FILE - High school in Arizona

School busses at Pinnacle High School which is located in north Phoenix, Arizona. PHS opened in 2000, and is a part of the Paradise Valley Unified School District.

Arizona’s education savings account program served over 6,400 students in 2019 and has saved taxpayer dollars while improving educational options, a recent report found.

The Arizona Empowerment Scholarship Account Program (ESA), also known as an education savings account program, uses part of the funding from a student’s public school education and puts it in an account that families can use toward other educational opportunities for their kids, such as private school tuition, tutoring or school materials.  

The program is available to special needs students, students on Native American reservations, children in foster care, and students in military families. 

The report by the Goldwater Institute, a conservative think tank that pioneered the program, found that the number of students participating in the Arizona ESA program reached 6,423 in 2019, up from 5,042 in 2018 and 3,360 in 2017. In 2012, the first year of the program, 144 students were enrolled. 

The report also found that the program saves taxpayer dollars, since the ESA program costs less per pupil. 

The ESA award amount averages $6,148 per pupil in 2019 for non-special needs participants, while the average cost for an equivalent student in public schools is $10,120 per pupil. 

The report also argues that public school funding benefits from the program by redirecting more funding. When a student leaves public schools for the ESA program, money is returned to one of the several local and state funding pools for public school students, the report explained.

“From these sources of funding alone, the ESA program redirects an average of $654 per participant back to public schools to be redistributed among the remaining pupils,” the report says. “This means the 6,423 ESA participants are redirecting over $4.2 million per year in education dollars back to other public school pupils.” 

The program, however, isn’t without its critics, among them teacher unions and public school advocacy groups. 

Save Our Schools Arizona, which advocatesd for public schools in the state, said Goldwater’s report is “blatant promotional material” in an email to The Center Square. 

The group noted that the think tank is trying to market the program to the public, despite voters rejecting a proposal last year that would have expanded the ESA program statewide.

Senate Bill 1431, passed in 2017, expanded the program to every student in Arizona public schools. But the law was challenged and overturned by voters in November.

Save Our Schools Arizona was the primary backer of Proposition 305, which didn't pass, overturning the law.

The group also said Goldwater’s study is flawed.

“There are so many flaws and inaccuracies in this ‘study’ it's hard even to respond,” said Dawn Penich-Thacker, spokeswoman for Save Our Schools Arizona.

Penich-Thacker did, however, acknowledge that some families benefit from the program.

“ESA vouchers benefit a few thousand families who many times use them simply because the public school system is too starved of resources to offer adequate services to special needs and high needs students,” she said. “To suggest private school vouchers benefit the whole of Arizona public education and the 1.1 million families who rely on it is patently false.”

Other states, like North Carolina, which adopted a similar program for the last school year, are taking notice, said Matt Beienburg, the author of the study and Goldwater Institute education policy director.

“The nation’s most established ESA program has actually benefited public schools by redistributing funds back to remaining public school students, directing program savings to public school IT infrastructure, and helping to serve one of the most high-need, high-cost student populations in the state – all while decreasing taxpayer costs and safeguarding public funds,” Beienburg said. 

Regional Editor

Derek Draplin is a regional editor at The Center Square. He previously worked as an opinion producer at Forbes, and as a reporter at Michigan Capitol Confidential and The Detroit News. He’s also an editor at The Daily Caller.