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One Year In, Arizona’s Universal School Vouchers Are a Cautionary Tale

They’re a costly form of welfare for the wealthy that hurts rural and low-income students. They provide no educational accountability and lead to state-funded discrimination.

'No new vouchers' lawn signs
Save Our Schools Arizona filled the lawn outside the Arizona House in June 2022 with signs denouncing a Republican plan to expand eligibility for Empowerment Scholarship Account vouchers to all Arizona students.
(Jerod MacDonald-Evoy/Arizona Mirror)
The nation is watching as the devastating impacts of Arizona’s universal voucher program unfold. The most expansive and least accountable in the country, Arizona’s Empowerment Scholarship Account voucher program, is an unmitigated economic disaster with very real human impacts.

Last year, Arizona lawmakers and Gov. Doug Ducey rammed through universal ESA vouchers pushed by out-of-state interests. The Republicans running the Legislature sold universal vouchers under the ruse that it would help low-income students, insisting the additional cost to the state would be negligible.

However, one year into this failed experiment, the truth is clear: Universal ESA vouchers are welfare for the wealthy that will devastate the state’s budget and lead to school closures, teacher layoffs and eventually cuts to services like firefighters, health care, roads and more. Republican former Rep. Joel John, one of the deciding votes on universal vouchers, said he’s “regretted it ever since. … It was such bad policy, I was embarrassed I supported it.”

Other states are learning from our mistakes and are outright rejecting voucher schemes. Take Texas, for example, where Republicans and Democrats worked together to buck Gov. Greg Abbott’s repeated attempts to pass ESA vouchers, rejecting voucher schemes not once, not twice, but five times this year. In explaining his opposition, Texas Republican Rep. John Raney said, “I believe in my heart that using taxpayer dollars to fund an entitlement program is not conservative, and it’s bad public policy. Expanding government-defined choice programs for a few without accountability … undermines our constitutional and moral duty to educate the children of Texas.”

In Illinois, the Legislature eliminated its voucher program altogether, ending a program that — like Arizona’s — enabled discrimination on the basis of religion, disability status, LGBTQ+ status and more. Georgia and Idaho have successfully fought back as well, refusing to institute voucher programs because of their sky-high costs and nonexistent accountability.

Our new report, “The Impacts of Universal ESA Vouchers: Arizona’s Cautionary Tale, ”highlights for the nation the devastating impacts of the universal voucher program — and people are taking note. From The Wall Street Journal to Politico to The Hechinger Report, the country is watching the shameful example Arizona is setting:

  • Vouchers hurt Arizona’s economy: After universal expansion, ESA vouchers are on track to cost Arizona taxpayers over $900 million this school year — nearly 1,400 percent higher than initially projected. The Legislature could have used this funding for teacher and staff salary increases, building safety, 21st-century learning and so much more. Instead, Arizona school districts are already looking at cuts and school closures.
  • Welfare for the wealthy: Universal ESA vouchers are primarily claimed by families whose children were already in private school and could already afford this option; now, these vouchers represent an entirely new cost to the state.
  • Arizona’s vouchers have no accountability: Unlike other states, Arizona’s universal vouchers have little to no transparency to taxpayers, zero academic accountability and zero safety standards. There are no requirements to teach state standards, conduct background checks on teachers or tutors or ensure site safety — meaning children will inevitably get hurt.
  • Vouchers hurt rural and low-income students: ESA vouchers are primarily claimed by more affluent families in wealthier Zip codes and are concentrated in large, suburban areas. This robs funds from low-income and rural communities, leaving them behind.
  • With vouchers, students lose protections: ESA vouchers require parents to sign away federal rights, including protections for special education students, and are leading to many instances of state-funded discrimination against LGBTQ students, English language learners and students with disabilities.

Universal ESA vouchers threaten to accomplish in Arizona exactly what they were designed to do: dismantle public education. Arizona would be wise to follow the nation in learning from our mistakes — before it’s too late.

Beth Lewis is the director of Save Our Schools Arizona, as well as a Tempe, Ariz., educator and parent. Dr. Sharon Kirsch serves as the director of research for Save Our Schools Arizona and tracks efforts in Arizona and across the nation to dismantle public education. Save Our Schools Arizona is a community-based nonpartisan advocacy group dedicated to supporting strong public schools for a strong state. This commentary originally appeared in The Arizona Mirror, part of the States Newsroom network. Read the original here.

Governing’s opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing’s editors or management.
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