Four years ago, Arizona voters said no to Proposition 305, a referendum that would have significantly expanded Arizona’s school-voucher program, after the Legislature approved it. The people spoke. The defeat was resounding, by 2 to 1.
During the 2022 legislative session, however, Republican state lawmakers were undeterred by that overwhelming defeat and on a party-line vote passed another expanded voucher bill, one of the most sweeping in the country. Every student in the state — all 1.1 million of them — is now eligible for an education voucher, known as an Empowerment Scholarship Account.
Gov. Doug Ducey, a strong proponent of school choice, signed it on Aug. 16, the last day possible, and tweeted: “The biggest school choice victory in U.S. history.”
Ducey waited as long as possible to sign it, making it more difficult for opponents, headed by Save Our Schools Arizona, to gather enough signatures for another voter referendum in November 2024.
Save Our Schools Arizona had five weeks to gather more than 118,000 signatures. It came up short. ESAs became law on Sept. 24. Since then, the Arizona Department of Education has been flooded with voucher applications.
Under the new law, vouchers, worth $7,000 per year per student, may be applied toward
a non-charter or non-district public school for any educational means selected by a parent
or guardian, including home schooling, with no accountability for what educational goals or proficiencies are attained by the student using them.
The lack of educational transparency in the new law leaves some legislators uncomfortable.
“I’d like to know how many families that earn maybe a million dollars a year are getting voucher money versus how many families earning maybe $30,000 or $40,000 a year are getting voucher money,” Democratic state Sen. Christine Marsh told Channel 12 News.
Now, public-school districts like Maricopa Unified are anxious to see how the expanded voucher bill will impact them. Will there be a stampede to private schools by families suddenly armed with $7,000 per kid?
“Regardless of how one feels about public money being diverted away from public institutions to private entities, it is the reality in Arizona,” said Dr. Tracey Lopeman, superintendent of Maricopa Unified School District. “My efforts remain focused on the continuous improvement of our district and meeting the needs of our students.”
Early results from the Department of Education suggest vouchers are being requested far more from metropolitan communities (about 70% of applications so far are from Maricopa County) than from smaller, rural communities like Maricopa. Department of Education statistics also suggest most applicants (about 77%) have no history of having ever attended a district or charter public school, meaning those families already had the means to send their kids to private schools.
Compare those numbers with Maricopa. Through Oct. 7, in Maricopa’s 85138 ZIP code, 112 applications for a voucher were submitted from an area with a school-age population of 9,347 (1.2%), according to the education department. In 85139, there were 23 applications through Oct. 7 in an area with 4,447 school-age population (0.5%). A likely factor in the low percentages is that there are few private schools in Maricopa and in many small communities across the state.
If those numbers hold, MUSD will not suffer much of an immediate financial hit due to vouchers. But with ESAs now the law, some enterprising private-education proponent might quickly make plans to build some in the city.
“We’re trying to create a learning environment so that our families are attracted to stay here,” said Sheryl Rednor, MUSD assistant superintendent of academic services. “We’re working from a place of why you should choose Maricopa.”
It has to. Competition is fierce, and not only from private schools.
There are many tuition-free charter schools, which are public schools, in Maricopa, including A+ Charter Schools, Sequoia Pathway and Heritage Academy. Students also may enroll in another public-school district if it has open enrollment. Every morning, for example, Tempe-based Kyrene School District buses can be seen heading out of Maricopa on State Route 347. Kyrene, which serves grades K-8, has 342 active students with a home address in Maricopa, according to district officials.
Among the private schools closest to Maricopa is Valley Christian, a private religious institution in West Chandler, just east of Interstate 10.
Predictably, Valley Christian officials favor measures that are pro-school choice.
“We are 100 percent supportive of school-choice options, whatever those look like,” said Josh LeSage, principal at Valley Christian High. “We just believe at Valley Christian that someone’s bank account should not determine their destiny, so we are ardent supporters of school choice.
“We also understand that not everybody feels that way, and we respect that, but we are unapologetically supportive of school-choice options.”
As with most public-school districts in Arizona, MUSD officials are still digesting potential impacts of the new voucher law.
As Lopeman says, district public schools must focus on what is best for kids: providing quality programming, quality athletics and activities, and a clean, safe environment.
The hope, she said, is that if districts provide those things, parents won’t want to send their kids elsewhere.
Maricopa voters approved a school-district budget override in November 2021, which keeps class sizes small and technology up to date. It also has opened its second high school, Desert Sunrise. It has programs in place to help students who fell behind during the pandemic. The district spent more than $1.5 million last school year to improve the performance of its certified, classified and administrative staff. A significant chunk of that was $322,000 for phonetics, linguistics, literacy and writing-skills engagement, according to Rednor.
“We are strengthening the programs we have in our district,” Rednor said. “We started with our youngest learners and really strengthened our preschools. Preschool is offered on every single campus in the district. We believe in bringing them along from a young age.”
Rednor pointed to a dual-language program in an elementary school and an accelerated program this year in elementary schools. Maricopa also offers an advanced-placement capstone program with rigorous instruction.
“We’re seeing some nice work there,” Rednor said. “We see growth in our students.”
The intention of Arizona’s initial voucher program was to give families mired in underperforming school districts, and who lacked the financial means to send their kids to a higher-performing private school, the ability to do so. In theory, it was a way to break cycles of poverty in families through better education.
That initial law fell short. Many families still couldn’t afford private schools. Instead, vouchers were used by affluent families, who already could afford private education. As each student left a public-school seat, state funding went, too. Bodies in seats are a critical piece of funding district public schools.
A statement released by the Goldwater Institute, which supports vouchers, says they help the state’s bottom line. An ESA costs considerably less than the current $11,000 in taxpayer-financed state funding per student in public schools.
Legislators attempted to mitigate opposition to the voucher bill by adding more than $1 billion to public-school funding for 2023 plus an ongoing $526 million, which it says will offset the loss of state funds to school districts when students with an ESA depart.
“The ESA program simply ensures that each student’s funding follows the student, just like it already does each time a student leaves a public school for a different public school using the state’s open-enrollment option,” the Goldwater Institute said in a statement.