Vouchers Can Bridge the Income-Tuition Gap

Note: Some numbers from the Private School Review provide perspective for what follows: Currently, 64,353 Arizona students attend 478 private schools. Elementary schools charge an average of $6,268 per year for tuition and high schools charge an average of $17,116.

I’m pushing back against the argument that vouchers for private school education in Arizona serve only the rich because even with a $5000 Empowerment Scholarship, most poor people still fall short of private school tuition. The argument is always made in binary, all or nothing terms.

It is demonstrably false.

Fellow SFS writer, Christine Marsh exemplifies this argument in her April post. She writes that $5000 will cover tuition for roughly 140 private schools in Arizona and that 40% of our children live in or near poverty.

Well, the 140 schools that a voucher pays for completely are 140 more than without the voucher. That’s three out of every ten private schools in Arizona, a number that shouldn’t be dismissed.

Then Christine drops this claim unconditionally:

Those families are obviously not going to have that additional money—especially in light of cuts to TANF [Temporary Assistance for Needy Families] and other services for our families in poverty. (The emphasis and link are not in the original.)

Well, it’s not obvious to me. Not by a long shot. A $5000 voucher puts a poor family within $1268 of an average private elementary school (but still a long way from an average private high school). That’s a reachable number for many lower income families. Granted they’d have to make financial decisions that wealthier families don’t, but those decisions would not be of the, “Do we eat or send our kids to private school?” variety.

Moreover, vouchers are not the only means available to aid families wishing to go to private school. Every private school website I checked has a financial aid section directing applicants to multiple scholarship resources. Curious about whether many poor students manage to find the means to pay the cost of private schools, I contacted the admissions director at a local private school. The school has a tuition of $9400, plus families must pay several hundred dollars in added fees for things like Chromebooks.

The admissions director replied that more than 400 students, roughly a third of the student body at the school, live on less than the 150% of the federal poverty level. He writes:

Tax credits and/or vouchers are the only way these families could dream of attending a private, Catholic, college prep school. These families find a way to fund the differences in tuition costs by either utilizing their hard earned savings, maximizing tax credits and/or working second and third jobs.

He adds that 99% of the school’s graduates go to college. He also cautions that there is currently insufficient information about the new voucher policies to comment on the impact they will have on bridging the tuition-income gap.

At another local private school, over 80% of the students are on free or reduced lunch. It’s families’ incomes average $34,000, and nearly all its graduates go to college. The school offers a work-study program that pays up to 40% of the tuition. (I couldn’t find the tuition amount).

When I first saw the work-study option, I imagined it amounted to maintenance work at the site. Oops. The work-study program consists of internships with dozens of corporate partners in virtually every field imaginable.

Finally, I contacted a director at a school tuition scholarship foundation. Beyond using the 90% of the donations it receives for tuition, as required by law, her group adds an additional 5% for non-tuition expenses like books, transportation, and uniforms. The organization serves students with the greatest verified financial need and depends on donations that receive dollar for dollar tax credit. Surely, a scholarship supplemented by a voucher could put a poor child in a seat at an expensive private school.

Right now I’m only addressing the argument that poor families can’t bridge the voucher-tuition gap. I know it takes a lot more work for a poor family to get aid than someone who can just write a check and send it in. I also know there are other gaps such as the availability of transportation, and perhaps a cultural gap – only 33% of Arizona private students are minorities, according to Private School Review. Plus, the $17,000 average for private high schools means there are some that are much more expensive which would make it that much harder for a poor person to attend, absent a significant scholarship.* Moreover, right now, wealthier families are taking much more advantage of vouchers than the poor, which suggests major flaws in the promotion of vouchers to poor families. Then, of course, there are the questions of whether vouchers should even exist and what exactly will be their ultimate impact.

But the claim that,  “Those families are obviously not going to have that additional money…,” leaks like a sieve.

*This sentence was added after original publication.


For more or school choice see:

Save Our Language: Call Them Empowerment Vouchers

I Teach in a Traditional Public School and Support School Choice

A School Choice Reading List

How Not to Attach Charter Schools



Sandy Merz

I grew up in Silver City, New Mexico and went the University of New Mexico, earning a Bachelor of Science degree in Geology. After working for the U.S. Geological Survey in remote regions of western New Mexico, I moved to Tucson to attend graduate school at the University of Arizona, earning a Master of Science degree in Hydrogeology. While working as an intern hydrologist for a local county agency, I started doing volunteer work that involved making presentations in schools. At that moment I knew teaching was the path to follow. It must have been a good decision because I’m still on the path after thirty-two years. My teaching certificates are in math and science and I am a National Board Certified Teacher in Career and Technical Education. After teaching engineering and math and elective classes at the same school in downtown Tucson my whole career, I’ve moved to a different middle school and district on the edge of town to teach math. In addition to full time teaching, I am actively involved in the teacher leadership movement by facilitating National Board candidates, blogging for Stories from School Arizona, and serving on the Arizona K12 Center’s TeacherSolutions team. In January 2017, Raytheon Missile System named me a Leader in Education and I’m a former Arizona Hope Street Fellow.

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