FACT CHECK: Who Actually Foots the Bill for Universal ESA Vouchers?
Education funding in Arizona is a complicated, interconnected financial system intended to benefit our entire state. Universal ESA vouchers have thrown a massive wrench into the school finance system, negatively impacting Arizona schools and students. But misinformation is rampant – read on to cut through the lies.
The special interests pushing vouchers love to say that school dollars “follow the child” and that they “belong to the parent,” but these arguments are grossly misleading. These cavalier statements blithely ignore the complex and communal ways public education is funded and leads to the question: “Who is actually footing the bill for vouchers — and what is the human cost?”
Q: Who Really Pays for Vouchers?
A: The answer is surprisingly straightforward — everyone in Arizona who’s not using a voucher pays for the voucher system. Students who stay in public school (especially rural and low-income students), taxpayers with kids in school, and taxpayers who don’t have children in school (the majority of whom voted against sending their taxpayer dollars to unaccountable private schools and homeschools). The foundation of public education is that everyone in the state pays taxes to support an education system that is accountable to taxpayers for how that money is spent. Funneling vast sums to vouchers is incredibly inefficient and expensive, creating two separate systems and robbing community public schools of the resources they desperately need. Read on to learn how this shell game works.
Q: Does the Money Follow the Child?
A: Universal voucher advocates assert that parents are “reclaiming their tax dollars from the government” through an ESA voucher. Here’s what the voucher pushers don’t want you to know: The average Arizona taxpayer does not pay anywhere near $7,000 per kid (the cost of a universal voucher) into the K-12 education system each year — in fact, the average household pays a total of about $2,400 in sales tax and income tax per year, and only $1,100 of that goes to public schools.
According to the US Census Bureau, the median household income in Arizona is just under $66,000 a year. Using an income tax calculator, we can determine how much that median household pays in state taxes each year: roughly $985 in state sales tax and $1,455 in state income tax, for a total of about $2,440. Now, consider that K-12 education makes up only 44% of Arizona’s general fund. That means the average Arizona household contributes roughly $1,073 to K-12 education each year — a far cry from the $7,000 parents claim for an entry-level universal voucher.
So where does the rest of the funding come from? Other taxpayers. Much like roads, police, firefighters, and public libraries, taxpayers chip into a public system whether or not they use the services. If a family – luckily – does not need to call the fire department for ten years, they don’t demand a rebate because they understand their tax dollars went into fighting fires for other people, benefiting the whole community. If a mom doesn’t use the public library for a year, she doesn’t demand her taxpayer dollars to buy children’s books on Amazon.
And here’s the kicker — even if families were paying $7,000 into K-12 per kid (and they’d have to make around $400,000 a year per child for that to be true), only a small fraction of a person’s tax dollars go to their own child’s education. The rest is used for shared expenses that all students need — like teachers, classroom aides, principals, equipment, technology, resources, air conditioning, buses, and school facilities. If a family doesn’t use the bus for a year, they don’t ask for the money back. It’s called public education because it’s for the public good.
The sad truth is that when ESA voucher strip funds away from public schools, every public school student in the state misses out on critically needed funding.
Q: Do Rural Students Benefit from Vouchers?
A: No. Rural schools are hurt the most, since voucher usage is concentrated in wealthy, affluent areas of Maricopa County. In 2022, well-off families in Scottsdale, Deer Valley, Mesa, Chandler, and Paradise Valley alone received $116 million in ESA funding. Northeast Maricopa County, including Paradise Valley, Scottsdale, and Fountain Hills, has approximately the same population as a vast swath of the Navajo Nation and much of North and East Arizona. According to the Arizona Department of Education’s Quarter 3 ESA Report, Northeast Maricopa has more than five times the number of voucher students as the enormous Northern and Eastern Arizona land areas. Rural communities do not have the same private school options that exist in urban areas – if they have any at all. They rely on their public schools as vital hubs of community activity, yet they are losing out on millions drained by urban and suburban voucher costs.
Payson School Superintendent Linda Gibson clearly sees the negative impact of universal ESA vouchers on her 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. The private schools are capturing a lot of money – and public school districts are suffering.”
Q: Do Vouchers Save Arizona Money?
A: Contrary to privatization lobbyists’ talking points, vouchers actually cost more than the funding public district schools receive. 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. This additional cost is taken out of the state’s General Fund, further reducing the money that is supposed to pay for Arizona’s basic public services. But it gets worse: Data shows that 3 out of 4 ESA voucher recipients were already in private school or homeschooled to begin with (and therefore were not receiving any state funding). Each of these students is an entirely new cost to taxpayers, and each ESA voucher represents a 100% subtraction from the state budget used to fund public schools — with no identified revenue source for the state to cover those costs.
The Arizona Department of Education has estimated a price tag of $900 million for vouchers in 2024, meaning each and every Arizona public school will lose out on $300,000 in desperately needed dollars next school year. As a result, the 1 million students in public schools will not get the resources they need, and Arizona teachers and staff won’t get the pay raises they deserve. Slashed district budgets will likely force schools to lay off teachers and eliminate suddenly unaffordable fixed costs such as fixing broken-down A/C and buses.
Public Education Isn’t a Piggybank
While “funding students, not systems,” has been used to sell vouchers, the harsh reality is that our public education system serves 92% of Arizona’s students and defunding it hurts all 1.1 million of them. Funding individual students is a fast path to eliminating oversight and bankrupting our schools (and the state).
Our elected leaders must protect our students and our state by rolling back universal ESA vouchers and investing in our neighborhood public schools.