December 2018 Church & State - December 2018

Arizona Voucher Program Mostly Benefits Wealthy, New Study Shows

  Rob Boston

A voucher program in Arizona that was supposed to help students with special needs is mainly allowing students in high-performing public schools to transfer to private institutions at taxpayer expense, a new study shows.

Vouchers in Arizona go by the euphemistic name of “Empowerment Scholarship Accounts” (ESAs). A recent 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.”

Americans United says these findings aren’t surprising. 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.

Around the same time the newspaper report was issued, the state’s auditor general put out a report finding 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 want to expand the voucher program. They voted last year to make all of the state’s 1.1 million public-school students eligible. In response, a grassroots coalition spearheaded by six Arizona women formed Save Our Schools Arizona and gathered more than 100,000 signatures to put a proposition on the ballot to block the expansion.

On Nov. 6, voters in Arizona rejected the expansion handily, 65 per­cent to 35 percent.

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