States embrace school vouchers as costs for Arizona's universal program inflate

Arizona’s launch last year of the most expansive school choice voucher program in the nation, which has proven to be costlier than expected, may be inspiring other states to follow suit with Iowa and Utah already enacting laws. 

Katie Hobbs, Arizona’s new Democratic governor, called for the repeal of a 2022 law signed by Republican predecessor Doug Ducey that made nearly $7,000-per-child scholarship accounts, which had previously required special circumstances and served under 12,000 students, available to all, including those attending home-based or private schools.

 “If not repealed, the 2022 expansion of Arizona’s Empowerment Scholarship Account program will cost the state $1.5 billion over the next 10 years,”  Josselyn Berry, Hobbs’ press secretary, said in a statement. 

A Utah bill that creates a limited voucher program and boosts teacher salaries was signed last week by Gov. Spencer Cox who said “school choice works best when we adequately fund public education.”

State of Utah

“It diverts resources from public schools and provides an unneeded subsidy to already wealthy parents who can afford private education without a taxpayer paid tuition voucher,” she added.

The popularity of the expanded program blew through what Arizona’s Joint Legislative Budget Committee called “highly speculative” cost estimates it made in June. At that time, it projected the universal expansion to cost $33.4 million in the current fiscal year, rising to $125.4 million in fiscal 2025. In a Jan. 13 fiscal 2024 baseline budget presentation, the committee noted the addition of 30,000 universal students to date will require a fiscal 2023 supplemental appropriation of $200 million.

As for participation in the program in fiscal 2024, the committee reported its “best guess” has universal enrollment totaling 52,500 at a cost of $376 million.

Chuck Essigs, director of government relations at the Arizona Association of School Business Officials, said the universal program got “a lot more expensive” because it mainly attracted students already being taught at home or in private schools at no cost to the state.

“The state has had huge surpluses, but that’s going to change as the economy slows,” he said. “So it’s going to be harder and harder, we believe, for them to fund that additional money and also continue to fund traditional school districts and charter schools at the same time.”

Essigs added the Republican-controlled legislature views Hobbs’ plan to repeal the universal part of the program as being “dead on arrival.” 

The COVID-19 pandemic, which put public schools on the defensive due to the unpopularity of remote learning, as well as the encroachment of culture wars into public education, may be fueling a big push for school choice in several legislatures this year in the wake of Arizona’s expansion, according to Joshua Cowen, a professor of education policy at Michigan State University who has been tracking voucher programs.

“No state can afford to (fund) two sectors of education,” he cautioned, pointing to Arizona’s experience subsidizing non-public school students. “It’s hard enough to fund public education on its own.”

A highlight of a nationwide School Choice Week was Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds’s Jan. 24 signing of the Students First Act, providing an estimated $7,598 per pupil for current public school students to attend accredited private schools. Students already in private schools will be phased in with eligibility dependent on family income in the first two years before becoming universal in the 2025-26 school year. 

A measure in Utah breezed through both Republican-controlled legislative chambers in lopsided votes and was signed into law Saturday by Gov. Spencer Cox. 

“School choice works best when we adequately fund public education and we remove unnecessary regulations that burden our public schools and make it difficult for them to succeed,” Cox said in a statement. 

House Bill 215, which includes a teacher pay boost, creates an Utah Fits All Scholarship Program with $42.5 million appropriated from the state’s income tax fund.

Ahead of Thursday’s final Senate vote, Kirk Cullimore, the chamber’s GOP majority assistant whip, said the appropriation for the up to $8,000-per-child scholarship accounts will serve less than 5,000 students. He also said while current public, private, and home-schooled students are eligible, priority will be given to those with lower household incomes.

“With nearly 97% of our school-aged kids participating in public education in some fashion, I really do believe this is a good scholarship program that will service those kids that need unique and individualized education and it’s not really going to have a very strong or meaningful effect on the public education system,” Cullimore said.

Utah House Democrats took issue with the program being in the same bill with teacher salary increases and with the potential harm to public school funding.

“HB 215 puts taxpayer dollars that could be meaningfully invested into our public schools into exclusive and unregulated private schools without any accountability,” a caucus statement said.

Other Southwest states are also pursuing school choice and vouchers.

In Texas, Republican Gov. Greg Abbott said “parents deserve the freedom to choose the education that’s best for their child” in his Jan. 17 inaugural address. Last week, he tweeted: “The money should follow each student down the educational path that works best for them.”

Randall Erben, adjunct professor at the University of Texas at Austin law school, said while Abbott’s vocal and active backing this year is notable, school choice has failed to gain traction in the House in past sessions due to opposition from rural Republicans, who represent districts where in most cases public schools are the largest employers and private schools are scarce. 

He added Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who controls the Senate, may be eying yet-to-surface legislation that would have school choice apply only to certain areas in an attempt to ease rural House Republican opposition.

In the meantime, lawmakers have filed their own bills.

Senate Bill 176 would direct the Texas comptroller to establish a Parental Empowerment Program open to students enrolled in a public or charter school, while non-public students would be eligible subject to available funding.

The state would deposit an amount equal to the average maintenance and operations expenditures per student in average daily attendance for the preceding fiscal year into eligible K-12 student accounts annually for private school tuition and fees, online courses, tutoring services, educational therapies, instructional materials, computer hardware, and other expenses. 

The legislation cites two U.S. Supreme Court cases: 2020’s  Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue and last year’s Carson v. Makin. The rulings in those cases were seen as paving the way for taxpayer money to flow to religious schools, according to the National Education Association, the national public school teachers union.

Also introduced in Texas was HB 557, which would have the state reimburse parents’ tuition expenses for private schools, as well as for the costs of on-line programs, tutoring, computers, and supplies.

Senate Joint Resolution 29 proposes putting a constitutional amendment on the Nov. 7 statewide ballot establishing a parent’s right to direct a child’s education, including choosing alternatives to public schools.

Oklahoma Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt celebrated school choice last week saying he is “committed to expanding education freedom across the state and giving parents and students more options.” 

SB 822 would create Oklahoma Education Freedom Accounts to pay for private school tuition and on-line learning, as well as tutoring services for eligible students at a cost of about $275 million in fiscal 2024.

 Another proposal, SB 943, the Oklahoma Parent Empowerment Act for Kids,would allow state aid to be used for private schooling of students living in counties with a population over 10,000.

In the remaining counties, students would be eligible if their school district was found to be in violation of certain state statutes or has “advocated or tolerated” any school employee or volunteer “engaged in anthropomorphic behavior commonly referred to as furries” or provides instruction in gender identity and sexual orientation. Other triggering events include anti-fossil fuel, anti-gun, or pro-defund police ideologies, or curriculum promoting Marxist ideology.

Arkansas’ new Republican Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders appeared at a school choice event last week, but has yet to unveil a plan. 

“Every kid growing up in our state should have access to a quality education, a good job, and a better life right here in Arkansas,” she tweeted Jan. 23. “With parental choice, we will empower every parent to put their kids on a path to prosperity, NOT government dependency.”


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