Millions in Tax Payer Money Diverted to Christian Schools in Arizona as Public Schools Struggle

By: Stephanie Bontorin | Published: Jun 19, 2024

Private Christian schools in Arizona, many of which are associated with mega-churches, are the center of an unfair practice of using the state’s “education savings account” program. The program is a sort of voucher that allows families to take tax dollars they would have spent on public education and send it to private schooling instead.

Public schools have been closing around the state as private Christian schools expand luxurious services like pickle-ball courts and modern, airy architecture infused into classrooms.

Taxpayer Funds Are Being Funnelled Into Unregulated Schools

The program has been found to cost hundreds of millions of dollars more than anticipated by the federal government. As well, the schools benefitting from the voucher programs tend to be already privately funded and well established.

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Unregulated private schools benefitting from the vouchers don’t face the same educational standards as public schools. Since Arizona adopted the program in 2022, it has sent more than $2 million to a single high school and zapped funds from neighbouring public institutions.

Republicans Area Leaning Into the Voucher Program

Although Arizona was the first state to enact the program, similar measures have been sweeping through Republican-controlled areas.

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The GOP has been leaning on the vouchers as one of its most successful programs and intends to rewrite state policy in several leading battlegrounds.

US Billionaires Have Been Quietly Supporting the Program

A small group of billionaires has pushed the program, spending millions on election campaigns and lobbying to promote the vouchers.

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Supporters of the program say that the vouchers give families the freedom to choose schools for their children while allowing kids of less affluent families in failing public schools to receive a better education.

Critics Share How the Program Hurts Public Institutions

Critics claim that the statements from supporters of the voucher program could not be further from the truth. The issues in Arizona will only continue to exacerbate as funding is continually sucked out of public schools.

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Trevor Nelson, an educational activist and parent in the Paradise Valley District where public schools are closing, noted “We’re the canary in the coal mine. We’re on the front lines, and what happens here is going to dictate what happens in the rest of the country.”

Why Do Republicans Favor Private Schooling?

In the case of Dream City Christian School in Arizona, which received more than $2 million in funding, Republicans have been urging the school to host Trump’s campaign rallies while pushing their preferred curriculum.

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The school partnered with a Trump-aligned advocacy group that advertises to parents that they plan on fighting “liberal ideology” like “evolutionism” and “gender identification.”


The Voucher Program Sprung Up During the Debate Around Public School Curriculum

The voucher program sprang up in popularity just as the public discourse landed on discussing issues with public schools. In 2021, the news seemed obsessed with discussing why critical race theory was harmful and why teachers would want to teach gender and pronouns to young children.

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Pro-voucher advocates seemed to embrace the culture war raging on the news and in comments sections. More than half of Republicans polled by Gallup in 2022 said that they had no or very little trust in public schools.


Billionaire Betsy DeVos Is a Proud Sponsor of the Program

Trump’s previous Secretary of Education, billionaire Betsy DeVos, pushed the voucher program during state races.

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The American Federation for Children (AFC), also headed by DeVos, ran attack ads on Republicans who opposed expansion bills that pushed the vouchers. The Republicans who couldn’t support her measures were often rural legislatures whose constituents relied heavily on access to public schools. The AFC plans on being involved in “hundreds of races” in 2024.


The Voucher Program Has Been Backed Heavily By Big Money

The AFC has spent more than $7 million since 2020, receiving multiple large donations from DeVos, her husband, and other well-known Republicans.

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The group allegedly spent another $16 million through affiliated state politician action committees and groups to push the ideas to local communities.


The Success of Private Schools Isn't a Fluke

Charles Siler, a local Arizona political consultant who previously worked as a lobbyist for the voucher program, recently switched sides and became a vocal opponent.

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He says the victories for funds directed to private schools are strategically designed. “This isn’t an overnight success, this is decades in intentional, strategic labor,” Siler said. “At a certain point you’ll hit a tipping point where public schools cannot afford to function.”


The Supreme Court Issued Rulings that Bolster Private School Funding

The Supreme Court issued a series of rulings over the past few years that have directly resulted in more funding for private schools and allowed voucher programs to take place.

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In 2022, the court expanded the 20-year-old ruling that allowed vouchers by stating that states that give vouchers to private schools cannot withhold them from religious institutions. This landmark ruling allowed private Christian schools to become a magnet for funding.


Arizona Is Now Leading In Voucher Use

Arizona was the first state to adopt the “Empowerment Scholarship Account” program in 2011 for families of students with disabilities. Since then, the program has been tweaked and twisted to become a tool of the Republican party.

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Source: School My Kids

Several public schools in Arizona have already closed because of a lack of funding, forcing students who cannot afford private tuition to travel great distances to the next open school. The issue is expected to be exacerbated within the next few years as lobbying groups continue to gain ground on the issue.