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ESA bill that GOP supporters said wasn’t an expansion will cost $1.7M over 3 years

By: - February 20, 2019 9:41 am

Photo by Getty Images

The Joint Legislative Budget Committee conducted a fiscal analysis of a bill that Republican lawmakers insisted in committee last week didn’t expand who could participate in the state’s school voucher program, and concluded what was obvious to everyone but the GOP backers of the bill: It expands enrollment and will thus cost the state more money.

Such analyses, known in legislative parlance as a “fiscal note,” are conducted only when a legislator requests that JLBC estimate how much a particular bill will cost the state if it is implemented. In its fiscal note for Senate Bill 1395, the analysts refuted the repeated proclamations made in last week’s Senate Finance Committee hearing by the bill’s supporters that it wasn’t an expansion of the Empowerment Scholarship Account program.

The bill, which is sponsored by Sen. Sylvia Allen, R-Snowflake, changes the eligibility requirements. One such requirement is that a student has attended a public district school with a D or F grade during the past year; SB1395 changes it to allow students who live in the enrollment boundary of a D or F school but attend an A, B or C school through open enrollment to qualify for an ESA voucher.

“A recent analysis of public school enrollment patterns within Maricopa County, however, found that 47% of sampled students attended a public school other than in their school of residence. This suggests that the number of public school students residing within the attendance boundaries of a particular ‘D or F’ school could be roughly 47% higher than the number of students attending that ‘D or F’ school,” JLBC concluded.

The bill also expands eligibility for ESAs in another way, JLBC wrote. The program is open currently to students who are “eligible to enroll in kindergarten,” but doesn’t define what that means. Under SB1395, students between the ages of 4 and 7 are considered “eligible to enroll in kindergarten,” and can get an ESA, even if they haven’t attended a public district school in the past year.

By increasing eligibility for ESA enrollment, JLBC estimated that SB1395 will increase state costs by $290,000 next year, $580,000 the year after that and $870,000 in year three. On top of that, any district school that doesn’t receive state education aid – essentially, schools with a large enough property tax base to cover their per-student costs – would lose $6,000 in property tax collections for every student who leaves to use an ESA voucher because of SB1395.

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Jim Small
Jim Small

Jim Small is a native Arizonan and has covered state government, policy and politics since 2004, with a focus on investigative and in-depth policy reporting, first as a reporter for the Arizona Capitol Times, then as editor of the paper and its prestigious sister publications. He has also served as the editor and executive director of the Arizona Center for Investigative Reporting.