New data shows most school voucher applicants aren’t from Arizona public schools
PHOENIX — New data was released this week showing who’s applying for a recently expanded program that allows Arizona taxpayer dollars to be spent on private school tuition and other educational expenses.
Nearly 6,800 applications were submitted to the Arizona Department of Education over the last two weeks now that all students across the state are eligible. About 75% of those don’t have a history of attending an Arizona public school.
“I don’t think there was any surprise there,” Beth Lewis, director of Save Our Schools Arizona, said. “We had anticipated that this would be primarily used by families who were already in private schools.”
Those who supported legislation earlier this year to expand eligibility for the program had argued parents should be able to disenroll their kids from underperforming public schools and have access to the education options that best meets their needs.
“That’s not what is happening,” she said. “Instead, this is just giving handouts to folks who’ve already chosen private school and homeschool for their kids.”
Under the Empowerment Scholarship Account (ESA) program, Arizona families are provided more than $6,500 per student annually to use on a variety of education expenses, including private school tuition, tutoring and homeschooling.
Previously, the program was limited to children with special needs, students at low-performing schools, military families and residents of Native American reservations. A bill signed by Gov. Doug Ducey in July changed that by making all Arizona K-12 students eligible.
Matt Beienburg, director of education policy at the Goldwater Institute, said “there’s no reason to hold families back” from accessing the education that best fits their children’s needs.
He added there’s a reason why most of the recent ESA program applicants have not been previously enrolled in an Arizona public school.
“The application didn’t even go up until the first day of school in Arizona had already passed,” he said. “So if you’re talking about families who are in public school and now trying to decide whether or not they can switch, they didn’t even have that application portal open until they had already situated their kids in a public school.”
There are currently more than 12,100 students participating in the ESA program under the pre-expansion requirements, according to the ADE. But families benefiting from the expansion could soon become ineligible.
Save Our Schools Arizona is collecting signatures to let Arizona voters decide if the ESA program should stay open to all students. The group has until Sept. 23 to collect nearly 119,000 signatures to get the issue on the ballot for the November 2024 election.