Arizona’s Voucher Program is the Least Accountable in the US

Arizona’s Voucher Program is the Least Accountable in the US

With zero standards for financial transparency, academic performance, or student safety, Arizona has become a cautionary tale for other states considering voucher expansion. The Arizona legislature’s repeated refusal to enact necessary reforms has left students, families, and taxpayers vulnerable.

Arizona’s universal ESA voucher program stands out as both the most expansive and least accountable nationwide, lacking any financial oversight, academic accountability, or student safety. Arizona’s state legislature forced through universal ESA voucher expansion in 2022 by the slimmest margin — one vote in the House, and one in the Senate. Despite numerous efforts by Democrats to ensure academic oversight, child safety regulations, anti-discrimination safeguards, and more, the far-right Arizona legislature has consistently rejected any oversight whatsoever. 

As the devastating impacts of Arizona’s ESA voucher program snowball in the universal program’s second year and voucher lobbyists continue to push the school privatization scheme across the United States, states across the nation are looking to Arizona as a cautionary tale. As states consider voucher programs, policy makers and other stakeholders are witnessing Arizona’s voucher fiasco and in many cases rejecting vouchers altogether. Every single state that has implemented a voucher program since Arizona universally expanded vouchers has included more or significantly more accountability measures than Arizona’s program — leaving Arizona as the least accountable voucher state in the US.

Concerned with Arizona’s Snowballing Budget, States Enact Limits on Voucher Enrollment

After Arizona voters soundly rejected a more limited expansion in 2018, voucher lobbyists convinced the Republican-led Arizona legislature to force through a 100% universal program completely against the will of voters. The Joint Legislative Budget Committee for the Arizona legislature estimated that the universal program would only cost $33 million in its first year and $65 million in its second. In reality, the cost of universal vouchers reached $400 million in the program’s first year and will surpass $600 million this year, meaning the program’s total cost will soon surpass $1 billion a year. All told the cost of universal ESA vouchers has been 900% higher than what the Arizona state legislature originally budgeted for. 

As other states are pressured to pass their own voucher schemes, they have avoided making their programs as expansive as Arizona’s. North Carolina, which has a slightly larger population than Arizona, implemented a $415 million cap on its program. While Tennessee advocates recently defeated a proposed expansion, it would have been limited to 20,000 students and a budget of $141.5 million for the first few years. Even states like Iowa, Arkansas, and Florida are phasing in the rollout of their universal programs to avoid an Arizona-style surge in cost. 

Other states limit which students are eligible for vouchers, ensuring students with greater needs have access to the program. For example, Indiana’s program is limited to students making up to 400% of federal poverty guidelines — unlike Arizona, where the majority of ESA voucher recipients reside in the wealthiest zip codes in the state. West Virginia requires voucher applicants to attend public school for at least 45 days before applying for a voucher — unlike Arizona, where three-quarters of universal voucher recipients never attended public school and were already enrolled in private schooling. 

After Arizona voters soundly rejected a more limited expansion in 2018, voucher lobbyists convinced the Republican-led Arizona legislature to force through a 100% universal program completely against the will of voters. The Joint Legislative Budget Committee for the Arizona legislature estimated that the universal program would only cost $33 million in its first year and $65 million in its second. In reality, the cost of universal vouchers reached $400 million in the program’s first year and will surpass $600 million this year, meaning the program’s total cost will soon surpass $1 billion a year. All told the cost of universal ESA vouchers has been 900% higher than what the Arizona state legislature originally budgeted for. 

As other states are pressured to pass their own voucher schemes, they have avoided making their programs as expansive as Arizona’s. North Carolina, which has a slightly larger population than Arizona, implemented a $415 million cap on its program. While Tennessee advocates recently defeated a proposed expansion, it would have been limited to 20,000 students and a budget of $141.5 million for the first few years. Even states like Iowa, Arkansas, and Florida are phasing in the rollout of their universal programs to avoid an Arizona-style surge in cost. 

Other states limit which students are eligible for vouchers, ensuring students with greater needs have access to the program. For example, Indiana’s program is limited to students making up to 400% of federal poverty guidelines — unlike Arizona, where the majority of ESA voucher recipients reside in the wealthiest zip codes in the state. West Virginia requires voucher applicants to attend public school for at least 45 days before applying for a voucher — unlike Arizona, where three-quarters of universal voucher recipients never attended public school and were already enrolled in private schooling. 

Arizona is the Only State Lacking Any Academic Accountability for Vouchers

While  voucher programs have been sold as a way to increase educational achievement, they typically lack academic accountability.  Arizona is the only state in the nation to implement a fully universal voucher program without any form of academic accountability. Many studies have shown that voucher programs have detrimental impacts on student learning, but in Arizona there is simply no way to assess whether students in the program are more academically successful with a voucher than they were in a public school (if they were even attending public school in the first place).

Arkansas, Iowa, Indiana, and Florida all require voucher students to either sit for state testing or take a nationally norm-referenced assessment. Utah and West Virginia allow students to submit a portfolio showcasing their academic progress in lieu of an assessment, but crucially still require some form of proof of academic progress. In Arizona, there is zero requirement for voucher students to show they are meeting state standards or even learning at all.

Arizona’s lack of academic oversight is compounded by its failure to approve  voucher-funded private schools, unlike Iowa, Florida, Utah, and West Virginia, which require schools participating in their state voucher programs to register with the state and meet certain standards of accreditation. In Utah, private schools with a potential for financial troubles are explicitly prohibited from joining the program. 

No such vetting exists in Arizona. Any fly-by-night for-profit private school or microschool can open anywhere (even in unsafe garages, living rooms, or strip mall buildings) and accept ESA voucher student funding without any proof of accreditation or quality. 

While  voucher programs have been sold as a way to increase educational achievement, they typically lack academic accountability.  Arizona is the only state in the nation to implement a fully universal voucher program without any form of academic accountability. Many studies have shown that voucher programs have detrimental impacts on student learning, but in Arizona there is simply no way to assess whether students in the program are more academically successful with a voucher than they were in a public school (if they were even attending public school in the first place).

Arkansas, Iowa, Indiana, and Florida all require voucher students to either sit for state testing or take a nationally norm-referenced assessment. Utah and West Virginia allow students to submit a portfolio showcasing their academic progress in lieu of an assessment, but crucially still require some form of proof of academic progress. In Arizona, there is zero requirement for voucher students to show they are meeting state standards or even learning at all. 

Arizona’s lack of academic oversight is compounded by its failure to approve  voucher-funded private schools, unlike Iowa, Florida, Utah, and West Virginia, which require schools participating in their state voucher programs to register with the state and meet certain standards of accreditation. In Utah, private schools with a potential for financial troubles are explicitly prohibited from joining the program. 

No such vetting exists in Arizona. Any fly-by-night for-profit private school or microschool can open anywhere (even in unsafe garages, living rooms, or strip mall buildings) and accept ESA voucher student funding without any proof of accreditation or quality. 

No Child Safety Measures in Arizona’s Voucher System

Perhaps most egregiously, Arizona’s ESA voucher program lacks any semblance of child safety measures. Indiana, Florida, Utah, and West Virginia all require that teachers participating in their state voucher systems pass a background check to ensure they can safely work with children. This is fairly common in states with targeted voucher programs as well; DC, Louisiana, Maryland, Missouri, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Wisconsin all have similar background check requirements. 

Arizona’s voucher program even lacks basic health and safety regulations for private schools, tutors, and vendors. Voucher-funded schools are not required to participate in health screenings, conduct standard fire and emergency evacuation drills, or have systems in place to deal with improper possession of firearms, drugs, etc. 

All five of the other states with universal voucher programs — Arkansas, Iowa, Indiana, Florida, Utah, West Virginia — and all but one of the states with targeted programs — D.C., Louisiana, Maryland, Missouri, Montana, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Wisconsin  — require voucher-funded private schools to comply with the same health and safety standards as district public schools. 

Perhaps most egregiously, Arizona’s ESA voucher program lacks any semblance of child safety measures. Indiana, Florida, Utah, and West Virginia all require that teachers participating in their state voucher systems pass a background check to ensure they can safely work with children. This is fairly common in states with targeted voucher programs as well; DC, Louisiana, Maryland, Missouri, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Wisconsin all have similar background check requirements. 

Arizona’s voucher program even lacks basic health and safety regulations for private schools, tutors, and vendors. Voucher-funded schools are not required to participate in health screenings, conduct standard fire and emergency evacuation drills, or have systems in place to deal with improper possession of firearms, drugs, etc. 

All five of the other states with universal voucher programs — Arkansas, Iowa, Indiana, Florida, Utah, West Virginia — and all but one of the states with targeted programs — D.C., Louisiana, Maryland, Missouri, Montana, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Wisconsin  — require voucher-funded private schools to comply with the same health and safety standards as district public schools. 

Arizona Needs ESA Voucher Reform

Arizona’s ESA voucher program stands out as a stark example of what happens when basic accountability measures are completely disregarded in favor of pushing an ideological agenda. The disregard for financial transparency, academic oversight, and child safety measures sets a dangerous precedent not only for Arizona but for other states where voucher lobbyists have taken root. 

Despite continual attempts to address these deficiencies via legislation, Arizona’s Republican-majority legislature has consistently rejected commonsense efforts to implement urgently needed safeguards. As a result, the program has ballooned in cost and lacks the basic protections afforded by similar voucher programs in other states.

The consequences of this lack of accountability are dire: it undermines the educational outcomes of voucher recipients and exposes children to potential risks within inadequately regulated private schools. It also gouges taxpayers’ pockets with zero insight into whether students are even learning. With reform urgently needed, the coming budget season presents a critical opportunity for Arizona lawmakers to prioritize the well-being and educational success of all Arizona students over ideological agendas.

*State by state voucher information sourced from https://www.edchoice.org/school-choice/regulations/ unless otherwise stated

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