Exploring Arizona’s Private Schools After Nearly Two Decades of Educational Choice
New report finds Arizona private schools could increase student enrollment by 37 percent
The Grand Canyon State is a pioneer when it comes to educational choice.
Arizona has been home to the nation’s first universal school choice program for nigh on two decades—the Original Individual Income Tax Credit Scholarship Program. This tax-credit scholarship program is open to all K–12 students and even some prekindergarteners. And in 2011, Arizona became the first state to launch an education savings account (ESA) program, the newest choice mechanism.
Since all students are eligible for at least one of Arizona’s educational choice programs, how many schools participate in them? If schools do not currently participate, would they, and which regulations concern them most? Are there enough private school seats to go around, and can families afford them with a tax-credit scholarship or ESA?
In Exploring Arizona’s Private Education Sector, the seventh installment in our School Survey Series, I synthesize information collected in two unique surveys of Arizona private schools in an effort to answer these questions and more. One was conducted by the U.S. Department of Education, the other by EdChoice.
Learn more from this summary of our top findings.
Are Arizona Schools Aware of the State’s Educational Choice Programs?
Nearly every private school in Arizona that responded to the EdChoice survey is familiar with tax-credit scholarship programs (95%; 127 of 134 schools), and nearly all of them enroll students participating in at least one of the state’s four tax-credit scholarship programs (95%; 122 of 129 schools). Based on most recent estimates, more than one-fifth of Arizona’s tax-credit scholarship students (21%; 9,989 of an estimated 47,942 students) attend one of the schools that responded to the EdChoice survey.
Comparatively, slightly fewer than two out of three Arizona private schools that responded to the survey said they were familiar with the state’s ESAs (66%; 91 of 138 schools), and nearly nine out of 10 of those schools (87%; 79 of 91 schools) enroll at least one student participating in Arizona’s ESA program. In fact, one-fourth of Arizona’s ESA students (25%; 783 of 3,129 students) attend one of the schools that responded to the EdChoice survey.
Arizona’s ESAs, known as Empowerment Scholarship Accounts, allow parents to withdraw their children from public district or charter schools and receive a portion of their public funding deposited into an account to pay for approved educational expenses, such as private school tuition, education therapies, online education, private tutoring, homeschool curriculum, and even future educational expenses like college tuition. However, due to various eligibility restrictions, less than a quarter of the state’s K–12 students are eligible to receive an ESA.
Regardless of participation in the state’s current ESA program, the EdChoice survey asked Arizona private schools if they would participate in an expanded ESA program that is open to all students. More than three-fifths of all respondent private schools (62%; 83 of 134 schools) said “yes” or “probably yes.” Another 23 percent of schools (31 of 134 schools) said “maybe;” in other words, they would consider participating.
Do Private Schools Have Concerns About Private School Choice Programs?
When it came to the potential rules and regulations for educational choice programs, Arizona’s private school principals and administrators were most concerned with those pertaining to setting curriculum and instruction, making accommodations for students with special needs, changing school admissions and enrollment guidelines, setting tuition and fees, and managing school eligibility for a program, such as registering with the state.
Are There Enough Open Seats for More Arizona School Choice Students?
The 146 Arizona private schools that responded to our survey indicated they had 8,244 open seats for PK–12 students in 2016–17. When this number of open seats is projected for all 341 private schools in Arizona, the estimate is closer to 16,500 open seats. This means Arizona’s private schools have enough room to increase enrollment by 37 percent.
However, it is important to point out that Arizona ESA students do not necessarily need to attend a private school, since funds can also be spent on education therapies, online education, private tutoring, homeschool curriculum, and even future educational expenses like college tuition. It is possible that the true current capacity for Arizona’s ESA program is much higher.
Are Arizona’s Private Schools Affordable?
The average amount for combined tuition and fees private schools charged in 2015–16 was $7,898 per student, with a median of $5,550 per student. For comparison, Arizona spent about $7,528 per student in public schools in 2013–14, which is the most recent data available, and the average per-student funding in Arizona’s educational choice programs range from $1,496 in 2014–15 for the “Switcher” Individual Income Tax Credit Scholarship Program to $11,191 in 2015–16 for the ESA program.
Nearly three out of four Arizona private schools (73%) charge less than $6,000 in tuition and fees per student in prekindergarten, while closer to half charge the same range for K–8 (58% for kindergarten, 56% percent for grades 1–5, and 48% for grades 6–8). Nearly one out of three Arizona private high schools (32%) charge less than $6,000.
For more details from this report, visit Exploring Arizona’s Private Education Sector.
 Author’s calculations; “School Choice in America,” EdChoice, last modified Dec. 6, 2016, http://www.edchoice.org/school-choice/school-choice-in-america. Assumes 25 percent of scholarships are awarded to students who receive multiple awards.