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Op-ed: Basic math: ESAs save the state money

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Opponents of parental choice in education are doing their best Chicken Little in an attempt to scare Arizonans out of allowing parents control over their children’s education. But all the cries of “bankruptcy” and attempts at creative math cannot change the simple fact that giving parents a choice on how to best educate their children actually saves the state money.

Union officials and other detractors demonize universal Empowerment Scholarship Accounts (ESA), churning out reasons why the sky is falling now that all Arizona students are eligible to receive an ESA to help pay for homeschooling, private school, tutoring, and more.

However, criticism is easily answered with simple math. Arizona public schools cost taxpayers $15 billion a year. ESAs are projected to cost up to $900 million by July 2024; a mere 6% of what the state spends on public education. The savings to the state is clear when one considers taxpayers spend $14,000 per student on public education, and half that, $7,000, for an average student using an ESA.

Here is how it breaks down: Each ESA amounts to 90% of the state’s portion of funding, leaving 10% to the state. This means it costs less to educate a student on an ESA than in the public school. How much less? More than the 10% left behind. The 90% is taken only from the state portion, leaving all federal and local education funding and other costs, such as facilities expenses, behind. This brings the total savings to about $7,000 per student. So, the per-pupil spending in public education increases with every ESA transfer.

There is more to consider. This year’s budget included an additional $2 billion for public education even though the department received billions in recent years to educate an anticipated growing number of students. But, as Common Sense Institute reports, more than 33,300 students left public district schools during the Covid shutdown and many never returned. The state kept that money but never had to educate those students, resulting in savings of more than $550 million.

The Arizona Department of Education acknowledges that the students applying for ESAs now are coming from public district schools. This will continue to contribute to the cost savings to the state, again, because educating a student with an ESA costs half of what it does to educate a student at a public school. And for those taxpaying families that chose private or homeschooling prior to universal ESAs and now get some relief with an ESA, the state is still paying half of what it would be obligated to pay if that student attended a public school.

And while opponents claim ESAs benefit the rich, the facts prove otherwise. The typical Arizona family using an ESA is less well off than the median Arizona family. As of last December, the median ESA family made about $60,600 a year; $9,100 less than the median income of families with children in Arizona.

But detractors say the state cannot bear even this tiny fraction of spending for schooling outside public education. They point to May’s decline in tax revenue as evidence the state can’t afford ESAs, but they fail to mention the extra $750 million surge in revenue surplus in the four months prior, the additional funding mentioned above, or the fact that the state would pay much more if each of the students with an ESA transferred to a public school.

So they focus on the costs of charter school verses district school transfers to ESAs but ignore the fact that although some charters get a bit more than district schools, some get less. On average, it’s roughly a wash, bringing the bottom line back to a net savings to the state with every ESA.

It matters not whether a student moves from a public district or a public charter school to an ESA, taxpayers save money either way. Focusing on the comparatively minor differences in charter and district spending doesn’t change that fact, it only muddies the waters – which may be by design.

School funding formulas can be confusing, but no manipulation can change the fact that ESAs save taxpayers money. Allowing parents to choose the best environment to educate their children both benefits the student and costs the state less. It’s basic math.

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