The Texas Observer published a warning to the Texas legislature: Take a close look at the Arizona voucher programs. Don’t go there. Vouchers subsidize private school students while defunding the public schools that still enroll the vast majority of the state’s students.

Like many other typical teenagers, James’ favorite periods in school are P.E. and lunch. During our phone call, he turned the tables on me, politely asking about my children and work. A 15-year-old student who was born with a tumor and has autism, James actively seeks engagement with others, especially his peers. But for two years, he learned at home in isolation. Arizona’s voucher educational savings account program, called the Empowerment Scholarship Account (ESA), granted him $40,000 of public funds to pay private school tuition. But even with that money, private school after private school denied him admission.

“They first demanded all his files, his IEPs [Individualized Education Plan for students with special needs], but before they would grant an interview, they would give some excuse why his needs could not be met there,” James’ mom Pamela Lang said. “Some gave interviews and tours, and James would get excited. But then they would decline admittance saying they could not accommodate him.”

After every single Phoenix, Arizona Catholic school and a slew of secular private schools rejected James, Lang was finally able to find a school to address his needs. But now, she fears there won’t be enough state funds in the future to afford its costly tuition.

What started in Arizona in 2011 as a $2.5 million state voucher program for students with special needs has now ballooned to a universal voucher program for all of the state’s students, public or private.

“The state said the voucher was for kids with disabilities but it was just a way in to open the door,” Lang said. “Every single year since the state got the ESA, they just kept expanding it to more and more people, and now, it’s for everybody. We’re just hoping kids with disabilities aren’t going to have nothing left for them.”

In the first quarter of this school year, Arizona already blew through $300 million, awarding 80 percent of the funds predominantly to wealthy students already enrolled in private schools. This will leave a projected $4 million debt in the state’s education budget at the end of the 2022-2023 school year, a debt that public school advocates fear will deplete public school funds further.

Critics say Arizona used vouchers for special needs students as a trojan horse for school privateers to divest, divert, and dismantle the state’s public education system, which now ranks in the bottom three among all U.S. states for per-pupil spending, teacher retention, and teacher pay.

Texas lawmakers are now poised to follow Arizona’s lead. But parents in Arizona are warning Texans to take heed. Their stories are a cautionary tale for our state, which plans during this legislative session to use special needs students to usher in multiple voucher programs.

Arizona’s voucher programs—and the Texas proposals—include both a universal education savings account and a tax-credit scholarship program, both of which would divert public education money from state coffers to enrich private schools, corporations, and wealthy families.


The country’s first public school education savings account started in Arizona in 2011. The ESA directly appropriates public education money and deposits it into an individual savings account or debit card for parents to use for private school tuition, tutoring, homeschooling, or therapy.

In its first year, $2.5 million of Arizona’s ESA money was directed toward students with special needs. But in subsequent years, expenditures and eligibility for the ESA program expanded to include children attending public schools that received a D or F rating, children in military families, in foster care, and on Native American reservations. Then in 2017, legislators attempted to pass universal vouchers for all students. The proposal was beaten back twice by public school advocates but passed in 2022.

Since its inception, Arizona’s ESA program has stripped more than $963 million from public school funds.

Texas House Bill 557, filed by Representative Cody Vasut, is a universal voucher program from the get-go. It would enable an unlimited number of students to receive reimbursements for up to $10,000 in private school tuition, the full per-pupil allotment in Texas. If all 309,000 private school students in Texas decided to apply for a voucher under this bill, public schools could lose $3 billion in state funding after one year alone. The impact could bankrupt a system in Texas which already ranks in the bottom 10 states in per-pupil funding.

Beth Lewis, director of Save our Schools Arizona, warns Texans that such a voucher program never gives back as much as it robs from public education.

“They sell it under the guise that the money’s following the child,” Lewis said. “But if you were already in a private school or a homeschool situation, that money’s not following you. It’s never been allocated to you. So in reality, it’s a subtraction from a student in the public school. Then, you’re never going to have an equitable system where every kid can access quality education.”

Besides the education savings account program, Arizona has a second type of voucher program that directly funnels public money to private schools—the tax credit scholarship program.

Open the link and read the rest of this important article. Vouchers are a reverse Robin Hood program: they take from everyone to pay the tuition of students already enrolled in private schools. As Professor Josh Cowennof Michigan State University has shown, kids who leave public schools to use vouchers fall behind their peers who remained in public school.