School vouchers awarded up 33% this year, but oversight funding unchanged

The Arizona Department of Education says a record 8,200 students are expected to receive $110 million in school vouchers this school year. 

That means enrollment will have grown roughly 27% over last school year, and the total dollar amount of vouchers awarded will be more than 33% greater.

The number of students who receive vouchers under the Empowerment Scholarship Account program has nearly quadrupled in the last five years.

But funding for the department to administer the program – including both processing applications and ensuring the vouchers are spent only on educational items and services – hasn’t been increased for three years. In that time, the number of students receiving vouchers has increased 63%.

In a report to the Joint Legislative Budget Committee earlier this month, the department noted that the Republican-led legislature’s refusal to increase administrative funding will have negative effects on the students receiving the vouchers and their parents.

“As the program continues to grow with no additional administrative funding for FY 2020, the Department will be unable to keep up with staffing needs and as a result services to parents will continue to be impacted,” Callie Kozlak, the department’s associate superintendent for policy development and government relations, wrote in the report.

The lack of funding to hire more people to oversee and administer the ESA program means the department “simply cannot keep up with the increased volume of applications, parent inquiries, expense reporting and other program responsibilities,” Kozlak added.

The Department of Education has long complained about underfunding of the ESA administration. State law allows for up to 5% of the program’s total funding to be used for administration – 4% to the department and 1% to the state treasurer’s office – but the legislature must appropriate that money.

It hasn’t done so since the 2012-13 school year, when a mere 302 students received ESA vouchers. Since then, GOP lawmakers have consistently provided less than half of the money that, by law, is set aside for ESA administration. For the current year, the legislature is providing only about 38% of what it is supposed to under the law.

The administration problems that Kozlak referred to have been evident for years, including long wait times for applications to be approved. In 2018, the Arizona Auditor General found that parents had misspent or fraudulently spent more than $700,000 in ESA money, in large part because the legislature failed to properly fund the Education Department.

After Democrat Kathy Hoffman took over the department this year following her 2018 election as superintendent of public instruction, Republican lawmakers and school-choice advocates have launched attacks regarding the department’s failure to properly administer the ESA program.

In response, Gov. Doug Ducey has said he is mulling changes to the ESA program, and left the door open for expanding who can qualify for the vouchers.


  1. I was educated in public school, as were my grown children. I have always questioned the validity of private schools and spending public money to support them — the pay out for each student is around $12K, and that is money taken away from public schools. I believe we should spend our money on the public school — there will always be people who have the financial security to send their children to private school, but education should not be a business. It certainly did not help our society when when turned the medicine into the “medical industry.”

  2. Since the parents of students that are not in the district school system must provide a massive additional amount of time and family resources, that alone confirms the failures of the district system. We must update the 19th century model if our students are to ever acquire the skills to compete in a 21st century world.

    Our district schools are nothing but an adult jobs and child care program. Those at the top make nearly ten times the salary & benefits as the average Arizona wage earner while advocating and implementing indoctrination instead of education.

  3. The pattern documented with the ESA program for lack of administrative funding and oversight is integral to the legislature’s unwritten law of government: don’t fund. We’ve seen the horrific impact in our prisons with failed funding on security devices and locks and the lack of oversight there. Public schools deterioration and mismanagement of teacher retention is another. Excessive higher education tuition is another. Street, highway infrastructure, and mass transit is another. The concern is not what the legislature has done well but rather neglected and allowed to deteriorated dangerous levels so that mismanagement becomes a hallmark.

    With a tweak in funding from the rainy day account oversight and abuse of the ESA program could be achieved.

    • It literally wouldn’t even take that: The money exists and is set aside by law, it’s just not being used. Most budgetary decisions are a balance between competing interests. This isn’t. The money is literally sitting there gathering dust.


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