Universal school vouchers to cost Arizona $900M by 2024

By Howard Fischer/Capitol Media Services
Published: Thursday, June 1, 2023 - 9:17am
Updated: Thursday, June 1, 2023 - 9:19am

Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne
Howard Fischer/Capitol Media Services
Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne

The system of universal vouchers enacted by Republican lawmakers is going to cost Arizona taxpayers $900 million this coming school year — 60% more than what lawmakers put into the budget just a month ago.

In a memo to legislative budget staff, Christine Accurso, director of the Empowerment Scholarship Account program, said by the end of the next school year there will be about 100,000 students who will get state funds to attend private and parochial schools.

That compares with just around 58,000 who are now in the program — plus another 3,000 who already have submitted their applications.

Accurso says the state will need to come up with about $900 million to fund all those vouchers — about one dollar out of every eight now earmarked for public education. Just months ago, the Joint Legislative Budget Committee estimated vouchers would cost the state $552 million.

Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne argued Wednesday there’s nothing to worry about because there’s no real cost to the state.

“The 39,000 additional students that are being projected for the next year are going to be educated someplace,” he said. “They’re either going to be educated in the public schools or their going to be educated in ESAs.”

Republicans like Horne have long argued the ESA program actually saves the state money when students leave traditional schools for private schools.

But that hasn’t been the case.

Even Horne’s own staffers acknowledged that three out of every four of the students who have applied for the new universal vouchers to date already were going to private schools — and on their parents’ dime. Now their tuition will be borne by taxpayers.

The fact that there has been a burst of parents seeking to shift the costs of their children’s private school tuition to the state should come as no surprise to lawmakers. They were warned earlier this year by their own budget staffers — before the new spending plan was adopted — that would happen.

“We expect that most of the growth in universal ESA participation will likely occur among private school and home school students,” said the report by the Joint Legislative Budget Committee. “They have already decided to opt out of the public school system and would be likely to receive a financial gain from ESA program participation.”

On Wednesday, informed of the new estimate, Hobbs echoed calls from her January State of the State address to repeal the universal voucher expansion.

“The school voucher program in its current form is not sustainable,” she said in a prepared statement.

“Legislative Republicans need to explain why they are forcing this runaway spending on Arizona taxpayers and making working families foot the bill for private school tuitions,” the governor said. “We need to bring an end to the wasteful school voucher spending that threatens to decimate our state’s finances.”

There was no immediate response from either Senate President Warren Petersen (R-Gilbert), or House Speaker Ben Toma (R-Peoria), about the ballooning costs of the universal voucher program that both supported.

But several Republicans who support vouchers said they were not concerned about the price tag. In fact, Rep. Jacqueline Parker of Mesa said in a Twitter post that $900 million is “not enough yet,” calling it “a drop in the bucket to the other $7+ billion spent on the useless indoctrination camps that are ‘government schools.’”

And Rep. Cory McGarr of Marana said “this is an admission if given the choice parents will choose ESAs.”

But the memo may have energized Democrats who were unhappy about Hobbs giving in on the issue of universal vouchers during the budget talks. The state’s new $17.8 billion spending plan includes no adjustments to the program, not even a cap some Democrats pursued to slow its growth.

“I say let’s not forget our original fight and not give in this time,” said Sen. Catherine Miranda of Phoenix in her own Twitter post, “me included.”

She wants to raise the issue again when the Legislature reconvenes on June 12.

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