Vouchers Defund Public Schools — Even When Enrollment Remains the Same
Ducey’s 2022 universal ESA voucher expansion is already on track to bankrupt the state, diverting over $550 million from local public schools this school year alone.
Are Students Leaving Public Schools?
The short answer is “no.” New K12 enrollment data released by the AZ Department of Education shows no indication of lagging enrollment in public schools. While anti-public school rhetoric would have you believe there’s a mass exodus of folks leaving public schools for vouchers — the data simply doesn’t back that up.
However, what Arizona is seeing is an exodus of dollars from the K12 budget in order to fund universal ESA vouchers. Because 80% of families applying for newly expanded ESA vouchers had already chosen private school or homeschool options, there is no change to public school enrollment — but there is a massive reduction in the state’s ability to fund public schools.
What Does the Data Say?
Despite the passage of universal vouchers in 2022, a comparison of Arizona’s 2021-22 public school enrollment with 2022-23 enrollment shows very little change. ADE’s 2023 enrollment report showed only a slight drop in enrollment from 2022, going from 1,114,790 students to 1,110,075 in grades K-12. This means across Arizona’s over 2000 public schools, only 4715 fewer students were enrolled this school year (a 0.42% drop in overall enrollment).
If universal ESA vouchers were causing students to leave public school en masse, we would expect to see a dramatic drop in enrollment — but the data does not back that up. Roughly 40,000 students are now receiving ESA vouchers under the universal category (another ~13,000 are eligible under special categories that existed before 2022’s expansion). But the drop in enrollment accounts for less than 12% of these students.
How Do Vouchers Impact School Budgets?
ESA vouchers will divert $550 million from public schools to private schools and homeschools this school year. Experts say $200-300 million is unbudgeted, meaning that the Arizona legislature will need to find a way to appropriate funding to these vouchers instead of to Arizona public schools. Teacher pay raises, hiring more staff, increasing resources for public school kids, extracurriculars? All of these expenses are impossible to afford when the legislature is spending $550 million on voucher programs that overwhelmingly benefit the wealthy.
What are the Impacts on Rural School Districts?
ESA vouchers benefit the wealthy, and are concentrated in well-off suburban areas in Maricopa county. Rural schools are suffering and voucher funding is concentrated in wealthy, affluent areas of Maricopa County. Families in Scottsdale, Deer Valley, Mesa, Chandler and Paradise Valley alone are receiving $116 million in ESA funding this school year – while rural schools are left behind.
The vast majority of vouchers don’t benefit rural communities because there are no quality private options. Rural districts, however, will be hurt first and worst by drained funding caused by universal ESA vouchers.
A recent article from the Payson Roundup highlighted the negative impact ESA voucher expansion is having on local schools and constituents. Payson School Superintendent Linda Gibson expressed deep concerns about the impacts of universal ESA vouchers on her rural school district. “If a student is choosing to go to private school or home schooled – that dollar amount is coming out of the state general fund. As of November – based on our loss in ADM (average daily membership) – the cost to the district is about $300,000 because of what has gone to the voucher program. It is hurting Payson – you bet” said Gibson. “The private schools are capturing a lot of money – and public school districts are suffering.”
The data is telling for rural districts. Take Flagstaff in Coconino County. Superintendent Penca of Flagstaff Unified School District (FUSD) reported last month that only 282 students who reside in FUSD boundaries received an ESA voucher this school year. Of those 282 students, 65% had never attended an FUSD school and only 15 of the 282 students attended FUSD during the prior school year — meaning 95% of students receiving ESA vouchers in FUSD already attended private school or were homeschooling.
How Much Worse Will it Get?
Some may claim that the school funding crisis created by ESA voucher expansion will start to level off, but special interests are shoveling unlimited dollars into recruiting for ESA voucher-funded private schools to prevent that from happening.
Predatory private schools, like MAGA extremist Charlie Kirk’s Turning Point Academy, are popping up and charging tuition at exactly the cost of an ESA voucher. Some of these schools are even capitalizing on culture-war issues by advertising at local public school board meetings where they’ve stoked the flames against trans youth, educators, library books, and curriculum.
Plus, approximately 90,000 Arizona students currently attend private school or homeschool. While 53,000 students already use ESA vouchers, there are nearly 50,000 more students not currently in public school who are eligible to take a no-strings-attached $7000 subsidy.
Even if ESA voucher enrollment does level off, data indicates that vouchers are positioned to drain well over $1 billion before that occurs (roughly 12% of Arizona’s public school budget).
Long story short — ESA vouchers are already bankrupting the state, and there’s no end in sight. Unless the Arizona legislature significantly rolls back or caps the growth of the off-the-rails voucher program, Arizona is on a fast track to dismantling public schools and fully privatizing education.