A little more than seven percent of Arizona's students attend private schools or are home-schooled—eight percent, tops. That's who the vouchers-for-all Empowerment Scholarship Accounts are all about, the eight percent, making sure they get the maximum access to taxpayer dollars our Republican legislators and the governor can manage. Meanwhile, the ninety-two percent attending district and charter schools have to fight to get a few dollars added to the state's dwindling financial commitment to its education budget.
But, the argument goes, vouchers will mean more children in private schools, so the ESA voucher dollars aren't really new money. It's just a case of funds following students. Except that's not what's happened in Arizona. Back in 1997, long before ESAs, we began another voucher program, private school tax credits. It takes money that otherwise would go into the state budget and funnels it to School Tuition Organizations which dole the money out to pay for private school tuition (and make a handy little profit for the STOs in the process). It's grown from a program that transferred a reasonably small amount of taxpayer money to private schools, about $4.5 million a year, to more than $140 million a year
. If more vouchers meant more parents choosing private school for their children, we should have seen a boom in their enrollment over the past twenty years. Instead, something like 2,000 fewer students attend private school now than in 1997. Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands more students are enrolled in district and charter schools.
$140 million a year in vouchers—and for the past few years we've thrown the ESA vouchers into the mix as well—and the result has been 2,000 fewer private school students in a state with a growing school-aged population. While the privatizers say vouchers are all about the growth of "school choice," a shrinking percentage of parents are choosing private schools for their children.
Since the expansion of ESAs was signed by the governor, many people have said it signals the dismantling of public schooling in Arizona. I agree, but only to an extent. It's misleading to imply more money for vouchers signals the beginning of the end for public schools. Maybe the trend line will change and the private school and the home-schooled population will grow a bit, but those options aren't going to replace public schools. What we're doing is dismantling our commitment to free public education which began with our country's founders and has grown steadily for more than 200 years. Only in the past twenty years have we begun to renege on our commitment. Instead of viewing education as a public good which deserves our continued, growing support, we've balkanized "public schooling" into districts schools and charter schools, which are a public/private hybrid, and we're diverting a growing percentage of our education money to private schools and home-schooling. The result will be an increased education inequality to match our growing income inequality. If this trend continues, money going into our district schools will diminish along with the quality of education, while charter schools and private schools receive an increasing amount of money and attention.