Arizona has enacted the most expansive private school voucher program in the country in the wake of the Supreme Court’s attempted destruction of state-church separation.
Taxpayers in the Grand Canyon State are now required to pay for any student’s private schooling, including those who attend religious schools that conflict with the taxpayer’s own religious beliefs. Muslims must fund tuition at Jewish schools, Protestants must fund tuition at Catholic schools, and atheists must fund all forms of religious indoctrination.
HB 2853 includes a number of alarming provisions. The law allows anyone, regardless of whether they have attended public school, to receive a voucher for private or alternative schools. This is a dramatic departure from existing voucher programs. Wealthy Arizona families are eligible for the same voucher as lower-class families, meaning the elites are able to use public funds to help pay for their children’s education at private, often religious, schools.
The new law also harms the educational opportunities of Arizona students by creating a predatory market and leaving the struggling public school system by the wayside. Under this law, accountability in the form of test scores, to ensure schools are providing an adequate education, is largely kept a secret from families and legislators. This prevents Arizona from policing unscrupulous actors who enter into the education system with the sole intent to make money, as state Rep. Lorenzo Sierra has pointed out. The lack of oversight and accountability measures extends to how recipients of vouchers use those public funds. Audits of Arizona’s voucher program in 2016 and 2018 found that the program was riddled with abuse of funds by parents. In 2018 alone, parents who received such vouchers misused more than $700,000 of voucher funds.
In passing HB 2853, Arizona legislators seem to have relied on the recent Supreme Court judgment in Carson v. Makin. The court ruled that states are unable to prohibit school voucher recipients from using their vouchers to pay for tuition at private, religious schools. The court has hence signaled to the country that states may be unable to prevent religion from entering the classroom if they open the door by funding private education. Arizona has seized upon that signal to require Arizona taxpayers, including atheists, agnostics and people of minority faiths, to fund private, religious and predominantly Christian education. After Carson, the only remaining way to prohibit taxpayer funds from funding religious education is to use public money to fund only public education and ditch voucher schemes altogether — a solution which the Freedom From Religion Foundation heartily endorses.
Voucher programs do not improve educational outcomes, lack accountability and oversight, and increase segregation. The fight against such schemes continues. Save Our Schools Arizona has previously defeated a similar attempt at expanding the state’s voucher program by deferring it to the ballot, where Arizona voters handily rejected the expansion. That same group is currently in the process of collecting signatures in order to trigger a public referendum on HB 2853.
“We are going to lose the revered concept of ‘common schools,’” warns FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “Public funds should go only toward schools that welcome everyone, open to all, whose purpose is to educate, not indoctrinate. They should not go to religiously segregated schools.”
Gaylor points out that earlier generations of Americans strongly agreed, even writing in prohibitions of funding parochial schools into most state constitutions — prohibitions that the extremist Supreme Court is gutting.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation wholeheartedly endorses Save Our Schools Arizona’s mission to protect the education of Arizona youth — and defend the separation between state and church.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national nonprofit organization with over 37,000 members and several chapters across the country, including almost 1,000 members and a chapter in Arizona. Our purposes are to protect the constitutional principle of separation between state and church and to educate the public on matters relating to nontheism.