Arizona Department of Education promises more transparency on school vouchers

By Camryn Sanchez
Published: Wednesday, November 15, 2023 - 5:05am

The sun shines over the Arizona Department of Education building in Phoenix on May 15, 2023.
Bridget Dowd/KJZZ
The sun shines over the Arizona Department of Education building in Phoenix on May 15, 2023.

The Arizona Department of Education has vowed to increase transparency when it comes to Arizona’s school vouchers amid rapid growth in the popularity and cost of the program.

John Ward, director of the Empowerment Scholarship Accounts program, known as ESAs, promised a legislative panel that the Department of Education will publish ESA data online. 

“We’ll have the number of ESA participants by eligibility type, by grade level, by gender, age, zip code and county, the number of students previously in public school, the number of applications coming in weekly and monthly, and the average and median award amounts,” Ward said Tuesday. “And we can slice and dice that according to all those other categories as well.”

That data is vital given amid a dramatic increase in the number of Arizona families taking advantage of the state’s voucher program since 2022, when Republican lawmakers and then Gov. Doug Ducey ushered in an expansion that opened the program to all Arizona students. The Department of Education now reports they’re getting about 100 applications for vouchers a day, and the state now has a few thousand more students in the program than lawmakers anticipated in a budget adopted earlier this year. 

Each ESA amounts to an average of about $7,200 per student. Students who first attended private schools, certain public schools, or homeschools and then receive ESAs are costing the state more to educate. 

But students who originally attended charter schools and are now using ESAs actually save the state money. 

Democrats opposed the expansion of ESAs, and have pushed for guardrails on the program for more than a year amid reports the voucher program is costing about $40 million more than expected – though it’s not yet clear if ESAs will cause a budget deficit. According to legislative budget analysts, the overall K-12 budget actually has a surplus of state aid at this time.

But a legislative study committee, chaired by House Speaker Ben Toma, R-Peoria, did not consider any adjustments to the ESA program before adjourning for good on Tuesday.

Toma said the point of the committee was to hear about ESAs, but not to alter the way they run.

“The point of this was to have public comment and also to have presentations and to ask questions of the experts,” Toma said. “Members are free to introduce legislation, they’re always free to do that.”

But as long as Toma and Republicans have a voting majority in the House and Senate, any legislation seeking to curtail ESAs is unlikely to pass. Toma was instrumental in blocking efforts by Democratic Gov. Katie Hobbs to abolish the universal voucher expansion Republicans adopted in 2022.

Public comment at the study committee’s final hearing largely consisted of parents and students who are using the ESAs and who emphasized that they want to keep things as they are. Toma assured them that ESAs are here to stay. 

The committee must submit a report in a few weeks, but Toma said that will essentially be a recap of what the panel discussed, not proposals for alterations to the program.

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