Arizona established a universal school voucher system to allow kids to switch from public to private school.An expert told BI that vouchers tend to go to wealthy families.It’s “a cautionary tale” for all the other states expanding voucher systems, he said.

The prominence of school vouchers continues to surge across the country — but they might not benefit the families who need them the most.

Over the past few years, states like Ohio and Arkansas have expanded their school voucher programs to allow most or all parents to receive funding to send their kids to private schools. More than 20 states now have some kind of voucher program with more in consideration. Arizona was the first state to create a universal voucher program in 2022 — and experts have said it’s the state to watch when analyzing the impact of vouchers for all.

The modern school voucher movement started to grow in the 1990s under the idea that the government would give parents a certain amount of money to put toward private school tuition. The programs were means-tested, meaning recipients had to meet a certain poverty limit to receive assistance, with the idea that kids with fewer resources would be able to earn a better education at private schools.

However, gradually, more states began to raise the poverty limit, making nearly any parent eligible to receive the funding — and in some states, it led to the cash going to the wealthiest families. Arizona is “a cautionary tale” regarding the expansion of vouchers, Josh Cowen, professor of education policy at Michigan State University, told Business Insider.

“With the Arizona expansion, it’s just going into communities that are primarily wealthy,” Cowen said. “When this thing stopped becoming a means test 20 years ago, it stopped being an antipoverty device.”

A new report from the Brookings Institution delved further into the implications of Arizona’s voucher program. Arizona was the first state to implement a universal education savings account — which the state calls the Empowerment Scholarship Account — to allow parents to receive state funding to send their kids to private school.

While the program initially was capped to students with disabilities, it gradually expanded to include more students, and it’s now open to all students — but the wealthiest are disproportionately getting the funds.

Arizona is just one example of the range of programs across over 20 states implementing voucher programs. While they’ve been championed by many Republican legislators who have argued that the vouchers allow parents to control what their kids are learning, critics have argued that they’ve diverted funds from public schools and lack accountability measures.

Through an analysis of the 2024 second-quarter report for the program, Brookings found that the lowest-poverty areas in Arizona tend to have the highest participation in the ESA program, and the area with the lowest median income also has the lowest ESA participation rate.

For example, the zip codes with the lowest poverty rate, like Phoenix suburb Queen Creek, had the highest participation rate of 75 recipients per 1,000 children under 18.

The report noted that there are a range of reasons families in higher poverty areas might not be participating in the program, including being unaware of the program or unable to get to their preferred school due to transportation barriers. Cost is also a barrier, the report said, since tuition at private schools often exceeds the scholarship amount.

“Regardless, if states that have adopted (or are considering) universal ESA programs are serious about using private school choice to address inequities in school access, they need to take a hard look at these programs,” the report said. “The data emerging from Arizona provide plenty of reasons for concern.”

Arizona Gov. Katie Hobbs introduced an effort to boost transparency in the voucher system.

The complicated future of school vouchers

Arizona’s former GOP Governor Doug Ducey made the state’s ESAs universal in 2022, later saying during a February interview that during remote learning, “parents were able to see what their kids were being taught or not taught and the level of rigor and expectation from the public schools.”

“They also saw that the charter schools opened and the Catholic schools opened and many of the largest public districts chose to stay closed for nearly two years, even when the government was telling them to open,” Ducey said.

Republican members of the legislature have supported the expansion of vouchers, emphasizing that parents should have a role in choosing their kids’ education.

But Katie Hobbs, the state’s current Democratic governor, proposed a plan in January to rein in the program as part of an effort to address budget deficits. Her plan would require students to attend a public school for 100 days at any point in their education before becoming eligible for a voucher. It would also establish transparency measures that would ensure, for example, vouchers do not pay for extravagant field trips.

“My plan is simple: every school receiving taxpayer dollars must have basic standards to show they’re keeping our students safe and giving Arizona children the education they deserve,” Hobbs said in a statement.

While Arizona got a head start on implementing its voucher program, other states are following suit. At least eleven now have universal programs, and other states, including Tennessee, Georgia, and Alabama, are considering new laws. Arizona could preview not only budget complications for other states but a rocky outlook for the future of public education.

“You see these vouchers start to cannibalize on public school funds. The most important piece probably is at that state level where you really are talking about taking up a huge portion of dollars that the state can be spending on other things, like public schools, but also other parts of the economy,” Cowen said.

“The amount of money that you’re spending on this means that at some point, there are real meaningful policy trade-offs, and not all dollars are created equal,” he continued. “So for schools, the state aid portion is really, really important. It’s the important equalizer at the local level between districts that might have very different tax bases to draw from.”

Have you received a school voucher or decided not to participate in your state’s program? Are you in a state considering school vouchers? Share your story with this reporter at asheffey@businessinsider.com.

Read the original article on Business Insider

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