Do you think that providing more funding for students at a lower cost to taxpayers is a win-win? Then you must not have spent enough time in left-wing echo chambers that are trying to convince you to shut off your brain and think the opposite.
But not to worry, Save Our Schools Arizona and its allies in the state legislature have just released another crash course, warning this week that “ESA vouchers are projected to bankrupt the state by next year, costing $900M by July ‘24. There is no funding for this unaccountable, unbudgeted program.”
House Minority Leader Andrés Cano likewise claimed on social media that “Empowerment Scholarship Accounts will bankrupt our state & our public schools,” citing a letter from the Arizona Department of Education that projects ESA participation reaching up to 100,000 students by next year.
Never mind that we heard the exact same hysterics from the left this spring — including from Gov. Katie Hobbs. Gov. Hobbs then turned around and signed a budget this month that fully funds the ESA program, adds hundreds of millions of dollars of state resources for public schools, and includes over $2 billion of additional state spending overall this upcoming year.
Never mind that Rep. Cano cut off the portion of ADE’s letter that explained that “many of the students that are enrolling (in ESAs) are now coming from the public school system, which in the end saves the state money because the empowerment scholarship accounts are funded at a lower percentage than the state aid for a pupil in the public system.”
Never mind that Arizona public schools cost taxpayers $15 billion a year, including $13 billion in state and local funding alone. And never mind that at a cost of $14,000 per student, Arizona public school districts spend roughly twice per student what a (non-kindergarten, non-special education) ESA child receives.
Rather, consider only how desperately the left wants you to think of funding when it comes to public schools, but of costs when it comes to student scholarships provided via an ESA.
Indeed, as ADE suggested in its letter, the projected $900 million represents the total dollar amounts associated with providing 100,000 students an ESA — not the estimated net cost to taxpayers of providing those awards. Were those same students enrolled in district schools, for instance, the total taxpayer cost would be closer to $1.5 billion a year.
For those objecting to families who now qualify for an ESA who were not previously attending a public school — why exactly is it that the state could afford to educate them in a public school (if they had chosen that path) but not support them via an ESA? Why is it that the tens of thousands of families who dropped out of the public school system during COVID would not be every bit as deserving of financial aid through an ESA as they would have been if they stayed in a public school?
Regardless of the left’s selective willingness to fund some students but not others, it’s also worth noting that under ADE’s projections, the ESA program would be funding the education of roughly 8% of Arizona students (including a disproportionately high percentage of students with severe disabilities) for less than 6% of the total taxpayer cost of educating Arizona’s students. (When looking only at the students joining under the expanded universal category, their total cost would be even lower—about 4% of the total spending on Arizona K-12 students.)
Moreover, even if ADE’s ESA enrollment projections — which are significantly higher than the state’s legislative budget analysts have forecast — do materialize, it would represent an extraordinary surge in the market share of ESAs, but would still total less than half the size of Arizona’s public charter sector enrollment. Such charter schools, of course, have become a thriving staple of Arizona’s education landscape, and despite attacks from left-wing media outlets that claim they compete with traditional school districts for attendance, they have neither bankrupted the state nor decimated public education. Rather, charters have exploded in popularity even as district per pupil funding rates have continued to grow.
The left’s war on school choice and parental rights will no doubt continue, but taxpayers and the public deserve better than the ongoing litany of recycled falsifications and half-truths from union-backed politicians and activist organizations. And perhaps most importantly, Arizona students deserve access to school choice programs like ESAs, charter schools, and district open enrollment—regardless of how much the education establishment might prefer otherwise.
Matt Beienburg is the director of education policy at the Goldwater Institute. He also serves as director of the institute’s Van Sittert Center for Constitutional Advocacy.