Arizona's voucher advocates have a persuasive, but false, narrative about the value of taxpayer-funded private school tuition. It falls apart when you look at our voucher history since the programs began 20 years ago.
The pro-voucher narrative is lovely and seductive. Lots of parents who want private school for their children just can't afford it, advocates say. Vouchers allow those parents the opportunity to choose, so of course lots of children will switch from public to private schools. Vouch it, and they will come. As the student population expands, the advocates continue, it diversifies. Minority students who otherwise couldn't afford tuition will take advantage of the vouchers and flock to private schools. And really, they conclude, vouchers are a break-even proposition, since all those new students using vouchers mean fewer students attending public schools. Vouchers pay for themselves.
That's their story. Now here's the truth. In the 20 years since Arizona began its first voucher program, private schools have gained less than 900 students. During the same 20 years, public schools added over 350,000 students. And while Arizona's Hispanic student population has increased dramatically, the ethnic mix of private school students hasn't kept up.
Before I start into a numbers dive, let me give you my sources, which are as legit and unbiased as I could find. The public school numbers are from the National Center for Educational Statistics, a vast U.S. government data archive where even an amateur like me can sort through the data to find the information I'm looking for. The private school numbers are from a 2016 study, Exploring Arizona's Private Education Sector,
the pro-voucher organization, EDCHOICE
. I begin in 1995, two years before Arizona passed its tuition tax credit law, and follow the numbers through 2014, which is the most recent year with complete data. Empowerment Scholarship Accounts began in 2011, so they're only a small part of the 20 year history.
In 1995, 44,134 Arizona students attended private school. In 2014, enrollment was 45,019. That's a gain of about 900 students over 20 years—not much of an increase, considering we're bringing in over $150 million a year in voucher funding. For that kind of money, you'd expect to see a major increase in the number of private school students. How many more students should $150 million buy? Let's figure it out. Arizona spends $7,500 per public school student. If voucher money moved public school students to private schools on a dollar-for-dollar basis, you'd expect to see a 20,000 student increase over pre-voucher days. The actual 900 student gain comes to more than $150,000 for each new student.
Arizona vouchers are hardly the break even, pays-for-itself proposition the advocates claim. It looks like there aren't tens of thousands of parents who can't wait to take advantage of vouchers and move their kids to private schools. Even if you vouch it, they still won't come.
But actually, the numbers are worse than that. While private schools were adding 900 students, public schools added over 350,000 students, from 743,566 in 1995 to 1,097,422 in 2014. That means private school enrollment declined relative to the total student population. In 1995, 5.6 percent of Arizona students went to private schools. In 2014, it dropped to 3.9 percent. Private schools are educating a smaller slice of Arizona's school-aged population, even with hundreds of millions in taxpayer dollars moving from public to private schools.
Here's a private school change that sounds positive. The proportion of Hispanic students in Arizona private schools increased over that 20 year span while the Anglo population decreased. Hispanic students rose from 18.1 percent to 24.1 percent of the private school population, a gain of 6 percent, while Anglo students fell from 70.9 percent to 58.1 percent, a loss of 13 percent. That's proof positive, the ethnic balance has improved. The problem is, the change doesn't match the larger change in the overall ethnic balance of the state's student population since 1995. Over the same period, the proportion of Hispanics in public schools rose by 13 percent—7 percent more than the rise in private schools. The public school Anglo population lost 15 percent—2 percent more than the loss in private schools. As a result, private schools are less reflective of Arizona's student ethnic balance than they were 20 years ago.
Any Arizonan who believes the hype about vouchers, that they increase the number and diversity of students while having little impact on public school funding, has fallen victim to a public relations con job. The impact of Arizona's vouchers has no connection to the narrative that's used to sell them. But anyone who likes the idea of subsidizing private school tuition, or even paying it outright, with public dollars because they think that's a better way to spend state funds than using them to improve our underfunded public schools—those people should be delighted with the way our voucher programs have turned out.