Vouchers Can Bridge the Income-Tuition Gap

Sandy Merz Current Affairs, Education Policy, Parent Involvment, Social Issues

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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



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.

Comments 4

  1. Christine Porter Marsh

    I already posted once and it’s gone. So I’ll try to remember what I said…I think it’s interesting that you chose to call me out, rather than simply writing a pro-voucher piece.

    I stand by what I wrote, and I hope your readers read my post in its entirety, instead of just the snippets you included. 26% of our state’s kids live in poverty, which is just over $24,000 for a family of four. I have a hard time imaging those families choosing to pay for education when they may not be able to pay for electricity (or any other basic necessities). You must be assuming that even if they were to make the choice to spend money on education that they have a car or some way to transport their kids to school and that all areas of the state have private schools. As one Republican legislator told a group of us last month, “There are no private schools in my rural legislative district.” I will privately share his name with you.

    The bottom line is that vouchers funnel money out of the general fund and into private schools, which disadvantaged our most disadvantaged kids.

    True poverty, not “150%” of the poverty level, is all consuming. A single mother I used to mentor went without electricity for three weeks in July and routinely had her phone shut off for not being able to pay her bill.

    With that said, could a family in poverty make choices to send their children to private school? In theory, yes; but I imagine that it doesn’t happen often in reality.

    1. Sandy Merz

      I wouldn’t characterize my piece as pro-voucher, given the qualifcations I made – but rather as pushing back against and argument that I find false. I may support vouchers soon, I lean that way.

      I chose to call you out because your post was so representative, available for all to see, and written on this same platform.

      You may find it hard to believe or imagine, but that says more about your imagination and willingness to project your experiences universally than it does about facts. And to avoid making assumptions or claiming to speak for anyone, I went and got some numbers from private schools about whether poor families attend private schools, and it’s clear that they do. This isn’t theory, it’s fact.

      What is conjecture, is whether when the true impact of school choice and vouchers is felt whether the poorest families will have benefited or not. I don’t know, am willing to admit it, and until more is known will always present my point of view on conditional terms.

  2. Squirrely McShitty

    That’s what I have always been looking for in a country – an educational system where the wealthy can access the best private schools, with their parents having time to devote to their children during non-school hours, without the stress on either party that accompanies tight family budgets. If the poor want access to decent education, damn right they should spend all their “hard-earned savings” and work second, third, or even sixth jobs to afford their child a chance of being middle-class. Those poor parents who busted their ass for 14 years paying tuition, end up with no savings in old age, work until the day they die, and do their shopping in the “pet food” section will be sad when they learn that in a vast majority of cases, their children will remain unable to break into the upper-class social strata, where connections are made and the buddy system doles out the plum jobs. The class system is operative in the upper tier private schools, and all those upper-class kids know exactly who the lower-class students are. So, after coming out of college tens of thousands of dollars in debt and having at least one of their parents either dead or in ill health from poor nutrition, lack of proper health care, or overwork in low paid and sometimes dangerous jobs, most of those students may, MAY, find their way to the lower middle-class.

    And yes, this is exactly the way it should be. Unless wealth is concentrated in few hands, there will be no defined leaders for the unwashed masses. We need a lot more burger flippers than we do CEO’s. And private school and college would be much more expensive if we can’t get a bunch of future middle-managers and go-fers to buy into the “American Dream” jazz.

    I offer this modest proposal — 1) Privatize all schools, turning them over to for-profit companies. Anything worth doing is worth enriching private business for. 2) Give the tax money that is taken by the state for education funding back to the wealthy as a cash payment. As the middle-class and poor can’t be trusted with actual money, (we know they would spend it on drugs, gambling, and prostitutes), the State will give them vouchers for less than the amount it costs to get into ANY school. My fellow member in the Senate…I mean, I am sure the wise members of the legislature could make this happen. As poor families will have to put additional money to the voucher if they want their child educated, they will take those second, third, and fourth jobs to afford tuition. This will lower the cost of labor, as companies will know they are desperate, and help all the “small business” in Arizona. 3) End mandatory school attendance. As Trump is going to deport anyone with a Hispanic last name, we will need lots of low-skilled, low paid, easily replaceable workers to fill those jobs. We can target the special education community children, as they are more expensive to educate, and that money could be better used to provide an additional, backup Chrome laptop to the most expensive schools. Just in case the first one we give them breaks down. 4) Pass HB 1092, which will be introduced next year, to make a year of teaching elementary education at a lower-tier, lower-cost school (what I propose we call “poverty plantations,” manditory for every high school graduate who wishes to take out student loans for college. No year of teaching 1st-5th at minimum wage to a bunch of poor kids, no borrowing money for college. As an additional incentive, each student that high school grad has must pass his or her class with a score of “A”. This will have the strong effect of improving student performance. 5) And lastly, many legislators I have spoken with, and I have to assume this is true because I AM NOT A LEGISLATOR, have told me about complaints from well-to-do families that their well-heeled children have to attend classes with those either outside their social class or with children with “unhealthy” backgrounds (non-white, LGBT, liberals, socialists, atheists, and the like). Therefore, next year we should all ask the legislature to pass SB 362 – The Protection of Vulnerable Schoolchildren Act. This bill would designate the most expensive, highest teacher pay schools, (both K-12 and college), only to those who can pay the full $200,000, four year tuition bill (for college, as an example), up front, while also providing extra methods to ensure the learning environment for these innocent, well-mannered children remains safe and wholesome.

    We can create a better, perhaps the best, state educational environment in the nation. These modest proposals will set Arizona on a path to success, both economically and educationally.

    Vote Republican, for God and country!

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