Arizona Legislature passes budget without school voucher cap

May 11, 2023, 6:20 AM

(Facebook Photo/Arizona Capitol Museum)...

(Facebook Photo/Arizona Capitol Museum)

(Facebook Photo/Arizona Capitol Museum)

PHOENIX (AP) — A $17 billion budget package that Arizona Gov. Katie Hobbs negotiated with leaders of the Republican-controlled Legislature and won approval on Wednesday is drawing criticism from Democrats for failing to put limits on an expansion of a school voucher program that they say is a drain on the state’s coffers.

The Democratic governor came into office in January with plans to undo the massive explosion in the voucher program, championed by her GOP predecessor Gov. Doug Ducey, that lets students apply to use public money for private-school tuition and other education costs.

Hobbs’ office had said the expansion siphons money from underfunded public schools and would cost $1.5 billion over the next decade.

The governor didn’t propose doing away with all vouchers, but she wanted to return to the voucher program to what it was before Ducey expanded it to include every child in the state — when disabled children, students living on American Indian reservations, students attending low-performing public schools and others were eligible for voucher funds.

Despite her criticism of the expanded vouchers, the budget proposals negotiated by Hobbs didn’t include any caps on the expansion.

Even as they heaped on criticism of the budget, some Democratic lawmakers still voted for elements of the package and lauded its $300 million increase in K-12 education funding and another $150 million for a fund that helps people with low-income housing, an eviction-prevention program and transitional housing.

Earlier on Wednesday, the Senate approved the budget package, with support from some Democratic legislators. The package will be sent to Hobbs for her consideration.

In a statement, Hobbs said she looked forward to signing the package into law and was “thankful legislative leaders were able to set aside their differences, compromise, and support a bipartisan deal.”

Democratic Rep. Cesar Aguilar of Phoenix said the Legislature was passing a budget crafted by Republicans, not by Democrats.

“I have seen budgets in the past when we’ve had Republican governors,” Aguilar said. “It has always been given to Democrats in the last minute. Today, many of us Democrats helped Gov. Hobbs get elected, and I personally thought maybe this year wouldn’t be a lot different. But that is not the case. Democrats seem to be in the same boat as if we would have had a Republican governor.”

During the debate on the House floor, most Democratic lawmakers shied away from directly criticizing Hobbs but expressed dissatisfaction with the budget’s lack of action on the voucher expansion. They tried unsuccessfully to bar applications for new enrollments until late May 2024.

Nearly 12,000 students participated in the program before it was expanded. More than 55,000 students are currently in the program. The average scholarship amount now stands around $10,000 per student.

At a news conference on Monday, Hobbs was asked about the budget’s lack of action in limiting the program.

“I think we can agree that the voucher program is a drain on resources that should be directed at public education,” Hobbs said. “But I didn’t say I was going to end it. It is a goal, certainly.”

Backers of the voucher expansion say it allows parents to choose the best schools for their children.

Like other Republicans, Rep. Justin Heap of Mesa disputed that public education was being undercut by the voucher expansion and would bankrupt the state.

Heap said criticizing the voucher program is actually an attack on students and their families who rely on the vouchers. “They have the audacity to to take their children out of a government school and put them into a better program,” Heap said.

Arizona now has the nation’s most expansive private school voucher law. It allows parents of the more than 1.2 million school-age children to get 90% of the state money that would normally go to their local public school and use it for private or other school costs.

The voucher system started in 2011 with a small program that only applied to disabled children, who can receive up to $40,000 a year for specialized therapy. The Republican-controlled Legislature expanded it repeatedly over the past decade.

Before the universal expansion took effect, it also covered students living on American Indian reservations, attending low-performing public schools and several other groups.

In a statement, Marisol Garcia, president of the Arizona Education Association, a union that represents teachers, said she was glad the budget included the one-time infusion of $300 million into K-12 public schools and other funding for schools.

But Garcia expressed frustration over the lack of limits on the voucher program.

“The extremist majority in our state Legislature has ignored the will of Arizona voters and pushed through policies that bankroll private schools for the wealthy at the cost of the public schools attended by 90% of Arizona kids,” Garcia said.

On Wednesday, leaders in the Arizona House announced the creation of a special committee to examine vouchers. The panel’s members will include Democratic and Republican lawmakers, Hobbs and State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne.

We want to hear from you.

Have a story idea or tip? Pass it along to the KTAR News team here.

Arizona News

What Arizonans should know when traveling this spring break...

Serena O'Sullivan

Here’s what Arizonans should know when traveling this spring break

Arizonans who plan to hit the skies or book a cruise this spring break should prepare for a busy travel season, an AAA spokesperson said.

10 minutes ago

An elderly woman with with white hair and a cane walks alongside a woman with blond hair in the hal...

Kevin Stone

West Valley assisted-living facility settles lawsuit over secrecy practices

A West Valley assisted-living facility has settled a lawsuit over secrecy clauses in its arbitration agreements, officials announced Tuesday.

8 hours ago

handcuffs seen in man's hands...

3 suspects linked to South American organized crime groups indicted in Maricopa County

Three suspects connected with South American crime groups were indicted Tuesday in Maricopa County after allegedly attempting to break into a Phoenix home earlier this month.

11 hours ago

Phoenix officers shot and injured a man who shot at them first on Feb. 13, 2024. (Phoenix Police Sc...

Phoenix Police release video of suspect who held woman at gunpoint, shot at officers

The Phoenix Police Department released body camera video on Tuesday of a suspect who shot at officers responding to a call of a man holding a woman at gunpoint.

12 hours ago

Traffic was restricted on 7th Avenue in Phoenix on Feb. 27, 2024, due to a fatal crash. (Pexels Pho...

86-year-old woman dead after 3-car crash in Phoenix

An 86-year-old woman died following a three-car crash in Phoenix on Tuesday, authorities said.

13 hours ago

Promotional image of rapper 21 Savage...

Kevin Stone

Rapper 21 Savage coming to Phoenix this spring on his ‘American Dream Tour’

Grammy Award-winning rap star 21 Savage is bringing his distinctive flow to Talking Stick Resort Amphitheatre in Phoenix this spring.

14 hours ago

Sponsored Articles


Midwestern University

Midwestern University Clinics: transforming health care in the valley

Midwestern University, long a fixture of comprehensive health care education in the West Valley, is also a recognized leader in community health care.


Day & Night Air Conditioning, Heating and Plumbing

Valley residents should be mindful of plumbing ahead of holidays

With Halloween in the rear-view and more holidays coming up, Day & Night recommends that Valley residents prepare accordingly.


Canvas Annuity

Interest rates may have peaked. Should you buy a CD, high-yield savings account, or a fixed annuity?

Interest rates are the highest they’ve been in decades, and it looks like the Fed has paused hikes. This may be the best time to lock in rates for long-term, low-risk financial products like fixed annuities.

Arizona Legislature passes budget without school voucher cap