Arizona’s school voucher program is a scam for the wealthy


Arizona’s school voucher program, known as the Empowerment Scholarship Account program, is a scam for the wealthy according to this new analysis.

The Arizona Republic reports, Arizona taxpayer-funded vouchers benefiting students in more-affluent areas:

As Arizona’s school-voucher program has expanded rapidly in the past year, students using taxpayer aid to transfer from public to private schools are abandoning higher-performing districts in more-affluent areas, according to an Arizona Republic analysis.

This year, more than 75 percent of the money pulled out of public schools for the Empowerment Scholarship Account program came from districts with an “A” or “B” rating, the analysis showed. By contrast, only 4 percent of the money came from school districts rated “D” or lower.

The findings undercut a key contention of the lawmakers and advocacy groups pressing to expand the state’s ESA program: that financially disadvantaged families from struggling schools reap the benefit of expanded school choice.

Critics, meanwhile, argue the program is largely being used by more-affluent families to subsidize their private-school tuition bills. The ESA program allows parents to take 90 percent of the money that would have gone to their school district and put it toward private school, home schooling and other educational programs.

The Empowerment Scholarship Account program funding grew to approximately $49 million this year, from about $30 million last year, according to February data from the Arizona Department of Education, which oversees the program. Republicans in the Legislature are advancing bills that would expand the program from the 3,360 students currently using it to all 1.1 million Arizona public school students after four years.

The expansion legislation would require third-graders through 12th-graders who are not disabled to take standardized tests and that the results of those tests would be reported to the students’ parents. Student achievement of ESA recipients is not tracked by the state.

The bills have won approval in committees in the House of Representatives and Senate. On Wednesday, Senate President Steve Yarbrough said he was hopeful the legislation would advance [especially since he would personally benefit financially from it]. Bill sponsor Sen Debbie Lesko, R-Peoria, said she “was very optimistic that this bill will be signed into law.”

However, some lawmakers, already wary of full expansion, said The Republic’s findings raise questions about whether the timing is right to offer it to all Arizona students since so few disadvantaged families currently use it.

“I have concerns, based on those numbers,” said Rep. T.J. Shope, R- Coolidge, of the findings that few students from poor-performing schools are using the program. “I would hope that those numbers would be a little higher.”

* * *

The Republic’s analysis shows money disproportionately coming from wealthier and better-performing school districts.

According to the analysis:

  • Students leaving “A”- and “B”-rated districts had an average award of about $15,300.
  • For schools rated “D” or lower, the average award was only about $6,700.

The higher awards indicate students leaving better-rated schools have more disabilities, said Stefan Swiat, spokesman for the Arizona Department of Education. Any award over $7,800 indicates significant student disability.

A similar effect was found by looking at students leaving districts based on the percentage of students on free- or reduced-price lunch, a good proxy for income levels in the area:

  • In districts where the percent of students on free lunch is below 60 percent, the average award is $16,500.
  • In districts where the percent of students on free lunch is above 60 percent, the average award is $9,100.

The lower average award from poorer-performing and socioeconomically disadvantaged schools means that disabled students are not leaving those schools at the same rate as better-performing schools, the analysis found.

The Republic analysis found that as the number of students on free- and reduced-price lunch at a school increased, the average award for those districts decreased.

Lesko acknowledged the reason the award could be higher in wealthier and better-performing districts is because many of the students leaving those schools are disabled.

* * *

Asked why disabled students wouldn’t also be leaving less-affluent and poorer-performing districts, Lesko said she didn’t have a comment.

According to the Arizona Department of Education, 58 percent of students in the ESA programs have special needs, 13 percent are from military families, 11 percent are from “D” and “F” schools, 7 percent are adopted or former foster children, 6 percent came from an Indian reservation and 4.5 percent were siblings of children in the ESA program.

Shope said he wants to know how the state markets the program in neighborhoods with “D” or “F” schools to ensure it’s as visible as at better-performing schools.

“This is fascinating,” he said of The Republic’s findings. “I want to make sure those same kind of efforts are being duplicated in areas that are under-served, be they low income, or be they disproportionately high numbers of immigrant populations.”

Republican Sen. Sonny Borrelli of Lake Havasu City said he is concerned too few low-income students are benefiting from a program that was billed by supporters as a way to help the state’s most disadvantaged students escape public schools that didn’t meet their needs.

“I’m all for it to help out the lower-income schools or areas, to get them that leg up,” Borrelli said. But, he added, the state shouldn’t pay for wealthy parents to send their children to private school.

“I’m wealthy, and I want to send my kid to a private school, that’s my choice,” he said.

Asked if he supports legislation to expand the ESA program to all public school kids, Borrelli said: “At this point, I’m not sold on it.”

Borrelli is one of a handful of Senate Republican to express doubts about the proposal, raising questions about whether it has the votes to pass the chamber, where the GOP has 17 members to Democrats’ 13.

The Republic first published in 2016 an analysis of districts most affected by the ESA exodus and their academic performance and demographic makeup.

The Republic has created a database of the ESA awards by district in 2017 so parents and administrators can see the numbers themselves.

Patrick Wolf, professor and 21st Century Chair in School Choice at the University of Arkansas, said Arizona’s model fits what school-choice advocates have pushed across the country: First, open the program to disabled students and then expand it.

“This is the story of private school-choice initiatives across the country. They typically start with a highly targeted program that is limited to very low income kids, kids with special needs, foster kids, some really specialized population for whom school choice is much more imperative.” Wolf said. “Then once they are established and operating, the advocates seek to expand it … to a broader population of students.”

Where lawmakers stand

It’s unclear whether the Legislature has the political will to enact a full expansion of the Empowerment Scholarship Account program.

Sen. Bob Worsley, a Mesa Republican who is viewed as a swing vote on the issue, refused to discuss his position.

“I am working to get a hard cap where it is today and accountability,” he wrote in a text message. “They will not get my vote for ESAs without those concessions.”

Lesko said she was open to including some accountability measures in the bill but wouldn’t say what they are.

Sen. Frank Pratt, R-Casa Grande, called the newspaper’s findings concerning. Pratt said he has “issues” with the expansion legislation but would not specify his concerns.

“I would be more supportive if there was a little bit of a change in the bill,” he said. “I’m just concerned that we’re moving too quickly.”

Rep. Randall Friese, D-Tucson, noted the original intent of the ESA program was to help disabled students, not to subsidize private-school expenses.

“There will be a point where it breaks the back of public schools,” he said.

Friese learned from The Republic how much is being diverted from school districts to private schools and other educational programs.

“It’s nice to see that the data is showing how these monies are being spent,” he said. “I’m afraid that it’s probably being used by well-to-do families to supplement their private school tuition.”

The Republic’s E.J. Montini writes, School voucher scam … exposed:

The legislators who want to expand Arizona’s school voucher program in order to take more money from poor families and give it to wealthy families have some explaining to do.

In fact, thanks to the exhaustive reporting of The Arizona Republic’s Rob O’Dell and Yvonne Wingett Sanchez, they already have some explaining to do.

The state’s voucher program, known as the Empowerment Scholarship Account program, is a scam.

It’s been sold to taxpayers as a way for the families of kids in poor or underperforming districts to get money from the state and use it for a quality private education.

Except, as the Republic’s reporters found in examining records 75 percent of the money taken public schools for the Empowerment Scholarship Account program came from districts with an “A” or “B” rating, while only 4 percent came from school districts rated “D” or lower.

What is the possible explanation for such a thing?

Debbi Burdick, superintendent of the Cave Creek School District, said, “We do have many families of affluence in this area who are knowledgeable about the scholarships and would use it to augment the cost of a private education.”


When limited to a specific group with specific needs the program worked. Expansion has opened it up to those who DON’T need it, but can take advantage, while only pretending to help the poor. For families of limited means a voucher for $5,000 won’t cover enough of the costs for them to attend most private schools. That’s not a problem for families who already have means.

There are bills in the Legislature that would expand the program, making it available after four years to all 1.1 million Arizona public school students.

Robin Hood in reverse, taking from the poor to give to the rich.


Contact your state legislators and tell them to oppose bills to expand Arizona’s Empowerment Scholarship Account program. It is a fraud.


  1. What a shame. It turns out the wealthy (whatever that means) are actually using a program more than those of lesser means. Why is that? Could it be that the wealthy pay more attention to what is going on? That they stay informed about programs that might be of value to their children? It certainly is not because they care more about their kids; people of lesser means love their children and worry about them just as much. Are the programs at fault? Do the programs advertise more to the wealthy? There has to be reasons why people of lesser means are not taking advantage of the program.

    Rather than worrying about finding a way to punish the wealthy, maybe some energy should be devoted to finding a way to reach out more to the people of lesser means and get them more involved. All this worry about the wealthy getting too much is pointless, although predictible. So many times, democrats seem more interested in punishing the wealthy than actually helping anyone.

    • Well, I think it’s important to look at this from a different perspective. I believe that we as a society have a collective responsibility to fund education for all of the children living here. I think it is a good investment; education is certainly a good with positive externalities, and I personally do benefit when others are better educated, through the fact that said individuals tend to get better jobs, pay more taxes, commit fewer crimes, and so on, all of which benefit me (and others) to some extent. You might not believe that it is the taxpayer’s responsibility, but I think it should be (a moral/values judgement on my part), and the rest of my statement will follow that.

      If that were the only issue, then I wouldn’t have much to disagree with you. But of course, Steve, I have to find something with which to be disagreeable. And that something is the fact that historically, when the well-to-do have been paying their own way, they have also used their political and economic clout to block proposals to fund public works in those areas, such as the education which is, by most accounts, a net benefit to society.

      I would have far less of a problem with the wealthy choosing to send their children to Spoiled Rich Kids Academy for Future Heirs and Heiresses if those same people weren’t then turning right around and saying ‘pull yourselves up by your bootstraps’ while funding politicians who are gutting our public education system, where the majority of students still attend for one reason or another. That is my issue; if public district schools were properly funded, and there’s money left over, then we can talk about nice tax giveaways and making easy choices. But unfortunately, the budgetary reality doesn’t permit such actions. Particularly when there is the very real risk of 1st Amendment issues with public monies funding parochial schools, or fly-by-night ‘schools’ that pocket a quick buck and then run off and leave the kids and parents hanging.

  2. Oh John Huppenthahl, you’ve really never read the data that shows that other than a few obvious examples, charters and private schools are either not better or only marginally better than public schools? Tsk tsk

    • Let me introduce you to the dynamics of free markets. They operate differently than the North Korean and Cuban model you have in mind for our children and schools.

      We have 250 charter schools with above average academic gains (you can pull this directly from the Department of Ed website, if you know how to operate an excel spreadsheet, a simple sort is all it takes).

      We have 531 district schools with below average academic gains.

      Thanks to readily available school choice in Arizona, most of the parents of students in those below average schools can migrate to schools which perform better. Money and resources flow to more highly organized and effective school districts and schools in free markets.

      Just look at the TUSD district chaos. Those parents deserve a choice and they are taking it. TUSD is shrinking by the equivalent of over a school per year.

      But, the calculations go even further. We have 748 district schools with above average academic gains. The average gain at those schools is the 57th percentile. However, in these 748 schools, there are over 200,000 students experiencing below average academic gains.

      Those students might also want to make a choice and if they do, their results might well improve.

      Of course parent’s choices are based on much more than academics. Since school choice began in Arizona, murders by juveniles have plunged from 70 in 1992 to 7 in 2012 all despite a more than tripling in our at-risk population. A much greater reduction than the national reduction.

      Parents obviously don’t want their children in gang infested schools. In Arizona, they can escape.

      A resident scholar at the Urban Institute (a left wing outfit) recently published perhaps the most sophisticated ranking of the states based on 2015 National Assessment Scores. Arizona’s public school system ranked 13th and there is reason to believe that we actually rank higher and that the Urban Institute’s natural bias held us down some.

      The evidence is overwhelming that school choice has been enormously beneficial to children in Arizona.

      All of your screaming about the cost efficiency of Arizona education has no real meaning whatsoever.

      • So, we have 748 district schools posting above-average academic gains and 531 posting below-average gains. I’m not aware of the precise distribution of those gains, so I might be off slightly because of the skew of the distribution, but I’m pretty sure that all else equal, about half of schools would typically be posting above-average gains, and half below. That sounds to me like our district schools are doing rather well, since our number is about 58.5%

        I am not immediately sure of how it is possible for every school in the country to post above-average anything.

        But I think the real question is: How many charter schools do we have posting subpar academic gains? How many private & parochial schools which are being funded by taxpayer dollars are similarly underperforming? I find it suspicious that you omitted that important number.

        Also, do you have literally anything to suggest a causal relation between school choice & lower levels of homicide other than an anecdote and a handwave? Any sort of quasi-experimental study? Because, for one thing, I am not sure that the number is even statistically significant if you use proper clustering of the standard error. I am also a lot more likely to attribute this to the removal of lead from paint, gasoline, and other sources, something which has been conclusively linked to lower levels of childhood misbehavior and later criminality.

        • The critical element is choice. Can parents move their student from below average schools to above average? For a variety of reasons, that migration will be on the order of 10% per year. However, that is enough to drive major change.

          As you correctly point out, that movement can be from charter school back to district school if the district school gets competitive. There are a number of them that can easily go toe to toe with charters.

          We can get a another sense of this from a major teacher job satisfaction measure that was done in Arizona. They found that 25% of teachers knew ten other teachers that were “not motivated”. A typical school has 30 to 45 teachers. Students need to be able to escape these disorganized schools.

          As a school board president, I knew that my teachers attitudes were my number one asset. For seven years, I increased teacher job satisfaction every single semester. Most school board presidents, superintendents and principals would not have a clue if you asked them what percent of their teachers rate their schools an excellent place to work. I know because I’ve asked them. They couldn’t place the number within 30 percentage points of the real number.

        • “I am not immediately sure of how it is possible for every school in the country to post above-average anything.”

          I can’t immediately influence every school in the country nor can I immediately influence every school in the state. But, I can tell you this – before I die, every school in Arizona will be moving students at more than 10 NAEP scale score points a year and the average school will be moving students 30 points a year.

          In other words, every Arizona school will be moving students more than the 2017 national average academic gain and the average gain will be three times the current average gain. Yes, every school will be above average, at least this year’s average. Every Arizona school, the national average.

          After just a year and a half in the classroom as a teacher, my typical math student is doing 600 math problems a day correctly. This compares with Tigers Woods swinging the golf club a thousand times a day, Michael Jordan taking a 500 practice shots a day. I have one student who is averaging over a thousand math problems a day. These were among the lowest achievement students in the state and I am just getting started. Learning all revolves around motivation – the unmotivated brain literally can not learn. But, it is much more complex than that.

          After seven years as a school board president, 77% of my parents rated the quality of education excellent in my schools, over 3 times the national average of 24%. And, I had not yet reorganized the classroom.

          It’s not going to be hard, its just going to take time. I am starting all over again.

          All of my competitors aren’t even in the game. The State Board of Education recently came across a law, one that I had passed, requiring schools to measure the degree of motivation of students. They had absolutely no idea of what to make of it. They decided to ignore it and cast it into the barrel of “useless” state laws.

  3. Of course parents in Scottsdale and Cave Creek will be in better position to make a school choice. They are better educated and more knowledgeable.

    Guess what that means? When someone is knowledgeable, they will often decide that a district school is not the best place for their child to receive a public education.

    Society is better off three ways:

    1. That child will get a better education and better outcomes.
    2. Society will save 10% of the cost of educating that child.
    3. All schools will be better off as district schools work harder to keep other students from making that same choice.

    • Of course there is no data that supports any of these bromides. But plenty of data showing charters spend lots on “administration”, which also means plenty of public dough for me and my family business, charter schools. Most right wing politicians don’t pay any attention to professional, legitimate data in policy making, anyway. It’s mostly “we believe, therefore it must be true,” or John’s data base, the stock markets’ day to day, ups and downs prove, just what exactly????

  4. “Robin Hood in reverse, taking from the poor to give to the rich.” Exactly, and when Yarbrough has lined his pockets with tax payer dollars watch him start building private prisons. The greedy man knows how to ride a wave of public tax dollars. Like most of his ilk there is no concern for the waste left behind in his wake. He’ll do something like march forward with a Bible in his hand and pretend to be sent here to the benefit of all Arizonans. When will voters wake up and read a little more.

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