In June, Arizona’s Republican-controlled legislature approved the most expensive school voucher bill in the nation. Education advocates say that the bill, which takes effect next year, funnels public taxpayer money into private education, at the expense of low-income school districts that are already struggling with a lack of funding.
Signed by Gov. Doug Ducey (R) in July, the universal voucher program – the first of its kind to offer eligibility to every one of the 1.1 million students in Arizona – would allocate public taxpayer funds to private and religious schools. Critics of the voucher program argue that it pays families $7,000 annually in taxpayer funds to exit the public school system.
The program will also put taxpayer funds towards paying tuition for online programs, tutoring, home schooling, and many other programs that are not Arizona’s own K-12 public schools.
This is the only universal voucher program of its kind in the nation. Education experts have said it could be a boon for predatory and for-profit institutions like the University of Phoenix, while also noting that lost funding will be a severe setback for public school districts in Arizona, which still serve the majority of school students in Arizona.
This comes as Ducey and Arizona Republicans put thousands of educators and their jobs on the line when they held off on voting to waive a $1.2 billion spending cut to public schools in February until the last minute, due to their opposition of taxing higher-income residents.
“If you are a millionaire or a billionaire and your kid goes to private school today, you will now receive a check to subsidize them,” Rep. Reginald Bolding (D, Phoenix) said. He went on to argue that the voucher program will only make Arizona’s per-pupil funding ratio, one of the lowest in the country, even worse.
“The Republican universal voucher system is designed to kill public education,” former House Rep. Diego Rodriguez (D, Phoenix) tweeted. “The GOP goal is to recreate segregation, expand the opportunity gap, and destroy the foundation of our democracy.”
The legislation does not include any meaningful measures of accountability for both how the voucher funds will be used by private schools or how students attending public school alternatives are performing academically.
“We have no financial transparency and we have no academic transparency. I’d like to know how many families that earn maybe a million dollars a year are getting voucher money versus how many families earning maybe $30,000 or $40,000 a year are getting voucher money,” Democratic State Sen. Christine Marsh (D, Central Maricopa) said.
The lack of accountability in the voucher program will likely boost Arizona’s many charter schools, which are private institutions but funded publicly, to operate however they’d like. It’s estimated that around 28 percent of publicly-funded schools in the state are charters. Due to special privileges that charter schools have when it comes to accounting protocols and oversight, charters in the state have become something of a hotbed for financial fraud.
The voucher program will cost $33.4 million in 2023 alone, and up to $125.4 million by 2025. Meanwhile, Arizona’s public school spending limits are based on a formula set in the 1980s education amendment. Until the public school spending limit is raised by the legislature, which Republicans have not signaled any support for doing, Arizona school districts will continue to be severely underfunded.
Under the education amendment, the Aggregate Expenditure Limit, public school districts would be prevented from spending additional funds even if they received a budget boost.
It’s estimated that Arizona has 242 religious private schools that serve nearly 48,500 students. Meanwhile, the state has over 2,000 public schools attended by more than 1,111,000 students, according to the state Department of Education.
Beth Lewis, director of Save Our Schools Arizona, likened the new law to a “nail in the coffin” for Arizona public schools, while other advocates and Democrats worry about a wave of for-profit institutions that will emerge due to this new law.
“There are no barriers for entry into this marketplace,” Rep. Lorenzo Sierra argued. “If I am a predator looking to make money, this is how I’m going to do it.”