Do School Vouchers Only Benefit the Wealthy?

Most of the students using Arizona’s vouchers are already in top-performing schools.
by | January 2019
Teacher working with a student with disabilities.
In Arizona, advocates say, parents of children with special needs use ESAs to move their kids to schools with better services. (David Kidd)

The term “school choice” can refer to a wide range of alternatives to the traditional public school. When it comes to vouchers, that term usually means a promise to provide children trapped in poor-performing district schools the resources to switch to charter or private schools that can provide them with a better education.

In Arizona, that has turned out to be, in some regards, a false promise. Arizona’s education savings accounts -- a variation on vouchers that has been widely imitated and studied by other states -- have been used overwhelmingly by families whose children were already attending high-quality public schools. Seventy percent of the funds went to students who left schools that received ratings of A or B from the state, according to an analysis by The Arizona Republic. That’s 10 times the amount that followed those leaving schools rated D or F -- the kids who were supposed to be the main beneficiaries.

Critics of the education savings accounts, or ESAs, say that wealthier white parents are getting unneeded subsidies from the state, leaving behind low-income and Latino children. “What is happening is the families that can afford to take their kids out of public schools are leaving with the ESAs to attend private schools,” says Kathy Hoffman, Arizona’s new superintendent of public instruction. Hoffman, a Democrat, was narrowly elected in November on a platform critical of ESAs. At the same time, voters rejected, by nearly a 2-to-1 margin, a proposition that would have preserved an ESA expansion passed by the legislature in 2017.

Supporters of the ESA concept reject the Republic’s findings. They say that while pupils who attended top-rated schools are the ones leaving, that’s largely because those schools still don’t provide adequate help to kids who may be on the autism spectrum, have Down syndrome or have other special needs. And not all the families in highly rated districts are wealthy, says Jenny Clark, spokeswoman for Yes for Ed, which supported the unsuccessful proposition. “We’re talking about families that are leaving those districts because special needs children are not getting the services they need,” she says.

A majority of those using ESAs -- 58 percent -- are children with special needs, the population that was originally targeted by the ESA program. Even so, it’s children from A and B schools who are mostly benefiting. The lower average ESA funding granted to children from D and F schools indicates that “students with disabilities are not leaving poorer-performing district schools for private schools to get help for their disabilities or special needs,” the Republic reports.

One reason traditional schools are often poorly equipped to teach special needs kids, Hoffman contends, is the “devastating” effect of budget cuts. Since the last recession, Arizona has cut its education budget by a higher percentage than any other state. As superintendent, Hoffman will push for more funds to go to the conventional public schools that still educate the vast majority of students in Arizona.

But despite its recent electoral setbacks, the ESA concept continues to have strong backing from legislators and Republican Gov. Doug Ducey. The defeat of the 2018 proposition puts its expansion on hold, but a prior cap on the program was set to expire in a couple of years anyway. So the battle will continue, as it has for a long time, between those who say the traditional districts need more financial support and those who argue that the most vulnerable children need to have other options made available to them.