In 2011 Arizona lawmakers adopted the Empowerment Scholarship Accounts (ESA) program, commonly known as a school voucher program, which provides state funds to pay for tuition and various educational services offered by private and parochial schools.
Originally, the ESA program gave parents or guardians of students who had disabilities that could not be addressed in public schools the opportunity to turn to private schools. Over the years, the program has expanded to extend eligibility to students in several other categories, including foster-care children, those residing on American Indian reservations and those attending failing public schools.
Currently, about 23,000 students are eligible and slightly over 5,000 are receiving vouchers, most of whom have disabilities. Most ESA money has been spent for tuition to private schools.
In 2017, the Legislature passed a bill signed by the governor that expands ESA program eligibility to all 1 million students in the state, although it caps total enrollment at 30,000 (as noted below, the existence of the cap, which was adopted out of political expediency, may somewhat complicate how various groups and voters might look at the measure).
The 2017 legislation was put on hold after a referendum drive put Proposition 305 on the ballot. A “yes” vote would be in favor of the legislation, a “no” vote would be in opposition to the legislation. Rejection of the legislation would have no effect on the existing ESA program.
Much of the debate thus far has featured familiar pro and con arguments regarding school vouchers in general.
Proponents, picking up the themes first articulated by economist Milton Friedman in the 1950s, argue that vouchers give parents a greater choice in choosing education services for their children. They also argue that forcing public schools to compete in an educational free market will improve the educational offerings of the public schools. Vouchers are seen by proponents as valuable in both saving taxpayer money and ensuring that funds will go to teaching students rather than being “wasted” on public school administration.
Backers of voucher expansion include Governor Doug Ducey, the state chapter of Americans for Prosperity supported by Charles and David Koch, and the American Federation for Children, which is supported by U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, the Goldwater Institute, Center for Arizona Policy and the Arizona Catholic Conference.
Voucher opponents say they divert tax dollars from public schools. Opponents argue public funds should be spent on public schools, not private or parochial schools.
Considerable concern also has been expressed that the existing program lacks meaningful oversight to ensure that public funds are being used as intended and that private schools are held accountable for their educational services.
The ESA program also has been criticized on the grounds that it tends to benefit people who are well off financially, not impoverished or middle-class families. Only those with considerable financial means can take advantage of the ESA program because vouchers do not come anywhere close to paying the full tuition for a quality private school.
Some opponents point out that there is no need for additional avenues for school choice. Arizona already offers parents plenty of options in addition to the existing ESA program, including open enrollment in public schools, home schooling and charter schools.
The 30,000-voucher cap placed on ESA programs, which is included in Proposition 305, could complicate expansion plans. For example, parents of children with special needs who already are in the program could find themselves in competition for vouchers — and possibly losing out — if eligibility is expanded to a larger population of students. A “no” vote could be looked upon as protecting students that the ESA program was originally designed to help.
The cap may be difficult for proponents to eliminate because of the Voter Protection Act. Adopted in 1998, the law requires a three-fourths vote in both legislative chambers to make any changes in measures approved by the voters. Any change in voter-mandated propositions is limited to “further the purpose” of the ballot proposition only.