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Education choice saving Arizona millions

Editor’s note: The Bluegrass Beacon is a weekly syndicated newspaper column posted on the Bluegrass Institute’s website after appearing in publications statewide.

Alarmists incessantly accuse education-choice supporters of “cherry picking” the data, and schools of choice of doing the same with their student bodies. Actually, it’s those doomsdayers who lead the way when it comes to “selective analysis” regarding the impact of school choice programs in other states.

A recent op-ed by Bluegrass Institute scholars Gary Houchens and John Garen looked at how retired Frankfort bureaucrat and lawyer John Schaaf cherry-picks the research in a recent Kentucky Lantern column by ignoring a large body of studies showing the positive impact of private school access programs.

In another column, Schaaf takes aim at the success of education-freedom policies in Arizona, which seems to be a favorite target state for critics obsessed with denying Kentucky families the same types of choices available to parents in a growing majority of other states.

“In Arizona and other states where taxpayer vouchers are being spread around like manure on a pig farm, there’s minimal accountability or transparency for the use of taxpayer money in private schools,” Schaaf wrote.

Schaaf’s lack of understanding about how accountability is built into school choice policies is startling, but far too common among political, legal and education ideologues obsessed with blocking Kentucky parents’ access to educational freedom.

When schools of choice – whether they’re public charter schools or nonpublic institutions – fail to satisfy the promises they make to families, they close because parents quit choosing to enroll their children.

That’s “accountability” at the greatest level – much greater than we see in traditional public schools that fail to make the grade. Instead of being shut down, poorly-performing traditional K-12 public schools  are frequently allowed to continue the mediocrity with some minor – usually meaningless – changes, while often receiving even more funding.

Despite the realities surrounding school choice, cherry-picking by opponents was on full display during KET’s recent “Kentucky Tonight” forum on school choice and spending. in which this columnist was invited to participate.

Another panelist on that program, Kentucky Education Association president Eddie Campbell, also disparaged Arizona and that state’s Empowerment Scholarship Accounts (ESA).

Campbell regurgitated the apocalyptic rhetoric of Arizona Gov. Katie Hobbs – a Democratic opponent of choice with a Republican pro-education-freedom legislature (sound familiar, Kentucky?) – who claims the ESA program will “starve” public education.

But the Hobbs memo has been widely criticized for its misleading portrayal of what’s happening with the ESA program and for its own cherry-picking by not even mentioning, for example, the policy’s robust savings for Arizona’s public education system. 

Supporters anticipate such savings will happen if Kentucky eventually adopts a similar policy.

Vicki Alger, Ph.D., a Bluegrass Institute Visiting Fellow, national expert on education choice programs and an Arizona resident herself, notes her state’s ESA program “generates an estimated savings of $1.25 for every dollar spent – a staggering 125 percent return on investment.”

Alger points out that the program has saved the Grand Canyon State an estimated $41 million in a couple of important ways:

· The public system isn’t responsible for educating students that enroll in nonpublic schools – “choice programs typically cost thousands of dollars less per pupil than public schools,” she notes. Yet at the same time, school districts still receive all their local and federal funding.

· Each Arizona ESA, for example, sets aside just $7,200 for those who take the school-choice option. That’s about half the amount spent by the state on each traditional K-12 student, on average.

“If opponents were truly interested in more money for public schools, then they would be overjoyed, not outraged, about ESAs,” Alger concludes.

Critics also wrongly portray education choice programs as zero-sum policies.

The number of students participating in Arizona’s ESA program has increased exponentially as eligibility expanded – from its launch with 153 children with learning disabilities in 2011 to more than 70,000 students currently. At the same time, Alger notes funding for public education has grown by nearly $800 million in additional state and local dollars in 2024 alone.

Still, Campbell presses on, claiming Arizona is “talking about what programs are going to have to be cut.”

In what universe is $800 million more a “cut?”

Then, Campbell exhibits his own apocalyptic rhetoric with claims that multiple states with robust choice programs are even cutting their general funds because of education-choice policies.

“This is not just Arizona; this is multiple states where they’ve found they have to cut services,” Campbell claims. “They have to cut public school funding, they’re going to have cut police and fire, you know those other public services that are supported by tax dollars because this is draining those precious tax dollars out of that general fund. “

But Campbell and his anti-education-freedom union fail to provide a single shred of evidence that any state has had to cut emergency services – or even reduce public education funding, for that matter – due to giving parents more alternatives and their children better educational opportunities.

The closer we get to November’s vote on a constitutional amendment to remove barriers to Kentucky’s parents deciding where and how their children will be educated, expect more of this mixture of fearmongering and cherry-picking to get spread around.

Campbell and his crowd hope to frighten unsuspecting Kentucky voters into believing that bringing education choice and freedom to our commonwealth will result in a dramatic reduction of funding for vital public services – including schools – and a multitude of other harmful consequences.

Alarmists will exaggerate costs without any acknowledgement of the savings, the growth or increased opportunities for children and their futures. Nor will opponents demonstrate any notable interest in discovering why such growth in participation has occurred in so many states with school-choice programs.

Secretly, opponents know that without choice, the K-12 public education system essentially has no accountability, and it seems some want to keep it that way – even if our children suffer for it.

Jim Waters is president of the Bluegrass Institute for Public Policy Solutions, Kentucky’s free market think tank. Reach him at and @bipps on Twitter.

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