’s new ESA voucher costs represent a 1,295% spiral over initial estimates: legislative analysts originally estimated the program would cost the state just $64.5 million in its second year. The massive gaps between the projected yearly cost for ESA vouchers ($64.5 million), the amount lawmakers had to budget (approximately $500 million), and this $900 million projection mean the legislature must now scramble to pay for this ballooning program. With no state surplus left to dip into after the special-interest spending spree of this year’s budget, some lawmakers have already signaled they wish to use the Rainy Day Fund, Arizona’s emergency savings account that contains only enough funds to cover 3-4 months of state expenses.

Arizona schools are funded 48th in the nation. It is criminal that the legislature is diverting nearly $1 billion in one year alone to subsidize wealthy private schools instead of using these funds to finally move the needle for Arizona’s 1.1 million public school students. We call on Governor Hobbs and the legislature to rein in the unaccountable, wasteful ESA voucher program before it bankrupts not just the public schools that 92% of Arizona families choose, but the state as a whole.

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