Save Our Schools Arizona is among the most prominent opponents of Empowerment Scholarship Accounts, or vouchers. However, certain of their talking points are inconsistent with facts from reputable sources.
In 2022, the group organized a petition drive to block an expansion of voucher eligibility. After the drive failed, SOSA told K-12 Dive, “The decision by (Gov. Doug) Ducey and the Legislature to enact his dangerous law is further proof that they have abandoned their constitutional obligation to provide adequate resources for public school students.” This references the fact that Arizona public schools “are funded based on student attendance and receive a specific amount of funding per student,” according to Education Forward Arizona.
Because of that per-capita framework, ESA vouchers can decrease public school funding – but only in direct proportion to any decrease in public school enrollment. According to a report by Common Sense Institute Arizona, public district school enrollment “has fallen precipitously [since 2019] and is down more than 70,000 students against the last pre-pandemic projections of the non-partisan Joint Legislative Budget Committee … the data suggests changes since 2020 may reflect not an overall ‘loss’ of students, but a demand shift away from traditional public district schools.” As families leave to use vouchers, public schools serve fewer children.
ESA vouchers merely redistribute funds based on this shift. They cannot divert resources away from public school students, who still receive the same amount per student, contrary to SOSA’s claim.
SOSA has also asserted that “ESA voucher funds are siphoned to private schools and homeschooling with little to no academic or financial accountability,” according to an October 2022 article in K-12 Dive. It is well-known that home- and private schools are less directly answerable to the government, but evidence suggests that this corresponds to increased accountability to parents. The Pew Research Center found in October 2022 that the percentage of public-school parents “not too” or “not at all satisfied” with the input they have in their children’s education is twice that of private school parents. Public district schools receive their funding directly from the government, not parents, so they are not incentivized to respect parent feedback. Private schools experience competitive pressure to do so and to maximize student outcomes, creating academic accountability without direct government oversight.
Furthermore, research indicates that most parents support shifting schools’ accountability from the government to parents and teachers. Pew Research asked K-12 parents their opinions of “the influence of the federal and state government, teachers, principals and students” over what public schools teach. They found that “larger shares say their state government, the federal government and their local school board have too much influence than say they don’t have enough influence. Conversely, more say parents, teachers, students and principals don’t have enough influence than say they have too much.”
SOSA Director Beth Lewis, in her July 2023 op-ed in the Arizona Capitol Times, claims that ESAs could lead to taxes “funding gourmet espresso machines.” Of course, parents cannot simply use voucher money to buy kitchen appliances directly: Arizona Department of Education rules state that, “if an [ESA] account holder is considering an expense that is not usually known as an educational expense, they will need to send documentation that shows proof of a course of study and a formal curriculum that includes the supplementary list, with that item on it.” In light of this, Lewis must have meant that a private school could provide expensive coffee using tuition paid by ESA holders. As private schools will focus on whatever is in demand, that could happen – if enough parents were such foolish consumers as to prioritize a school’s coffee over its academics or extracurriculars. In reality, parents receiving $7,000 toward their children’s education might think, “Now they can attend a school with …” but few would continue, “cappuccinos.”
Rachel MacLeod is a pre-medical student at Grand Canyon University, and she has attended public, private, and home-school offerings.