An Arizona Voucher Q&A

Republican legislators are at it again. They are trying to increase the number of students eligible for private school vouchers. That's in spite of voters saying no to voucher expansion in 2018.

It's a good time to take a close look at the world of vouchers by asking questions and answering them. Let's begin.

In 2018, the popular vote in Arizona went against voucher expansion. Was it close?
Nope. When all the Prop. 305 numbers were counted, vouchers went down by 30 points: 65 percent No to 35 percent Yes.

Wow, a 30 point spread. Isn't that surprising, especially in a red state like Arizona?
Actually, no. Vouchers were on the ballot in Utah in 2007. Utah is redder than Arizona, but the vote margin was close to the same: 63 percent to 38 percent.

OK, that's another example. How about voucher votes elsewhere?
Vouchers have gone down every time they've been put in front of voters, and never by less than 20 points. Counting our vote in 2018, vouchers are zero for seven nationwide.

Lots of states have vouchers. Does that mean all of them have been put in by their legislatures?
Yes, all state voucher programs were voted into law by state legislatures. Arizona's two voucher programs — Tuition Tax Credits (1997) and Empowerment Scholarship Accounts (2011) — were created by our legislature. So were all the revisions which increased the amount of voucher money and the number of students who qualify.

Why do people vote against vouchers?
One reason is not many students attend private schools. In Arizona, it's about 4 percent of the student population. With 1 in 25 students in private school, it's not surprising people aren't excited about sending tax dollars in that direction.

Really, that few students?
Yes, really. In 2014, the most recent year where I could find good data, about 45,000 Arizona students were enrolled in private schools out of a total of about 1.2 million students. Those numbers are approximate, of course, but they're close.

OK, but you said Arizona's voucher programs began in 1997. Since then, lots of kids can attend private schools even though they can't afford tuition. That must mean private school enrollment has gone up, right?
You would think so, but no. Private school enrollment has fallen as a percentage of the total student population. When Tuition Tax Credits began over 20 years ago, about 5.5 percent of Arizona's students attended private school. Now it's 4 percent.

I don't understand. You mean the vouchers scared students away?
No, not really. The percentage of students in private schools has been falling all over the country, often more than in Arizona. You could say Arizona's vouchers are propping up private schools.

Are private school numbers falling because we haven't put enough money into vouchers?
Only if you think a billion dollars over the past twenty years isn't enough money. Actually, that figure would be higher, but the voucher program began small, and it's kept growing. Right now, we're plowing more than $200 million a year into vouchers.

$200 million a year? That's a lot of money. Still, you have to admit, private schools are better than public schools, right?
Not according to most studies. They say there is not a significant difference between the achievement of similar students in public and private schools.

What about all those great, high priced private schools?
It's true, those schools generally produce excellent students, but most of them come from upper middle and upper class families. Those students tend to perform just as well in other schools they attend. And it's important to remember, most of Arizona's private schools aren't those high priced prep schools you're thinking about. More than 70 percent of private schools in Arizona have a religious affiliation, and those schools vary in quality from excellent to sub-standard.

Really? More than 70 percent are religious?
Yes, really. That 70 percent, or higher, figure for religious-affiliated private schools holds true around the country. When most people think "private school," they imagine a fancy, secular prep school where all the students end up attending top universities. That type of school only makes up a small portion of the private schools in the country.

Wait, you said students can use vouchers in religious schools? Doesn't our state constitution forbid using public funds for religious education?
Yes it does, so our two voucher programs have been carefully crafted to get around that restriction.

OK, but still, if lower income students get into those fancy, high priced schools, they'll probably benefit, right?
Possibly so, but it's not quite that simple. Often, there's not a whole lot of room in those schools. And anyway, private schools don't have to take everyone who applies, even if the schools have the space. They can reject students for any of a variety of reasons. That's different from school districts, which take everyone in the district who wants to enroll, and charters which use a lottery system to decide who gets in. Private schools get to pick and choose. So even if a student has a voucher covering the entire cost of tuition at one of those expensive schools, or any private school for that matter, the school can turn them down.

With all these problems and such a small percentage of students attending private school, why do we keep hearing so much about vouchers?
Vouchers have lots of deep pocketed supporters who spend hundreds of millions of dollars a year to keep the topic alive. The school privatization movement, which likes to call itself the "education reform" movement because that sounds nicer and masks its intent, has well funded organizations around the country to push its message, and it gives lots of campaign money to sympathetic candidates and elected politicians. That keep vouchers alive and ticking in legislatures around the country even though most people are indifferent or hostile to the idea.