Horne says school vouchers aren't tanking the budget. Critics disagree

Published: Friday, February 2, 2024 - 1:25pm

Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne claims the expanded school voucher program isn’t a drain on the state budget, even though it is projected to cost $100 million more than lawmakers planned for. 

Horne said the state’s overall education budget — which covers funding for  K-12 public schools, charter schools and the Empowerment Scholarship Account, or voucher program —  is projected to have a $28 million surplus this year. 

“Nothing in education is causing the budget deficit, because all kinds of education are costing $28 million as of the end of this fiscal year less than were actually budgeted for,” Horne said.

But critics of the expanded voucher program, including the Arizona Association of School Business Officials, pointed out that the state’s budget for this year set aside $625 million for the voucher program.

Meanwhile, the program is expected to cost $732 million, according to the Arizona Department of Education. 

Chuck Essigs with the Arizona Association of School Business Officials said the overall education budget surplus Horne referenced was a result of calculations by budget analysts at the Arizona Legislature, who overestimated how many students would attend public schools this year.

That led to projected $84.2 million surplus in charter funding and a projected $35.1 million surplus for other K-12 public schools.

“If they hadn’t been overestimated, they would have to come up with $70 or $100 million in additional money,” Essigs said.

And even that projected surplus relies on the Department of Education’s calculations that include $740 million allocated to the voucher program — not the $625 million originally allocated to the program.

Beth Lewis, executive director of the Save Our Schools public school advocacy group, said Horne’s math is skewed.

“They are clearly developing a shell game, moving numbers around,” Lewis said. 

She added, “It's clearly the form of doublespeak where if you repeat a lie often enough then people start to believe it’s true.”

Horne agrees with critics who said a bulk of school voucher recipients in Arizona never attended public schools before. 

But he said  the cost of their education would simply shift to public schools, and cost the state more, if the voucher program did not exist — a point critics like Lewis and Essigs don’t concede.

“Critics who falsely claimed ESAs were the cause of the budget deficit erroneously counted the gross cost for each student without adjusting for the cost that would be incurred if those students were in public school,” Horne said in a statement. 

According to ADE data, 59% of the 74,000 students enrolled in the voucher program never attended public schools before. That includes 30,646 students in Grades 1 through 12 — or 41% of the program’s enrollment. The other 18% are students in kindergarten or pre-K with disabilities.  

During a budget presentation last month, Gov. Katie Hobbs' staff gave a similar estimate, saying approximately 49,500 of voucher students had not attended public schools before. Hobbs wants to institute a new rule that would require that a student attend a public school for at least 100 days before they are eligible to receive voucher money.

But Essigs argued Horne’s assumptions are incorrect. He said families with students who never attended public schools before paid full price for private school tuition before the voucher expansion — and would likely do so again if the program was repealed. 

“All the kids at Brophy and Xavier weren’t costing the state a penny,” Essigs said.