Hobbs, Republicans spar over Arizona voucher math as ESA enrollment surpasses projections

Oct 11, 2023, 2:00 PM | Updated: Oct 17, 2023, 7:23 am

Stock image of math class. As of Tuesday, Oct. 10, 2023, 68,455 Arizona students were receiving Emp...

As of Tuesday, Oct. 10, 2023, 68,455 Arizona students were receiving Empowerment Scholarship Account school vouchers, according to the state Department of Education. (Pexels Photo)

(Pexels Photo)

PHOENIX – Arizona Gov. Katie Hobbs repeated warnings about the cost of Empowerment Scholarship Accounts, prompting pushback from state Republican leaders, after the school voucher program surpassed anticipated enrollment levels this week.

Hobbs, a Democrat, said controlling ESA costs will be her No. 1 priority when the GOP-controlled Legislature convenes in January.

“Last year, the leadership made it clear they weren’t willing to negotiate on this, and I don’t think that’s an option anymore,” Hobbs told reporters Wednesday.

“We have more and more data to back up that this is going to cost us in the budget, not just affecting public schools, but all other areas. Public safety, all the big budget priorities are going to be impacted if this continues to grow at this pace.”

State Republican leaders have accused Hobbs of putting out misleading information about the cost of ESAs.

“Gov. Hobbs continues to blast the ESA program as unsustainable and exceeding estimates. Neither are true,” House Speaker Ben Toma said in a statement.

What is Arizona’s ESA voucher program?

ESAs provide families that don’t send their K-12 students to public schools with taxpayer money they can spend on private schools and other educational expenses.

The program, which was created in 2011, was limited to schoolchildren with disabilities or who met other specific criteria until last year, when the Legislature and then-Gov. Doug Ducey, a Republican, opened it up to all Arizona students.

Supporters touted the move as a victory for school choice and parental control, while opponents expressed concerns about funding being siphoned away from public schools and benefiting wealthy families. Critics also worried that a lack of oversight could lead to frivolous ESA use.

How many Arizona students are receiving ESAs?

As of Tuesday, 68,455 students were receiving ESAs, according to the Arizona Department of Education, surpassing the estimate of 68,380 used to calculate funding for the program.

“We’ve continued to see growing enrollment into the program, and there’s a new semester coming up in January, so there’s no reason to think that this growth is going slow down,” Hobbs said.

In July, Hobbs’ office issued a memo warning that ESA costs could approach $1 billion annually.

The state budget for the current fiscal year (July 1, 2023-June 30, 2024) included $624 million for the ESA program. It’s not clear how much has been spent so far.

Is Arizona’s school voucher program sustainable?

Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne, a Republican, issued a statement Wednesday saying all school spending, including ESAs, was $72 million below budget.

“I think it remains sustainable,” Horne told KTAR News 92.3 FM.

He said more of the recent ESA enrollees are students who are leaving public schools. They don’t cost the state as much as voucher recipients who were already attending private schools or being homeschooled, he said.

Hobbs questioned Horne’s math.

“I’m not sure what economist they’re listening to, but we’re not at a wash. It’s continuing to cost money. … If they’re going to continue to stick their heads in the sand, that’s their choice, but this is going to put us in a dire situation budget-wise,” the governor said.

KTAR New 92.3 FM’s Balin Overstolz-McNair and Martha Maurer contributed to this report.

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Hobbs, Republicans spar over Arizona voucher math as ESA enrollment surpasses projections