Universal Vouchers: The Verdict Is In

Universal Vouchers: The Verdict Is In


As national attention turns to Arizona’s disastrous universal ESA voucher scheme, a slew of new reports outline the data behind the program. Their findings are clear: universal vouchers utterly fail to live up to the claims of the special interests peddling them.

All eyes are on Arizona as data around the negative impacts of its universal ESA voucher program continues to mount. Study after study shows the broad majority of universal ESA vouchers serve as subsidies for higher income families who could already afford private school tuition or homeschool expenses.

National attention has increasingly turned to Arizona’s ESA voucher program as the body of evidence shows that vouchers are defunding Arizona’s public schools and services — and directly contributing to Arizona’s gaping $835 million budget shortfall. Last week, Forbes highlighted the troubling trends in the program, citing Save Our Schools Arizona Network’s report, “The Impact of Universal ESA Vouchers.” The article got right to the root of the issue: “Vouchers are being used primarily by families whose students were already attending private school … there is no ‘savings’ for public schools because those students were never there; instead, the state taxpayers are taking on new, additional costs.”

But we aren’t the only ones ringing the alarm about ESA vouchers. Local analysts, reporters, and researchers have been fact-checking some of the most common voucher myths. Let’s break down how voucher lobbyist claims compare to reality!

False Claim #1: “Universal ESA vouchers save taxpayers money”

Reality: Universal vouchers cost $500 – $8600 more than public district schools receive.

Despite a recent report from 12 News that thoroughly fact-checks the issue, the voucher lobby continues to perpetuate this false claim. Research by the Arizona Legislature’s own Joint Legislative Budget Committee, however, proves once again that the state general fund pays out more for universal ESA vouchers than it does for public school education. 

The JLBC conducted an apples-to-apples comparison of public school and ESA voucher students and found that, for non-special education universal ESA vouchers:

  • For large school districts that receive state aid, per-pupil funding is $700 less than the cost of each universal ESA voucher
  • For public high schools, per-pupil funding is $900 less than an ESA voucher
  • The disparity is much larger for districts in well-off areas that don’t receive any state aid, such as Scottsdale Unified and Cave Creek, creating entirely new costs for the state —  $8600 more for high school students!  

As Republic columnist Laurie Roberts noted, “numbers don’t lie; Republicans are utterly wrong about school vouchers.” Roberts put it best: 

“With Arizona facing a $835 million budget deficit, now seems like a good time to talk about the impact of the universal voucher program on the state budget. You know, the runaway program now approaching $900 million — the one we are assured has nothing to do with our $835 million deficit?

Republicans assure us Empowerment Savings Accounts [vouchers] actually save the state money, even as they allow legions of poor children to flee failing public schools…. But they’re a drain on the state general fund — the one that is $835 million in the red this year, with another $879 million deficit expected next year, according to new projections from the Joint Legislative Budget Committee.”

The verdict is in: Universal ESA vouchers do NOT save Arizona money.

False Claim #2: “Vouchers lead to better ‘school choice.’”

Reality: More than 75% of vouchers go to students who were already attending private school options.

Early reports from Superintendent Hoffman’s administration of the Arizona Department of Education revealed that 80% of universal ESA voucher applicants had no public school history — but Superintendent Horne’s administration has been less than forthcoming with the same data. While this has somewhat obfuscated the issue, a deep dive into the data reveals that, a year and a half later, the percent has hardly budged. 

A breaking analysis from ABC 15’s Garret Archer recently found that 78% of universal ESA voucher students have no previous public school history.  According to the report: “Estimating an average award of $7,500, this means about $94 million of universal ESA money go to students previously in the state’s budget while $321 million are students that have yet to be budgeted in previous years.”

According to the Arizona Department of Education’s 2024 Q1 ESA Voucher Report (as of September 30th, 2023): 

  • Total voucher enrollment: 66,457 students 
  • Total universal voucher enrollment:  50,317 students 
  • There were 16,140 non-universal students, 14,214 of whom applied under eligibility categories that required previous public school enrollment.

According to ESA voucher Director John Ward at a November ESA Ad Hoc Committee Meeting, approximately 60% of students in the voucher program had no public school history. (Note: Due to this approximated percentage, the following data is also approximated).  

  • Using the above ~60%, ~26,500 students in the program had some public history. 
  • Subtracting the non-universal students means that roughly ~12,000 universal students have previous public school attendance, only ~25% of universal vouchers.  

This means that ~75% of Universal ESA vouchers go to students who were already in private school and never previously attended public school.

The verdict is in: 75% of universal ESA vouchers go to students who were already attending and affording private schooling.

False Claim #3: “Vouchers will be a lifeline for low-income students”

Reality: The majority of vouchers go to students in the wealthiest zip codes in Arizona.

Arizona’s “Data Guru” Garrett Archer of ABC 15 analyzed income data from a new report from the AZ Department of Education that organizes voucher students by zip code. 

ABC’s analysis shows ESA voucher students skew heavily towards higher-income zip codes, with over half (52%) living in the top quarter of zip codes with the highest incomes. According to the report, another quarter (25%) come from zip codes in the next highest quartile of household incomes. 

This data estimates “there are approximately ten times more ESA [voucher] students in Arizona’s top 25% highest income zip codes compared to the lowest 25%.”  

Professor Jennifer Jennings, Director of the Education Research Section at Princeton University’s School of Public Affairs, approached the same claim from a different angle. She found a “troubling pattern: the uptake of ESA vouchers is significantly higher in affluent districts …. Rather than democratizing education, Arizona’s school vouchers are subsidizing its most fortunate families, reinforcing existing disparities rather than mitigating them.” 

The verdict is in: Universal ESA vouchers don’t benefit the low-income — they serve as private school coupons for the wealthy.

Arizona’s Universal ESA Vouchers Must Be Reformed

Governor Katie Hobbs has made it clear that reining in irresponsible private school vouchers is a priority for resolving the state’s growing budget deficit. Hobbs proposed reinstating the ESA voucher program’s previous requirement that students attend public school for 100 days before receiving an ESA voucher. Considering nearly 50,000 members of the program were previously attending private school or homeschool with no public school history, the Governor assumes that most voucher families — which hail primarily from the wealthiest zip codes in the state — will simply switch back to paying for their private education as they did in the past. All told, the JLBC estimates this sensible reform could save Arizona $250 million dollars annually

We urge leaders in the state legislature to work with Gov. Hobbs to pass this urgently needed overhaul of the spiraling universal voucher scheme — before it breaks Arizona’s budget. 

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