In recent discussions surrounding education in Arizona, there has been a growing debate over the implementation of universal school choice programs, particularly the recently adopted Empowerment Scholarship Accounts (ESAs). Critics argue that these programs will bankrupt the state and harm public schools, but a closer examination of the facts reveals a different story. The benefits of universal school choice do not prevent the opposition from leveraging misconceptions and highlighting the allegedly negative impact it can have on Arizona’s education system.
One of the key arguments against ESAs is the projected cost to taxpayers. A comprehensive analysis reveals that providing more funding to students at a lower cost is possible. According to the Arizona Department of Education (ADE), ESAs are projected to cost $900 million by July ’24. It’s important to note that this represents the total dollar amount associated with providing 100,000 students an ESA, not the estimated net cost to taxpayers. Comparatively, if these same students were enrolled in district schools, the total taxpayer cost would be closer to $1.5 billion per year.
The claim that ESAs will bankrupt the state is unfounded. The projected cost of $900 million is approximately 1% of Arizona’s $80.5 billion budget, which puts it in perspective. Essentially, ESAs cost about half as much per pupil as the public school system, making them an efficient and cost-effective option.
Opponents of universal school choice often overlook the significant savings ESAs provide to taxpayers. By enrolling in ESAs, families have the opportunity to access educational alternatives at a lower cost to the state. The ESA program is funded at a lower percentage than the state aid for a pupil in the public school system. This means that the state saves money by supporting students through ESAs instead of funding their education entirely within the public school system.
Moreover, ESAs cater to the diverse needs of students. Many families who qualify for ESAs were not previously attending public schools. It is essential to consider why the state could afford to educate them in public schools but not support them through an ESA. Universal school choice allows families to exercise their rights and access financial aid, ensuring that every student, regardless of their circumstances, has access to quality education.
Critics often claim that universal school choice programs like ESAs will undermine public education. However, evidence from Arizona’s public charter sector contradicts this assertion. Despite attacks from certain media outlets, charter schools have flourished, without bankrupting the state or decimating public education. In fact, charters have become a thriving staple of Arizona’s education landscape, attracting an increasing number of students. It is essential to recognize that charter schools and ESAs can coexist, offering families diverse educational options while complementing public schools.
If the Southwest Public Policy Institute is successful in litigation against Mesa Public Schools, ESA supporters could gain access to parental contact information. That same model could be scaled across Arizona to inform more parents about their new education options and facilitate a continued exodus from public schools, turning tens of thousands of applicants into hundreds of thousands. Such an outcome could save taxpayers even more.
By embracing universal school choice, Arizona can provide more funding to students at a lower cost to taxpayers, ensuring educational opportunities for all. The positive impact of ESAs, when properly understood, outweighs the misleading claims made by critics. Arizona students deserve access to a variety of educational options, including ESAs, charter schools, and district open enrollment. It’s time to prioritize the needs and rights of students and parents over outdated educational paradigms.
Patrick M. Brenner is the president of the Southwest Public Policy Institute, a think tank dedicated to improving the quality of life in the American Southwest by formulating, promoting, and defending sound public policy solutions. Our mission is simple: better living through better policy.