Americans United opposes private school vouchers because these schemes compel taxpayers to subsidize someone else’s religious education. Our view has always been that the First Amendment gives you the right to support only the religious groups of your choosing – or none at all. Vouchers violate this fundamental principle.
It’s worth remembering, though, that there are lots of other reasons to oppose vouchers – chiefly, they do nothing to boost student achievement. Study after study has shown that to be the case.
But perhaps the cruelest claim of voucher proponents is that the plan will help low-income students. We hear this over and over again. Some voucher boosters – such as Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos – even have the audacity to portray vouchers as a matter of economic justice, asserting that they will help low-income children escape public schools and thus overcome poverty.
How’s that working out? Not so well. In Arizona, a new study has found that Arizona students receiving vouchers, which there go by the euphemistic name of “Empowerment Scholarship Accounts” (ESAs), tend to come from wealthy, high-performing school districts.
An analysis by the Arizona Republic in Phoenix found, “Nearly 70 percent of the money from the voucher-like Empowerment Scholarship Accounts is being used by students leaving A- or B-rated districts to attend private schools…. By contrast, only 7 percent of ESA money is being used by students leaving districts rated D or F.”
Observed the newspaper, “The findings undercut a key contention of the lawmakers and advocacy groups that pushed to expand the state’s ESA program: that financially disadvantaged families from struggling schools reap the benefit of expanded school choice.”
These findings should not surprise anyone. In fact, they track data in other states where vouchers are often being used to supplement the tuition costs of wealthy families whose kids are already attending a private school.
In other words, the voucher program in Arizona drains money from the public coffers so wealthy kids can get a taxpayer-funded discount on their private, religious education. As a result, low-income kids who remain in the public schools get less funding and fewer resources.
As if that weren’t enough, a second story from Arizona this week contains blockbuster revelations: Parents have stolen more than $700,000 in voucher money for fraudulent purposes, and the state has recouped practically none of it.
A new report from the state’s auditor general has found that the program lacks adequate oversight to avoid diversion of funds for non-educational purposes.
Parents in the voucher program are given debit cards to pay for tuition and some legitimate education expenses like tutoring. The report found that some parents are defrauding the state to use the cards for other purposes.
“The Auditor General found some parents used the ESA cards for transactions at beauty supply retailers, sports apparel shops and computer technical support providers,” reported the Republic. “Auditors also found repeated attempts by some parents to withdraw cash from the cards, which is not allowed and can result in getting kicked off the program. The audit also concluded education officials did not properly monitor parents’ spending, even after questionable purchases were denied, including on music albums deemed noneducational, Blu-ray movies, cosmetics and a transaction at a seasonal haunted house.”
Despite these problems, legislators in Arizona are trying to expand this floundering program. It was originally aimed at children with special needs, but last year, lawmakers voted to make all of the state’s 1.1 million public-school students eligible.
In response, a grassroots coalition spearheaded by six Arizona women decided it was time to push back. Led by moms and public school advocates, the group, Save Our Schools Arizona, gathered more than 100,000 signatures to put Proposition 305 on the ballot. If a majority of Arizonans vote “No,” Prop. 305 will put a stop to the proposed expansion of the voucher plan.
If you live in Arizona, you now have an opportunity to step up for public education by stopping the growth of this outrageous voucher boondoggle. Remember, a “no” vote on Prop. 305 is a vote to roll back the voucher program and halt the expansion.
Arizonans, please vote no on Prop. 305. Nothing less than the future of public education and church-state separation in your state is at stake.