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Hobbs' budget analysts predict ballooning costs for Arizona's school vouchers

By Bridget Dowd
Howard Fischer/Capitol Media Services
Published: Tuesday, July 25, 2023 - 4:32pm
Updated: Thursday, July 27, 2023 - 10:32am
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Gov. Katie Hobbs said Tuesday the total cost of universal school vouchers may hit $943.8 million in the school year that just started. 

That’s about $319 million more than in the budget lawmakers approved in May, a budget Hobbs signed.

But the governor said none of this should be a surprise.

Hear Mary Jo Pitzl's interview with host Mark Brodie on The Show

The 2022 law expanding vouchers to all Arizona students allows parents — some who already were using their own funds to send their children to private schools or teach their children at home – to now get vouchers of taxpayer dollars. 

And that, Hobbs said, is an average new net cost of $7,223 per student — with perhaps more than 40,000 shifting the cost of their private education to the state.

Hobbs' figures are getting a fight from House Speaker Ben Toma. The Peoria Republican has been a chief proponent of allowing all parents to get state dollars for private and parochial schools.

He is sticking with an estimate that only about 68,000 students will be getting vouchers this year, a figure that would put the price tag at about $624 million.

By contrast, Hobbs estimates total voucher enrollment with top 97,000, which is where she got the $943.8 million estimate. 

But the governor's figures are more in line with that of state schools chief, Republican Tom Horne. Four weeks ago, Horne estimated that there will be about 100,000 students who will get vouchers, formally known as "empowerment scholarship accounts." And Horne put the cost of that at $900 million.

The rapid growth — and projections of more growth — has occurred because, until last year, vouchers were available only to students who met certain conditions. These included having special needs, being foster children, residents of tribal reservations or attending schools rated D or F. Total enrollment was just shy of 12,000 — far short of any of the current projections.

All those preconditions are now gone, making any of the 1.1 million students in K-12 schools eligible.

A call by the governor in her State of the State speech in January to repeal the universal expansion was ignored. Efforts to cap year-over-year increases in enrollment fared no better.

Now Hobbs is using the new estimates in a bid to pressure lawmakers to make changes, like requiring students to attend public schools before getting a voucher.

“The universal school voucher program is unsustainable,” Hobbs said in a statement. “Unaccountable school vouchers do not save taxpayer money, and they do not provide a better education for Arizona students. We must bring transparency and accountability to this program to ensure school vouchers don’t bankrupt our state.”

Toma, for his part, called the governor's figures "baseless." 

Beyond that, he said that the focus should not be on the costs but the policy.

"It's clear the ESA program is popular with Arizona families and continues to experience growth, a serious frustration for those who oppose school choice," Toma said in a prepared response. "House Republicans support funding each student according to their need, whether they use their funding at a district, charter or an ESA."

Toma also maintains that the vouchers are a relative bargain. He said the typical voucher for a student without special needs is about $7,200 a year. By contrast, Toma said the average school district gets more than $13,000 a year per pupil from all sources.

That latter figure, while accurate, is misleading. At the very least, it takes into account not only federal aid but also locally collected taxes.

Looking only at state funds, the Arizona Association of School Business Officials did its own computations. It concluded that a voucher for an elementary school student costs state taxpayers $425 more a year; for high schoolers the figure is $543. Then there's that entirely new cost to the state of students who already were in private schools at their parents' expense or being homeschooled and not costing taxpayers anything — until now.

Toma, in a separate interview with Capitol Media Services, said that does not concern him.

"Those parents were still paying taxes," he said. "And those grandparents were still paying taxes."

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