Myths Vs. Truth: Universal ESA Vouchers

Myths Vs. Truth: Universal ESA Vouchers

Read our latest blog to cut through the myths and get to the truth about Arizona’s failed $1 billion universal voucher experiment. 

Special interests across Arizona and the nation are spreading rampant misinformation about universal ESA vouchers. But the facts are simple: Vouchers hurt public schools, the 1 million students they serve, and the communities they support

Keep reading to see the truth behind the most common ESA voucher myths:

 Myth: “Universal ESA vouchers save the state money.”

Fact: Universal ESA vouchers cost Arizona money. Vouchers draw directly from state funding and are now projected to siphon nearly $1 billion away from public schools every year. When the legislature passed universal vouchers, they irresponsibly estimated the program would cost a mere $30 million. Now, the massive cost of vouchers is poised to bankrupt the state. 

Each universal voucher costs an average of $500 more than the state per-pupil funding district schools receive. Each voucher from a “non-state aid” district (areas like Scottsdale that fully fund their schools with local property taxes) is a new and direct cost to the state. Plus, the vast majority of vouchers going to families who had always been in private school and homeschool are an entirely new cost to the state. 

 Myth: “Universal ESA vouchers are accountable.”

Fact: There is zero accountability for ESA vouchers. The legislature passed the ESA voucher program with no financial accountability for taxpayers, no academic accountability or safety measures for parents, and no protections for students’ rights. It is well documented that vouchers are being used for extravagant and non-educational expenses like out-of-state water skiing lessons, waterpark admission, home gyms, espresso machines, bounce houses, and so much more. 

While the Arizona Department of Education technically requires receipts to approve purchase reimbursement, Superintendent Horne recently bragged that his office reviewed 25,000 expenditures in a single day. This equates to one expenditure roughly every 3 seconds, indicating a lack of meaningful review. The ADE still has hundreds of thousands of expenses awaiting review, and the list of allowable items is written so loosely that just about any purchase can be justified. With 64,000 families in the program, many with hundreds of reimbursements a year, this program is utterly unmanageable by design — and wide open for fraud and abuse.

 Myth: “Universal ESA vouchers don’t hurt public schools.”

Fact: ESA vouchers are projected to cost $950 million this year, meaning every Arizona school will miss out on an average of $300,000. Because Arizona schools are funded at 48th in the nation, students are already going without critical resources and teachers and staff desperately need pay raises. The state cannot afford to fund these needs while also funding vouchers at nearly $1 billion per year (1/8th of the K-12 budget). 

Public schools rely on state funding for teacher & staff pay, counselors, books and curriculum, technology, air conditioning, buses, equipment, extracurriculars, the arts, sports, and so much more. Cuts to state funding mean cuts to everything in our schools, which in turn drives teacher layoffs and even school closures. 

It’s important to understand that every subtraction via a voucher takes away from public school students. Economies of scale mean that most costs in a school are shared, and don’t change much when a few students decide to use a voucher — but the cuts negatively impact all of the other students. For example, if seven students leave a public school for a universal voucher, the school loses roughly $49,000. The school will have to cut a teaching position, meaning class sizes increase dramatically or students lose their librarian, counselor, nurse, or art teacher.

 Myth: “Education dollars should follow the child.”

Fact: Most of the $1 billion for ESA vouchers is going to families who had already chosen private options and were therefore not receiving state funding in the first place. Each of these vouchers are an entirely new cost to taxpayers, representing a subtraction from the state budget used to fund public schools. There is no way for the state to cover those costs without cutting the budget for public schools and other state services. 

Because local schools rely on pooled, fixed costs, the subtraction of voucher dollars from the state budget hurts all the kids who remain in public schools. The state cannot afford to fund multiple systems of education, and vouchers create a two-tiered system that leads to massive inequities and increased segregation. 

 Myth: “Arizona families should choose the school setting that fits their child best.”

Fact: 92% of Arizona families choose local public schools that accept all students. However, with vouchers, private schools and microschools pick and choose their students. This means it is not a family choosing the school — that school is choosing them. Private schools do not have to serve students who need special education or English Language Learner services. Private schools can (and do) legally discriminate based on many factors, including gender, religious beliefs, sexual orientation and identity, and special education needs. Private schools can disenroll students without any cause making unfettered profits off of our children.

 Myth:  “Parents should use their taxpayer dollars however they see fit.”

Fact: Taxpayer dollars are not owned by an individual. Can you imagine a taxpayer demanding a rebate because they didn’t want to use the local fire department and asking for a handout to use “their dollars” to fund a private firefighter for their home? Of course not. 

Public education, like other public services, is a public good. Public schools rely on pooled dollars from the community, and the vast majority of taxpayers do not have kids in school. The average household in Arizona pays around $1,100 into the state’s K-12 fund each year — not $7,000 per child. 

Public funds belong in public schools where there is oversight. Private school options have zero accountability or transparency for taxpayers. Arizonans have no way to know ​​how our money is spent, what children are learning, or how they are performing academically.

 Myth: “There is plenty of money to go around for vouchers.”

Fact: Arizona’s K-12 system is based on a complex formula using state, federal, and local dollars. Most school funding comes from the state, funded through income and sales tax. Arizona’s state budget is tiny and underfunded. In fact, it’s one of the smallest per capita in the entire US — and only 43% of that minuscule budget goes to K-12 education. That means there’s not nearly enough funding for public schools and the 1.1 million students who rely on them. 

This is why Arizona public schools rank 48th in the nation in per-pupil funding. Because the legislature didn’t budget new dollars for the voucher program, every voucher takes away from another student’s funding. With $950M siphoned to vouchers, every one of Arizona’s public schools will lose out on an average of $300,000 in desperately needed dollars — ultimately forcing districts to lay off teachers, go to 4-day weeks, close schools, and more. 

 Myth: “Arizona families are leaving public schools to use a voucher.”

Fact: Public school enrollment has remained approximately the same over the past five years, hovering around 1.1 million students. The vast majority of voucher funding goes to families that never choose public schools. According to the ADE, 3 out of 4 voucher families were already attending (and affording) private school or homeschool. Therefore, there was no funding allocated to their children — and all voucher funds are an entirely new cost. Meanwhile, the 92% of Arizona families that choose public schools are watching their choice be defunded by private school vouchers. 

 Myth: “Arizona’s public schools are FAILING.”

Fact: Despite chronic underfunding, Arizona’s public schools perform on par with the national average on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) math and reading assessments. The Arizona State Board of Education only rates 2% of Arizona’s schools as “failing,” and these schools are correlated with significant levels of poverty, as is the norm for these measures. 

Bottom line — Arizona’s public schools have been failed by our legislature which, despite modest investments in recent years, has kept us far behind the nation in funding. The issues plaguing Arizona’s local public schools are all funding issues — the teacher retention crisis, crumbling buildings, overcrowded classrooms, lack of resources, need for aides and support staff, and so much more. Funding matters for education, and it’s the best investment a state can make in its future. 

Moving Forward

It’s time to roll back ESA vouchers to pre-universal expansion levels and prioritize the program for students with special needs and circumstances. It’s time to prioritize public dollars for public schools, where taxpayers have accountability and parents and children retain their rights. It’s time to stop Arizona’s failed $1 billion voucher experiment — before it’s too late.

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