May 10, 2024

Brookings: Arizona’s ‘universal’ education savings account program has become a handout to the wealthy

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Writing for the Brookings Institute, , and  find that Arizona’s universal voucher program has delivered something far different than its promised goal of “rescuing” low-income students from failing schools.

  • Recently, Republican lawmakers have created or expanded private-school choice programs to allow nearly all students, regardless of their individual need, access to public funding to attend private schools.
  • In Arizona, more advantaged communities are securing a highly disproportionate share of the funds from the state’s Empowerment Scholarship Account program.
  • Families in the poorest communities are the least likely to obtain ESA funds.

We looked to publicly available data on Empowerment Scholarship Account recipients to get a clearer picture of who is receiving ESA funds. If, in fact, affluent families are securing the lion’s share of ESA funding, that would raise obvious questions about whether these programs are exacerbating rather than mitigating inequities in school access.

To begin, we took the most recent executive and legislative quarterly report for the program (the 2024 Q2 report). That report lists the number of students enrolled in the program by the recipients’ home ZIP code. We converted those ZIP codes to ZIP Code Tabulation Areas (ZCTAs), which allows us to describe the communities where ESA enrollees reside using U.S. Census Bureau data.1

In the analyses that follow, we compare ESA participation rates by the socioeconomic status (SES) of Arizona communities. We use three measures of SES: poverty rates, median household income, and educational attainment. This allows us to see, for example, whether wealthier or poorer neighborhoods (ZCTAs) tend to receive a disproportionate share of scholarships.

First, we examine ESA participation based on a measure of local poverty: the share of residents receiving public assistance income or SNAP/Food Stamps. For this chart (and others that follow), we divide the Arizona population into deciles, with each bar representing roughly 10% of the state population under the age of 18. In Figure 1, each bar shows the number of ESA recipients per 1,000 people under 18 years old. The leftmost bar represents the parts of the state with the lowest poverty rate (based on ZCTAs); the rightmost bar represents the decile with the highest poverty rate.

We see a clear trend on this measure. As poverty rates increase from left to right, the share of children receiving ESA funding decreases. The highest ESA participation rate—75 ESA recipients per 1,000 children under 18—is for the population decile with the lowest poverty rate. The lowest ESA participation rate—14 ESA recipients per 1,000 children—is for the population decile with the highest poverty rate. (Statewide, we find an average of 45 ESA recipients per 1,000 children.)

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