The school choice debate has raged in legislative chambers across the country following pandemic era school closures, with dozens of states moving to create or expand private school voucher and scholarship programs in 2021 and 2022

Arizona has led the way in school choice reform, implementing the nation’s first universal education savings account for K-12 students last year. The program allows any child who opts out of public schools to receive around $7,000 each school year to use on educational expenses, ranging from private school tuition to homeschooling supplies, tutoring and educational therapies. 

Utah may soon follow Arizona’s lead, with its own version of the program being introduced in the 2023 legislative session beginning Jan. 17. 

Supporters of government funded school choice say programs like Arizona’s give children a chance to attend a good school regardless of where they live, while also empowering parents. While opponents say they subsidize discrimination and ignore the problem of underfunding public schools — a problem that finds Arizona and Utah at the back of the pack.

According to a 2022 report published by the Education Law Center, a nonprofit advocacy organization that works closely with teachers’ unions, Arizona and Utah come in at 51st and 50th, respectively, in terms of per-pupil funding of public schools relative to the national average, adjusted for regional cost of living. 

Beth Lewis, founder and director of Save Our Schools Arizona, says the Arizona legislature’s focus on universal education savings accounts has caused lawmakers to neglect public schools. 

“We’ve got teachers that haven’t had raises in 10 years. We’ve got dramatically under-resourced classrooms and our schools are really struggling,” said Lewis, who has taught elementary and middle school in Arizona for 12 years and who currently has two children in public schools.

But what has been worrying Lewis, and others in Arizona public schools, is seen as a historic success for those involved in the school choice movement. 

Arizona leading the nation

​​“In 2022, Arizona took the belt as the undisputed leader in providing parent flexibility, parent freedom and choice in education for those kids,” said Marc LeBlond, director of policy at EdChoice.

Arizona’s education savings account expansion comes after more than two decades of the state ranking number one in education freedom, LeBlond said, pointing to the state’s early progress in allowing charter schools, statewide open enrollment and scholarship tax credit programs. 

The original version of the education savings account program, passed in 2011 under the name “Empowerment Scholarship Account,” was the first of its kind in the country, at first limiting scholarships to students with special needs, and then later, to children of active-duty military personnel, children in foster care and children in poorly-performing public schools. 

Outgoing Gov. Doug Ducey, a Republican, who signed the ESA bill in July, has called the expansion of school choice in the state one of the signature achievements of his eight years in office. “Every family in Arizona should have access to a high-quality education with dedicated teachers,” he said as he signed the bill.

Since becoming available to all K-12 students in the state, the program has nearly quadrupled in size, now serving over 45,000 students — around 4% of school-aged children in Arizona — compared to 12,000 students from a year before. 

But along with this exponential growth will come ballooning costs, Lewis says, not just to taxpayers, but to the health of public schools.

Problems with school choice

“The way the universal expansion was written here defunds public education,” Lewis said, explaining that a large percentage of families receiving school choice funds were not attending public school before, meaning there was no public funding allocated for those students in the public school system. “Every time that a student decides to go with a voucher, that money is coming out of the general fund, which affects our K-12 schools.”

Lewis says the 2011 bill was initially sold as a $1 million dollar program, but, as it has expanded to include more students, the cost incurred by Arizona taxpayers has grown to hundreds of millions of dollars.

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It was fear of this outcome that motivated Lewis to lead a referendum effort challenging the 2022 expansion. While Lewis’ group failed to gather the 118,000 signatures needed to place the question on the ballot, then-Secretary of State Katie Hobbs decided to temporarily pause implementation of the program.

Now, as governor of Arizona, Hobbs, a Democrat who voted against the original 2011 bill, has made it a priority to roll back the expansion.  

“Arizonans have made clear it’s time to rebuild and reinvest in our public schools,” Hobbs said in her first State of the State address. “Rather than doing the right thing and facing these challenges head on, the previous legislature passed a massive expansion of school vouchers that lacks accountability and will likely bankrupt this state.”

Opposition to Arizona’s school choice program is not only a question of public school funding, Lewis said, it is also a matter of equality. Because private schools, unlike their public counterparts, have more choices over which students they admit, Lewis said. She also pointed to school choice programs’ mixed academic success

“I would just caution folks to understand that they’re forgoing all of their rights and protections for their children when they’re taking a voucher,” Lewis said.

Lewis said she was not opposed to school choice in principle, but worried about its effect on public school funding. “If we were in a situation where our classrooms were flush with cash, if we were the number one funded state in the nation, maybe it would be a different conversation.”

This was the response of Utah Gov. Spencer Cox last year when the “Hope Scholarship” bill, which would provide income-dependent scholarships for educational expenses, began making its way through the Utah House.

“When teachers are making $60,000 a year to start, I will fully support vouchers,” Cox said. “You can’t take money that could go to our schools and allow it to go to private schools when you’re not fully funding the education system in our state.”

However, the governor’s proposed budget for FY 2024 would work towards that goal, increasing Utah teachers’ salaries by $6,000 in direct compensation and benefits. In Utah, the average starting salary for a teacher is just over $44,000, and the average salary for all teachers is $57,000. 

An updated version of the Utah bill, entitled “Utah Fits All” will be reintroduced in the 2023 legislative session which begins later this month. The bill would offer universal access to education savings accounts, similar to the Arizona law. 

The purpose of school choice

But Cox’s and Lewis’ insistence that public school funding be increased before school choice programs are expanded may be misguided, LeBlond says, with Utah providing a convincing case. Despite having some of the lowest public school funding per-pupil in the nation, Utah consistently ranks in the top ten for math and reading among 4th and 8th graders, LeBlond noted, suggesting that public school funding may not determine academic performance. 

LeBlond says Arizona’s own track record might undermine the argument that expanding school choice defunds and destabilizes public schools, explaining that even as Arizona continued to lead the nation in school choice over the last few decades, the number of Arizona public schools actually grew more than in any other state, as did the academic performance of low- and middle-income students.

This is to be expected from a system that creates more competition between school systems, LeBlond said, adding that one can be both pro school choice and pro public school. “They’re totally complimentary,” he said. “Choice leads to better outcomes for the kids who participate, and it leads to a better system overall.”

LeBlond’s message for Utahns arguing over school choice expansion is simple: Remember the purpose of the debate.

“The purpose is every kid getting an excellent education,” LeBlond said. “And it doesn’t really matter where that happens. That can happen in a public school, a private school, a charter school, a homeschool, every kid’s different. But whatever the right setting is, that’s what the public education system should facilitate.”