A public education advocate holds a sign protesting universal school vouchers, which were created in 2022 and have ballooned in cost from an estimated $33 million to more than $300 million this year. Photo by Gloria Rebecca Gomez | Arizona Mirror
Gov. Katie Hobbs’ failure to fulfill her promise to scale back universal school vouchers incensed public education advocates, who on Tuesday urged lawmakers and the Ninth Floor to reassess the latest budget proposal before it crosses the finish line.
Late in the day on Monday, Republican lawmakers released the $17.8 billion dollar proposal crafted after weeks of negotiations with Hobbs. And while the package includes an increase of $300 million for K-12 public schools, noticeably absent was any effort to curtail the universal expansion of school vouchers championed by Hobbs’ predecessor, Republican Doug Ducey.
In her state of the state speech, Hobbs vowed to address the ballooning cost to the program — now projected to be $500 million next year — and she sought to repeal the voucher expansion in her executive budget.
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With the new proposal moving quickly on Tuesday, public education advocacy groups descended on the state Capitol to call for its rejection. A budget that doesn’t include a cap on the constantly climbing number of voucher recipients is inadequate, said Save our Schools Executive Director Beth Lewis.
“If growth on the voucher program is not significantly capped this year, it will spiral entirely out of control, siphoning desperately needed funds from local public schools and dismantling public education in our great state,” she warned. “Any budget that fails to rein in the off-the-rails voucher program is unacceptable, harmful to Arizona students and dangerous to our economy.”
The voucher program, known officially as Empowerment Scholarship Accounts, were originally devised to help public school students whose academic needs weren’t being met to seek their education elsewhere, by providing them a grant of around $7,000 if they met specific criteria. Before the legislature expanded the program to all Arizona students, eligibility hinged on previous enrollment in a public school and having special learning needs, having attended a D or F rated school or being part of a military or foster family.
But after the expansion, private school students with no prior public school history applied in droves. The number of students who receive an ESA scholarship grant, which has increased to an average of $10,000, now exceeds the number of students enrolled in the state’s largest public school district. And the program’s projected funding need has far outstripped initial estimates. A legislative analysis last year estimated it would cost the state an additional $33 million, but that has in reality been more than $300 million just this year, and with families continuing to apply the bill keeps growing.
“Meanwhile, Arizona’s K-12 public schools lack the basic, sustainable resources to raise educator pay and fund desperately needed staff positions,” Lewis lamented. “The money being diverted from the general fund for ESA vouchers could fund $10,000 raises for 35,000 Arizona educators.”
And for families who depend on ESA funding, cutting back on the program to make it more efficient is imperative. Sandra Kirkby has two children with special education needs and she pulled them both out of school to help them better flourish, something she said would have been impossible without ESA vouchers. But the expansion came with logistical challenges like reimbursement delays and uncertainty about what kinds of vendors her sons can take advantage of. Those issues have negatively impacted the academic growth of her sons, and that’s the reason she applied in the first place.
“A cap on growth is absolutely critical to ensure that families like mine, who have been using the program, are not completely left in the dust,” she said. “Since universal expansion, special ed students like my children have struggled to get the services that they need.”
Opening up the program, Kirkby said, exacts a frustrating cost from the kids who urgently need access to it.
“Universal ESA has become an entitlement for families who don’t need it at the expense of families like mine,” she said.
Raquel Mamani, a local teacher, echoed Kirkby, pointing out that the vast majority of new ESA applicants don’t need the grants to access private school — it simply allows parents who were already going to pay the tuition to pocket the difference. The average private school tuition in Arizona is $10,320.
Instead, Mamani said, the program now serves to further exacerbate racial inequalities. Arguments from proponents that it promotes school choice aren’t convincing, she added, because access to an education shouldn’t be defined by who can best afford it.
“A family can choose any public, charter or private school (in Arizona). No vouchers needed,” she said. “If money is required to access this choice, then it is no longer a choice. It is a privilege — a privilege that so many in our Black and Brown communities cannot access.”
The effort to restrict school vouchers is likely to face an uphill battle. While Hobbs has repeatedly touted her intent to do so, on Monday she noted she viewed it as more of a “goal” subject to negotiations.
“We can agree that the voucher program is a drain on resources that should be directed at public education,” she told reporters during a press briefing on Monday. “We put that in our executive budget as the goal, knowing that we were going to be in a place where we would have to negotiate.”
And while Democrats were quick to voice disappointment over the lack of restrictions, the legislature is controlled by Republicans, who hold a one-vote majority in both chambers. Unless Democrats are able to peel away some GOP lawmakers to challenge the budget proposal, change is unlikely to happen.
And convincing Arizona Republicans, who have championed the expansion as part of their commitment to school choice, to gut the program is politically impossible — especially in light of the fact that House Speaker Ben Toma was the principal sponsor of the legislation that opened up the voucher program.
The budget proposal does, however, increase reporting requirements for the voucher program. The state department of education is already required to compile quarterly reports on scholarship recipients and their award amounts, eligibility, and school attendance, but provisions in the K-12 education bill would extend the data gathered to include residence ZIP codes and the types of expenses the grant money was used on.
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